Saturday, 15 August 2015

11 Weaver's Flour Mill

11. Weaver’s Flour Mill (photos: 3 of derelict Weaver’s Flour Mill) – 15 August 2015

William Blake’s poem about seeking to build Jerusalem among England’s “dark Satanic Mills” is sung on such diverse occasions as the start of cricket Test matches and meetings of the Women’s Institute.  Blake may have had in mind London’s Albion Flour Mill on the Thames, near where Blake lived, at a time when industrialisation seemed to threaten workers’ livelihoods.  In fact the Albion Mill was burned down in 1791, with suspicions that the fire was caused deliberately.

Prior to 1984 Swansea had its equivalent of a “dark Satanic Mill” brooding over the eastern approach along Quay Parade in the derelict Weaver’s Four Mill.  Unlike the Albion Mill, its very means of construction caused some to believe that it could never be demolished.

Weaver and Company had been founded in 1892, importing wheat from France, Russia and North America to produce flour for distribution to bakeries over a wide area.  The firm occupied adjoining buildings around the one-acre Beaufort Basin off the North Dock, the earliest of the town’s five docks.  As their business expanded there was need for a new mill and silos.  A ferro-concrete construction system had been patented by French engineer François Hennebique, whose agent in Britain Louis Mouchel had an office in Briton Ferry.  Mouchel knew a director of Weaver’s, John Aeron Thomas, who was Mayor of Swansea in 1897.  They visited France to see ferro-concrete construction, after which the contract was signed to construct Weaver’s new mill using the Hennebique method.

Co-designed by local architect Henry C. Portsmouth, the mill was built on a site beside the half-tide basin that linked the North Dock to the river.  It was constructed of materials imported from France - cement, aggregate and steel.  When opened in August 1898 it was called the Victoria Flour Mills, and is believed to be the first ferro-concrete building in Britain.  Although the construction is often described as “reinforced concrete”, ferro-concrete is a combination of concrete and steel in order to utilize the strengths of each material.   

The flour mill was six storeys high, 80ft by 40ft by 112ft, with its lower floor cantilevered some 10ft above loading bays.  The reservoir on the roof could hold 20,000 gallons of water.  Around the roof parapet in capital letters and visible from a considerable distance was the name WEAVER AND COMPANY, and above that the brand name OREX.  Though the North Dock closed in 1928, its basin remained open for vessels going to and from Weaver’s, which was producing 70 sacks of flour an hour in 1930. 

Weaver’s survived aerial wartime bombardment, but closed in 1963, and was left standing amid the post-war clearance of other industrial buildings in the area and the filling-in of the adjacent North Dock basin in the late 1960s.  Depending on one’s point of view it was either an important piece of industrial archaeology - or a dreadful eyesore on the eastern approach to Swansea. 

With considerable difficulty it was demolished in early 1984 to make way for Sainsbury’s supermarket, whose car park occupies the site of Weaver’s Flour Mill.

All that remains now is a column on the riverside path by the wall of Sainsbury’s car park, where a plaque states “This column was part of the old Weaver’s Mill, the first reinforced concrete framed building built in Britain”. 
At Liverpool docks stands a prominent ferro-concrete building that is still in use - the Royal Liver Building, the offices of the Royal Liver Assurance Group.  Opened in 1911, for fifty years this was the tallest storeyed building in the country, reaching 322 ft to the top of the spires.  Yet Britain’s first ferro-concrete building was not Liverpool’s Liver Building but Weaver’s - Swansea’s “dark Satanic Mill”.        

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