Blue Flower

Narborough Bone Mill by David Turner   (Mill Location: 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.

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. 

Update to Bone mill notes April 2021

The Nar navigation eventually reached the granary near Westacre bridge. Four staunches were built between there and Narborough, but this stretch of the river proved very difficult for barge traffic and was abandoned in the early 19th Century.

The King's Lynn whaling trade ended some time before the bone mill was built, but it is thought that whalebone continued to be imported and the Marriotts were likely to take advantage of this.


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