St Benets Abbey
drainage pump
River Bure

c.1818 engraving by J. Grieg from a sketch by L. Francis

St. Benet's Hulme or St. Bene't-at-Holme Abbey drainage mill was possibly originally built to crush cole (rape) seed to make colza oil for lamps before being converted to a drainage pump and is one of the oldest tower mills in Norfolk and the oldest on the Broads.

Watercolour by John Sell Cotman 1831
Watercolour by John Sell Cotman 1831

The mill was built with common sails but in the later stages of its life the mill had two common sails and two patent sails that turned clockwise.Each patent sail had 6 bays of 3 shutters. The side pointed cap was horizontally boarded and the stage was level with the abbey gateway. The mill was turned to wind via tailpole that ended at the stage built just above the gate and remaining walls. The rope from the winch hitched with a grappling hook to slots in the floor of the stage.

Illustration by John Sell Cotman c.1850
Illustration by John Sell Cotman c.1850

The Abbey of St. Benet's Hulme or St. Bene't-at-Holme was founded in the 9th Century by the hermit Suneman and was built on a sand and gravel island known as Cow Holm. In the 10th Century Wolfric built a cell on the site of Suneman's chapel and under lands granted by King Canute in 1020, the cell grew into the Monastery of St Benet-at-Holm, which was then built like a castle.

At one time the Abbey was one of the wealthiest Benedictine establishments in the country and reached the height of its prosperity in the middle ages and amongst other things controlled all the peat diggings that eventually made the Norfolk Broads. They monks also oversaw and profited from farming and other industry within a large area around the abbey. By 1046 the abbey had 28 dependent churches and property in 76 parishes by 1291. However, although it declined before the reformation, uniquely, it was the only monastery in Britain not to be included in the dissolution. Instead if closing the monastery in 1536, King Henry VIII appointed Bishop Reppes as Abbot of St Benets and further granted him the abbey and all its properties in return for land owned by the Diocese of Norwich. However, the new bishop soon plundered the site and the last monk left soon after, in 1545. All the buildings were demolished, except the gatehouse and probably taken to Norwich by river for reuse.

The Bishop of Norwich still retains the title of Abbot of St. Benets and since 1939 has held a service there each year.

Undated etching
Undated etching


It is worthy of remark that the Abbey of St. Bene't's is the only one in England which can still boast an abbot, and a mitred abbot - the Bishop of Norwich taking his seat in the House of Lords as Abbott of St. Bene't's.
All that now remains of this once magnificent edifice is the gateway, shown above, upon the walls of which a draining mill has been erected . The ground-plan of the building and its appurtenances may, however, still be traced, and a melancholy contrast drawn, by the help of imagination, between its past grandeur and its present desolation.


Emanuel Bowen's map of 1749 showed a total of 8 corn mills:

Briningham postmill,
East Wretham postmill
Fincham postmill
Poringland postmill
South Creake Common postmill
St. Benet's Abbey towermill
Strumpshaw smockmill
Tacolneston postmill


None of the ruins date from the early period and as mentioned above, the only section left is the gatehouse, which ironically has been preserved by the building of the mill within its walls in the 1700s. Engravings produced in 1728 show the gatehouse without the windmill. The mill was originally built to crush colza seed for oil lamps but it was subsequently converted into a drainage mill in the 1800s. When the mill was first built the top storey of the gatehouse was removed in order to provide room for the sails and an 1830 illustration by James Stark shows the scoop wheel.

The mill probably ceased operating for the last time when the cap was blown off during a gale in 1863.


The mill and the abbey ruins have been photographed and painted many times over the years including a famous oil painting by Miles Edmund Cotman of Norwich School artist John Sell Cotman's etching.

c.1910 c.1920

Not unnaturally many legends exist about the mill...
William the Conqueror apparently experienced great difficulty with taking the abbey and eventually resorted to bribing one of the monks to open the great gate on the condition he would be made the new Abbott. The Normans could not stand traitors and once inside, they seized him, dressed him up in alb, cope and mitre and strung him up over the gate. Late at night on 25th May every year, terrible screams may be heard and a monk can be seen writhing in agony at the end of a beam above the ruined arch.

The monks of St. Benet's surveyed the building of Ranworth church across the river, which was not finished before the Dissolution, and on quiet nights one can still see the ghost of a monk rowing across the river in a little boat, accompanied by a dog.

The remains of the abbey of St. Benedict at Holme ...
Here is no part of this venerable fabric standing but the gate house *
or entrance from the north, by a causeway from Ludham ...

* Even this small momento of what St. Bennets has been suffers from the erection of a drain mill on its ruins.

Armstrong - 1781

St. Bennett's Abbey at Holme
Some foundations of the walls which enclosed an area of thirty five acres, are yet traceable; but the remains of the once stately building are no more, except part of the magnificent gateway and this is partially obscured by a draining mill erected over it.

The Beauties of England and Wales - J. Evans & J. Britton, 1810

June 1966 1989
June 1966

March 2004   March 2004
March 2004
March 2004

Tithe Award 1841
Map, Robert Pratt & Son, Surveyors, Norwich, 1840
Owner: Edward, Lord Bishop of Norwich
Lessee: Thomas Heath
Occupier: Thomas Heath

No. 27

Abbey Hill, House etc.

part of

36a. 3r. 29p.
278a. 1r. 39p.

Tithe free

Notice re:
Sale 7 October 1867
William Grapes, relinquishing his occupation.

Norfolk Chronuicle - 28th September 1867

May 2006 14th October 2007
May 2006
14th October 2007

28th September 2010 6th December 2013
28th September 2010
6th December 2013

... brick mill at St. Benet's Abbey is known to have existed in 1740, but it is not clear whether it was for drainage or for flour milling.
The Study of the Drainage Mills of the Norfolk Broadlands - S. Martins, Norfolk Archaeology, 1970

... 1702 ... a plan drawn for Roger Donne, tenant of Ludham Hall. A mill is shown in the extreme east corner, near the river.The present brick mill over the gate was built sometime during the eighteenth century. It was used for s=crushing colza seed for oil for lamps. In Ludham parish register is an entry of the burial of Samuel Moss, "Oylman" at St. Benet's in 1735, so perhaps the mill was built as early as that ... The top & sails were blown off in a gale in 1863.
St. Benet's Abbey - Joan M. Snelling, 1971

Two plates show engravings of east or inner side and west side of gate in 1728. No mill is shown oiver the gate, but one is shown in the distance to the south west.
Harry Apling. - c.1980

... an old mill which served once for drainage purposes and for grinding cole seed.
Jane Hales
Eastern Daily Press - 15th March 1972
N.B. Cole seed is rape seed, crushed to extract colza oil with the residue used as rape or oil cake

Repairs to St Benet's Abbey mill underway
This 18th century mill, built on top of the medieval gatehouse, is currently under repair as part of the St Benet's Abbey Conservation, Community & Access project led by Norfolk Archaeological Trust and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Conservation builders R & J Hogg Ltd are currently replacing severely eroded bricks with matching hand made ones from Bulmer Brick & Tile Co., supervised by David Watt of Hutton & Rostron. Erosion of the brickwork is more extensive than expected in some areas, related to localised patterns of wind and water ingress. The repairs will be completed by the autumn. The mill is one of the earliest tower mills in the county, and appears to have been used for grinding seed and grain as well as functioning as a drainage mill.

Repairs to St Benet's Abbey mill

This early 18th century tower mill, built on top of the medieval gatehouse, was repaired during 2012-13 as part of the St. Benet's Abbey Conservation, Community & Access project led by Norfolk Archaeological Trust and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Conservation builders R. & J. Hogg Ltd. carried out extensive repair to the severely eroded brickwork using matching hand made ones from Bulmer Brick & Tile Co., supervised by David Watt of Hutton & Rostron. Erosion of the brickwork was more extensive than expected in some areas, particularly inside the mill, related to localised patterns of wind and water ingress. The mill is believed to be the earliest surviving tower mill in the county, and appears to have been used for grinding oil seed prior to its use as a drainage mill. 
Caroline Davison - 10th January 2014

19th March 2023
19th March 2023

O. S. Map 1905
O. S. Map 1905
Courtesy of NLS map images

1728-35: Mill built

Emanuel Bowen's map 1749: Windmill (along with 7 other mills)

Corbridge's map 1765: Windmill (along with 6 other corn mills)

Bowles's map 1775: Windmill

Faden's map 1797:
Mill & Gate

Excursions In Norfolk 1818: Draining mill

Bryant's map 1826: Windmill

1929: Mill tower and gatehouse underwent repairs

Tithe Award 1841: Owner: Edward, Lord Bishop of Norwich; Occupier: Thomas Heath

1856: Photo by Dr. W. T. Bensley shows cover of a scoop wheel to the right rear of the mill

1863: Mill tailwinded in a gale - cap and sails blown off - mill may have then ceased working

September 1867: Stock of William Grapes advertised for sale in October

October 1867: William Grapes relinquished occupation

O.S. map 1885: Windmill

2nd March 1929: Photo in
North Norfolk News of ruins and mill being renovated by Office of Works

16th April 1955: Mill designated with a Grade ll listing

In May 2002 the Norfolk Archaeological Trust bought the majority of the site comprising of 36 acres from the Crown Estate Commissioners and in January 2004 the gatehouse and mill were acquired from the Norwich Diocese.

July 2012: Mill undergoing renovations

2018: The Friends of St Benet's Abbey awarded Heritage Lottery Funding to arrange 1,000 year anniv. events

If you have any memories, anecdotes or photos please let us know and we may be able to use them to update the site. By all means telephone 07836 675369 or

Nat Grid Ref TG 38021578
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Copyright © Jonathan Neville 2004