The Ruins of London – Industrial Ruins

The Ruins of London – Industrial Ruins

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Continuing our series inspired by Tate Britain’s Ruin Lust series. Rob Smith looks at industrial ruins.

iron bridge river lea

Remains of the Iron Bridge over the River Lea

So far we have looked at medieval ruins in London, but our more recent past has contributed to the ruins of London too. While property values in the centre of London mean that unwanted industrial buildings tend to have been swept away by redevelopment, the substantial nature of some of them has meant that on the fringes of the city, and further out it has been more expensive to fully demolish the buildings than to leave the land undeveloped. Luckily this has saved great buildings like the Granary in Kings Cross Goods Yard or the Alaska factory in Bermondsey which have now been readapted to alternative use. However some ruins linger on.

A case in point are the remains of the Iron Bridge over the River Lea near Bow Creek. The bridge was demolished in 1934, but the abutments have lingered on by the side of the river. Originally opened in 1896 it was designed by Alexander Binnie, chief engineer to the London County Council, to carry Barking Road over the Lea. The bridge was built by the Thames Ironworks whose site was next door to the bridge. The central span was an impressive 150 ft, which left room for barges to carry on up the Lea and the roadway was 55ft wide.  Nevertheless by the 1930s the traffic over the bridge merited a larger replacement, which itself has been incorporated into the modern concrete bridge in the picture. The painting below shows the 1896 Iron Bridge in its heyday.

bridge over the river lea

The name Iron Bridge is somewhat misleading as it was actually a steel construction, however it did replace an earlier Iron Bridge designed by John Walker in 1809. This was one of London’s first iron bridges – only 30 years younger than Thomas Telford’s famous Iron Bridge near Coalbrookdale. Unfortunately this bridge was demolished by a stray collier barge, a great loss to London.

Roberta Ardern is a fan of a building that has resisted redevelopment for many years, Spillers Millennium Mills at Silvertown near London City airport.

Spillers Millenium Mills

Spillers Millennium Mills – picture Wikimedia

With Battersea Power Station transferring from being a ruin to a building site, Millennium Mills must be London’s largest derelict building. The building was originally opened in 1905 for use by flour millers Vernon and Sons. The millers most successful brand of flour was called Millennium Flour and had been a huge success in the North of England – perfect for making white bread sandwiches. To crack the London market they needed to think big, and so the Millennium mills were built on a grand scale. The building had to be substantially rebuilt after the Silvertown ammunition explosion of 1917, and again after the ravages of World War Two. In the 1920s it was purchased by the Spillers milling company, who later switched it to the production of dog food. The mill closed in 1981 and has had various plans for regeneration including housing and an aquarium. Eventually someone is bound to find a use for this huge building but until then it remains an intriguing sight.

Sadly though it seems that not every ruined building can be saved and repurposed. The temptations of redevelopment money have meant that this Hydraulic Power Accumulator Tower in Mansell Street is now due for demolition.

Mansell Street Accumulator Tower

Mansell Street Accumulator Tower

This curious ruined building was built in 1896 for the London Hydraulic Power Company to power the Midland Railway’s City Goods Depot. Towers like this stored water under pressure to power items like cranes and shunting equipment, and there are a number of listed examples throughout London. However English Heritage felt that the Mansell Street example was not particularly significant historically and so it will be demolished as part of a luxury housing complex. A great shame that it could not be accommodated in some way. As we have seen with many former industrial buildings, even a ruin can be brought back to life with a little imagination.

You can find out more about the Industrial History of the River Lea on Rob’s walk on April 6th




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