The drainage mills are the most striking, and certainly the most characteristic feature of the Broads landscape. They are also a key feature of the Scheme area at Halvergate. The mills of the Broads represent a unique survival, for the mills have long since disappeared from other low-lying, marshy areas of England (the fenlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire) that were once drained by wind power. The drainage mills of the Broads collectively represent the largest concentration of windmills in the country and as a group are surpassed only by those of the Netherlands.
From the 1760s onwards many private marshland owners, or groups of owners, established drainage agreements to set up mills and they became widespread across the Halvergate marshes and the main rivers. These mills were primarily used during the winter months to drain excess water off the marshes which extended the length of the grazing season and improved the quality of the grassland. Drained marshland was considered healthier and land values and rentals increased accordingly.
In the Broads, there was no straightforward technological progression through power sources and at one time drainage was being carried out by wind, steam, oil and electric power. The relatively late working life of the Broads drainage mills – many were still at work in the 1940s and a few even continued into the 1950s – means a considerable number have survived to the present day preserving this landscape’s highly distinctive appearance
As a group, the mills demonstrate many stages in the development in windmill technology and survive in a variety of forms – most often brick towers but timber smock mills (e.g.Herringfleet), timber skeleton tower mills and hollow post mills can also be found.
What survives are a mixture of the automated mill with fantail and self-regulating ‘patent’ sails and a surprising number that last worked as the manual type, hauled into the wind by their large braced tailpoles and fitted with manually adjustable cloth covered ‘common’ sails. Some were even being rebuilt in this form in the early twentieth century.
The three main types of curb (live, dead and shot) are all found here along with some evidence for a rare type of frame for centring the cap. There are mills with remains of more archaic forms of timber gearing (e.g. High’s Mill, Halvergate Fleet), through to the late built mills with all iron shafts and gears (e.g. Lockgate and Stracey Arms Mills) and many variations in between.
Different means of lifting the water can also be found – scoopwheels or waterwheels usually placed beside the tower (but sometimes found inside e.g. Mutton’s Mill) and the later centrifugal impeller or ‘turbine’ pumps – such as at Stracey Arms and Hardley Mills. A few mills survive largely as built while others have been modernised, contain re-used material and the work of a succession of different millwrights, each of whom had their own distinct style and preferences.
The mills are an integral part of the vast Halvergate Marshes Conservation Area which includes 28 Listed Buildings and 1 Scheduled Monument. The Conservation Area is included in Historic England’s most recent Heritage at Risk Register (published October 2015), reflecting the declining condition of many of these unique and important mills and risk to this special landscape.