In the 1930s Merseyside was the second largest flour milling centre in the World, with the bulk of the mills located around the Great Float in Birkenhead and Wallasey. The Great Float was designed as one large dock, running from Poulton Bridge to Tower Road, however the Duke Street Bridge had to be built to maintain ancient rights of way, so the Great Float was divided in two: the West Float on the Poulton Bridge side and the East Float on the river side. The Birkenhead mills were built on the West Float and the Wallasey Mills on the East Float.
The first mill was built on the East Float by Robert Buchanan in 1894, this was soon followed by mills built by W Vernon & Sons (West Float), Paul Brothers (Homepride Mills) and Spillers & Bakers (both East Float). One of the last mills built was Ocean Flour Mills which was built in Birkenhead in 1913 for Joseph Rank Ltd.
Ocean Flour Mill was built next to Gill Brook Basin, the site of William Lairds first shipbuilding yard. The mill was separated from Vernonís Mill to the west by a basin called Rankís Creek. A post war extension to Vernonís Mill was built on the site of the Canada Works of Thomas Brassey.
The six storey buildings on the East Float were originally built as granaries, and were the first granaries in the world to have hydraulic grain elevators and hoists. By 1900 most of the granaries had been converted to mills.
Buchananís flour and cattle food mills lined both sides of the dock road and were connected by numerous high level covered walkways.
The mills were highly automated for their day, using hydraulic grain elevators to lift the grain from the ships and barges to the top of the granaries. Numerous spiral chutes carried the grain back down to the milling areas. The mills were dusty and dangerous, flour dust in air is an explosive mixture and fire was a constant worry in the mills, to such an extent that if it was necessary to interrupt the water supply to a mill, then fire engines had to stand by outside.
The Homepride mills and granaries, owned by the Paul Brothers of Upton, consisted of four buildings, again joined by high level covered walkways, these were built on either side of a narrow dock. This dock, which opened into the East Float, was used by barges which brought grain from ships berthed elsewhere in Birkenhead and Liverpool. Barges were moved about the docks by a series of hydraulic capstans.
During the second world war, the mills were badly damaged by bombing and fire, part of Buchananís mill being totally destroyed. The mills retained the scars from the war right up to their demolition.
The last remaining East Float buildings are the granaries of the Liverpool Grain Storage Company, now converted into flats, these were part of the Homepride mill complex. The last mill was operated by Spillers in the Homepride mill and was demolished in 2000.
The last Mill operating on the Birkenhead side was the Ocean Flour Mill, operated by Rank Hovis, which closed in 1988. Click here
to see all that remains of Ocean Flour Mill today.
The mills were often demolished by blowing out the base of the building and allowing the rest to collapse inwards. This process went wrong when the newer part of Vernons Mill was demolished. When the base was blown out, the building just dropped down intact, leaning at an angle of about 10 degrees.
[picture to follow when I find it!]
There is a video of one of the mills on fire, and views of the docks here