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Building a mill, without the twiddly bits

This week I have started to write up sections about the process of building a roller mill and have stumbled into a world of architecture I barely knew existed. Having the rescued Gelder and Kitchen files here at the Archive meant that I knew a bit about Sir Alfred Gelder, Gelder and Kitchen and the work they did for Ranks. However, I soon discovered that what I knew about their work, and mill architecture in general, barely scratched the surface.

Poster Image

The first mill that Sir Alfred Gelder built for Joseph Rank, his friend, neighbour and fellow Methodist, was Clarence Mills in Hull in 1891. Llewellyn Kitchen was not taken on as a partner by Gelder until 1892. This was the first of many mills that would be built for Ranks and was built in the Queen Anne revival style. This form was popular at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and was used predominantly for domestic buildings. There has been confusion between buildings built in the Queen Anne style and buildings built during Queen Anne’s reign as, despite sharing the same name of a monarch, they are actually very different in style. Nevertheless, whatever style was used in the creation of his mill, Mr. Rank did not appear to care for it. Indeed, he is reported as saying: ‘Don’t have those twiddly bits put on the top next time – they’re no use to the mill; they’re only put there to help the reputation of the architect’. Alfred Gelder may have been Joseph Rank’s friend but that was not going to stop Rank from being as economical and forthright as ever.

Nevertheless, despite this slight difference of opinion, Alfred Gelder and his company, Gelder and Kitchen, built many other mills for Ranks and other clients. One such other client was the Foster family from Cambridge. They already owned three mills in Cambridge but Cambridge University would not let them build railway lines to them. Therefore, a new mill was built in 1898 that was located barely 100m away from the railway station. Gelder and Kitchen were hired as architects and built an imposing structure that still towers over Cambridge today. The building today has been converted into apartment but the mill was still running into the 2000s after having been sold to Spillers in 1947, giving the mill the name Spillers mill rather than Foster’s mill. Nevertheless, whilst Gelder and Kitchen and Spillers both no longer exist, this structure ensures that all their names live on and is a reminder of the lives and work of many men over the years.

Many other prestigious architects have been credited with a mill or two as well. This includes Sir Aston Webb. I must confess that I had never heard of him despite having seen his work my entire life. He was the architect behind Admiralty Arch in London, the main building of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the principal façade of Buckingham Palace. These prestigious achievements may be on his record, yet often overlooked on his list of achievements is the grain silo he designed for Mumford’s Flour Mill in Greenwich in 1897. The image of the mill seen here, shows the fine design of the mill with the attic and basement mirroring the same style whilst the rest of the building is decorated with giant M’s and Greek crosses. The contrasting windows also add to the contrasting nature of the structure. Aston Webb has transformed the building and ‘virtually hid its true purpose behind the polite mantle of Italianate classicism’ (Clarke, 47). This building succeeded in showing off the wealth of the Mumford family and the skill of Aston Webb in one structure that is still standing today.

As previously stated, roller milling is an industry that has often been overlooked by history and the architecture of these mills is no different. Architectural historians have tended to overlook the buildings which can often be credited with ‘outshining the since better known and more celebrated textile mills’ (Clarke, 51). These buildings are a reminder of our past and examples of Victorian architecture that are fast disappearing. The fact that the Gelder and Kitchen archive needed saving suggests that it is an aspect that people are less aware of now. But here at the Archive, these records can find a home and the stories of the mills and those who worked on and in them, playing their part in British industry can be kept and shared.