Fowler’s Horizontal Mill

Above: View from the Thames looking south in 1800. It shows the mill with the church of St Mary, Battersea, in the background. The mill structure was even higher than the parish church.

One of Battersea’s most unusual buildings, throughout its long history, is that of Fowler’s Horizontal Mill. It is probably one of the most unusual topics anywhere in London. With plenty of wind-power, usually coming from the west, London, along with most of England, has had many windmills over the centuries. Such machinery, made from stout timbers, was an efficient way to harness the power of the wind and its typical use was to grind grain to make flour.

Windmills with vertical sails mounted on a horizontal shaft go back to at least the 13th century in England and well documented in books, prints and paintings. Fowler’s Mill was unlike typical windmills in that its construction had no external sails driven by the wind. It was called an ‘air mill’ and rotated around a vertical shaft. It was erected near the river bank in 1788 by Thomas Fowler, on land formerly part of the gardens of Bolingbroke House which had been demolished apart from its east wing. Fowler was probably an oil and colour merchant, attracted by the rapidly-growing chemical industry. He used the mill to grind linseed. The mill was designed by Captain Stephen Hooper of Margate, in Kent, who had designed smaller versions at Margate and at Sheerness.

The lower part of the mill was a two-storey brick and tile construction. From its centre emerged a 120 feet high cylindrical structure containing more than ninety perpendicular boards or vanes, each 80 feet long. They were attached to a central drive shaft and encased in a timber framework with vertical shutters, operated by the miller like Venetian blinds. The mill was circular – 52 feet in diameter at the base and 45 feet at the top – with the main shaft being 120 feet long. It drove six pairs of millstones.

Above: View from the Thames looking east in 1829. It shows the remains of the mill relative to the church of St Mary, Battersea.

Fowler’s venture was not a success, and by 1792 had been taken over by John Hodgson to grind corn and malt for his neighbouring maltings and distillery. Hooper’s design was not very efficient and the structure required frequent repairs. The air-mill was operated by wind until 1825. The upper part of the tower was then taken down in 1827, leaving the truncated base that was incorporated into other buildings. At some date before 1833 a steam engine was installed to power the mill. The original base of Fowler’s Mill was removed in 1849. The general site was used for milling, using other machinery, until 1882. New machinery was installed by the Mayhew early in the 20th century and was known as the Battersea Flour Mills. The business was later incorporated into the Rank company which, in 1962, acquired Hovis McDougal to become Rank Hovis McDougal. All buildings on the site remained until at least the 1970s. After standing empty for many years the land was sold to developers and is now housing.

The mill stood near the demolished Bolingbroke House which had been built during the 17th century by the St John family on the original site of the Manor House of Battersea. The mill occupied land that was a short distance north of the parish church of St Mary.


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