Ipswich Icons: The Mill site retains towering presence on Waterfront

Cranfield Mill

Cranfield Mill - Credit: Archant

The tallest building in East Anglia is The Mill, the 23-storey tower block above Dance East on Ipswich Waterfront, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Apparently finished in 2009, it is actually just a shell, there are no internal walls, no kitchens or bathrooms and the only means of access is by walking up the raw concrete stairs.

The Mill was built with the other developments hereabouts in the boom of the early years of the 21st Century. Waterfront apartments sprang up in Paterson Road, Regatta Quay (the Wine Rack) and around Cranfield Square (the central open space behind the Mill)

Why Cranfield Square? Because this was the site of Cranfields flour mill. The Cranfield Brothers had been milling in Ipswich since 1884. The business was founded by John George Cranfield, the son of a Huntingdonshire farmer. He started his working life as an apprentice with Bowyer and Priestly of Huntingdon, flour millers, before going to work in a large flour mill in Minneapolis, in the United States.

When he returned his father purchased an old stone mill in Northern Ireland which he converted to a horizontal steel drum rolling mill. In 1884 in partnership with his brother Thomas they built a roller mill at the head of the wet dock in Ipswich.

The facility required new machinery and a local company, ER & F Turner, were at the forefront of the development of horizontal roller mills. Once installed, the new mill was capable of producing eight tons of flour per hour. In fact the new machinery was so hungry for grain it had to be imported from the USA to keep up with demand.

The one stumbling block in the development of the company was the size of the ships transporting the grain, not only were they too large to pass through the lock gates, for the most part they were too big to negotiate the shallow waters above Pin Mill. As a consequence Cranfield Brothers purchased ‘lighters’ (smaller boats) and the grain was transhipped in Butterman’s Bay and carried to the mill in smaller loads.

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Business expanded rapidly, and in 1906 more land was purchased, ER & F Turner supplied more roller mills (and electric motors) and the first of the firm’s motor lorries was purchased.

John George Cranfield died in 1908 and the business became a private limited company. The demand for home-grown food during the First World War meant the company was at full production for the duration (as they were during the Second World War). After the war Cranfields expanded by acquiring other companies including William Green of Brantham and AA Gibson of Benezet Street (whose name is still visible on the brickwork of their original mill).

Cranfields first acquired a bakery business in 1936 but when the baking process became automated after the Second World War they invested heavily, creating Betabake (Anglia) Ltd in 1963. New bakeries were opened in Norwich, Chelmsford and in 1969 in Norwich Road, Ipswich.

They also invested in the milling business in College Street and by the early 1970s were the largest privately-owned independent milling bakery in the country. In the mid 70s they had a workforce of some 2,500 people and almost 1,000 vehicles.

The business was acquired by Associated British Foods and the flour milling business was known as Allied Mills, the bakery business Allied Bakeries. In 1990 ABF decided to concentrate their milling interests in the North West of England and in December 1999 the last sack of flour left Albion Wharf.

The East of England Development Agency purchased the site, held an architectural and development competition, the winners of which were John Lyall (architect) and Wharfside Developments who had secured Dance East as anchor tenants. Unfortunately the recession of 2007-08 caused the development company to go under and the project remains unfinished.

A major storm in October 2013 damaged the cladding on the Mill and without a substantial owner it remains unrepaired. Dance East however, have built a successful dance house in the lower floors of the complex and stage some first class professional performances.

The AGM of the Ipswich Society will be held in Dance East on April 20 with architect John Lyall as keynote speaker.