History of Three Mills, Bromley-by-Bow

Standing quietly on the banks of the River Lea, Three Mills Island can’t fail to take you by surprise when you first see it.

Three Mills History

It seems so quaint and out of place that you could easily assume it was a Disneyfied film set (more on that later…)

You’ll be happy to know though, that it’s authentically old. With an ancient history no less!

Early History of Three Mills

History of Three Mills Island

Once the border with rural Essex, the historic site today comprises of two former mills and The House Mill.

There are references to mills on this site in the Domesday survey of 1086, the earliest record of a tidal mill system in England (although it’s thought there are far earlier ones in existence).

The land was then bought by Stratford Langthorthe Abbey c.12th or 13th century, the abbey having been founded in 1135.

The mills provided grain for the bakeries at Stratford-atte-Bow who in turn provided quality bread for the City of London. But after the dissolution of monastic land in the mid 1500s the industrial centre fell into private hands and at one point were used for grinding gunpowder!

The current mills were bought in 1727 by three local Huguenots; Peter Lefevre, Daniel Bisson and John Debonnaire. It was a strong location for mills, the strong tidal flow meaning a good eight hours of power per tide.

History of Three Mills Island
History of Three Mills Island

DSB 1776 stands for Daniel Bisson and the date the house was rebuilt.

As well as grain for bread, the mill – the largest surviving tidal mill in Britain – provided grain for gin.

By the early 19th century the mills had 18 millstones driven by seven waterwheels. They continued to mill (and distill) until after 1945 but then gradually fell into disrepair.

In the 1980s the House Mill was converted into a museum and then from the 1990s the mill buildings transformed into film studios.

The other mill buildings were also built in the mid 1700s but sadly there was a fire in 1802. The majority was rebuilt in 1817 by Philip Metcalfe.

History of Three Mills Island

The Liquid History of Three Mills

In 1873 the distillery was acquired by J&W Nicholson & Co, producers of fine spirits including gin. They had worked closely with the three mills site since the 1770s and it was from here that they produced their famous London Dry style.

On their website they report that the Duke of Wellington was a fan of their spirit and at his state funeral they provided some of the dray horses required to pull his 18-ton funeral car.

The company is still going today as Nicholson’s Pubs.

The Clock Mill has now been converted into housing but was erected in the 1750s. Its original wooden base was reconstructed in brick

History of Three Mills Island

3 Mills Studios

Now home to London’s largest film and TV studio, it includes nine filming stages and twelve theatre spaces. Incredibly stage 5 has the same floor size of the Royal Albert Hall!

History of Three Mills Island

I can’t resist sharing my own personal connection; I first came across 3 Mills studios when I was participating in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, spending many a long day rehearsals using the larger stages alongside hundreds upon hundreds of other volunteers!

3 Mills has an impressive client list including hit TV shows like Luther and Killing Eve. It’s also popular with some of the biggest filmmakers including Danny Boyle, Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. As well as film, It’s used frequently by West End productions, blockbusters like Mary Poppins, Cats, Miss Saigon, Wicked and War Horse to name a few.

Visit Three Mills

Today the Three Mills Island is easily accessible on foot, part of the Lea Valley walking route.

The House Mill is run by the River Lea Tidal Mill Trust and under normal circumstances is open to the public every Sunday from May to October.

The cafe is also open every Sunday for a takeaway service and hopefully their guided tours will resume soon.

History of Three Mills Island

MORE LONDON HISTORY

18 Comments

  • Kate Calleja

    Reply

    What a great blog! I can’t wait to visit 3 mills island now. Katie thank you for once again showing us another fascinating area of London.

    June 10, 2020 at 8:06 am
  • Al

    Reply

    You missed the original big brother house (series 1 and 2). Now just a field across the canal.

    June 10, 2020 at 8:44 am
  • Richard Willgoss

    Reply

    I worked for Bass whose subsidiary Hedges & Butler – the successors to Nicholson’s – were based at Three Mills. When they eventually closed and moved away, employees were invited to visit the cellars and obtain some of the old bottles stored there. And there were some very old ones, many no longer suitable for drinking unfortunately!!

    June 10, 2020 at 9:00 am
  • Sheila Chiat

    Reply

    I have D loved reading about Three Mills. I have visited it for a Macmillan Coffe Morning, and a Christmas craft market, and been shown around the museum, but you have expanded my knowledge and understanding enormously.
    I look forward to being able to come on an actual walk again with you, when that will be possible.

    June 10, 2020 at 9:33 am
  • Yvonne Bird

    Reply

    Very interesting Katie. My personal connection, my son in law worked on Wes Anderson’s film Isle of Dogs there.

    June 10, 2020 at 9:54 am
  • Anders Hanson

    Reply

    This is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a while. I understand the original Big Brother house was nearby as the studio bits were filmed at Three Mills. I vaguely remember seeing Davina McCall running across a bridge over one of the branches of the River Lea to get from the studio to the Big Brother house.

    June 10, 2020 at 11:28 am
  • Paul Langham

    Reply

    Great post Katie, Never knew this existed but will definitely be looking to visit once we can again.

    June 10, 2020 at 11:40 am
    • Gill Scott

      Reply

      Anyone who watches the various incarnations of MasterChef will be familiar with Three Mills Island whether they realise it or not, as the contestants are filmed walking outside before/after competing. You occasionally get a good view of the Bromley by Bow gas holders too!!

      June 12, 2020 at 7:46 am
  • Hello Katie
    I belong to a U3A group called ‘The Freedom Pass Explorers’ we have explored various parts of London (not at present I know) but I enjoy seeing your photos and information about some of the places we have been to.
    Liz Harket

    June 10, 2020 at 12:11 pm
  • Melvyn David Huntley

    Reply

    Came across it by accident while on a walk from Limehouse Basin. Fabulous place, thank you for providing further info as we can’t wait to go back.

    June 11, 2020 at 1:14 pm

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