What were the Albion Mills?
By 1780 4.5% of the steam engines used in industry were located in London. Over the next 20 years a further 109 steam engines were installed in the capital, used by over 20 different industries. This ballad was written in 1791, after the Albion Mills burnt down. The mills were established in Blackfriars Road, on the south side of the River Thames in 1786. Using 20 pairs of steam-driven millstones (each 150 horsepower and driven by Boulton and Watt steam engines) the mills processed 10 bushels (363 litres) of wheat per hour. The Albion Mills ran several of the wind-driven mills in Lambeth out of business.
What happened to the Albion Mills?
On 2 March 1791, the entire building burnt down. It was a dry night and a low tide, so it was difficult to access water to extinguish the flames. The east wind that night would have blown smoke towards the house of William Blake in Lambeth. A large crowd gathered to watch the fire, a scuffle broke out, and the insurer’s fire brigade tuned their hoses on the crowd rather than the building. Arson was strongly suspected, but nobody was prosecuted. The building remained derelict until it was pulled down in 1809.
Why was the ballad produced?
Ballads such as this were a quick way for people to hear about and discuss the news. Such a big fire in London was a major public event, especially where arson was suspected – as the ballad indicates. The Albion Mills had a monopoly on flour production in the capital, so were able to control the price of bread – 100 hogsheads of wheat (about 24,000 litres) were saved but not in a fit state to use.
The writer’s concern at the end of the ballad is that the price of bread should fall, rather than the mill be repaired.
How was the ballad produced?
The broadside was produced within eight days of the fire. The work was engraved on a single sheet, both the design and the handwritten words carved in reverse on metal. The designer had to work fast to create a realistic representation of the building. The short chorus at the end of the first verse indicates the ballad may have been sung to a known tune. The energetic design shows two devils, one enthusiastically encouraging the flames with bellows, and the other on the balustrade playing a violin.
William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’
For William Blake, mills and millers were symbols of repression. In Milton, Satan is the ‘Miller of Eternity’, and the ‘dark Satanic mills’ are set against ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. But ‘Albion’ is for Blake a combination of the essential idea of man, Britain and the western world.