Above: John Rocque’s small scale map of 1746 showing Lewisham Bridge Mill which is labelled ‘Corn Mill’ (circled in YELLOW). It is just south of the roadway shown as ‘Lome Pit Hole’ which has become Loam Pit Vale.
The Glass Mill Leisure Centre, which opened about 2013, stands on the site of one of the mills that were powered by the River Ravensbourne. For a short time it was known as ‘Glass Mill’ but it is generally known as Lewisham Bridge Mill.
It was one of the 11 water-mills on the banks of the River Ravensbourne mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The first records of Lewisham Bridge Mill date from 1700. Loampit Vale was scarred by lime pits, fields of bricks and saw-mills cutting up local timber for ship-building in nearby Deptford. For most of its life the mill was used for grinding corn.
Thomas Betts Comes to the Mill
In 1756 Thomas Betts purchased the water-powered mill at Lewisham Bridge and moved much of his scalloping machinery there from his Charing Cross workshop. Converting hand-cranked machines to water-power meant that he could produce more fine glassware and much faster than before. Although Bohemian and Lilesian mill-owners had been cutting glass with water power since 1687, Britain had been slow to take up mechanisation. Betts probably heard about the use of water power from his Bohemian workers but he is recognised as one of the first artisans in Britain to convert a mill to cut glass.
Large grinding wheels of iron and stone had to be installed for cutting and polishing glass items. These would have been harnessed to the power of the water-wheel, while some of the old corn-milling gears were kept to create hammering action to break down the large quantities of pumice stone needed for polishing all types of glassware.
The conversion of Lewisham Bridge Mill was a brave investment for Betts. Specialist millwrights has to be commissioned to make and install the wheels and cogs to power all his cutting machinery. The waterwheel was connected to a ‘wallower’ – a vertical post connected to the waterwheel by a small gear at the base that transferred the turning power from a horizontal to a vertical motion. The wallower ran high up into the mill and six scalloping frames (cutting wheels) were set close by, arranged to draw off maximum power. Shafts, belts and wheels also ran from the wallower and relayed power to the other equipment which filled the mill.
Despite moving from the cramped rooms above his London shop, Betts’ workers still had to toil in confined spaces at the new mill. They were now surrounded by loud and dangerous moving gears and spindles. Worse still, the scalloping frames were huddled together under a few overhead skylights.
The scale of Betts’ enterprise can only be imagined; records show that he had more than 150 types of wheels and spindles at his mill. Large quantities of polishing materials (sand, rottenstone, pumice) were soared there; Betts even kept a store of evergreen oak, imported from the souther states of America, because it was renowned for its polishing durability. High-quality glass was regularly delivered from London’s many glass houses and then stored at the mill, to await cutting. Eventually, finished glassware left the mill by one of Betts’ two horse carts, taking perilously bumpy roads to the River Thames, then over either Westminster or London Bridge to Charing Cross.
Keeping the Charing Cross shop well stocked with fine glassware turned Betts’ glass mill into a very important Lewisham business. By the 1760s there were about a dozen glass-cutting shops in London. It was a common boast by all they they sold the best and cheapest cut glass. In reality, it was Betts, with the advantage of the water-powered mill, who produced more cut glass – better, cheaper and much faster than any other. His success eventually drove one of his main rivals, Jerrom Johnson, to advertise his own cut glass by informing customers that he was not using water-power.
Above: Lewisham Bridge mill c1830. Although drawn much later, little would have changed from the days when it was Bett’s Glass Mill.
Above: Lewisham Bridge Mill c1880.
Rebuilt by J and H Robinson.
Except for about ten years in the middle of the 18th century, when it was used by the glass cutter Thomas Betts for the manufacture of chandeliers and decanters, it was mainly used for grinding corn.
The water-mill ground flour until the 1850s when its then owners, J and H Robinson, knocked it down and built a much larger mill on the same site. However steam-powered milling eventually put them out of business.
During the 20th century, the mill was used as a warehouse until it was knocked down in 1934. The land was used for housing and the great mill of Lewisham was forgotten.
In 2013 – nearly 80 years later – the Glass Mill Leisure Centre was built on the site of Lewisham Bridge Mill. It was named in honour of the time in the 18th century when the mill was used for grinding glass.