Today (March 2) in London History – Dark Satanic Mills

Usual trajectory. A Today in London recommendation (theatre this time) followed by a Today in London History episode. The historical episode is the massive conflagration on March 2, 1791 that burned down the Albion Mills, the inspiration for Blake’s “dark satanic mills”.


First, the London Today hors d’oeuvre. This little project is manifestly not “one man’s London.”

It’s the London of 80 men and women. 80 London Walks guides.

So today’s Today in London hors oeuvre comes from Andy. Here’s his recommendation: He says: “Two of my friends are performing their acclaimed show ‘Elizabeth I: Virgin on the Ridiculous at the King’s Head Theatre Pub on Upper Street in Islington from March 1st to March 12th. The company Living Spit is from Bristol, where they are hugely popular. Some of you might have seen The Six Wives of Henry VIII a couple of years ago at the King’s Head, which was also hilarious. Strongly recommended. Not because they’re my friends but because they’re good at what they do.

Ok, on we go to Today in London History.

Dark, Satanic mills. It’s one of the most famous lines in English poetry.

It’s from William Blake’s great poem, Jerusalem. 

I’m going to read the poem in a minute – but let me set that up by asking you, how many other sixteen line poems can you think of that brought forth three immortal lines?

Yes, in addition to “dark, satanic mills” we get “chariots of fire” and “England’s green & pleasant land” from Blake’s brief, sixteen line poem, Jerusalem.

The poem’s best known today as the lyrics to what is essentially an alternative national anthem. Music by Hubert Parry. What a career it’s had. It became the women voters hymn. And of course Elgar rescored it and it’s sung every year by an audience of thousands at the end of the Last Night of the Proms.

The poem first appeared in the Preface Blake wrote for inclusion with his epic poem, Milton.

Here’s Jerusalem.

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon Englands[b] mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these[c] dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Now our focus is on that famous line, dark, satanic mills. The main motif, if you will, is that during his unknown years Jesus paid a visit to England, visited Glastonbury and, well, Blake suggests, created heaven in England. Which of course stands in stark contrast to the “dark Satanic mills” of the industrial revolution. 

All well and good and I had just assumed that Blake had in mind some sort of generic industrial plant, presumably up in Lancashire or somewhere else in the fast industrialising north and midlands.

Big shock when I found out the model – the inspiration – for his dark Satanic Mills was just over Blackfriars Bridge. Just to the southeast when you came off the bridge.

Dark, satanic mills. It’s an unforgettable line. And to discover that it was a real concern – a London factory – it was called the Albion Mills – to discover that it had a London address, a local habitation…well, I was stunned. And just as the line had imprinted on my mind, well, now the knowledge that those dark satanic mills were on the southside of Blackfriars Bridge – that imprinted as well. It’s now the case that every time I cross Blackfriars Bridge the thought wells up, the dark Satanic Mills were here. 

I did a bit more digging. It turns out that there are line drawings of them. And indeed of the blaze that did for them.

Those visuals of course have acted as mental pitons, they’ve reinforced that set of mental processes. I cross Blackfriars Bridge I hear that line and I see the Albion Mills – I see those dark satanic mills as surely as someone in western south Dakota sees those four presidential faces on Mount Rushmore. 

It turns out that in their day they were a tourist attraction. They opened in 1786. London’s most famous bridge builder, John Rennie, played an important role in the design of the mills. They had two steam-powered engines – powerful engines they were – they had the power of 150 horses. They drove 20 pairs of massive millstones, each four feet six inches in diameter.  Each pair would grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, round the clock if necessary. They could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week.

Fact of the matter was, it was London’s first major factory. You come off the Southwark end of Blackfriars Bridge you can’t help but think, “it was right here that the  industrial revolution came ashore in London.”

The implications of that – social and economic – were many and they were profound. This was a new world, industrial might given tangible form. The Albion Mills were huge. They’d been erected at great cost – £100,000. They were all about economies of scale. They were an in your face example of a juggernaut – big business – doing for the little guy.

Finally, they’re here in this Today in London History podcast because it was today, March 2nd, 1791 that the dark satanic mills went up in flames. 

Here’s a contemporary account of the blaze. The writer was Horace Walpole. In a letter to friends he said,

“The Albion Mills are burnt down. I asked where they were: supposing they were powder mills in the country, that had blown up. I had literally never seen or heard of the spacious lofty building at the end of Blackfriars Bridge. [Aside here, I didn’t feel so bad about not having clocked them when I found out that Horace Walpole, who lived at that time, had missed them himself] Anyway, he goes on to say, “At first it was supposed maliciously burnt, and it is certain the mob stood and enjoyed the conflagration as of a monopoly. The building had cost £100,000 and the lost in corn and flour is calculated at £140,000. I do not answer for the truth of the sums; but it is certain that Palace Yard and part of St. James’s Park were covered with half-burnt grains.”

That was some fire. 

Well, I’ll leave you with that. Maybe just a final note. In the Times of March 5, 1791 there’s a little news item that states: “Thursday the flour mills at Blackwall, Poplar, Limehouse and Rotherhithe, which have stood still upwards of these three years, began working again, owing to the Albion Mills being burnt down.”

And there in a single short paragraph, you catch a glimpse of some of the small mills that were put out of business by the dark, satanic mill. They must have cheered on the flames. It’s not hard to get a feel for some of the social tensions – resentments, hatreds – that must have been engendered by this powerful new Leviathan pitching up and in effect saying, “you small, local businesses, you’ve had your day, we’re here to take your livelihoods, all of them.”

And on that note, Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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