Waltham Abbey stands on the bank of the River Lea. In 1577 a lock was constructed nearby. It was the first of a series that improved the river for barge transport. If you point your barge down stream you will pass through Enfield Lock, Ponders End, Edmonton, Chingford, Tottenham, Walthamstow, Upper Clapton, Leyton, Hackney Wick, Stratford, Bromley-by-Bow (past Fish Island), Poplar, Canning Town and finally Leamouth where it meets the River Thames.
You will also pass through much of my family history. Just before you go under the bridge at Leabridge Road you will have Hackney Marshes on your left. In the days when Tottenham Hotspurs were semipro my Grandfather played for them here. My father and then I too played football here although not for such illustrious teams. One of the most memorable spectacles of my young life occurred here. I was playing cricket for my school when Porter’s Paints caught fire. Drums of solvent were exploding and flying into the sky all afternoon. New Year’s Eve has nothing on it.
Shortly after passing under the bridge you will pass the site of a wood yard that occupied one side of Rock Road. Half my family occupied the other side of the road.The timber came on horse drawn barges. On hot days my father and uncles and aunt would swim in the Lea.
It was here in 1952, at a street party to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll that I won half a crown in a fancy dress contest. My mother had dressed me as Wee Willie Winkie, I was running around waving a candle stick in a holder. Rock Road and the wood yard are long gone in the process of slum clearance.
At Hackney Wick you will pass my first home. We lived upstairs in two rooms, there was no bathroom. The toilet was in the back yard. We shared it with the occupants of downstairs. In the London I grew up in there was an adventure playground in every street courtesy of the Germans. “I’ll be playing in the bomb site, mum”.
On the corner of Wick Road there was a pub, The Tiger. It was hit by the last bomb of the war. My uncle was standing at the bar. That last bomb fell in more places and killed more people than any other bomb of the war. That area too has been demolished and rebuilt.
But keep going, the Lea is becoming tidal now. And we’ll stop at the Three Mills, Bromley-by-bow. Two are still standing, this is the older …
It stands astride the river. It was built in 1776. There are two tides a day that filled a 57 acre mill pond, when the ebb started to run the water turned water wheels beneath the building which drove the mill stones and also did the lifting that took the grain up to the top floor. Depending on the height of the tides the mill would operate seven or eight hours each day.
The grain would come by cart or by barge, the flat stones were there so that cart wheels needn’t run over the cobbles.
The miller’s house is to the right running out of the photo. There is no communicating door between the two for the very simple reason that a naked flame would have led to a massive conflagration. Candles were OK in the house but open a door to the mill and disaster would have ensued.
My good friend Kathy is a volunteer at the mill. Her friend Tony gave me a very comprehensive and informative private tour. The paying public do not get to see the roof …
The working day was dictated by the tide not the clock. Without any artificial light it was largely managed by ear. The control room is on a lower level, an ingenious arrangement of levers and ropes controlled most of what happened on the floors above.
There have been tidal mills on the Lea throughout recorded history. The Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to take stock of his new realm, records nine mills along this section, although it is uncertain if this meant nine pairs of stones or nine buildings perhaps holding even more pairs.
The flour produced traditionally went to the bakers of Stratford-atte-Bow who sold their bread in the City of London. By 1776 there was a more valuable commodity than bread. The output of this mill mainly went into gin production. Hogarth would have been horrified.
As you can see the building behind the stone facade is wood. The stresses imposed by the milling machinery were enormous. The carpentry owes more to ship building than residential housing.