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The Albion Mill was established in Blackfriars Road in 1786, on the south side of the Thames. Using 20 pairs of steam driven millstones, each with an equivalent of 150 horsepower and driven by Boulton and Watt steam engines) the mill processed ten bushels (363 litres) of wheat per hour. The Mill put out of business several of the wind-driven mills in Lambeth.
On 2 March 1791 the entire building was burnt down, during a dry night when there was a low tide (so it was difficult to get water to extinguish the flames) and an east wind, which would have blown smoke towards Westminster and Lambeth. A large crowd gathered to watch the fire, a scuffle broke out, and the insurers’ fire brigade turned 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.
After the fire the Mill owners felt constrained to justify the work of the mills, and show that they ‘not only lowered the price of flour and regulated the market, but produced a very considerable saving to the public’.
The figures given indicate that the mill produced a saving of 3s 4d (16p) per sack of flour, saving over a million sacks of flour, or £866,665, over the period of a year. A counter argument is raised that the saving arose not from the decrease in the price of flour, but the increase in the cost of wheat, an increase arising from poor harvests and the ‘working of the Albion Mill’. But this is countered by a further argument, that the price of wheat over five years had not changed from any other five-year period; and that the difference in price was significant whether it was paid to suppliers of wheat or purchasers of flour; either way ‘the community somewhere benefits’.
The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.