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New visitor centre sheds light on one of grisliest episodes in Norfolk’s history

PUBLISHED: 09:35 01 May 2016 | UPDATED: 09:35 01 May 2016

A new visitor centre has opened at the Narborough Bone Mill - Part of a human skull found on the site. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A new visitor centre has opened at the Narborough Bone Mill - Part of a human skull found on the site. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2016

It is one of the grisliest chapters of the region’s past.

The visitor centre was created from a restored railway wagon.  From left, David Burchell, Eddie Hall, Graham Bartlett, Breckland Cllr Peter Wilkinson, Dennis Greeno and John Atkinson. Picture: Matthew Usher.The visitor centre was created from a restored railway wagon. From left, David Burchell, Eddie Hall, Graham Bartlett, Breckland Cllr Peter Wilkinson, Dennis Greeno and John Atkinson. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Thousands of bones – including, it is said, those of humans – were transported, by barge and by cart, to a peaceful spot on the River Nar where they were boiled down, crushed and sown on fields to help corn grow.

Now a visitor centre has been opened to shine a spotlight on this macabre episode in Norfolk’s history.

The facility was opened at Narborough Bone Mill, a 19th century water mill which was used to produce fertiliser by crushing bones, to make it more accessible to the public and display finds made at the site.

Most of the material fed through the mill came from local slaughterhouses and King’s Lynn’s whaling industry, and the sight of whale bones being brought to the mill would have been a relatively common occurrence.

Parts of the mill which still remain. Picture: Matthew Usher.Parts of the mill which still remain. Picture: Matthew Usher.

However, it is thought that some shipments of human remains, exhumed from graveyards in Hamburg and brought across the North Sea, were also ground to dust there.

Breckland councillor Peter Wilkinson, who helped acquire a grant from Breckland’s Clean for the Queen fund to partially fund the project, opened the centre earlier this month when a barbecue was held to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.

Mr Wilkinson praised those who had preserved the mill site and its owners, the Mundford family.

He said: “I don’t know if there are any more bone mills in Norfolk, I think there were more in Norfolk but I think this is the last one left.

Graham Barlett with a whale bone. Picture: Matthew Usher.Graham Barlett with a whale bone. Picture: Matthew Usher.

“It is quite unusual. History like that is absolutely brilliant to have in the area and the enthusiasm of the heritage group is fantastic, they are a marvel.”

The visitor centre has been created from a restored 1957 railway wagon, donated by Brian and Ginny Rayner, which had been renovated by a team of volunteers. John Atkinson, who has been part of the project since the beginning, said: “People used to come from all over to work here, from Petney, Castle Acre and West Acre. It was a pretty big industry.”

In 1884 a sluice was built up river, effectively ending transportation along the Nar and forcing the closure of the mill.

The mill was demolished nearly 100 years ago, leaving just the 16ft diameter waterwheel and some crumbling bricks.

From left, Dennis Greeno, Eddie Hall, Graham Bartlett, Breckland councillor Peter Wilkinson, David Burchell and John Atkinson at Narborough Bone Mill. Picture: Matthew Usher.From left, Dennis Greeno, Eddie Hall, Graham Bartlett, Breckland councillor Peter Wilkinson, David Burchell and John Atkinson at Narborough Bone Mill. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Last year a restoration project was launched with a £92,200 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

There will be a chance to view the work done at the bone mill during the National Mills open weekend on May 14 and 15.

• HUMAN BONES - MYTH OR FACT?

Narborough Bone Mill when it was in use.Narborough Bone Mill when it was in use.

At one time the mill is believed to have processed human remains after bones were imported from German graveyards.

While it had always been a rumour that human bones had been ground at the Narborough Bone Mill it was not confirmed.

However, part of a skull found at the site suggests this may well be true and it is one of the items displayed in the centre.

Carbon dating of the bone fragment showed the skull pre-dated the mill by more than 750 years but this does not count out the possibility that it was imported from an old burial site.

It is said locals used to say “one ton of German bone-dust saves the importation of 10 tons of German corn”.

• RIVER LINK

Whale bones were carried up the Nar by barge from a blubber-processing factory at Lynn. They were taken first to Congham watermill, on the River Cong, to be processed, before being carried to Narborough for rendering.

Both mills were in remote locations – possibly due to the powerful smell the processes created. The fact that Narborough watermill was not near a road did not matter, as both its raw materials and its finished products were carried by horse-drawn barge.

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