Richard has had a passion for mills and machines since his youth. He lives near the working mill he built himself at South Walsham, Norfolk, while self-employed as a millwright.
I was born in Thorpe in 1958 and attended Hillside Avenue primary school followed by Thorpe secondary school. I can’t say that I particularly liked school, I preferred the more practical subjects. One teacher who did have a particular influence was my woodwork/metalwork teacher, Mr Batley. He was always very encouraging and could see that I had some promise. He even arranged a class visit to Taylor’s timber yard in Hoveton. This was a hardwood yard that was cutting trees in the round into planks and sections.
I gained various ‘O’ Levels and probably could have gone on to ‘A’ levels but I was keener on earning some money so I could pursue my interests. I left school at sixteen with no real idea of what I wanted to do. I should probably have gone to agricultural college but I went for an interview at Norfolk County Council and they offered me a job in the Land Agent’s department.
My paternal grandfather was a talented woodworker and had a small workshop in his garden where he made various things including wooden toys, furniture and beach huts. From a young age I was always keen to get into his workshop and start using tools.
My father was brought up in Caister on Sea and from his early teenage years his main passion was ornithology. He spent a lot of his time around the Breydon Water area which he loved and he set up one of the Breydon houseboats on the Breydon North Wall at Duffell’s Rond. Unfortunately, it was swept away in the ‘53 floods. He wrote regular columns for the Yarmouth Mercury and the Eastern Daily Press and was a long-time editor of the Norfolk Bird report. He sadly died in 1999 and has a memorial on the RSPB reserve beside Berney Arms Mill.
I would often go out on the marshes with him but rather than looking at the birds which always seemed like a dot on the landscape to me, I was far more interested in looking at the old drainage mills. Most of them were in a really poor state and this started my interest in mills. When I was seven or eight my father bought me a book called The English Windmill by Rex Wailes, regarded as the standard work on English windmills. I was particularly keen on the chapters on Ashtree Farm and the drainage mills and Saxtead Green post mill.
I have a brother who is eighteen months older than me and he also has an interest in mills and was a part owner of a little corn mill at Thelnetham on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
My brother and I both used to make model boats and I used to sail Marblehead class racing yachts on Eaton Park pond, and sometimes we went to Dovercourt, Essex for races as well. I also had a Cadet dinghy Imp which I sailed on Wroxham Broad. I belonged to the club there for several years and it was quite good fun.
My early interest in post mills
In the 1960s there was a picture of a post mill in the Eastern Daily Press that I was particularly drawn to. The mill was at Syleham just over the border in north Suffolk, and it last worked on one pair of sails. Dad got me a copy of this picture and I had it on my bedroom pinboard next to one of Tottenhill post mill, the last Norfolk post mill to work by wind. I plagued dad to go and see Syleham mill. We went and had a look and by this time it had stopped working and was getting very decrepit.
It ended badly for this mill, the owner couldn’t or wouldn’t undertake any repairs on it and in the 1987 hurricane it got smashed to bits and now it’s just a round house with a temporary roof on I’m afraid. But this mill was what really fired my interest in post mills in particular, this poor old thing.
One of my other main interests has always been steam engines, something my son is also interested in.
My brother and I had Mamod steam engines which we used to run around the garden. We went to steam rallies from the late 1960s. I remember going to Thursford and Bawburgh. I was keen to get involved with traction engines so dad had a word with one of the owners, George King, who had a Garrett steam tractor. He was keen on helping youngsters and I tagged along, I wouldn’t say that I helped him because in the early years I was probably a bit of a nuisance. Each year at the rallies I used to help with the engine and as I got older, I would drive it on the road with him. We went miles to Strumpshaw rally, from Hingham to Strumpshaw through Norwich and from Hingham to Weeting near Brandon each year. He became a real mentor.
Having got the job with Norfolk County Council, I became a cartographical draughtsman and I did day release at City College studying ONC in Building Construction, which has proved pretty useful. I had the aim then of becoming a Building Surveyor but realised after a time that it wasn’t quite for me. I did try to get a traditional craft skill apprenticeship in wheelwrighting or blacksmithing but in the 1970s no one was really taking youngsters on in those trades.
I had got to meet various interesting people through the Starting Handle Club (for vintage tractor and engine enthusiasts). The club was run by Joe Parker and his wife Ruby and they were particularly encouraging to young people. I met someone there who worked for a milking machine company who said they were looking for another fitter. As I was then keen to leave the Land Agent’s department, I took up the offer of a role fitting Alfa Laval milking machines, a job which I did until I was twenty-five. Towards the end of that work I became a self-employed dairy engineer which I combined with picking up small repair jobs on windmills.
Working on mills and acquiring my first mill – Palmer’s Mill
When I was seventeen, I had acquired the remains of a hollow post mill which stood in a reed bed at Acle, the site is now under the A47. It is a relatively small mill, maybe fifteen foot high and drained two or three acres of meadow which had been used by the baker, Mr Palmer, to graze his horses on.
I was given the mill on the understanding that I took it away. The abandoned meadow had become a reed bed so it wasn’t suitable to repair it there. I managed to find a site behind the boatyard at Upton Dyke.
Two good friends, Paul Reynolds and David High, helped me dismantle it and transport it to the Upton boatyard and it took me four or five years to complete the work. This involved repairs to the substructure, pumping gear and mill body and new winding tails, new windshaft and sails.
As well as providing a site, Tim Whelpton, the owner of the boatyard, was always very helpful in providing assistance and also some of the timber for the sails.
My second mill – Howard’s drainage mill on Halvergate Fleet
While the work on Palmer’s mill was still underway, when I was nineteen or twenty I acquired Howard’s drainage mill on Halvergate Fleet from the Fairhaven Estate. It is a traditional Broads tower mill with a boat shaped cap and powered a scoopwheel. It had worked up until about 1947 and hadn’t had any work done on it since. It was gradually dropping to pieces so the estate were quite pleased to be rid of it.
I repaired it gradually, over a period of twenty years, putting in new doors, new floors, windows and lintels. I took the cap off and rebuilt it and put in all new winding gear.
Training, no apprenticeships available, learning from local millwrights
Gradually the dairy work declined and interest in mills was growing so I was able to pick up an increasing amount of millwrighting work. The first professional job that I carried out on a windmill was on Herringfleet smock mill for Suffolk County Council. I initially built a new hoodway and did various repairs to the scoop wheel and it went on from there.
In the early years, I had to supplement mill work with other joinery, roofing work and even producing rocking horses.
As there were no apprenticeships for me to do, I was largely self-taught. I got to know some of the millwrights operating then quite well, John Lawn from Caston mill who was for some time in partnership with Phillip Lennard from Essex. I spent time with them and with Vincent Pargeter during the 1980s particularly. Quite a lot rubbed off from them.
I should also mention Bob Morse from Repps, who came from an engineering family who I first met when I was age 10 or 11. Bob was a clever man who was ahead of his time in some ways. He bought Thurne mill from the Internal Drainage Board with the aim of restoring it in about 1949, a time when mills were still being demolished rather than repaired.
Wind power was one of his interests, another being engines and all things mechanical. He rescued three of the Broads steam pumps and set up a small private museum in his grounds. He was a very influential man to me.
My own business as a millwright
In 1981 I bought the smithy and cottage at Pilson Green, South Walsham which gave me a base to run my business from. This was really a turning point. I was in the Broads and had a base so I could really get going.
I use traditional methods but as I am making a living you have to be realistic so I do use power tools to make things somewhat easier.
I work on the mills all year round and try to do the vast majority of work back at base as it’s easier and more efficient to work that way.
I was at Pilson Green for nearly twenty years and to start with, the smithy was my only workshop. After about ten years I built another workshop on the site, a woodwork workshop. I have never employed anybody but I have had various people who were self-employed to help me along the way.
I make all the timber work myself and the vast majority of iron work, including the pattern work. The only thing that I have had help with is if I have a very large pattern like a wind shaft, then I will get a pattern maker to do those.
Materials used – sourcing timber
I used to buy oak locally. There were numerous timber yards involved in producing mining timbers. With the decline or disappearance of the mining industry, that’s no longer the case. There are a couple of yards in Norfolk and one at the top of Lincolnshire that will supply oak still, but it’s certainly not easy.
I’ve never used imported oak, but I have used imported elm. I use pitch pine too but that is also getting difficult to source. The proper Baltic pine that was brought in during the nineteenth century is no longer available. Honduras pitch pine was imported in some quantity in the 1970s and 1980s but it wasn’t as durable and that no longer seems available.
I have used reclaimed oak on the odd occasion but not very often because more often than not it has iron work in it. Iron work and oak is a bit of a disaster because it seizes in the timber, so I have tended to go for new.
For the first ten years, I used to travel throughout East Anglia. I carried out the maintenance work on several Suffolk mills for Suffolk County Council until perhaps ten years ago. I also made new sails for Essex mills such as Finchingfield and Mountnessing post mills. In more recent years I haven’t travelled as far as I find enough to keep me occupied within Norfolk.
Funding work on windmills
How long do I spend on a mill? Well, that’s how long is a piece of string. It might be a week or two and other projects will run on for years. Working on mills can be very labour intensive, and the materials can be expensive. Windmills were always expensive so most of the work these days is reliant on grant aid of some form or another.
Big projects are quite often funded by the Lottery. I am currently working on a Lottery funded project, the repair of Stracey Arms mill. If the listing of the building is high enough Historic England will sometimes part fund a project. In the past Norfolk Windmills Trust have funded numerous mill projects in the County.
Occasionally, I will be asked to undertake work for a private owner, such as when I rebuilt the cap on High’s Mill Potter Heigham a couple of years ago. But by and large it’s been through the Windmills Trust or Historic England.
There is always plenty of work to do, in inclement weather I tend to retreat to the workshop. I have to run more than one job at a time so that if there’s a hold up on one job I can drop on to another. For most of my working life, I have had a waiting list of between two and three years and that is how it is at the moment I suppose with the Stracey Arms job because it’s so large.
I have worked on many mills
The work has gone from small repairs to full restorations and I have probably worked on a couple of dozen mills in the Broads. The more important ones have been the St Benet’s level mill near Thurne where I rebuilt the cap and put a new curb on it. I salvaged the remains of Clayrack mill from some marshes at Ranworth, where it hadn’t worked for best part of a hundred years. It is a hollow post mill and was rebuilt at How Hill as a working mill.
I rebuilt the cap and curb at Hickling Green flour mill, a very tall mill over 70 feet high. One of the first caps I produced in the early 1980s was for Runham drainage mill, we also put in new floors. The mill is owned by a farming family, the Watts. We have had several successful open days there.
The repair of Ashtree Farm drainage mill, owned by the Banham family, was a Lottery funded project. It is in a place called Nowhere near Great Yarmouth and was the last drainage mill to operate in Norfolk, it finished in the great gale of 1953. I brought it back to working order, so that was a total overhaul.
St Olave’s mill is a skeleton mill and I have actually rebuilt and repaired that one twice. It had a major tail wind and the cap was tipped off the first time. So that’s back in good order. Of course, there was also my own mill, Howard’s mill on Halvergate Fleet.
Different styles of mills
I have always been particularly interested in different millwright’s styles. The more local mills I have worked on, the more I have got to know the different firm’s construction methods and engineering preferences. No two mills are identical. Each firm had their own way of doing things. It is possible to identify which elements are those of England of Ludham, Rust of Stalham, Smithdales or one of the Great Yarmouth millwrights like Richard Barnes.
Building my own mill
I had a bit of an obsession with post mills ever since seeing Syleham mill. Norfolk post mills had all but disappeared. We’ve got one at Garboldisham on the Norfolk Suffolk border that’s in a relatively complete state and a more recent reconstruction at Thrigby, but other than that we’ve mainly just got bits of roundhouses.
Post mills in east Norfolk had a particular style of their own. I decided I would like to build a new post mill incorporating local features and using some original components of collapsed mills.
In the late 1980s I developed the idea of constructing this new mill site, with a post mill, buildings and a dwelling. I was able to acquire some land, largely from Norfolk County Council.
I started collecting some timber and following the 1987 hurricane I collected numerous oak trees that have been the basis of some of the framing in the post mill. The project has been self-funded because the mill fell between two stools grants wise. It is not a historic structure and I am not a charity. I suppose this is why it has taken so long because of the fact that I’ve had to self-fund and had to fit it in between other work as well.
The mill is 44 feet to the ridge, probably average for a post mill in this area. It is based on the designs of post mills built in the county around 1830 to 1840.
The mill still has about another three or four years of work needed before it’s up and running. The footings were dug out in 1995 and the piers and round house went up in 1996 and I’ve been working on it ever since.
I didn’t carry out the brickwork myself, a bricklayer Ian Wright did that. But by and large I work on my own and then have other people come in to help when necessary. I did have an Iron Fairy crane which was invaluable.
I assembled the buck of the mill at ground level minus its roof and then it was craned onto the post and we dropped in the mill stones and hoisted the wind shaft on. Then I built the roof up on top over the next couple of months.
Some people from the village helped with the assembly, we have a film of the four of us who rode up in the buck when it was being lowered onto the post.
There is quite a lot of interest in the mill within the village, it’s rather been adopted as the village mill which is pleasing, and it will stand out even more once the sails are on.
Plans for a museum
Over the years I have collected various steam engines, we’ve got two of the Easton grasshopper steam pumping engines from the Broads, one from Haddiscoe and one from Somerton. These were originally saved by Bob Morse in the 1970s. We also have a couple of steam rollers (one of which is undergoing major repairs) and I have rebuilt a Garrett steam engine living van. We also managed to acquire the engine from the pleasure steamer Queen of the Broads along with some artefacts from the vessel which was sadly scrapped in 1976. It’s a locally produced engine, built in Southtown, Great Yarmouth.
I still have several vintage tractors and more recently I have become interested in traditional farm wagons and have rescued a few of those – sometimes from the bonfire.
The idea is to develop a museum here alongside the mill. We have had open days here in July for the last three years which have gone pretty well. Last year we had over two hundred people in three hours.
The future for our local mills
I think that we will retain the majority of the mills, but we may fall down in keeping the authenticity of the mills. It is now difficult to obtain the materials needed to maintain the mills and the skills about when the mills were constructed are now very scarce.
There are very few millwrights around today, perhaps ten or twelve in the country. I know that the Broads Authority are working with City College on a training scheme that’s running at the moment, whether this will produce more millwrights I am not entirely sure. Perhaps some of the students will take a real liking to it, you do have to be an adaptable person because it’s not just timber work and it’s not just engineering, it’s a combination of all kinds of skills.
Mills have been a passion of mine since I was seven or eight and I think that for most people who work on mills in this country now it’s a passion, it’s not largely something that you go into just as a job.
Richard Seago (b. 1958) talking to WISEArchive on 1st April 2019 at South Walsham.
© 2019 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved