A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
23 February 2014
London’s Royal Victoria Dock was once a hotbed of industry and commerce. In particular, this waterfront location was home to some of the nation’s leading flour mills: namely the Rank Hovis Premier Mill, and that vast behemoth of the industrial revolution known as Millennium Mills.
Now abandoned for more than three decades, these rotting mills stand in stark contrast to a district fast developing. Heading down to the docks, I decided to pay them a visit – tackling the tight site security to get a look inside these last vestigial skeletons of early Edwardian industry.
The Royal Victoria Dock
Millennium Mills rises out of a corner of the Thames, down at London’s Royal Victoria Dock. The facility first operated towards the start of the 20th century, when this Docklands site served as Britain’s largest centre for flour milling. Sat on the Thames bank, it was well connected with both water and rail routes, which allowed the site to thrive for many years.
The Silvertown Confectionary Mill was the first at this location, built in 1901, and followed soon after when Joseph Rank Limited opened their Premier Mill in 1904. The third and largest installation would follow in 1905: Millennium Mills itself, a vast facility built by the company Vernon & Sons.
Between them, these three mills represented the largest milling companies in the nation; the largest in the empire, no less. Grain was shipped from foreign ports to be unloaded at the Royal Docks, before being processed to flour by these three giants.
In its heyday, Millennium Mills was able to process 100 sacks per hour in a vast, double-plant which W. A. Vernon once boasted as “palatial.” Vernon, whose award-winning ‘Millennium Flour’ was already a palpable success in the mining districts of Northern England, now began to saturate the London and Southern markets as well.
In 1917 however, a disaster struck which would ultimately help to put Vernon out of business. The nearby Brunner Mond’s munitions factory, situated on North Woolwich Road, had been sequestered for the mass production of explosives as a part of Britain’s war effort. An accident at the factory caused a large explosion, just 100 yards from the Millennium Mills building. The mill’s grain stores and silos were badly hit, sending burning chaff high up into the air.
According to the Port of London Authority, an estimated 17 acres were affected by the blast. JJ Betts, a fireman on the scene, described: “flying showers of millions of tiny particles of light as though a sweeping storm of sleet had become incandescent,” adding, “It was like a golden rainstorm.”
The accident crippled Vernon & Sons, who in 1920 were taken over by Spillers Limited. Millennium Mills was rebuilt in 1933, into a 10-storey art deco building, and in this form it enjoyed a brief return to form… until the bombing raids of WWII, that is.
During the war, London’s docks became a prime target for air attacks. Both Millennium Mills and Rank’s Premier Mill were struck, suffering large-scale destruction to the buildings and facilities.
Once again, the docks were rebuilt. From 1945-50, the Royal Victoria Dock area underwent its largest reconstruction project yet; finally, in September 1953, the mills were put back into action. They would serve like this for another three decades, until the Royal Docks were eventually closed for good in 1981. This put an end to the local milling industry… and since then, both the Premier Mill and Millennium Mills have stood abandoned.
Exploring The Rank Hovis Premier Mill
We had set out to explore Millennium Mills; though getting inside would prove harder than I’d anticipated. I had local explorer Keïteï as my guide, and she’d made vague hints about some leap of faith – the only way of crossing from the shell of the Rank Hovis building, across to the far more secure (and infinitely more interesting) Millennium Mills.
Fine, I thought. We’ll deal with that when we get there.
Sat in West Silvertown on the southern side of the Royal Victoria Docks, it’s hard to miss the Millennium Mills building. Judging by the cameras, guards’ vans and spike-tipped barriers, security around the site seemed to be pretty tight – though not tight enough, of course, to keep the two of us out.
I’m not going to go into details, but it definitely wasn’t the easiest site to infiltrate; by the time I finally wriggled through a tiny gap and into the basement of the Rank Hovis Premier Mill building, I had a jagged tear running the length of my trouser leg, while my shirt was stained in blood, sweat and dirt. I’d managed to twist my ankle as well, as I hopped down over a barrier. For now the pain was drowned out by a surge of adrenaline, after a tense game of cat and mouse with the guards; this anaesthetic would wear off soon enough, though.
But for now, at least, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief; due to health and safety regulations, security guards at UK sites such as this are rarely allowed to enter their own buildings.
Inside, the place was a wreck; 32 years of abandonment had not been kind to the mill. We made our way up the splintered stairs, the wet wood mixing with a slurry of bird shit and rust to fill the dank air with a pungent, warm front of iron and mildew. As we climbed higher, following the staircases that spiralled up through level after level of rotten floors, we were careful to walk only on the beams – there were places where a foot could easily go straight through the soggy floors, with nothing on the other side but a three-story drop. We climbed higher, and that deadly fall became a four-storey drop, a five-storey drop, and so on.
Writing in the London Evening Standard, Christian Koch described Millennium Mills as, “a decaying industrial anachronism standing defiant and alone in the surrounding subtopia”. He also quoted another voice, calling this place a “death trap”.
Granted, the building was a rotten shell; but the term death trap hardly seemed fair. Dangerous as it might be, there was still nothing in this derelict mill that one couldn’t prepare for. The wooden floors were rotted through: so you walked on the beams. The only thing that was going to get you killed here was carelessness… and carelessness can be fatal anywhere.
Most of the machinery had been ripped out of the Rank building long ago. In places, it left nothing more than gaping chasms in a wooden floor. In other rooms, the mechanisms had simply been abandoned to rust into oblivion. Fuse boxes clung to the walls with their last strength, rusted chains hung from girders above. An elevator cage sat rotting in a shaft on the fifth floor, its control panel adorned with operation instructions painted in bold, art deco characters.
We passed rows of metal chutes, red-rusted slides that cut down through the levels like demonic corkscrews. These dead, rotten drills had the look of bacteria cells, an army of contagions tearing the host body to shreds and splinters.
Soon enough we came upon the leap of faith that Keïteï had mentioned.
In the angle between this building and the next, a ledge extending from the Premier Mill seemed almost to brush a mirror platform on Millennium Mills. The physics of the crossing were simple enough: climb out of this window, leap from one sill across to the other – an easy distance – and then straight in through a window on the far side.
On closer inspection however, there were other factors to consider. For a start, there was no way of telling how stable the far platform was, until one landed on it. Besides, the window on this side had been tightly secured; the only way out was by squeezing through the space left by a broken pane of glass, lowering head-first down to the narrow ledge beneath, then making a blind jump from one building to the next, at a height of three floors above a hard concrete forecourt.
It could be done, I decided. Probably. To be honest though, I just didn’t fancy the gamble. Instead, we headed up to the roof.
There was almost nothing left of the final flight of steps. Positioned directly beneath the leaking roof door, these wooden stairs had rotted away to a pulpy mush over the decades. Climbing carefully up the parallel supports that had once held the steps, we clambered out at last onto the asphalt roof.
The view from the top was fantastic, a dramatic perch from where we watched the Thames curve gracefully through the docklands and out of sight. We looked out over the river, at the security hut far beneath us, watched as planes came in low above our heads to touch down on a nearby runway. Of course, it wasn’t perfect though – for even at this height, we were dwarfed by the neighbouring bulk of Millennium Mills.
There was a sense of achievement to having got this far, to have evaded security and made it all the way to the roof. And yet, caught in the shadow of this larger, more impressive building, it was impossible to shake off the feeling of having earned the silver medal; not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a reminder that there’s always something bigger and better out there to be explored.
The Fate of Millennium Mills
The Royal Docks were officially closed in 1981, and by the 1990s many of the local businesses had relocated to Tilbury. Much of the remaining buildings, Rank Hovis and CWS Mills, were demolished by the London Docklands Development Corporation. Millennium Mills lost its B and C silos, leaving only the Grade II listed D silo intact.
A massive redevelopment project was proposed in 2001, supported by Silvertown Quays Limited, the London Development Agency and a major Japanese development firm. In 2007 it was approved, with a plan to transform these 59 acres into a new urban centre; the older mills would be demolished as the Millennium building was converted into a block of 400 luxury flats. The plan promised 4,900 new waterfront homes, 2,000 new jobs and even a new London aquarium.
By 2009 however, there was still no sign of any progress. The LDA demanded proof of funds from Silvertown Quays; and when SQA failed to impress, the project was officially cancelled in February 2010.
Since then, Millennium Mills and its sibling, the Rank Hovis Premier Mill building, have remained derelict. Even in their decayed state however, the abandoned mills at the Royal Victoria Dock have become a familiar backdrop in the popular media. Millennium Mills became the setting for the Kafkan ‘Department of Records’ in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as well as appearing as a recurring set in the television series Ashes to Ashes.
The site has seen concerts from Jean-Michel Jarre and The Arctic Monkeys, and even appeared as a mission in the video game Splinter Cell. When director Derek Jarman used Millennium Mills as a backdrop for his film The Last of England, the writer Iain Sinclair described the mill as having been, “christened by William Blake and delivered by Albert Speer“.
The Millennium Mills building certainly shares something of Speer’s plan for brutal efficiency; but while this hulking brick mass may well serve as an apt illustration for Blake’s dark satanic mills, it nevertheless stands for something more than that: for once this ruin was a symbol of progress. After all, the Premier Mill, Millennium Mills, these churning wheels that pulsated with the heartbeat of London’s famous dockyards, were themselves once emblematic of an empire.