Narborough Bone Mill
River Nar

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c.1890
c.1890

Narborough Bone Mill was built in the early 19th century about 1½ miles downstream from Narborough Corn Mill. The fact that it was not near a road did not matter as both its raw materials and its finished products were carried by horse drawn barge.

The mill converted bones from local slaughterhouses, Kings Lynn's whaling industry and Hamburg's cemeteries into agricultural fertilizer. The smell of the production process must have been distinctive and may well be part of the reason for the mill's chosen remote location.

The mill probably ceased production a few years after the Nar Valley Drainage Board purchased the navigation rights and subsequently built a sluice that prevented further river traffic around 1884.

The 16 foot waterwheel remained in place for many years and the site underwent lottery assisted restoration in 2015.


Mill from Ship Bridge c.1924
Mill from Ship Bridge c.1924

The following NIAS document provides a comprehensive history of Narborough Bone Mill.


Narborough Bone Mill by David Turner - TF 732125
(Taken from the journal of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1981)

In 1751 plans were made to make the river Nar navigable from King's Lynn to Westacre. The requisite Act was passed before Parliament the same year, but it was not until 1759 that the first horse-drawn barges struggled up the river with their cargoes of coal and grain, and then only as far as Narborough. Water trade increased steadily over the years and received a boost when the Bone Mill was built, about a mile and a half downstream from Narborough. The mill, which is thought to date from the early nineteenth century, was owned from about 1830 by the Marriott brothers, who also built the Narborough Maltings and held the navigation rights. At the time of writing there is not much left to see, but the splendid cast-iron waterwheel, which generated the power for a thriving business in agricultural fertiliser, has so far resisted all attempts to shift it.

Roughly crushed bones were used to renovate pastures in Britain in the late eighteenth century, but their action on the land was slow. By 1820 almost every major East Coast port had access to one or more crushing mills. White's Norfolk Directory for 1836 indicates that John Marsters and Company worked a bone mill at the Boal Wharf in King's Lynn, and with the Narborough Mill, produced the finely ground bone meal which proved to be more beneficial for East Anglian soils.

In the early days of the Narborough Bone Mill a steady supply of whalebone came up river by barge from the blubber processing factory at Lynn. The sacks of bone meal were shipped back to Lynn, Cambridge and further afield. No whaling ships left Lynn after 1821, so the mill had to rely partly on collections made by 'bone wagon' from local farms and slaughterhouses. Villagers would sometimes take down "a penn'orth of bones to be ground" and supplies also came from North Germany. Shiploads arriving at Lynn would sometimes include the exhumations of burial grounds, but it is unlikely that anyone questioned the ethics of this, for it was said at the time that "one ton of German bone-dust saves the importation of ten tons of German corn". Details of the reduction process used at the mill are not known, but it is likely that the bones were first boiled to make them brittle and to remove the fat (skimmed off, perhaps, for use as coach and cart grease), then either chopped up by axes or put through toothed cylinders which gradually reduced the bones to small pieces. Finally, the millstones ground them into powder.

After the Lynn and Dereham railway opened in 1846-7, the bone meal was transported up river to the Narborough Maltings, where the barges unloaded at the staithe. Most of the sacks of meal were then taken by horse-drawn wagons along the quarter mile of track to Narborough and Pentney station. From there it went to King's Lynn by train, but some was sold at the Maltings to local farmers, probably at the 'bone shed' marked on an old plan of the buildings there.

The Bone Mill was built in a very isolated position, but the site must have been carefully chosen to obtain maximum efficiency for the working of the low-breast wheel. A stanch gate had been in existence since the river was made navigable, but this was probably replaced when the mill was built. At the same time, sixty yards upstream, a pair of mitre gates was added in the interests of the mill, creating a kind of pound lock between the two stanches. The mill race was taken directly from this partly walled chamber. The addition of the mitre gates was necessary in order to prevent the whole 1,100 yard stretch of river up the next stanch (Narborough Lower Stanch) being emptied each time a barge passed through the Bone Mill stanches. If this had happened, the wheel would have been put out of action until the water level built up again.

The Nar navigation enterprise was abandoned in 1884 and the Bone Mill must have ceased production soon after. It is possible that barges continued to take bone meal from the mill up to the Maltings for a few years, as the mill was not entirely dependent on supplies coming from King's Lynn. It does seem, however, that the Maltings was taking over in the fertiliser business, for Kelly's Norfolk Directory for 1900 lists 'chemical manures' as one of a number of products coming from the yards, then owned by Vynne and Everett.

For several years the disused buildings of the Bone Mill remained, a forbidden playground to local children. The main building was largely intact in 1915, for a Narborough lady remembers climbing to the top that year for the view across Marham Fen. The buildings were demolished bit by bit over the next few years. The machinery went to scrap and most of the rubble was put down on farm tracks. Whenever work was slack at the Maltings a couple of men were sent down the river bank to pull down some more. Mr. Jack Bland (93), whose father-in-law worked at the mill, recalls how he cleaned and carted a load of the bricks to rebuild part of a wall round what is now the Narborough Pottery. He remembers, too, when several rotting barges were hauled out of the river in the 1940s. One of the barges had become so firmly embedded in the bank that trees grew out of it and it could not be removed. The barest remains of this barge, a few slivers of wood and the odd nail, can just be discerned at the fork where the stream from the old Narborough Corn Mill enters the main river course flowing from the Maltings.

Nature has reclaimed the area where the Bone Mill once stood, with head-high nettles in summer and a thick tangle of brambles. Amongst the rubble may be seen bits of pantiles and slate, some bent tie-bars and three half buried millstones (others ended up in pieces on garden rockeries). The water swirls against the remains of the wall of the main mill building and the buff brick stanch walls are slowly crumbling away. The foundations are traceable and an underground tunnel, possibly an overflow channel which ran under the mill, may be investigated. The site and the river bank up to the Maltings are privately owned, but there is a public footpath along the opposite bank. It is worth the walk from the village to see the sixteen foot diameter waterwheel, which has a reassuring indestructibility about it. The date and maker's name must be on the section now under hard-packed debris, the last revolution of the wheel having left this piece of information inaccessible.


Waterwheel 1985
Waterwheel 1985

c.1985 c.1985
The mill site c.1985
The cast iron wheel c.1985

24th May 2009
24th May 2009

A lottery grant was optained and this allowed for restoration work to be carried out in 2015 thus saving the mill site from total obscurity.


Wheelrace tunnel 2015
Wheelrace tunnel 2015

21st November 2015 21st November 2015
Restoration in progress - 21st November 2015

21st November 2015
21st November 2015

The waterwheel in the photograph below drove farm machinery at Hall Farm on the Narborough Hall Estate for several years before being removed from its watercourse. All the farm buildings were demolished in the 1980s and sadly, the wheel was buried somewhere.

The 1857 Estate Sale catalogue states: "The Machinery for Threshing, Grinding, and Dressing Corn, Cutting Cake, Hay, Straw,etc. is worked by Water Power at a moderate expense."


Waterwheel at Hall Farm c.1980
Waterwheel at Hall Farm c.1980

O.S. Map 2005
O.S. Map 2005
Image reproduced under licence from Ordnance Survey

O.S. Map 1884
O.S. Map 1884
Courtesy of NLS map images

c.1820: Mill built

c.1830: Mill taken over by Marriott brothers

1842: Advert in the Norfolk Chronicle named the mill as Marriott's Bone and Gypsum Mill

Census 1851: James Waters, bone boiler Pentney (employee). Born Weston Colville, Cambs

Census 1861: James Waters, bone boiler, Pentney (employee)

Census 1871: George Garrett, bone boiler + wife Catherine & 5 children, Crispe's Bldgs, Pentney (employee)

c.1884: Mill ceased production

c.1918: Building demolished over a period of time

c.1975: Robin & Beryl Munford bought the maltings estate including the mill site

2015: Mill site being restored with a £92,200 lottery grant

Saturday 3rd October 2015: Wheel turned by water power for first time in around 130 years

If you have any memories, anecdotes or photos please let us know and we may be able to use them to update the site. By all means telephone 01263 713658 or

Nat Grid Ref TF732125
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Copyright © Jonathan Neville 2003