The Tide Mill and Frank Hills


Previous articles have described the building of the East Greenwich Tide Mill  and the terrible explosion in the boiler of a steam engine there in 1803.  The mill stood at the end of Riverway for nearly a hundred years after that. Who owned it? What happened there?

Despite the accident the mill began its work of grinding corn. At first it was  occupied by  William Johnson who had patented the process by which it worked. He had moved there from Widmore House in Bromley but within two years he had gone Why did he go so quickly – did the mill not fulfil expectations? Were there some difficulties which we now know nothing about?  He was replaced by a William Doust but the site seems to have remained in the ownership of George Russell.  It is marked on contemporary maps as ‘Russells’ and as late as 1832 Russell appears in directories as ‘mealman’ of East Greenwich.  It seems unlikely that Russell himself actually lived on site and worked the mill.  He may, in fact, have been the George Russell who lived in the grandeur of Farningham House, Farningham, Kent.   Sometimes the mill is recorded as belonging to Thomas Patrick and it is seem likely that he was the actual miller. It was, in fact, often known as ‘Patrick’s Mill’.

In the late 1830s ownership of the mill changed and it seems to have been used thereafter for an industry which was to become much more typical of Greenwich Marsh – the manufacture of chemicals.  Records show a number of short term owners in the early 1840s but it was eventually acquired by Frank Clarke Hills, financed through his marriage settlement with Ellen Rawlings. Hills was an industrial chemist, hitherto based at the Deptford Chemical Works in Copperas Street, Deptford. Other articles will describe his work  and some of his adventures.

It seems likely that corn continued to be ground at the East Greenwich mill under Hills ownership but it is not clear if the tide mill continued to work. From 1845 it was described as  ‘ a steam flour mill’ and perhaps the tide mills itself was replacd by a 25 horse power  steam engine.  This had made been  by William Joyce  whose steam engine factory was alongside Deptford Creek in  Greenwich.  Beneath the site was an artesian well.  When Frank Hills came to the tide mill  it was still almost ‘green field’ site and by developing it into a chemical works he  contributed to changes on the Greenwich peninsula which meant that increasingly it became a place for ‘bad neighbour’ industries.

On the riverbank to the north of the mill Frank Hills erected a chemical works. This was gradually extended – for instance in  1869  an ammonia plant was built. What sort of chemicals were made at East Greenwich? One very good source of information about this works are the reports of inspectors and enquiries which took place as public complaints multiplied.  A smell  of ‘an acid and sickening character’ was complained of. This could be discerned not only in Greenwich and  Charlton but ‘appeared to annoy the garrison at Woolwich’ – three or four miles away!  It seems a wide variety of chemicals were made at East Greenwich but that there was a concentration on things made from gas works wastes.

At the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in Hyde Park Frank Hills won prizes for his ammonia salts and ‘gas tar’. The tar, of course, came from one of the nearby gas works and was processed into a variety of oils, as well as pitch and asphalt. The works specialised in ammonia salts which were made from gas works ‘ammoniacal liquor’. He bought large amounts of this from almost every gas works in London.  Frank Hills held many patents and one with which he made a great deal of money was for the ‘purification’ of  newly made coal gas to make it fit to be burnt for lighting in people’s homes.  He had patented this process against fierce competition from other industrial chemists and was to defend it vigorously in interminable court cases  as he and the others sued each other , and then sued again, for infringement of their rights..  This process left a valuable waste product from which sulphuric acid could be made, and in 1865 special tanks were installed for this purpose.  Other acids were made on site- nitric, tartaric and oxalic – as well as dyes.  There is a story of a special and very profitable mauve dye. There was also a manure manufactury and for this there were  two 30 ft long steam boilers with a chimney as well as an ‘archimedean screw’ and a bone crusher. The manure was made from ‘shoddy’, waste leather, dry bones, bone ash and  refuse from sugar bakers – that is whatever organic rubbish could be bought cheaply. It was then piled up and mixed with sulphuric acid.  The smell can be imagined (perhaps better if it is not!).  In 1871 Mr. Pink, the Medical Officer of Health for Greenwich, began to give ‘advice’ designed for ‘abatement of the nuisance which these works could scarcely have failed to occasion’.

The wharf alongside the works was kept very busy as all these chemicals were shipped out, and  raw materials came in.  Boats came from Spain delivering materials from the mines which Hills owned there, as well as materials from his other factories in Newcastle and Anglesey.  It was all  very profitable and Frank Hills soon became a very rich man..

Sadly there was soon  another fatal accident at the East Greenwich Mill. In 1846  Francis Levers, Thomas Darby and Richard Middleton died when they climbed into a  giant mixing bowl to clean it.. The bottom of the bowl was full of fumes which suffocated them.  They were just three more to add to the death toll on this site.

1860s os
The mill shown on an 1860s map

In the 1840s more housing was built in Riverway for Hills’ workers   It was called River Terrace and has since been demolished. These cottages were rather larger than Ceylon Place, and consisted of nine houses of six rooms ands ten of four rooms with a washhouse. One house even had six rooms and a washhouse (this must have been for the foreman!). Little is known about the daily lives of the occupants of Ceylon Place  and River Terrace.   Barbara Ludlow, who wrote about social conditions on Greenwich Marsh,  noted that in 1841 the community of  seventeen houses included ‘two fishermen, five watermen, two lightermen, a river pilot and a seaman’ and she records the dilution of riverside trades with  factory workers and she notes the increasing poverty. Living on marshland next door to a massive chemical works must have been terrible.

A very different picture however emerges from the family of girls who at the end of Riverway  at  East Lodge. This was the big house on the riverside, the site of today’s Yacht Club.  Here lived Hills’ works manager, Thomas Davies from Oswestry, with  his family.  In the late 1880s Davies’ second daughter, Mildred, produced a magazine ‘The Four Wheeler’  which was distributed throughout a large extended family. Illustrated with contributions from many family members it described family holidays and visits.  The industrial surroundings of East Lodge are hardly mentioned at all.  What we do hear about is  a very Pickwickian  sounding Christmas .. .’who will ever forget the merry parties.. the big square hall with the great bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling … the merry games round the fire.. the room rang with fun and laughter’.   There were also happy memories of the riverside garden at East Lodge ‘what a place it holds in our hearts. The lovely lawn with its big flower beds  that stretched to the river banks … the shrubbery with its jolly swing … the little hillock at the further end from which one could see all up and down the river….. the kitchen garden with its fruit trees .. how the sunshine streamed in as we sat at breakfast’.  All this within fifty yards of Frank Hills chemical works!

The girls undertook some local community activities – for example they organised a children’s branch of the Band of Hope.  For ordinary people there was religion, if nothing else, in Marsh Lane. At 1/2 River Terrace was a shop occupied by  the Thames Church Mission. This had been set  to ‘promote the spiritual welfare’ of seamen.   Many of these came of colliers whcih were waiting off Greenwich Marsh  in Bugsby’s Hole for a berth in the Lower Pool but gradually , riverside mechanisation decreased their  numbers and seems to have led to less work for the Missionaries.  The Mission was called ”Iron Room’,  and had been fitted up by Frank Hills. It was  in the charge of Thomas Davies and was also used as a Working Men’s Institute. A surviving poster advertises ‘A Talk about the House of Commons by an Officer of the House’  and another advertised ‘Christmas Readings and Music’. This featured songs ‘Bay of Biscay’ and ‘The Voice of One we Love’ by Mr. Poole  as well as readings of ‘The haunted house’.  No doubt the young ladies from East Lodge took some part in this too.

phoenix wharf
The chemical works as South Met Gas’s Phoenix Wharf. The tide mill may well still be standing in this picture

From 1881 things began to change. The  South Metropolitan Gas Company’s works  was  built on the adjacent ground to the north.  Very little is heard about tide mill and Hills’ chemical works. Frank Hills was  by now a rich and elderly man. His energies had probably been transferred to Thames Iron Works, the massive ship building and engineering concern across the river at Bow Creek of which he was Chairman. He  died in 1892 leaving nearly two million pounds- a tribute to his energy. His death was closely followed by those of his two eldest sons. The chemical works was closed and  later sold to the gas company.   They were to reopen it as their Phoenix Wharf chemical plant.

The tide mill remained, for the time being at least.  It was soon to be demolished by the purveyors of a new sort of power – electricity was coming to East Greenwich. The accidents still kept happening but that is, still another story.

The above article was compiled from archive sources at London Borough of Greenwich, Woodlands Local History Library and elsewhere.  Particular reference is made to Barbara Ludlow’s Social Conditions on Greenwich Marsh published in Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society 1968, VII\3, pp.130-141.  Documents on the Davies family were kindly shown to me by Mrs. Wagstaff and on the winding up of the Hills’ estate by Mr. Humpheries. 

Return to Hills Chemical Works


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