A Brief History of Broads Drainage Mills

Rising Waters

One thousand years ago, the marshy landscape of the Broads was at its highest level. We know from the Domesday Book that sheep grazed on the nutrient-rich grasses providing the wool that drove Norwich’s wealth and prosperity. Over the ensuing centuries, the land began to sink while the sea level rose. In the mid to late 13th Century, John Oxnead, who was one of the brothers at St. Benet’s Abbey at Holm, began to record the increasing number of severe floods and tidal surges that destroyed life and property across the marshes. In 1287, the North Sea broke through the coast between Winterton and Waxham where the mouth of the River Thurne once discharged its waters. Records of similar flooding that year can be found in Friesland 160 miles to the east. Stories of people, horses and livestock crowding into small boats and into the churches built on higher ground can be found over the following decades. 

In 1601, the sea once again broke through the coast at Eccles. Salt water poured into the marshes killing every living plant and animal that depended on freshwater to live. Even worse flooding followed in 1608, affecting a region as widespread as Stalham on the River Ant, Coltishall on the River Bure, Norwich on the River Yare and St. Olaves on the River Waveney. Something had to change; the livelihoods of the local residents depended on the marshes for grazing and the rivers for fishing. 

A Solution for Drainage

An act of Parliament was passed in 1610 during the Reign of King James I to help deal with the aftermath of the “rage of the sea” across the Broads. It sought to improve the riverbanks and other defences of the Broads rivers. In 1625, the Sea Breach Commission began looking for a long term solution to mitigate the continued threat of the sea intruding into the marshes. Many ideas were proposed including raising the height of causeways, rebuilding the dunes along the shore and even adding in sluices under the bridges as a policy of managed retreat. One proposal from a Mr. Briggs, a Reader of Mathematics at Oxford, proposed pumping water out of the marshes into the Thurne by means of “wyndmills or horsemills.” 

Wind powered pumps were already in use in the Cambridgeshire fens by the end of the 16th Century and would soon be employed to keep water off the Marshes in Norfolk and Suffolk. By the end of the 18th century several windmills could be found dotted across the landscape, with 15 shown on William Faden’s map from 1798. 

Mechanical Drainage

Some of the earliest mills were rickety wooden structures with cloth sails or small huts with horses turning around a capstan, both would move a simple paddle wheel which could lift water over the recently embanked river walls and out to sea. Over the course of a few decades, wooden structures were replaced by more substantial brick towers with the earliest surviving mill being Oby which was originally constructed in 1753. 

These early mills had long tail-poles so that they could be manually turned into the wind to provide power. Their rudimentary sails had canvas spread across them to catch the breeze and therefore needed to be quite low to the ground to allow for men to be able to operate. 

Over the 19th Century, as technology improved, many of the mills were rebuilt, replacing wooden internal workings with cast iron, and in 1807 the invention of patent sails meant that they could be built larger and taller than ever before. Fan tails were later added to automatically turn the sails, and some older mills were raised, or hained, to accommodate these new developments (as seen at Thurne). In 1850 the turbine was invented which could more efficiently lift water out of the dykes and into the rivers, replacing the old scoop wheels. 

The effects of the industrial revolution in the North of England were felt in the Broads with the development of coal fired steam pumps. A few of these mills remain on the marshes, distinguished by their low buildings and tall, thin chimneys standing proud yet alone in the flat landscape. Even these were later replaced by diesel driven pumps. Yet, even with all of these leaps in technology, wind power remained into the 20th century until the windmill at Ash Tree level (built in 1910) stopped working when its sails blew off in a gale in 1953. 

Water, Mills and Marshes

Today there are still 63 mills of all sorts left in the landscape, a visible reminder of the human endeavour to drain the marshes over the last 400 years. The drainage mills of the Broads represent a unique survival. Collectively they are the largest concentration of wind powered pumps in the United Kingdom and as a group they are surpassed only by those of the Netherlands. Most of these survivors are 19th Century brick towers with boat-shaped caps (ubiquitous on the Broads mills), though you can still find an excellent example of a wooden smock mill at Herringfleet, as well as trestle towers, hollow-post mills, and steam pump houses. 

Of course there is still a constant need to move water off the marshes in the 21st Century, though now it is centrally controlled by computer, operating a series of sulices and electric pumps. On the horizon you can still see the same story playing out by the wind turbines off the shore at Yarmouth turning in the breeze, generating the electricity to power the electric pumps. 

The mills are an integral part of the vast Halvergate Marshes Conservation Area which includes 28 Listed Buildings and a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Conservation Area is included in Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, reflecting the declining condition of many of these unique and important mills and the risk to this special landscape.The Broads Landscape Partnership is restoring several of these old mills across Halvergate marshes with the aim to improve the condition of these mills through teaching and transferring heritage skills to a new generation of crafts people.

Preventing the decline in heritage skills and restoring these iconic structures will ensure this unique landscape survives for future generations.