Weybourne Mill
Spring Beck


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From the NIAS Journal Vol. 3, No. 4, 1984

Weybourne Watermill by Barré Funnell - TG10964340

There cannot be many watermills in England, and certainly none in Norfolk, which are in any way like this unusual little mill on Beach Road at Weybourne. The attached mill house is now a very desirable five-bedroomed house but unless one was specifically looking for it, the mill would probably go unnoticed, with but the merest trickle of water in a ditch to give the game away.

The mill is unconverted and, whilst the structure is still sound and the roof very well maintained, most of the machinery and all of the floorboards are missing. Enough remains, however, to provide fascinating clues to its history. Clearly it once had a large, narrow overshot wheel, later replaced by a Thompson vortex turbine, which is still in place. I know of no other such turbine in East Anglia, or indeed anywhere else, and I would be very interested to hear of one. Up to the time of this report I have not been able to have a close look at this one, for it is in a narrow wheel house, and a good fifteen feet above a muddy, uneven floor, and on the day I was there measuring and drawing I was there alone. I'd rather do the climbing when there is someone else on hand to pick up the pieces if anything goes wrong!

The whole property is on the market, being handled by Savilles in Norwich. Some years ago planning permission was granted for conversion of the mill to residential use. That permission has now lapsed and the current owner, Mr. Trevor Tull, for whom this is a second home, prefers not to have his privacy spoiled by having neighbours so close. If, with a new owner, that permission were to be granted again, I hope that someone could be on hand when the alterations are being done to measure and record the parts that other surveyors could not reach.

The Watercourse
The mill was fed by Spring Beck, which rises in the woods near Weybourne railway station barely a mile away. It is a mere trickle of water and hardly enough, one would think, to turn a millwheel. Therefore it was necessary, when first a watermill was erected on the site, to dam the stream and create a substantial mill pond, the level of which is now some twenty-odd feet above the tail race. The pond is now very much silted up and overgrown with rushes, and obviously that process has been going on since the earth bank was built. It could be that the first dam was not so high and step by step it has been increased to counter the natural processes. With the small amount of water flowing through the beck, it is inconceivable that an undershot wheel could ever have been made to work on this site. Overshot wheels make the best use of small amounts of water because they rely on the deadweight of water contained in the buckets and virtually every drop contributes something to the power output. There must have been an overshot wheel here since the very beginning.

By rights the Spring Beck should flow down Beach Road, which clearly was the original watercourse, and indeed for a short way an upper overflow channel does just that. But above the mill pond the beck runs round the side of the valley. This can easily be verified by noting the place where the stream crosses the main coast road. It does so near the church, at a point some ten to fifteen feet above the lowest point on the road. Streams cannot do this unaided, of course, and indeed it follows an artificial course from some way behind the village and through a site marked "Priory, Rems. Of" and then on to the mill pond. Water no longer flows through the mill; the flume is blocked off with pre-formed concrete slabs. The spillway is similarly reinforced and it conducts the flow round the boundary of the property to join the tailrace below and through a culvert under the road to meet the water coming down the road from the upper overflow channel, thence out into the marshes behind the shingle bank.

The Site
Blomefield's History of Norfolk (1775) states that the village of Weybourne (spelt Waborne) was given to Hugh, Earl of Chester, by his uncle, William I. Two mills were mentioned in the inventory but it does not say what sort. The earliest record of windmills in England is given as 1190 and so these at Weybourne were probably not wind-powered; but hand-querns and animal-powered mills were in use then, so we cannot assume that those mentioned at the time of the Domesday Book were in fact watermills. From the beginning of the thirteenth century onwards there are documents and accounts that show how manorial lords and landowners managed to monopolise the mechanical milling business by outlawing all the competition, particularly hand-querns ('twas ever thus). At the same time, we learn, the priory was founded at Weybourne. Priories and such used streams as water supplies, mod cons, etc., and ponds were a source of fresh water fish. They also grew grain, and a mill would have been very useful to them. It is very tempting to conclude that the present configuration of stream, pond and mill site is due largely to the inmates of the priory.

Just when the present mill was built is, as yet, not known. It appears on the earliest of OS maps (1838), as does a post-mill on the site close by. The watermill is built of Norfolk red brick and the attached granary building and the prominent parts of the dwelling are brick and flint, which suggests to me that they were not built at the same time and, if so, then obviously the mill came first.

The watermill and the post-mill seem to have been a pair, owned and worked in conjunction rather than in competition. Mills were often out of action for one reason or another - regular maintenance, breakdowns, lack of water in the pond and lack of wind in the sails all kept the wheels from turning. It must have been very handy to have a second mill to resort to when one was out of action.

The Mill
There appear to be three distinct phases of construction evident in the mill. The Thompson turbine, which is still in place, represents the third phase. It would indeed be an interesting and informative exercise to be able to run water through it again and measure how much power it was able to supply. Perhaps that would not be possible at the present site, but this is a good reason to try and secure its survival, even if the building gets converted for domestic use.

Inside the wheelhouse are two series of scratches produced either by the wheel itself or by things getting stuck in it. The two sets are not quite concentric (see diagram), indicating that the wheel was at one time replaced or re-hung. That fact, together with the initials and date marked in the concrete of the millhouse floor, suggests that in 1855 W J J Bolding undertook to overhaul the mill and probably that was the time when the wheel was re-hung also. This gives us a date for the beginning of the second phase. The radii of the sets of scratches are about 10'6" and 7'6", but which set came first is not apparent. At first I wondered if a smaller wheel was replaced by a bigger one, but I can see no evidence in the brickwork of the wheelhouse to suggest that it has been made higher at any time. The only evidence of the axle bearings is newer brickwork in the general area where they used to be. The tailrace culvert was extended at one stage to widen the driveway above it, and although the profiles are somewhat different, the levels appear to have been maintained. Bearing in mind that the scratches in the brickwork do not necessarily indicate the maximum radius of the wheel, I rather take the view that the wheel had to be rebuilt and re-hung in 1855, when perhaps the brickwork gave way and sent the whole thing out of true. Later something happened again to cause the mill to grind to a halt. The cross-tailed gudgeons lying about indicate that the wheel was slung on a wooden mainshaft; perhaps that eventually gave way and gave us the second set of scratches to ponder over. Those cross-tailed gudgeons are interesting. The cross-tail part is set into the end of the mainshaft, and the cylindrical bit fits into journals built into the walls of the wheel pit. It is a pity that the exact position of those journals is not now apparent.

The normal layout for a watermill is this:-
(i) The waterwheel drives the pitwheel - a gearwheel fitted on the same shaft as the waterwheel but in a separate compartment to keep it dry. The pitwheel has teeth on the face of the rim (ie a crown wheel);
(ii) The pitwheel drives the wallower, which converts the axis of rotation to the vertical. The wallower is often on a long upright shaft and can drive a number of gears;
(iii) The upright shaft carries the great spur wheel, which has teeth on its periphery and drives the stone nuts (pinions with a slight bevel);
(iv) The stone nuts drive the upper (runner) millstone either from above or from below, and that will determine the position of the great spur wheel on the upright shaft;
(v) Often at the top of the vertical shaft is a secondary crown wheel with a bevel gear driving a layshaft for other machines, like the sack hoist and grain dressers.

In the Weybourne mill we have a puzzle. That conventional layout will not fit in. Having established the approximate axis of the waterwheel, and thus that of the pitwheel, we can imagine a wallower engaging with that and the upright shaft coming up on the same alignment, but it would be positioned inside the wheelhouse and there would be no room for the great spur wheel. Taking it the other way round and estimating the positions of the two pairs of stones from the location of the hopper outlets on the bin floor and then dropping an imaginary vertical roughly halfway between the two, it comes down nowhere near the imaginary pitwheel. I have heard of another arrangement in another mill where the waterwheel carried somehow an annular gear ring, and from which a horizontal take off was arranged. Somehow, in our mill, the drive had to be offset to bring the working gear within the structure of the building. Maybe that thing in the garage which looks for all the world like a pitwheel is, in fact, a red herring. Could it have come from the post-mill? We do know, however, from the remaining stone nut and its shaft that the stones were driven from above (the way the bevel faces tells us that) and so the great spur wheel would have been positioned at ceiling height on the stone floor.

The timbers of the mill have been removed or repositioned when the mill was apparently rebuilt to take the turbine. Some of the beams remaining in the building are old, handworked oak, the traditional building material of earlier times. They have been re-used and confused. Some newer beams are machine-sawn pine. The floorboards from the upper storeys have gone and so has the rest of the machinery. The millstones now decorate the lawn; they are French burr stone.

The Millers
Trade directories and other such documents are not always explicit about whether the millers they refer to are the owners, tenants or workers, and when there is more than one mill in a locality they do not indicate which miller belongs to which mill. The earliest trade directory I saw was Whites of 1836, but the assumption I make is that the mill was built, on the site of previous mills belonging to the priory, by the owner of the manor, and further research in the County Records Office should bring to light a chain of succession there.

The first titbit of information about the individuals involved comes from a will made by John Perry, who mentions the post-mill but not, it seems, the watermill. That will was dated 1723. The next document I refer to is a recently compiled family tree of the Nurse family of Norfolk. Among their number were farmers, victuallers and millers. The directories show the milling Nurses to be concentrated at Kelling, just a couple of miles away. (The post-mill was at TG090424). Intriguingly an Edmund Nurse was born in 1769 and he dies in 1845. Another Edmund was born in 1800. The first started his milling at Fulmodeston, but later returned to Kelling, where the younger Edmund also worked, although I do not know that they were there together. There is no tangible connection with the Weybourne mills except that the letters "E N" in wrought iron appear on the gable end of the mill house.

The first directory date I have is 1836, when John Dawson is given as the miller, but it would appear that the mill was owned by Thomas Armes. In 1841, on March 20, this advertisement appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle:-

To millers. To be sold by private contract.
An eligible FREEHOLD ESTATE situate in Weybourne in the county of Norfolk consisting of a water mill driving two pairs of French stones and a windmill driving two pairs of stones with flour mills and all going gears in each complete; also a commodious dwellinghouse, barn, stables and other convenient outbuildings and 4 acres more or less of excellent arable land.
Apply to Messrs. BALLACHEY & SON, Solrs. Holt.

There is no indication whether or not the property was actually sold then, but living at the manor at the time was one William Johnson Jennis Bolding, landowner, farmer, brewer and maltsters. He had a bob or two. John Dawson remained running the mill until 1869, but in 1855 "W J J B" made his mark in the wet concrete of the mill floor, and he obviously owned it by then. Earlier, in 1850, the tower mill up the road had been built, and it was being worked by, and was probably owned by, Daniel Brett. Those were good times for English farmers and millers with, on the whole, good crops and protected prices. I do not know how John Dawson's business was affected by the competition from Mr. Brett, but in 1869, after at least thirty-three years at Weybourne, J. Dawson Esq. was declared bankrupt and on September 18 the contents of the mill were sold at auction.

After that the miller shown in Kelly's Directory is W J J Bolding, but I do not believe he was the kind of gentleman actually to do the humping and heaving. The 1870s were not good times for farmers and millers. There had been bad harvests and cheap grain was allowed in from the colonies, and even the upstart Dan Brett moved from the tower mill, which was worked in 1879 by William Thomas Bird. What was happening to the old post-mill all this time I have yet to discover. I do have an undated photograph of that mill and it looks to be in reasonably good condition but probably not actually in working order. I imagine that there was little activity at the watermill during this period and it fell gradually into disuse and disrepair.

By 1869 Thomas Youngman had moved to the tower mill and there he remained until he retired in 1912 to become the Clerk of the Parish Council. That mill was never worked again.

In Kelly's of 1896 W J J is still given as the miller (water) at Weybourne, and there is no other reference to suggest that anyone else was involved with milling and, as I suggested earlier, seems to infer that the mill was inoperative. But by 1900 there is a new man at the wheel, or should that be "turbine"? His name was Samuel Nott. It would seem that he had bought what must have been a pretty well run down old mill, at a good price I dare say, and he probably decided to fit one of these new turbine things. This is about the period when such things were done, and it seems unlikely that it was done earlier whilst not working, and Sam Nott worked the mill for about ten years, so he is my favourite for pulling out the old waterwheel and fitting the turbine. The year 1900 is also the date when the railway came to Weybourne, and so, wherever the turbine was manufactured, there is one way that it could have been brought to Weybourne. I must find out more about that turbine.

Some time between 1908 and 1912 Samuel Nott sold out to Ellis Beales, and between 1922 and 1925 Ellis Beales sold to Messrs Rawson and Cringle. That sounded like an important firm, but I have been unable to find any other reference to them and so I guess they were just a couple of local lads trying to make good. Anyway, they lasted until 1929, and after that the mill is listed as a private house, owned by Richard Beckett. Weybourne had become quite a fashionable resort and Mr. Beckett probably had a good investment there. It was probably he who blocked off the flume and reinforced the spillway, and subsequent owners have maintained and improved the property. I do not know when the post-mill was demolished, but when the tower mill was converted the main post from the post-mill was incorporated into it.

Summing Up
It seems to me that a mill which cannot rely upon a continuous flow of water is at a fundamental disadvantage when competition with other mills is a factor to be considered. Thus the mill at Weybourne, which worked intermittently while there was enough head of water stored in the mill pond, was fine for a self-sufficient community like a priory, or for a farmer and brewer who was dealing with his own products, but set such a mill in commercial competition with mills sited on constantly flowing rivers and the latter have a clear advantage, no matter what kind of machinery the wheel actually drives.

This report shows clearly that there is much more work to be done in finding documentary evidence of the mill's existence and ownership back before the first directories were published. Manorial records may show when the present mill was built and what was there before. The technical puzzles will probably not be solved by documents. This arrangement of an overshot wheel working in a wheelhouse not built on to the side of the main building, but sticking out at right angles to it is most unusual. The best clues to how the running gears were arranged would be provided by other examples where the machinery is still in place. Can anyone help?
Barré Funnell - 1984




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Nat Grid Ref TG10964340
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© Jonathan Neville 2004

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