Broads Uncovered: Marshmen

Published: 21st October, 2020

The story of the Marshmen in the Broads National Park spans nearly three hundred years from when the first windmills began to be built in the Broads. Of course, the marshman’s “job description” changed over time adjusting to changes in technology, agriculture and society. It’s a tale of hard work, inventions, wind, isolation, smuggling, guns, boats and rivers, all set in the beautiful Broads National Park.

Oby Mill (1753) the first drainage mill to be built in the Broads National Park.

The Drainage Mills: Our story begins with the arrival of the wind driven water pumps (drainage mills) to the Broads region from the 1750’s onwards. They were built to improve control of the water levels on the marshes.

Drainage channels on Halvergate Marshes with Breydon Water in the background.

This had previously been done by building up the banks of rivers and digging drainage channels and ditches (dykes). By controlling water levels on the marshes landholder’s had a better chance of making a profit from the traditional marshland activities – grazing cattle (cows) and harvesting fenland plants such as reeds for thatching, hay (grasses) for food for horses and livestock and bulrushes (Schoenoplectus lacustris) for rush mats. From 1753, when Oby Mill was built on the Bure River, 200 wind pumps were built in the Broads region and around 71 still stand today. They were, for their day, incredibly powerful – able to lift 8 tons of water/minute!

To discover how these drainage mills worked, come explore the inside of Hardley Mill and even climb up onto the cap (roof) via our Virtual Reality Tour below. Hardley Mill is one of only five mills still functioning today – hope you have a good head for heights when you’re walking about on the roof…..


Marshman catching eels.
Marshman cutting reeds.

The Marshman: With 200 mills all pumping water someone was needed to work them and so the job of “Marshman” was born. The Marshman’s main roles were: 1) operate and maintain the mill 2) look after the cattle grazing the marshes 3) keep all the drainage channels and dykes clear of mud and vegetation. In addition to this he might cut reeds in the winter and hay in the summer. It was a lot of hard work but did come with a couple of perks – housing, usually a tiny cottage in the middle of the marshes, sometimes a little row boat with oars and all the solitude you could want! It was badly paid so the Marshmen often supplemented their income and diets by trapping eels, catching fish and shooting wild fowl (ducks and geese). Oh and he may even have done a bit of smuggling… Below are three accounts of what life was like as a marshmen. The first account is from Paul the marshman, the second from marshman Billy and the third, Paul’s wife, tells us the truth!

Herringfleet Mill
A mill with canvas sails.

The Marshman’s Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Mill (1860):

  • Don’t imagine it’s a lot of sitting about in sunny weather watching the sails spin all day long! I’ve got three mills to look after.
  • Thankfully my mills have all been modernised. They have fan tails and the new patent sails that come with shutters – totally automatic it’s amazing! Poor Harry over at Herringfleet still has to climb up the sails to stretch the canvas across the wooden frames and tie it in place whenever he wants to start or stop the mill. He also has to wind a winch by hand to turn the old cap round so the sails face the wind. I just pull a chain to move the shutters so the sails turn or slow down and the fan tail turns the cap for me!
  • Our busiest time is in the winter when there’s lots of water to be drained off the marshes. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve had to stay up all night in the mills greasing all the moving parts every 4 hours. That’s a lot of ladders to climb – 7 storeys if you’re working the Berney Arms Mill! Then I row across the cold, black river to the other two mills and do the same there.
  • Not that there’s any rest in the summer. There’s hay to cut and dyke clearing to be done. I take my tools, scythe, crome, shore cutter and sharpening stone, out onto the marsh and start the unending, sweaty work of clearing mud and plants out of the drainage channels and dykes. This has to be done so the water can flow to the mill to be pumped into the river. I have 1000 acres of marsh under my care – that’s a lot of channels to keep clear….
A Smugglers sailing ship.

The Marshman’s Guide to Making More Money:

  • Paul is such a law abiding fellow. He’s all about the work, but then his employer treats him right – nice little house and decent pay for the extra work of cutting reed and hay. Whereas me, well I’ve found a way to make a bit of money on the side. My mate the wherryman got me into it and this is how it works – just don’t tell anyone it was me who told you…..
  • My wherryman friend carries smuggled goods on his wherry (boat) from the coast to Norwich. He pays me to keep an eye out for the police and excise men. All I have to do is stop my mill with the sails in the X position if I see the excise man or police on the roads, rivers or marshes.
  • As soon as the wherryman sees the sails stopped like an X he throws the smuggled goods into one of my drainage channels on the other side of the river bank and marks the spot with knotted reeds.
  • When the tax collector or police have gone I let the wherrymen know it’s all clear by stopping the mill with the sails in the + position.
  • I then go along later that day, fish the goods out of the drainage channel and store them in my mill – it’s the only building with a lock on it for miles around. I give it back to him when he comes by to pay me. Easy!
A Will O’ The Wisp?

A Wife’s Guide to living with a Marshman:

  • Ha, hard work he says! No-one talks about the hard work I do living here and raising a family.
  • Let’s start with the house. Free, but tiny – 11 people in three rooms! Us, the kids and his mother…. No running water – it’s down to the river for a wash and the rain for drinking water, no electricity, no heating, save the fire, and it’s always damp because we’re in the marsh. We’ve even been flooded a couple of times.
  • Location – miles from anywhere. To get to the village for the food I can’t grow myself, we have to row that tiny boat, or walk to the road and pick up a horse and cart. Neighbours live miles away so there’s no-one to talk to for days on end; just the kids and my mother in law.
  • I’m good at basic nursing – mending broken bones, tending to cuts, sprains and wounds and getting the kids through a range of illnesses and fevers. I live in constant fear of needing the doctor – we’d never get to him in time!
  • Husband comes and goes all hours of the day and night with no warning but expects food to be on the table ready for him. He then sits there telling me tales of all the ghosts and will-o’-the-wisps he’s seen on the marshes! Pah, I don’t believe a word of it.

The Final Years: As technology changed the wind driven pumps were replaced by steam pumps, then diesel pumps and finally electric pumps which still control the water levels throughout the Broads National Park today. These changes meant less time was needed to look after and operate the pumps and so the role of the Marshman also altered, and focused on keeping the drainage channels and dykes clear of mud and vegetation and looking after the cattle.

Invasive Coypu

In the 1960’s, a very strange addition was made to the role of the few remaining Marshmen – Coypu trapping! Coypus are large rodents, originally from South America. They were brought over to the UK to breed for the fur trade. Many escaped and established a large population in the Broads National Park damaging the local vegetation, wildlife and river banks. An intensive and successful campaign to eradicate these pests from the landscape was begun with the marshmen playing a vital role.

The number of working Marshmen declined rapidly from the 1940’s and the traditional Marshman’s way of life now no longer exists. However, lots of people still work in the marshes today for various organisations and companies, they just have different job titles, can live in towns or villages and are helped by lots of different machines.


The book below is a compilation of oral histories, by WISEArchive, from a range of people that have lived and worked in the Broads region. Click on the book for the interview with Jennie Crohill – the only feamle coypu researcher and trapper!

The book is available from Bittern Books.