The March of the Mills

Tuesday 15th October 2019

Paul Hooper

Fifty members enjoyed an interesting and absorbing talk on windmills in our area. Paul Hooper, Chair of Martham Parish Council, gave us a history of mills built from the 1700s along rivers, including the Thurne, and the reason why they were so necessary.

Contrary to belief that these were purely drainage mills, they were in fact used to control water levels on these rich fertile grazing marshes used for cattle. From December to March the mills were working to lower the water level. Cattle would then graze freely and were taken to market a month earlier than competing areas, therefore demanding best prices. Marshmen worked hard keeping the dykes clear, allowing the flow of water and managing this unique landscape. They worked the mills on a daily basis when in use. 

Smock mills and Tower mills built for this purpose date from the 1750s and had canvas sails which almost touched the ground. The tower mills were lower than those we are familiar with today. By the middle of the 19th Century new innovations were developed and many mills were either ‘hained’, a Norfolk word for heightened, or rebuilt with wooden sails (both occurred at Thurne Mill, left).  Norfolk Post mills are the oldest and were used for grinding wheat.

Over 240 drainage mills were built across the Broads. Maps show them extending, or you could say ‘marching’, further and further along the rivers. Ninety remain but only 2 are in working order. A few have been converted to holiday accommodation.

Millwrights arriving in the area required local skills; boat builders were often employed making Norfolk mills very distinctive with their boat shaped caps - it was what carpenters knew how to make.  Mills built on unstable ground gave some a tendency to lean, whilst lightning and fire added to what Paul referred to as “trouble at mill”.

Sir William Cubitt, born in Dilham in 1785 and the son of a miller, became an eminent Millwright and engineer.  In 1807 he patented a self-regulating windmill sail which was universally adopted. He also invented machines for draining the marshes.   William supervised part of the construction of the Crystal Palace which held the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it was after this he was knighted.

Skeleton mills are the 4th type of mill found in Norfolk, Clayrack drainage mill can be found beside the river Ant at How Hill and is a good example of this type which has been fully restored and sometimes can be seen working.

We learnt how the marshmen made good use of the mills, sometimes slightly shady, to make a little extra pocket money!  Thurne mill is a wonderful example of a Tower mill and well worth a visit.  We learnt so much regarding the various workings of the mills, including the engineering which harnessed the energy of wind keeping the sails turning. 

The March of the Mills continues today in the form of the wind turbines - a modern feature creating power in the form electricity, yet still contributing to this wonderful landscape in which we are so privileged to live.                                                                                                   

Janet Edwards      


Thurne Mill

(Above: Thurne Mill)
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