Michael has family links to Norfolk and moved here in 1990 to take up the position of head of the historical buildings team. He talks about, amongst other things, his work on the Broads, the mills and their history.
I grew up in Reading Berkshire and my working life started in 1965. I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in planning and architecture having being influenced by the likes of Corbusier and other great names from the 1930s and 1940s. It was quite a young profession and people didn’t really understand it, they knew what architects and surveyors were but town and country planning straddles both of those professions.
From Berkshire County Council to Art College in Nottingham
I managed, very luckily, to get a job at Berkshire County Council as a trainee town planner. There were two of us who were taken on and we were signed up to Hammersmith College of Art, Design and Building for three years, attending on a day release and one evening a week. The college was in Lime Grove and the mid-sixties was a very interesting time to be at art college.
Because the course was not recognised by the Town Planning Institute (as it was then called before it got its Royal Charter) we had to take external exams and those exams would have questions that you hadn’t necessarily covered in class. You had to get a pass rate of 45% but an aggregate of 55% overall in all seven exams and if you didn’t get the full aggregate, you failed all seven and had to wait a year to retake the whole lot! I passed five and failed two on my first sitting and passed six the following year but again didn’t get the necessary points. It was a long winded way of getting qualified, so I knocked it on the head and got accepted on a full time four-year degree course at Nottingham Art College.
A lot of schools of architecture and planning were attached to art colleges, only five colleges or universities in the country were recognised by the TPI, the governing body for people wanting to work as qualified Town Planners.
Nottinghamshire County Council, local government reorganisation and new district councils
I set off to Nottingham in 1968 and in 1973 after qualifying I started to work for Nottinghamshire County Council, in Nottingham, as a junior planning officer.
In April 1974 there was a reorganisation of local government and it was the beginning of the establishment of new district councils who were taking on staff at a phenomenal rate. In 1974 I was able to join Melton District Council in Melton Mowbray as a senior planning officer responsible for setting up their first development control system.
I had a wonderful time there; it was a beautiful district then with lots of historic buildings. I was able to really hone my interest in vernacular architecture and traditional construction.
To East Staffordshire District Council – listed buildings and the East Staffs Heritage Trust
In 1976 a position came up with East Staffordshire District Council. I took up the role of principal planning officer in development control but I was also in charge of conservation and listed buildings and joined an informal group of professional officers working in this field called the Association of Conservation Officers (ACO), all of us dealing with the struggles and issues of historic buildings and conservation areas.
The district include the towns of Uttoxeter and Burton on Trent and the district boundary ran north following the river Dove virtually to the Peak District. It was a very interesting mix of industrial parts such as Burton and very big rural areas as well as very attractive villages.
My colleague Alan Taylor, who is a historian who worked for Staffs County Council, helped me with a condition survey of all the listed buildings in the district (nearly 500) and as a result I was able to convince the district council to increase grant funding for historic buildings to help owners meet the increased costs of repair to listed buildings and they also agreed to establish the East Staffs Heritage Trust. Using a revolving fund system that was being used by other trusts in England it was able to take on buildings that the commercial sector wouldn’t and through an exemplary method of repair and grant aid the trust was able to bring those buildings back into good use.
Brewery buildings and the history of brewing in Burton on Trent
Whilst I was working in Burton I developed a deep understanding and knowledge of the Victorian architecture of the town and in particular the huge brewery buildings. I recognised that Burton was unique in the sense that it had a fantastic wealth of history of massive Victorian brick built breweries, maltings, ice houses: all sorts of buildings associated with brewing.
There had been 33 breweries in the town at the end of the nineteenth century, and two of those were the world’s biggest brewers so it was a phenomenal place to work.
In the 1980s this was disappearing rapidly; mechanisation of malting and new ideas for brewing beers and lagers were gaining ground. The old properties were not easily adapted for those purposes and one by one they were demolished.
In 1982 Bass decided that it wanted to pull down Bass Number One Brewery which was built in the 1850s, was grade 2* listed and had royal connections. Suddenly it didn’t fulfil their requirements as they had an overcapacity of beer production and an underproduction of lager, which is what they were pushing at the time. The local authority and Bass applied to demolish the building so the council could increase its car parking facilities and I was effectively muzzled by my boss because as head of conservation at the district council I was clearly not in favour of this!
Along with the Victorian Society, Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), Brewery History Society, Society Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) we ran a campaign to alert people to what was happening as we were concerned that Burton was losing its unique heritage. As important as the pottery kilns were to Stoke and the mines are to South Wales, it is industrial archaeology of a massive scale.
Locally there wasn’t any great love for these buildings. People had grown up with them and I think just assumed that they would always be there, not realising that once they’re gone they don’t come back again. Now there is a very large car park where the brewery once stood, which is a great shame. In fact the town has changed so much in the last three decades that it is a shadow of its former self and has little of historic interest left, so much has gone.
At the same time (1984) Everards Brewery approached the council to demolish their Tiger Brewery as they wanted to move their production to Leicester, where most of their tied pubs are located. As this was the last complete Victorian working brewery now left in town we thought that it was very important that it should be saved in some way.
Five year struggle to develop a fully working tourist attraction in Burton, BBC programme ‘Knights on the beer’
So, I was seconded by the local authority to look into the feasibility of setting up a working brewery museum by setting up a charitable Trust ‘The National Brewery Museum’ (which was later forced to change its name to Heritage Brewery Museum). The Trust owned the complete site and buildings and had the task of developing the museum whilst a subsidiary trading company was born and called the Heritage Brewery. A new board of directors were brought in and a chief executive appointed to oversee the commercial operations, the brewery company was the employer of all the staff including the Head Brewer Geoff Calderbank.
So this is when a five year struggle started to get this museum off the ground without any capital and with me as the only member of staff, still paid by the council initially but with only a small office and no budget! The first thing was to recruit a national membership who could subscribe to bring in much needs funds which we did successfully. We also organised brewery trips which brought some money in and Open Days when hundreds of people would turn up from all over the UK. There was really good support from the media, and coverage in the local press and further afield including National radio and local TV. Because Burton was a prosperous town external funding requirements were not met, and as a consequence we couldn’t get enough grants and other funding to develop the museum fully as a visitor attraction as this entailed a lot of money to improve the site and buildings which were in pretty poor condition. And the trading arm of the operation failed to contribute much to the museum project even though we had very good architects plan for the development of what could have been a major tourist attraction for the town.
Even so we continued somehow to develop the visitor numbers and our income grew enough to pay for new staff to deal with those visitors but nowhere enough to develop the museum properly.
In 1988 I was approached by the BBC who wanted me to research and present a documentary about brewing and the history of brewing and its relevance to Burton. It was an interesting time, and ‘Knights on the beer’ was broadcast. This should have led to more work but I was getting tired of the struggle in Burton and the negative attitude from within to the whole concept. It appeared to me that they were only interested in the beer production side of things and failed to grasp the full vision and helping me raise money from other businesses in the town to accommodate the rising number of visitors to the Museum. By 1990 I had had enough of all the political wrangling and felt I had done as much as I could, so started to investigate finding new employment somewhere.
Family links to Norfolk, a move to Norwich – head of historic buildings team
In 1990 a job came up in Norwich as head of the historic buildings team, and I was lucky enough to be offered the position which was a very prestigious one. So I moved my whole family from Lichfield to Norwich and a new career began which lasted for another 20 years.
I have links to Norfolk, my father’s family, the Knights farmed at Crimplesham near Downham Market. During the great agricultural depression of the nineteenth century a lot of people left the county and my great-great grandfather moved to St Neots and then onto North Crawley in Buckinghamshire, where he began farming and my father was born on a farm there in 1916.
When I came to Norfolk I was determined to find where we originated from and I was lucky enough to not only find the village but the house where the whole family lived up until the end of the 19th century. There, I met an old chap in his mid-90s and he was able to confirm that in the 1920s a whole gang of the family had come back up from Buckinghamshire on a charabanc for a massive knees-up in the village. He was able to corroborate everything I had found in various records so I know that I have a Norfolk ancestry and that suits me very well as I do like the county very much. And I hope I was able to bring my expertise to bear on the county’s rich heritage of historic buildings.
When I was appointed, I managed a small team who had a variety of skills, a historic building surveyor, architectural historian, and a historian amongst many other building conservation skills. Personally I have been involved in some very big projects, like Denver Mill (£1.2 million), Waxham Great Barn (£0.75 million and Nelson’s monument in Great Yarmouth (just over £1 million) and many other smaller projects. We also set up and ran the Ruined Churches project in the early 1990’s; ruined churches being a specific Norfolk-wide problem in the county and of course the windmills in the Broads area and further afield.
My colleague David Watt (a specialist building surveyor) worked with me for a year or two producing schedules of repair for many of the drainage mills in the Broads, mills that need protection under the auspices of the ‘Wind pumps Protection Programme’ (see later) and we spent a couple of years travelling around the marshes trying to get to see all the drainage mills, so that we could produce an overall strategy for their protection and at the same time register their condition.
Some were very difficult to get to because of the dyke systems in the Broads, but we assembled all the information and that is now lodged with the Norfolk Windmills Trust (NWT). Amanda Rix (who helped us with this enormous task fresh out of college) still works with the windmills, not only the Broads drainage mills but also other corn mills in the county.
What we did discover was that there was human life out on the marshes, marshmen and their families that worked in conjunction with the land. Cattle was brought down to graze on the land to fatten them up, and that meant that water levels had to be kept at a certain level so the grass grew rich. There were also people working with the reed, such as the reed cutters, people like Eric Edwards over at How Hill.
We met some incredible people who were born, lived and worked out there. Bertie High comes to mind, he had been born in the early 1920s in the middle of Halvergate marshes where High’s Mill still stands and is named after him. He moved to Potter Heigham where there is also a High’s Mill. Sometime during the1990’s I decided that we ought to be recording some of these people to get some ideas as to how they managed life out there on the marshes and thru the NWT I manged to get a small sum of money together so that we could pay a professional film crew to record for posterity some of the stories Bertie had to tell. That film was lodged with the NRO in Norwich and tells a fascinating tale.
How mills get their name
Mills tended to take either the name of the man who looked after them (Highs Mill) above, or the name of the level of the drain, St Benet’s Level is an example of this as that would be the level that the water was drained to and the drainage mill helped to maintain that. Other mills might be names after the landowner (such as Stracey Arms Mill) or else the distance up the rivers from Great Yarmouth, like Five Mile House, Seven Mile House etc) some on the Bure, some on the Yare.
Drainage mills and wind pumps – the differences between the two
I should probably say at this point that all these buildings are windmills and they do different jobs. Most of the ones on the Broads are used for draining the land so they are drainage mills, which is the correct term. The earliest windmills simply lift water from one level to another with a scoop wheel rather than pumping it, although later adaptations meant in some cases that vertical turbines were installed which acted like centrifugal pumps.
Unfortunately they have recently been called wind pumps (A term coined by someone in the 1970’s; strictly speaking a wind pump, like the structures Bob Morse collected for many years and which is now a small museum open to the public down by Repps, near Potter Heigham. Those structures were mostly used for irrigation rather than drainage. They have metal blades and often a metal skeleton frame like you would see in dry countries like Spain and the parts of the USA, nothing like the windmills on the Broads.
Some of the drainage mills such as Turf Fen near How Hill had two scoop wheels externally and some had one internal scoop wheel, but most simply had one, externally placed next to the mill race or leat.
Early examples were simple timber skeleton mills like Boardman’s Mill by How Hill but many early types were smock mills which were bigger and very common in Holland and here on the Fens in the west of the county. The only example of a smock mill left on the Broads now that I can think of is Tunstall dyke smock mill, which was a derelict mill, repaired under the Wind Pumps Protection Programme established by the Broads Authority (see below).
These mills probably didn’t exist much before the seventeenth century and the earliest mill in the Broads is, I think, Oby Mill built in 1753. (That is the mill in the background of the picture of me.) They really flourished in the 18th and 19th century and I think that there were about 280 in the Broads once upon a time. A very important collection of industrial monuments. I have pretty much visited all of them.
In the fens there were over a thousand but because it is much peatier land in the fens the land shrank much quicker and a mill can’t do its job once the levels all change as the scoop mill is no longer in contact with the water. So they were replaced with steam engines and there are very few remains of windmills in the fens.
The Wind Pump Protection Programme and Land of the Windmills project
I can’t think of anywhere else in England which has a larger group of industrial monuments, as we call them, than the Broads. They are iconic structures and the things that the tourists come to see.
A lot of the mills in later years are owned by people who just happen to farm the land and didn’t particularly want to have these listed buildings to look after and maintain.
Over the years there have been all sorts of ideas as to how we deal with the help and protection of these structures. There was a simple programme of protection as all the mills had to be made wind and watertight otherwise they would simply disappear. The Windpump Protection Programme was established by the Broads Authority, grant aid was provided to protect mills, with the hope that maybe when times were better they could be brought back into full service. This programme was a very good way of getting out and about and talking to the owners.
My boss at the time was Martin Scott and he developed a project called ‘land of the windmills’, and put forward the idea with the hope of receiving money from the Lottery.
The project wanted to bring back fifteen drainage mills on the Halvergate marsh and Acle Straight back into sail. It was a very ambitious programme and the Lottery had just given a lot of money to the Castle Museum in Norwich and the new Norfolk Record Office (NRO) and they felt that Norfolk had had rather a lot of the available money.
In the end whilst they would not fund the initial idea they decided that we could do two elements of that project: the group of mills and pumps alongside the river Yare on the Reedham Marsh and two old mills alongside the river Bure and close to the Acle New Road to Gt Yarmouth. Stracey Arms Mill and Ashtree Farm Mill, the last mill being the last to be built on the Broads, in 1912. This was a brick tower mill, lots of cast iron machinery, as opposed to the earlier mills which tended to have timber wheels and cogs with fruit wood teeth.
The group by the river Yare included Polkeys Mill which was a large brick tower mill with external scoop wheel. The Reedham Marsh steam engine House which was pretty derelict and Cadge’s mill, another traditional brick tower mill but with little machinery left. There was also a 1940’s green corrugated iron shed housing two large Gwynne centrifugal pumps powered by two large Ruston Diesel engines. And finally next to them is an electric pump that does the job all those others once did. As the only surviving group of such buildings on the Broads where you can demonstrate power sources from wind, through steam and diesel to electric, this formed a unique group.
So over the next few years we were able to bring Polkey’s Mill back into full working condition and carried out repairs to the others as well.
Techniques for keeping the mills upright
We found that most of these drainage mills were inevitably built on soggy marshy unstable ground, mostly comprising reclaimed land that had been the old estuary flowing from Norwich to the sea and which existed back to Roman times So how did they manage to erect such large heavy structures (between 30 and 40 tons of brickwork)? One technique we were told about by Billy Nudd was to put a cone of brickwork on the marsh, let it settle in whichever direction it settled, this could take a year. Then come back and put another cone of brickwork on top to take it up to say 20 feet and let it settle again. This could be in the same direction but it could move in a slightly different way. Then finally once everything had settled nicely the cap was put on. You can see this technique clearly at Buckenham Ferry Mill and at a very old derelict mill Brograve Level, near to the Waxham Cut. You can clearly see the horizontal mortar lines meeting at a point.
In other cases timber poles were rammed into the ground underneath to provide some stability. But just putting brick foundations on footings would not really achieve anything because the weight still has to equalise against the pressure of the earth.
Highs Mill and Ashtree Farm mill
Some of these mills had gone over and in order for them to be ready for new caps and sails they had to be upright. We did this at Ashtree Farm and Highs Mill on the Halvergate Marsh and that’s when we got to meet Bertie High, a lovely chap and we recorded his life growing up and living on the marshes. He told us the most incredible stories of getting to school, across the marsh land, over the dykes to get the train. In those days they would have lived a pretty poor life, managing with what they could grow and shoot on the marsh. They would have got the big items, coal for example from Yarmouth. He said they dropped it on the main road and then they had haul it down to their cottage with horse and cart.
Anyway, the old mill he and his father before him had looked after was an old cloth sailer. i.e. it didn’t have patent sails with individual shutters, but canvas cloth like many of the Dutch mills. The cloth would have to be rigged on the sail bars like a yacht depending on the strength of the wind that day. It was also ‘pole winded’ which meant that if the wind changed direction then it would have to be pulled around to face the wind by pulling the cap round via a long tail pole. By the 1990’s the poor old mill was in poor condition and was leaning quite a bit, so we employed a specialist firm to underpin and lift the whole brick tower to a vertical position. We filmed the operation and somewhere there will be footage of the whole exercise?
Stubb Mill Hickling – Billy Nudd
Another interesting character was Billy Nudd who was born at Stubb Mill Hickling, he actually lived in the mill. It must be said that most mills were machines, sophisticated machines for doing work. Some might have overnight accommodation with a little fireplace so when the marshmen had to work them they could get out of the weather.
Billy was a great character, telling us lots of stories about the construction of mills, things he’d heard from his father and grandfather. See above. That mill is owned by the Norfolk Naturalist Trust and is maintained by them and acts as a look out point.
Windmills need wind to work but it’s not that simple – the introduction of steam and diesel pumps
Of course windmills can only do their job when the wind blows, as I found out at Billingford corn mill when the TV crews arrived one day wanting to see the sails go round, but there was no wind at all and even with a crowbar it was very difficult to move them around even slowly.
The matter of draining flooded marshes is a serious one. The problem is that storms come on one day, rain lashing down and plenty of wind to turn the sails. However the levels are nowhere near the height they might become overnight or the next day, by which time the storm may have passed, the winds have dropped and then the windmill doesn’t work. You will then see a wall of water heading your way and can’t do anything about it.
The invention of the steam engine was a wonderful thing, you could fire them up and get them working even on a windless day. Diesel pumps came in in the 1920s, 1930s. The internal combustion engine was much easier than steam as you didn’t have to shovel coal and get the steam up. This meant that you could drain perhaps the same amount of land with one engine that maybe ten or twelve windmills could do.
Workings of a typical brick tower mill
The towers were built to a height of between 35 and 50 feet, to the top of the cap. It consists of a tower, battered, which means it’s sloping inwards to the top of solid brickwork which supports, at the top, a cap and sails.
Sails are the things that go round and are mounted on stocks. Stocks are very long pieces of very heavy timber on which the four sails are attached. Stocks were always made from Scots pine and were anything from 55 to 70 feet long. They had to be a certain thickness, between ten and twelve inches square at the centre, i.e. half way along the stock and it had to be all heartwood, in other words no sapwood, that would just rot. Heartwood is highly resinous and would survive the rigorous conditions out on the marshes.
For centuries the timber came from the Baltic States and Scandinavia, but whilst it is still available there is no commercial way to move it from the northern forests across the North Sea as the whole system of timber importation has changed. Containerisation!
I should say, we tend to have four-sailed mills on the Broads but there are five- and six-sailed mills elsewhere and at Heckington in Lincolnshire there is an eight-sailed mill. Incidentally in Lincolnshire they are called sweeps but we call them sails in Norfolk.
Sails are connected by a wind shaft, a horizontal timber which slopes back and has a neck bearing at the front of the cap and a tail bearing at the back that supports the brake wheel.
The brake wheel has timber blocks on a steel band on the edge of the wheel and can be pulled tight to slow and stop the mill. This works most of the time but there are stories that in storm conditions where it didn’t. If it doesn’t stop it gets hotter and hotter and you can have an explosion on your hands, a lot of mills did explode and burn down.
Sails need to be facing the wind at all times. In the sort of mills we see in Holland the cap with the sails could be turned by using a tail pole and you physically had to move it by manpower or horsepower to face the wind. Note earlier passage about Highs Mill.
In this county our winds veer rapidly from east to west, to north to south. If wind gets behind the sail there is a danger that it will pull the cap and sails off and you’d have a derelict mill.
We were constantly having to stop the mill, get down, turn it, get back up, get it going, stop again and turn it, it only works efficiently when facing the wind directly.
Therefore patent sails were invented here in Norfolk. Those sails consist of a whole range of shutters which are operated by lever mechanisms. A little steel wheel at the back of the mill had a weight attached to it and that weight is adjusted against the pressure of the wind to make sure that if the wind picks up the sails, they will open and spill the wind. So they are constantly opening and closing to catch the maximum amount.
The fantail, or fly, is a bladed wheel at the back of the middle at right angles to the sails and it turns the cap. As long as the cap is facing the wind the sails are going round, they are connected via the brake wheel to a crown wheel and a central upright shaft. That shaft runs perpendicular to the base of the tower and is connected to the pit wheel via a gearing and that pit wheel is then connected to a scoop wheel.
See below the scoop wheel within its boarded housing.
The scoop wheel, through 90 degrees, then works alongside a narrow channel and lifts the water quite rapidly from one level and deposits it via sluices on the other side. Sometimes the scoop wheel might be internal, but it’s not as efficient as a turbine. Turbines were in fact brought in and operated by those mills where the scoop wheel was defunct. The turbine was put in and spins, acting like centrifugal force within a chamber, and the water, in the same manner as when you’re stirring your tea with a spoon, rises to the edge and will then spill out. So that was a very efficient way of draining and they were the last sort of developments of the windmill in that sense.
Maintaining the mills
You must make sure that the fantails are kept in good order, caps on Norfolk mills are boat shaped with the heavier timber at the front, and the design is such that the rain will be swept off it. As long as it faces the wind it will survive very well. However as soon as the mill stops turning, for example if the fantail has broken, then you have problems.
The back of the cap is not designed to face the wind, and if the weather moves around, which it does, then rain will go in through the back and eventually rot will begin and over a period of years you could lose internal machinery, floors and everything. I have certainly seen this happen, and it happens relatively quickly, and in a building which is in the middle of nowhere and not heated it will deteriorate really quickly.
The early mills were a primitive skeleton framework of timber and you could connect the sails very quickly and begin the draining of the land. You needed to look after the land and there is some evidence still on the broads of very simple timber structures which could have been moved around, a sort of portable mill, while you were waiting for your mill to be finished, which because of the techniques I described earlier could take three or four years. These timber structures were protected from the weather by tar initially by wood tar, familiar to anyone who works on boats.
I’ve done some research and live experiments and I am an advocate for wood tar as a preservative even to this day on soft wood. It is not recommended to be used on brick or masonry buildings. I can take you to an eighteenth century mill which has never had any tar on the brickwork and it’s in jolly good condition. I can also take you to another mill built at the end of the nineteenth century which has been tarred and the brickwork is in a terrible state, falling apart. It seals the water and damp in and the structure will suffer as a result, and far from doing good to the building you are doing harm. However where the mill brickwork is already heavily tarred (like Polkeys) you have little choice other than to replicate the finish.
Of course over time you could buy castings readymade from a factory which made the job a bit easier. There was always a bit of discussion about for example with an iron brake or crown wheel, would you cast the teeth at the same time or would you leave slots to put timber teeth in?
The prevailing opinion was that it was better to have timber teeth because invariably at some point there would be a problem of alignment and replacements would be needed and it would be much more costly to take the whole casting away to replace than putting in two or three new wooden ones. Of course you could think that iron teeth couldn’t possibly break, but they can and they did.
The role of a millwright
Millwrights are responsible for the construction of the mills. A local builder may put up the brickwork but a millwright has to be an engineer. These mills are heavy machines and a lot of power is produced so a millwright has to understand all the stresses and strains that are put on a building.
Millwrights, people such as John Lawn who worked in the county and owned Caston Mill, Vincent Pargeter who had been employed by Essex county council as a millwright and also owned an old drainage mill on the Broads, Richard Seago form South Walsham all had their own particular favourite ideas as to how to get these mills working.
John Lawn had a background in aeronautical engineering and favoured galvanised steel for stocks. We do have some mills where steel stocks were put in to get over the problem of there not being enough timber.
Vincent Pargeter, who did most of the restoration work on Polkeys Mill, and Richard Seago both favoured laminated timber to repair stocks. Laminating was a method of taking smaller pieces of timber all glued together to get the lengths and dimensions required.
Richard Seago is a fantastic carpenter and has built his own post mill at South Walsham, an astonishing piece of work.
The dilemma of bringing a mill back into working order
This is an interesting dilemma in a way – you decide that you want to bring these windmills back into working conditions to enable the public to see the sails turning and perhaps even see water being moved from one level to another.
You must then have people employed permanently to operate those windmills. If you do not have someone who goes down to work the mills regularly that is to say take the brake off and let the sails go round they will be stuck in one position. They are not designed in that manner and water will get in and you will get rot setting in very quickly and various parts of the exterior machinery particularly the sails will suffer.
We have had some spectacular collapses in the past. So it is important that the sails are turned regularly and the fantails greased as well.
We were happy and excited to be able to get Polkeys Mill back to working conditions. It is fantastic to see how the mills drained the land, because whilst you can explain it, it is by going out and actually seeing the scoop mill moving, and the sails spinning round that gives you some idea of just how powerful and important these machines were.
If the mills aren’t easily accessible then the problems re-occur, without maintenance they will go back into being in poor condition. I know of mills that were put back into good order at the beginning of the1990s and then 20 years later were back on the buildings at risk register, and it is always because people aren’t working them.
So I feel that if you are not prepared to build in the necessary funding to maintain and work the mills, then you have to question whether you should be even doing what you’re proposing. After all these are important listed buildings and are meant to be kept in good order for future generations to enjoy.
Marshmen and mills
There was not a man or woman whose job it was to solely work the mill, it was the job of the marshmen and Bertie High would be a good example of such a marshman. Marshmen usually had a house on the marsh and worked for the farmers sometimes for more than one. They were out in all weathers keeping everything flowing, the ditches clean, and animals safe. Setting the windmills to run and keeping them greased. They looked after all the marshes and the mills were just part of that job.
He didn’t necessarily sit in the mill whilst it was working but Bertie told me that each mill had a unique sound , it might be click, click…..click, click. As long as it was a regular beat then he could carry on with his work.
Bertie spent a lot of his time digging out the ditches with traditional tools. He had this expression, ‘bottomfying’ which is clearing out (slobbing out) the bottom of the ditch and also he’d cut all the sides of the dyke, by hand, all to a precise angle throughout the year. All using specialist tools. Incidentally the dykes are the raised pieces of land on either side of the ditch, not the ditches themselves.
This was an important job because without the ditches being kept clear, the water can’t flow efficiently and you’ll have flooding which is not good because there will be cattle on the land. The cattle will often have belonged to different farmers who brought them to the marshes to get fattened up for market.
Animals, be it a cow or horse would quite regularly topple into the dykes and it was a marshman’s job to haul them out with rope and tackle, a difficult job to do safely I understand.
It is interesting to note that the Broads marshes are largely owned by probably two or three families, landed families who were given the land to them by the Crown. The Berney family for example were given land all the way from Halvergate to Great Yarmouth and would have been the official landowners. They would then rent the land out to various farmers who put their cattle on it and who would in turn employ a marshman. The marshmen stayed working there for a long time, maybe 60 or 70 years.
Apart from the marshmen we met other people working on the reed beds, for example the river police working for the Broads Authority who were out and about on the Broads all the time and of course met a lot of people. There was a bit of a community out there.
A farming conflict in the 1960s and 1970s
An unfortunate occurrence happened in the 1960s and 1970s regarding the land. Some farmers and land owners actually ploughed up the land and started to grow grain and other cereal crops, it was a battle between two different methods of farming.
One group wanted the water levels to be high so you had rich grass for the cattle, but the arable farmers wanted the water levels down lower, so they dried up. So there was this silly system and I’ve seen it, where on one part they are putting water on the marshes and in another area they are draining it.
Luckily the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has managed to acquire huge tracts of land and is keeping the water levels pretty high, for nature conservation.
It is a balance between nature and man and it is an ongoing discussion I suppose for the future as to how the marshes should best be kept. I am sure that the Broads Authority will make sure that as a National Park the Broads will retain their uniqueness and their importance to our county.
I feel really lucky in a sense that I did spend so much time out there and met such interesting people.
And even though I did plod around in the filthy weather in February in the middle of nowhere trying to get to a mill and got soaked to the skin, it was well worth it. I do hope that the next generation coming forward will carry on the good work, as certainly these mills are an extremely important group of industrial monuments that we must see preserved in some way or another, for the future.
Michael Knights (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 5th February 2019 in Shotesham. Photos supplied by the contributor.
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