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The Windmills of Millwall



Gascoyne’s map of 1703

After discussing Folly Wall in a previous post, we now travel to the other side of the Island and look at the origins of Marsh Wall and Millwall.

Today Marsh Wall is a road at the top end of the Island and the Millwall area covers the west side of the Island.

However in the 17th Century, Marsh Wall was the embankment built up on the west edge of the Island. These embankments had been built and maintained since Medieval times mostly by landowners who had drained the marshes and used it as pasture for their animals. However breaches in the embankments were common and the one the map above shows occurred in 1600 and was still there when docks and city canal was built in the 1800s.

Although the Isle of Dogs was largely uninhabited until the early 19th Century, there  was in the late 17th Century a number of Windmills that were built on the Marsh Wall embankment  that took advantage of the strong winds that would blow over the unprotected Island. Although it is widely thought that there was only seven mills  as shown on Gascoyne’s map of 1703,  there is evidence that there could have been as many as 13.


William Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice 1747

It is considered the earliest mill was built in 1679,followed by five more in the 1690s, one more was then added by the time of the Gascoyne map making a total of seven. Three more were added between 1710-1720 and two more before the middle of the eighteenth Century.

timms 1821 nmm

 A view across the Thames towards the Isle of Dogs from Rotherhithe 1821. 
W. H. Timms (artist and engraver); C. Richards (publisher) National Maritime Museum,

The early mills were used for grinding corn before moving on to oil seed crushing.
With further windmills at Limehouse and at Rotherhithe it paints a rather picturesque picture of the  Thames which the sound of the sails turning a constant soundtrack to the ships travelling to and from the City of London. Although the sight of hanging pirates in gibbets ruins the romance of this idealised picture a little bit.

(c) Wisbech & Fenland Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 Fishermen dredging off the Isle of Dogs 1838  Painted by WHF ( Wisbech and Fenland Museum)

However most of the mills were small concerns and from the early nineteenth century were in decline and one by one the mills were abandoned and demolished.


Isle of Dogs. 1859. Engraving of a drawing by Walter W. May, R.N. From The Book of the Thames from its Rise to its Fall, p. 474. “ The river bank of the island is generally known as Millwall, a name derived from the embankment, once surmounted by windmills, of which one still remains, and is seen in our engraving” .

B. H. Cowper in 1853 looking at the history of Millwall decries the lack of decent recent maps noting that on one map there is one windmill still standing on another there is four. He personally found the foundations of two with only one Theobald’s Mill still standing.

However although the Windmills disappeared, from the 18th Century the  area become generally  known as Millwall and when the Island became industrialised it gained a reputation not as an idyllic rural scene but rather for the industries that prospered here and the thousands of workers who came to live in the area.


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