Toggle Menu


On this week’s activity page:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Marshman’s Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Wind Mill (1860)
  3. The Marshman’s Guide to Making More Money
  4. A Wife’s Guide to living with a Marshman
  5. The Marshmen’s Last Year
  6. Activities
  7. Other handy links


  1. Introduction

What better way to celebrate National Story Week than by telling the story of the Marshmen in the Broads National Park? It’s a story that spans nearly three hundred years 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

Our story begins with the introduction of the wind driven water pumps (mills) to the Broads region from the 1750’s onwards. They were built to improve control of the water levels on the marshes. This was previously 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 cutting, for sale, 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 a minute!

Drainage channels and Dykes, Halvergate

To discover how these water pumps worked, come see inside Hardley Mill and climb up onto the cap (roof) by clicking this link to our Virtual Reality tour of the Mill, one of only 5 mills that still function today. Hope you have a good head for heights – the drop from the top is big!

Hardley Mill

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 may even have done a bit of smuggling…

Marshman cutting reeds

Marshman catching eels

2. The Marshman’s Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Wind 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 have to pull a chain to move the shutters so the sails turn or slow down and the fan tail turns the cap for me!

Herringfleet Mill

Mill with canvas sails

  • 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.

Berney Arms Mill

  • No rest in summer either. There’s hay to cut and dyke clearing to be done. I take my tools, scythe, meg, 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 – there’s a lot of channels to keep clear..


3. 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!

Smugglers sailing ship

4. 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.


5. 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.

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. Listen or read stories from WISE Archives of the shopkeeper turned Coypu trapper and the lady Research Coypu Trapper and her dog!:

Mission Impossible – coypu catching chronicles and That gal and her dawg: tales of a research coypu trapper

A Coypu

The number of working Marshmen declined rapidly from the 1940’s and the traditional Marshman’s way of life 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.

WISE Archives, a Water, Mills and Marshes project, has over the last two years been collecting  stories from people, including marshmen, who have worked and lived on the marshes in the Broads National Park. Follow this link if you’d like to listen to or read about what their lives were like.


6. Activities:

Download the printable sheet for all activities here

l. Story Time – A Day in the Life of a Marshman

2. Picture this Life

3. Marshman Wanted

4. Spinning Pinwheels

Use the printable activity sheet above and these links to help you complete the activity

Turning A4 Paper into a Square

How to make a paper pinwheel

5. Build a Working Windmill

Download the printable ‘How to make a model Windmill’ PDF with instructions here or follow the link below..

How to make a Windmill model


7. Other handy links..

  • Want to find out more about the people who lived and worked on the marshes? Then visit the WISE Archives a Water, Mills and Marshes project. Here are two films one from 1933 and the other from 1964 bringing the life of the marshmen to you in good old black and white!

1964 Anglia Television Documentary

1933 Pathe production


  • Fancy climbing up inside a mill, seeing the sails turn and watching the water being pumped away? Visit one of the three working Broads mills listed below as soon as lockdown is over!

Thurne Windmill

Horsey Windpump

Hardley Windmill


  • There’s a wealth of detailed information out there about the Broads mills themselves but here’s a couple to get you started.

Water, Mills and Marshes – Drainage Mills

The Broads Society – Windpumps and Windmills