The East Greenwich Tide mill – which expensive consultants failed to notice

Sadly the consultants employed to see what sites of interest had been on the Greenwich riverside before development  failed to notice that there had once been a tide mill on the site they were being paid to look at – and thus no need for archaeologists to do anything there.  The East Greenwich Tide Mill – a site soon to be more flats and ‘landscaping’ has been the subject of a number of learned works – the first written in 1803 – and appears in many histories and accounts of tide mills and how they work. It also appears in  many histories of the steam engine, since, in a dramatic accident, the boiler of  a new design of engine by Richard Trevithick exploded – losing Trevithick his reputation and his rivals a financial advantage.

The first local article of recent years on the mill was by Julian Watson and appeared in Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society (Vol VII No.6 1972) and the best thing we can do is to quote some of what he wrote , below:

(If either Julian or the Greenwich Historical Association thinks I am invading their copyright, please get in touch – just trying to get a forty year old article out to a wider audience)

In a book published a few years ago on the life and work of Richard Trevithick (1771-1833)*, the Cornish pioneer of steam engines, there are one or two interesting references to Greenwich. “

It says that by the time the London steam carriage was running its trials in the spring of 1803, Trevithick’s high-pressure engines were at work in the London area, in Shropshire and in Derbyshire as well as in his native county. Some were working pumps, others driving mills or boring machines. Men marvelled that an engine so small by comparison with Watt’s great beam engines could produce so much power and so, with each new engine installed, the engineer’s fame spread. Probably Trevithick stood nearer to worldly success and riches at this moment than at any other time in his life but then, in September, he suffered a cruel stroke of ill-fortune. One of his engines was working at Greenwich, pumping water out of the foundations of a new corn mill which was being built beside the river. As his patent specification shows, Trevithick was using two different types of high-pressure boiler at this time. One was the cylindrical boiler with the internal flues such as he had used on the two steam carriages: the other consisted simply of a great hollow sphere of cast iron over an inch thick, mounted in brickwork and heated by a furnace underneath. The boiler at Greenwich was of the latter kind, and on 8th September, 1803, it exploded with tremendous violence. Hugh pieces of cast iron weighing several hundredweight hurtled through the air destroying everything in their path until they buried themselves in the ground a hundred yards or more away. Three men who were working nearby were killed instantly, while a fourth was so terribly injured that he died soon afterwards. As soon as he received the news of this disaster Trevithick hurried down to Greenwich to investigate its cause. This he might never have been able to establish but for the fact that a youth who was in charge of the boiler miraculously escaped with only minor injuries. This youth admitted to Trevithick that he had hung a heavy spanner over the arm of the safety valve before going off to fish for eels in the foundations of the new building, -‘leaving a labourer to keep an eye on his engine and boiler. This man was totally ignorant and when the youth returned from his eel fishing after an hour’s absence he saw that the engine had been stopped but that the spanner was still holding down the safety valve. Evidently the man had become alarmed by the increased speed of the engine as the pressure rose in the boiler so he had stopped it, but he had not the wit to free the safety valve, and so the pressure then mounted very rapidly. The youth claimed that he was just stretching out his arm to remove the spanner from the safety valve when the boiler exploded, so if he was speaking the truth he was indeed lucky to escape with his life …. The explosion at Greenwich taught men that Trevithick’s boilers caged a power which was not to be trifled with; which could kill a man as easily as we swat a tiresome fly. Trevithick himself realised as a result of this explosion that he must devise more precautions to protect his fellow men from the results of their own ignorance or folly when working his engines. In future he fitted all his boilers with two safety valves, one of them of the “lock-up” type which could not be tampered with. He also devised a mercurial steam gauge which would blowout before an explosion could occur even if both the safety valves failed to function. Another safety device which Trevithick thought of at this time was the lead safety plug which has been fitted to steam boilers ever since.

The “new corn mill” at which this accident occurred was the Greenwich Tide Mill which stood just to the north of where Blackwall Point Power Station now is, on the edge of the river, in what was then a very isolated position. Behind the mill was the great mill pond in which water from the river was trapped at high tide, providing power as the tide fell. Both mill and pond are clearly shown on Morris’s map of the parish of Greenwich c. 1831, and on the Tithe map of 1843. In the schedule to the latter map the mill and pond are part of Francis Hills’s chemical works. Between 1881 and 1885 the South Metropolitan Gas Co. bought the land and incorporated the mill into their works (the pond had long since been drained although its outline can clearly

 *****The Cornish Giant by L. T. C. Rolt. Lutterworth Press, 1960. Trevithick died at the Bull Hotel, Dartford in 1833 (while working with John Hall whose new engineering business afterwards became world famous) and he is buried in the graveyard of St. Edmund the Martyr there.

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