Needham Mill
River Waveney


Drainage Mills (Windpumps)
Steam Mills

Needham Notes

NEEDHAM NOTES or The memoirs of a miller's son

By Albert Bush

CHAPTER ONE - My childhood at the Mill

I was born in Wortwell at Chapel Cottage, April 10th 1897. It was a small holding with a barn which still stands beside the road, although my father was a Millwright and worked for E.J. Knight's of Harleston in the foundry.

My father left the foundry and took Needham Mill which was vacant. I was nine months old when brought here and have lived in Needham ever since. My only broken spell was during the 1914-1918 War, when I served fours years in the Norfolk Regiment, three of then on the Somme, and was one of the lucky ones to come through with just a lump of shrapnel behind the knee about four months before the war ended.

I am a great believer that our life is all planned. I am eighty five years of age and have seen many changes during my lifetime. Village life has completely changed as all the old families have died and most the inhabitants who have settled here come from towns and at present we have a very nice lot of people.

With the Mill was fourteen acres of marshes and one field which runs on the left of Needham Mill, now in the occupation of Mr. Coe of Instead Hill Farm.
It was all horse and carts in my young days and when it was slippery and the hill frozen, they used to come down the field, the mill carts were of a special design and during the winter the horses shoes were made so that studs could be screwed into them to stop the horses from slipping on the icy road.

At one time the Mill was a thriving business, working day and night. It used to employ four men, two of them fetching corn from the farms and returning the same when ground. They used to cover an area of eight miles and as the farmers had no means of grinding their own corn you can imagine the quantity of coombs, which had to be carried up to the granaries of some farms. Very hard work.

During the summer the river used to get very low, so the waterwheel which drove the Mill would not work. My father bought a portable engine which worked on the same principle as a threshing engine, only it had to be moved by horses. Then he bought a hammer mill which never ground the corn as fine as the stones. It was quite dangerous work; when the stones wanted sharpening the topstone, which weighed a ton, had to be raised by block and pullies and lowered on to rafters. It was skilled work sharpening them, and I doubt if there are any craftsmen today left who could do the work. There were also some good buildings on the edge of the back river which stood in Norfolk and the house in Suffolk, so when there was an election, my father had a vote in both counties.

There was a harness house with workshop on top (the only building left standing), then a big yard which used to hold twenty pigs, next, stables for four horses, then a cart-shed for four carts, then a shed all brick for a private trap and just past that was the flood gate which was raised when the river was in flood. There was a brick arch that allowed the water to rush into the back river and an eel net used to be fixed on a frame which fitted into the archway. The force of the water kept the net straight and I have seen many tons of eels caught in this way, and sent to London by train, I also remember my father used to rear a lot of pigs, some to twenty stone and some to some to ten stone which were called Londoners. I remember a man named Arthur Bryant of Harleston used to come and kill and dress them, then they were sent to London in hampers. Once, I remember, my father and mother went out for the day and as the men were away I was left in charge of the yards. I found my catapult which my father used to hide as we were not allowed to have them. He said we broke the Mill windows, so I went all round the marshes having a lovely time and during that time someone had been and taken a pig weighing 20 stone and left one weighing 8 stone. It was never found who did it. I also remember Mr Hessle Elsey a dealer used to turn dry cows on the marshes. He once turned a huge bull out which fell into the marsh dyke and was drowned. It was reported missing and the police scoured Norfolk to find it and it was some months after the skeleton was found in the ditches.

During the winter months flooding was very bad, the water rose so high that the Mill couldn't work and we had to live upstairs the water subsided. The worst flood was July 1912 and it reached the fifth stair in the house. It was decided that we should get out. The boat we had was lodged against a wooden bridge 200 yards from the Mill, so as father and I were the only ones able to swim, we managed to get into the Mill. From the first floor we opened the door where the carts used to be loaded up, and we slid into the water, swam to the boat which half submerged, got it floating and took it round to the house loaded up Mother, sister Ross and brother Fred into it and rowed them across to the my Uncle Fred's at Instead Hall Farm. We had to stay three weeks as the house was in a filthy state.

At the bottom of the garden is a wide ditch and springtime it used to be a carpet of watercress. An old man used to come with a hamper, get it full, then bunch it up and sell it around Harleston at a penny per bunch.

I also remember when the otter hounds used to hunt, what a lovely sight it was and they usually used to have refreshments on the lawn. I don't suppose there is such a thing as an otter left as pollution has killed them off as with many other species of animals. There used to be a tree on the bend of the river, a huge ash and every year the otters used to breed in the roots. It was a pretty sight to watch when the came out for a swim.

I remember how the men used to 'bab' for eels with a pail beside them. A bab is made of big worms, threaded with worsted and tied to a stick which was lifted up and down, then when the eel bit the worm its teeth got caught in the worsted and you could lift them out. You had to be very quick to get them in the pail or they would drop off the worsted back into the river.

I also remember an old man - Ted Flint - he weighed 18 stone and was very cross-eyed when my father employed him to clean the marsh dykes out. He used to stand knee deep in water all day cutting out with a spade, always had a short clay pipe in his mouth and very fit. Although he always had lace-up boots to wear, I never knew him to catch a cold.

The Mill is a very sound building, brick and blue tiles with marvellous beams, it is three stories high. Mr Brown who was associated at Pulham with the Airships, bought it from my father for £500. During the Second World War he sold all the inside for scrap so only the shell was left. Then he sold it to a Mr. Braybrook who left and went to Canada. It was next sold with the house to Mr & Mrs Moriati, who made the Mill in to a residence and sold it to Mrs Jenny Collyer, a widow from London.

During Mr Braybrooks's occupation he tried to get a bore for water but was unsuccessful, so they had to pay £300 to have a pipe connected from the top of Weybread road joining Instead Hall Manor to the Mill house. We had river water to drink; it used to be filtered and boiled and we never took any harm. Another thing, people say that how dampness causes rheumatics. Our back kitchen used to be so wet you couldn't put any rugs down, so sacks were used, when you took them up the water dripped out of them. We were six in the family and have never suffered any ill effects. During a flood the strip of land that runs to the float was it was called, once burst its banks to a width of 100 yards, so all the water was going into the old river, which flooded all the buildings. The pigs were washed out of their sty and had to be recovered by boat. It took hundreds of sand bags and loads of sand to block the gap before stopping it. Now the olds float used to be about ten yards wide with a sloping base to the old river. At the top of the float was a long board which was used by the miller to control the level of the river. Now it is taken over by the River Board who have away with the old float and built a more modern one which is controlled by instruments both in the mill and a special shed up at the end of the float. They are inspected every day by a man employed by the River Board which is on the rates of course.
Now you have heard people say that eels go to the Sargasso Sea to breed and I have argued many times it is not so with the eels in the Waveney, as when the old float was there when dry and you lifted a piece of moss, you would find small elvers by the hundred, and besides, you can catch eels all the year round. Recently I was reading a book on fresh water fish and it said that the fresh water eels do not leave the river as they would not survive in salt water.

When I was five years old, my father took a week-end to visit his brother at Ilford and on the Sunday morning I was to go for a walk with my brothers and sisters, but I broke away from them and came back to the arch in front of the Mill and laid down to see if there any fish under the arch. Next thing I fell into the river and lying on the bottom, when some of the fishermen who used to walk round every Sunday (not to see if there were any fish, but for a drink of cider which my fat her always gave them). Well they were looking over the bridge and saw me on the bottom and crombed me out and took me over to the stables and laid me on a heap of hay - for dead. They didn't go to tell my mother, but went to my Uncle Fred at Instead Mill who came running up. The stable doors were two halves and as he opened the top one he saw a bubble from my nose so my oldest brother Arthur had to go for Dr Robinson, riding an old mare bare back which gave hi m a sore behind. Then the policeman from Brockdish had to come, and in those days there were no bicycles, so he had to walk and even the doctors didn't know then, as much as I was taught in the Red Cross, to which I was a member for forty years. Anyway, I was given some mustard and water and wrapped in hot blankets and my tummy rubbed, which revived me.

I also remember my father breaking his thigh, and in those days the doctor just put splints on as a First Aider would do. Then after a while it didn't set properly and had to be broken and reset and he laid in bed for eighteen months with a pail of water tied on his foot. By the way, the men that found me was Jim Fellingham from Brockdish and James Leist from Needham and the policeman's name was P.C. Woodward.

My Father was the first man to have electric light. He bought a dynamo from Brocks Mill at Harleston and had it installed by Mann Egertons of Norwich. The only mistake he made was to have batteries fitted as when we used the light we had to disconnect the mill working by lifting a cogwheel that stopped the main cogwheel from driving all the machinery of the Mill.

For years the front of the Mill had no railings and was very dangerous, there was a public footpath through the Mill yard across a bridge and over the old river and a footpath across the meadow which brought you out to the main Diss road and one night an old character by the name of Barney Ebbage who used to live on the back bridal way past Mr Coe's Instead Hall Farm, he had been to the Needham Red Lion and had a little too much and took the corner by the Mill a bit wide and walked straight into the river. As luck would have it my father was near so he got the cromb that was used for pulling the eel out of the river and pulled him out. Also my father shot an Osprey which he thought was an eagle getting his young turkeys and as it was unusual took it down to Harleston Magpie exhibiting it, next thing he had a summons to appear at Stradbrook court which he did, and pleaded ignorance fined 50 pence or ten shillings in those days, and the Osprey is in Norwich Museum.


In the old days the roads were made of stone and gravel. The farmers used to pay 1d per bushel picked by women. In those times people were really hard up and their chief living was basins of bread and milk, sparrow and blackbird pies or a sheep's head which cost 6d. for making broth or when the farmers uses to kill a pig they would sell a pigs pluck for 6d. which made several good meals.

There was no electric light or washing machines, no gas or electric ovens, so life was very primitive. Also there were no cars and very few bikes. The people used to travel to markets in a horse and tumbrill. There was no piped water or flush toilets and for a bath we had to fill a galvanised bath full of water which was boiled in the copper. It was nice and warm in those days and you always took your bath in front of the fire in the kitchen, very primitive. I also remember they used to hold turkey and lamb sales at Diss. There were no lorries so they were driven along the roads but in those days every gateway to the fields had a gate. Now, today it's a thing of the past, the farmers cart out anywhere leaving heaps of mud on the road. In my boyhood days the farmers took pride in being tidy, but today most of them are selfish and very untidy. They have rooted out all the hedges and filled the ditches in, so the roads are like rivers after a rain, and though rooting all the hedges out when it snows the roads get filled up with snow so another farmer goes along with a tractor and digger to clear the road, more expense on the rates! I have written to the out M.P. Mr MacGregor on the subject and invited him to take a trip one weekend after there have been a very heavy rain to see for himself the state of the roads, especially the Tumbril Hill Lane and Skeetsmere Road where the roads are so narrow two vehicles cannot pass and at night its very inconvenient to have to back half a mile.

When I was young all the work was done by hand and the ploughing by horses, no tractors or machinery of any kind. No spray or artificial manures of any kind. Weeds were kept in check by hoeing, and corn cut by scythe then stacked and threshed by steam engines. Now it's all done by combines. In those days, everything was done properly as people had time to do it, now today you see farmers working ½ the night with tractors also all Sunday and they are no forwarder. Then, when they had horses, Sunday used to be a real day of rest and the men used to walk round each others work - like building the stacks which was skilled work, but those who were not so good used to have to shore the stacks up with thick pieces of wood to stop them falling over. Those were criticised by the professionals.

Draining the land in those days was very hard work but effective - all done by hand. The men used to dig trenches about nine inches side to about two feet deep. Then fill the trench with white thorn bushes and straw, then fill them in. There were no pipes in those days. Now it's all done by machinery which is much quicker and doesn't entail any hard work. The men in those days were real craftsmen at their work, but today, they have to be craftsmen of machinery. I remember an old man by the name of James Kept, (when my father hired forty acres of land,) building a faggott shed to put the implements in. The shed was built of white thorn faggots with border grass in between, and for the roof, flashing of grass and brambles mown from the borders of the fields and it was lovely and warm and also water tight and it lasted for some years. The craftsmen on the farm today wouldn't know how to make one. Another craft was getting an animal out of a ditch which used to happen very often. The old men of the village were always there to help and the word would soon spread that so and so had a horse or bullock in a ditch. They would soon be on the spot and the first thing they did was to cut the bank to a slope, then put the ropes around the animal with a special knot then scatter some mud on the slope to make it slippery, then they would all get on the ropes and pull - and hey presto! the animal was out with no ill effects. Then they used to rub the animal down with wisps of straw to dry it out. Now today, the modern method is to call the fire brigade out, which all comes out of the rates. Of course it's easier for the farmer. Another craft was cutting a stack of hay into trusses. I remember Mr Walter Hines a craftsman at it also his son Harry, they would cut plumps which weighed about a hundredweight with a special knife and the bonds which used to tie around the trusses were made of hay by a special tool called a crank. To make the bond you would hook a piece of hay on the crook walking backwards turning it till you had made the required length, They would have four long pieces of wood, two at each end, and fasten the bonds, then hay trusses across and fastened by hand. Today its all done by machinery and string. I know how the old people used to use hay bonds for stopping insects on fruit trees and very effective they were, today people spend money on grease bands which are no more effective.

In those days things were very primitive - no electric, no piped water no washing machines or spin dryers, no electric irons, no flush toilets or toilet paper. In place of the flush toilets there was either a pail or what was called a bumbee which only needed emptying once a year for which the men were paid one shilling and it had to be emptied in the early hours of the morning. For toilet papers they used to cut newspapers into squares, but today that wouldn't be wise as the print comes off!!


Since March 1982 when I first set down my memories, there have been many changes in the village of Needham. Houses have changed hands and new dwellings have been built. Several of the older residents have moved away to nearby Harleston or further a field to Lincolnshire and surrounding counties.
But Needham still thrives in its quiet way. The hub of the village is the Village Shop, where news of residents is given and received. The village Post Mistress performs a valuable task in keeping residents of out-lying cottages up-to-date with the latest happenings in the village.
The Village Hall Committee wrestle with the upkeep of the hall, where social events are held to help towards the cost of maintaining what was the Village School, as well as providing entertainment for the villagers, Bingo, Whist and Suppers are regular features of the Village Hall Calendar.
To this end I have asked that any profit left over from the sale of my book, should go towards the repair of the Village Hall roof, which has suffered greatly in the past few years and has now become an urgent priority.
Mrs Bush and I have celebrated our 68th wedding anniversary and at the grand age of 91 years I still take a lively, though not so active, interest in the life of Needham.

*Coomb = 4 bushels or 8 gallons.
* Float = Weir. A sloping piece of concrete across the river with a piece of board in it which could be raised or lowered by the miller to regulate the flow of water.

Albert Bush - 1982 with additional notes in 1985 when Albert was aged 91 years

People details
Details of the folk in the photo at the top of the Needham Mill page

Needham mill painting
Painting of the mill by S. Goddard in 1945

Arthur & Ellen Bush c.1930
Arthur & Ellen Bush c.1930
Arthur Henry Bush married Ellen Mary Davys and they had 7 children.... Arthur (who owned the Magpie in Harleston ), Edwin (who was killed at the Battle of the Somme), Hubert, Hilda, Albert (who wrote the notes above), Fred and Rosa (she was known as Ross).

At one point Arthur Bush broke his thigh but unfortunately it didn't set properly and had to be broken again and reset. In order to recuperate he had to lie in bed for 18 months with a pail of water tied on to his foot.

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 07836 675369 or

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© Jonathan Neville 2003