Working Lives

The Millwright’s Story (1940s-2000)

Location: Norfolk

Peter began work at F. Flowerdew and Son in Norwich aged 16 in 1944 and trained as an agricultural engineer before becoming a millwright. He worked all over Norfolk and many parts of East Anglia.

First Jobs

My family had got connections with farming and I’d spent all my holidays working on the farm.  In fact we used to break up at school and the very next day I’d be on the farm and I would stay there, returning home to go back to school the next day. And I always thought I’d like to be an agricultural engineer, and when the time came that I left school I had an interview with a firm – F Flowerdew and Son of 34 Albany Road – and they agreed to take me on. They were agricultural and general engineers at that time. I was 16 and this was just after Norwich had been blitzed during the War. They explained to me that they could not take me on as a signed apprentice because their workshops had been in Temple Road, just round the corner from Albany Road, and they had received a direct hit from a bomb and had lost nearly all the machine shop equipment. And they had got some premises on Gowings’ Farm, funnily enough (although no relation), on Hellesdon Hall Road.  We had a blacksmith’s shop and the shoeing place and the carpenter’s shop, and they had set up there. But they explained that if anything happened they would not be able to set up again.

I was paid 5s. a week for the first year as an apprentice, going up to 10s. the next year – going up 5s. each year until you had done five years’ apprenticeship. Then there was two years as an Improver, and after that – I’ve never forgotten it – my money for a 48-hour week was £5.12.8d. a week. When you finish all your training and come on to your first week’s full money, that is something you don’t forget.

I was living with my parents then and, oh yes, it was accepted that you helped towards the running of the home. That was considered from Day One with your first week’s pay packet. Because, I mean, things were so different, 5s., you could buy quite a lot of things with that.

My first day’s work was sort of a bit overpowering, at a place which is no longer there: Stammer’s Flour Mills at East Dereham. Now obviously we went in the car with Mr Flowerdew and in the mill they had one of the two big twin cylinder – it was a Crossley – gas-producing engine, or gas engines, and they had their own gas-producing plant in the mill for the engines. When the engine was started up, they would put one cylinder onto the town’s gas and the other cylinder to draw the fire up on the gas-producing plant, and when the gas got going they would switch over to their own gas. It was one man’s job to keep the fires going and supplying the gas for the engine. That was the only gas-producing plant we knew of in Norfolk. And it was the clutch – like a car clutch – from the engine to drive the machinery, the clutch was slipping and we had to adjust the clutch so that it could drive the mill. And I always remember that was my first day’s work.

And from there we went to Aylsham Flour Mill. By the way, Stammers was a flour mill which closed later because they were too big for a small mill and too small for a big mill, and the Flour Milling Association would not allow them to make the mill any bigger because they would be producing more flour than what was needed in the country. And when that happened and the mill said ‘right then we’ll finish’, all the machinery had to be destroyed. It’s not allowed to be sold to another mill so they can increase their production. And the Flour Milling Association would pay so much.  You couldn’t sell off your machinery. That all had to go for scrap. In fact it even happened a few years ago with Duffield’s Mill at Saxlingham. They decided to cease flour production and go completely onto animal feeds and all their machinery had to be scrapped just the same. I think they’re compensated for it, but just to make sure that somebody else don’t start flooding the market with flour. If the demand in England is for so many tons of flour a week they don’t want suddenly to have too much of it. They don’t want a flour mountain.

The second day’s work we went to Barclay and Pallett’s Mill at Aylsham to overhaul the Ruston Hornsby 120 horsepower engine there, and that was nearly a week’s work for two or three people to completely dismantle the engine. The mills – the big mills – always had the engines insured, which meant that the insurance inspector would be there when you took the engine to pieces and he would check, to the thousandth part of an inch, bearing clearances, wear in the liners and pistons, and everything had to be just right for him to sign off that the engine was okay.  Then if anything happened and the engine broke down, of course they could claim on the insurance for it.

I worked from 8 o’clock in the morning till 6 at night. You might say I started similar to a teaboy and worked my way through. We didn’t have tea, not like they have nowadays, but if you were on a job, all the dirty little tasks of cleaning up the odd bits and pieces as you took machinery to pieces, that was your job. If for instance we were out on the marshes with a pumping station well then you were the one who had to carry the bag of tools on your back.

In the early days we used to do a lot on the farms with the binders and the old grass cutters and that type of thing. Over the years it evolved more into milling and at the end of my time I was cast as a millwright more than an agricultural engineer, but I was privileged to see the start of combines coming into fields, and we did work on the early combines.

In the early days we did have a car and trailer, which the governor always drove and we went with him, but as time progressed and we went our separate ways very often we had to bike. I think the furthest I biked to from Norwich was South Walsham. How you got to the job was the firm’s affair so if we biked we got paid tuppence a mile bike money, but how you got home was your affair, so although you biked home you didn’t get paid any money. That took about three-quarters of an hour in all weathers. The governor would take the car and any heavy equipment needed onto the site and then you would work and he would come and pick it up when the job was finished. When it got dark we had Tilley lights and hurricane lamps and that’s what we used to work with. In fact in a lot of the mills later on there was no electricity available from the mains and the big old diesel engine what drove the mill machinery would also drive a dynamo giving lights, but of course when the engine broke down there was no lights and we often worked with a candle stuck on a piece of wood to give us enough light to see to work.

We did buy our own car later on, but when Mr Flowerdew finished business he had his car and there was two little Morris vans that we had.  And when he retired and I left he gave me the van, so our first vehicle that we owned was what he gave us. And I took my test and managed to pass it. Petrol was about 5s. a gallon. Bit different to what it is nowadays!

Our work took us all over Norfolk and parts of East Anglia. The furthest I ever went was so far away that we were expected to lodge out, lodgings all being paid for by the firm. I know once later on we took some machinery out at Belvoir and we did stay overnight there because it was considered too far, all the travelling – time you got there and time you left to get home…

I was on duty six days a week, ‘cause Saturdays was 8–12. We had Sundays off, but if it was an extreme breakdown we had been known to work on a Sunday and you got double pay, but that was very rare, very rare. You had one week’s holiday with no pay. When I first started bank holidays were paid, and we used to laugh and say, ‘Well if your week’s holiday is not paid you can have a holiday any time.’  But that only lasted for three or four years and then the week’s holiday came in, with pay.

Social Life and Youth Work

For my social life, well, I was a youth worker. I used to work with youth clubs and I was also a Boy’s Brigade Officer.  We had three evenings a week Boy’s Brigade and a couple of nights’ youth club, and I was a very keen speedway fan, and Saturday nights I would not miss racing for anything. I met my wife through the youth work, and we were married when I was 27. Our first house was in Lincoln Street in Norwich, and we later moved to Park Lane. We had a big family and this house has got 5 bedrooms, and it came on the market and we paid £3000 for it. I hate to think what that would cost today. We’ve got eight children: five sons and three daughters. They’d got the Avenue Road School just up the road and the Heigham Park the other side of the road to go and play. In fact, in those days when they were on holiday the wife would pack them up a lunch and off they’d disappear about 9 o’clock in the morning and we’d see no more of them till they came home at 6 o’clock for tea. You couldn’t do that today.

You just can’t do nothing nowadays. I mean a lot of the youth work, you can’t get people to take charge of it because the simple fact that whatever they do is misconstrued and somebody takes them to court. I mean, a recent lady friend of ours, she’d been in the boy scouts, the right little tots, all her life, passed all her exams and everything, and they were told that if a young boy fell down, cut his knees and that, and is crying, they must not go and pick him up and cuddle him. That’s a woman’s instinct.  And if she does, she’s finished. And all this type of petty rules and everything, they’re ruining everything for the young people.

I came into the youth work through the Chapel and Sunday School.  My dad was a Sunday School superintendent at the then Dereham Road Baptist Chapel, which is where I was brought up, and that is where the Boy’s Brigade and youth club were situated. And later on when I met my wife we moved together to the Belvoir Street Wesleyan Reform and I carried on. There was no Boy’s Brigade there, but I did carry on with all the youth work.

It was felt years ago that why do the young boys who belong to churches have to go to outside clubs to play football, why shouldn’t the church provide? So in Norwich they started a Christian Football League where any church or chapel (it didn’t matter what denomination) could have their football team. And one of my sons started it at Belvoir Street and the first year they got hammered because they were little boys of 12 and 14 playing against those of 17 and 18.  But they kept together and they did eventually win the League.

They have a League, they have a Knock-out Cup and everything.  If you swear on a football pitch it’s a red card even today; in Christian League if you swear it’s a red card. Now Michael done the team and they done well, but then Belvoir Street through lack of numbers had to close, but several of the team including my boy went with Meadow Way Chapel and they had a combined football team. And in fact Michael, who is now 51, he still manages and trains the football team and he’s now done his exams and passed out as a referee. In fact there’s teams from Dereham, Thetford and Stalham all in it now, it’s not just confined to Norwich. We follow it, find out what’s going on.

The other members, they’re not that way inclined.  But they’re all different.  One of them, the boy Paul, who’s at York, is the only one who’s sort of got much inclination in the way that I was.

Chiefly in those days your week’s holiday would be arranged so that there would be something on with the Boy’s Brigade. They had a hut at Trimingham (you see the War had finished then), we had a week’s camping, and at Yarmouth up at the Denes behind the race course was another very favourite place for camping. You had big sacks that you filled with straw to sleep on. You didn’t have blow-up beds. We used to have paraffin stoves for cooking. But unfortunately the youngsters of today, if they couldn’t have their iPods and all the rest of it with them… All these organisations have changed so much, missing out on what we used to have…

The Changeovers

I didn’t have to do National Service. It was funny really because I had my medical and I was accepted to go to the RAF. I wanted to go as a flight engineer, one who looks after the engines when they were flying, and I was accepted and one day I received a letter that told me I’d got to report to Cranwell, first day’s pay, travel warrant and everything, and I thought ‘hello, here we go’. Two days later I had another letter coming from the authorities asking me to send everything back, because I was on ‘work of national importance’, and should I be required for military service they would get in touch with me. So I didn’t have to go. You see our work with Mr Flowerdew, which included the farming, included the land drainage pumps on the marshes and the milling work we were getting into, we came under the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. I mean I didn’t apply not to go and neither did the firm. They just accepted that it was all part and parcel. I mean I used to get the extra little bit of cheese and one pair of rubber boots a year that you were allowed in the time for getting about.

During my time things moved from steam to diesel. When we first started particularly it was a mill at Stalham where we used to go and they still had the steam engine running, that was still going. It was a flour mill and it still drove all the machinery. And on the marshes, Reedham Marsh, when I first went there, there was the windmill just as that had been stopped; there was the steam engine just as that had been stopped, and we were looking after the new plant which consisted of two diesel engines which could pump the water from the marsh at the rate of a hundred ton of water a minute. I’ll leave you to work it out – a gallon of water weighs 6¼lb, and they were pumping 100 ton. And in the heavy weather those pumps would be running 48 hours at least straight off. The water was being pumped from the marsh into the river to keep the marshes from flooding. So if a pump broke down we would get an urgent message, wherever it was, ‘cause we had several of them, and you had to get there to prevent the marshes from being flooded.

The marshes are maintained now with electric pumps. They still pump, but at Reedham you had the three lots all in a row so to speak, and now they’ve got the electric one. In fact, the Catchment Board wanted to get rid of all the windmills and when we were there we could have bought the windmill for a pound. The whole windmill for a pound!  And a piece of ground round it, but of course you were responsible – if you bought it – for keeping it not in working order, but in reasonable condition. In fact at Reedham somebody recently has put a new cap and sails on it.

And at Reedham the railway line from Acle to Yarmouth passed along the marsh, and if the pumps broke down the marsh would flood and that would also flood the railway line. And of course, once the winter set in you couldn’t get to the pumping stations by vehicle. You had to walk and carry whatever you wanted on your back. At Reedham we had special passes from the railway so we could walk up the railway line till we got opposite the pumping station and then just cut across the marsh instead of going all the way across the marshes.

We didn’t come across other rival firms, one of the chief reasons being that there was not, we’ll say, a Ruston and Hornsby diesel engine. There was probably only six or seven, because not everybody had that make in Norfolk, and the thing was that to train a man to look after the Ruston and Hornsby engines took some while, and as we were here and there dealing with them all the while for another firm to suddenly start to train somebody. The nearest people we had was Rands of Stowmarket, but we never sort of crossed swords or anything like that.

So we were okay, and then of course when electricity started coming in we then had to learn to deal with that. I mean all the work in my early days was all hand tools. There was no electric grinders, there was no electric saws, electric files. Everything had to be done by hand, and how some of the people of today would manage it makes you wonder – if you get a piece of three-inch solid round steel and you’re given a hacksaw and you’ve got to cut it through by hand, which is what we used to have to do.

Some of my tools would be museum pieces now, some of them. Some of the ones that we used for corking up pipes and boilers and that type of thing.

And of course, the steam was there, and of course water mills were very much in use. We used to do quite some bit of work at Mundesley, which remained the only overshot water wheel left in Norfolk where the water came over the top of the wheel. You can still see the wheel there: the mill’s burnt down, but the wheel is in very much disrepair. No buckets left, it couldn’t go, but you can see what it was.

And then, of course, at Letheringsett, we did put the diesel engine in there because the cogs had got so bad – because in the early days the thing was if you set foot in a mill, or in the barns of a farm, you had to deal with anything in it. It didn’t matter if it was plumbing, if it was woodwork in some cases, or whatever it was, you had to deal with it. It’s not like it is today: ‘well, I’m an electrician’, and nobody must touch what anybody else do. It was not like that at all. The miller or farmer would say ‘I’m employing you to do the job.  I don’t expect to have to employ somebody else to come in and do the half of it.  You’re doing the job, you get on with it.’

Like in the later years, when people went in for manufacturing the cubes and pellets and required a boiler for steam, we had to put the boiler in with all the steam piping, all the electrical controls and everything. And that was just accepted in those days. As a millwright that’s what you done.

As for agricultural accidents, yes, at Allen and Page in Norwich where I did eventually finish up working, a man was killed there. It’s not known exactly what happened but somehow he slipped and fell into the flywheel of the engine while it was going round, and unfortunately was killed.

There was a Mr Green on a farm at Ludham. Nearly all these farms had little engines to drive the farm machinery and he was wearing a smock coat and that got caught in the engine, but luckily the engine was in a bad state of repair and the added load of trying to pull him in stopped the engine.  But it left him with a badly wrenched shoulder and he was never quite the same afterwards, but at least he didn’t lose his life.  And obviously there was various cuts and…

All of my workmates have passed on.  In fact, the last one, we went to his funeral earlier this year.

I mean to say in the mills and on the farms and on the marshes there were wheels with wooden cogs in to drive things, and one of our jobs, if the cogs got worn, we had to re-cog the wheel. We preferred to use either hornbeam or beech, and in fact a few years ago Michael Grix at Burgh Mill at Aylsham contacted me, ‘could I re-cog his water wheel’, because the BBC wanted to use the mill for one of the episodes in the Campion series and they wanted the wheels all going round. So I went over, and with Michael Grix we re-cogged the wheel. I even got my photograph in the Eastern Daily Press and the Evening News, doing it. And I got the vast sum of £8 an hour from the BBC for doing it, which is more than I ever earned in my life! And I was told at the end that if I’d have asked for £10 I could have got that. That was quite an enjoyable job.

And so, I mean, we had mills all over the country. In fact if you go into Wroxham, which is a very popular place, just over the bridge on the left-hand side, there used to be a flour mill there. It’s completely gone but there was a flour mill and a coal yard that employed roughly I would think a dozen people with lorry drivers. It belonged to the firm of Barclay and Pallett who had several mills about different places, but it was all pulled down in the redevelopment and you would never know there had been a mill there.

Well, nowadays of course you have got it at Letheringsett where they are doing the old stone ground flour, which is quite popular.

So then of course, we had the Maltings as well, the Vicarage Maltings at East Dereham, we got to doing all the maintenance. They’re now houses.

And of course, the farms where they had the little engines to drive the machinery, as electricity came we replaced all them with electric motors to drive it. In fact, I kick myself because I am interested in these little old barn engines – in fact I’ve got six of them standing in the passage outside – and I do belong to the NICE Society, which is the Norfolk Internal Combustion Engine Society. I go to the rallies, and I’ve got some of those engines, and I think now, ‘Cor, the engines that we threw on the rubbish heap when we put the electric motors in on the farms, little engines no longer wanted; ooh I wish I had some of them now ‘cause they’re worth quite a bit of money.’

And then, of course, a lot of the mills had the little engines just for driving odd bits and pieces, and, of course, on the farms there came the engines which used to drive the well pumps, the little Listers, where the farmer had a tank up in the roof so he could have water instead of drawing bucketfulls up from the well. And if those pumps broke down, well, you had to be there right quick.

We had a big one at Kirby Bedon, Mitchell’s Dairy Farm. The well there was 90ft deep and that was driven by an engine and they used the water for cooling the milk. Now we always used to laugh and say when that came to bank holidays, as sure as eggs were eggs, you’d get the phone call from Mitchell’s: ‘Please can you come. The pumps aren’t working.’ And, of course, you had to go. The governor always went down the well and we used to be at the top and pull the bits up and replace the cup leathers and the leathers which were worn.  The cold water from the well would run through a grid, really, and that would cool the milk.

I know it’s quite nice if you go down a well and look up out of the top; you can see all the stars in the sky. It’s funny because if you go down in the summer it feels a little bit cool and in the winter it feels warm because the temperature at the bottom of the well doesn’t change. So that’s always the same. And, like the Maltings you see at Whitbreads, they all had the pumps in the wells because they used the water for soaking the barley, to get it to grow, so once again if those pumps went you had to go straight away.


I kept with Flowerdew and Son until they eventually packed up business. The son, who I’d worked with, a Mr Albert Flowerdew, was – what can I say – a gentleman, through and through. He was a big church man and he carried his principles through into his work and everything. I don’t know what would happen nowadays, but we were told if we used bad language at work we could look for another job.  What would happen if that happened nowadays, I hate to think! But I kept with him all the while, and it was only when he decided that he was going to retire – in fact at the time he did ask if I would like to take the business over.  We were only a small firm, employing four or five people, no more, but after thinking about it and talking it over with the wife I said no. And he said at the time that I’d done the wisest thing because, if he’d had his time over again, he would have worked for a master rather than for himself, as he said if he went away on holiday he had to take a bag of tools with him in case he got called back because something had gone wrong.

Of course, most of the places I worked in are no longer there; most of the mills are gone, some are pulled down, but a lot of them are now converted into dwelling places, the water running through underneath. When I retired I was offered a job in another mill and I accepted it. After Mr Flowerdew finished business, I went as engineer and production manager with Allen and Page, and I was with them for 25 years, and when I retired from them Mr Baxter over at Horsford offered me a job one day a week and that finished up full time, which I carried on till I was 70. That was in the mill keeping the machinery going, with Allen and Page organising the production. In this case they were milling animal feed, all different types.

I enjoyed my career very much indeed.   My wife used to say, ‘Work come first, chapel come second, and she come third!’ Well, obviously the conditions were not so good years ago as they are now, but, no, it was a different way of living altogether and you accepted things as a matter of course that people just wouldn’t take today.

Letheringsett Water Mill, which is one of the holiday features of Norfolk, is one that I worked in as a boy, and we know it well. In fact, we have spoken with the gentleman who owns it and I have been offered work to do there, even now.  But I’m afraid the time factor – when you retire it’s true, you wonder how you ever went to work, cos although I’m now 80 I could still do with another day in the week.

Well, now we have a caravan down at Mundesley on Kiln Cliffs Caravan Park and we go down there Thursday mornings and come home Sunday nights. Thursday mornings we help with an old folks’ club at the Free Church. They have a dinner on Thursdays and the wife helps in the kitchen and if necessary I will take dinners out to those who can’t get there, and generally have a little chat with people afterwards. We have some good fun. Then Mondays I work at home; Tuesdays I always looked after mother-in-law’s garden. Unfortunately, she passed away this year, but my son has got the bungalow and he’s no gardener, so Tuesdays is still gardening. My doctor has told me, ‘While you keep going you won’t rust up.’

I have been very fortunate. I’ve never been seriously ill in my life, so I’ve got a lot to be thankful for that I can still get about, and we do as much as we can.

Peter Gowing (b. 1928 ) talking to WISEArchive on 5th November 2008 in Norwich.

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