The Early Days of Gunton Estate
The land that is now Gunton Park was acquired by the Harbord family in 1670. It was to be used for sport and therefore a hunting lodge was built. By damming Hagon Beck, two lakes were formed, Great Lake and Sawmill Pond. These were visible from the lodge. The Harbord’s had been ennobled in 1776 taking the title of Lord Suffield. As with many country estates, except for specialist services, Gunton Park was self-sufficient. It was the decision of third Lord Suffield who took over the estate in 1821 to improve the estate. The decision was made to build the Sawmill. With a considerable head of water behind the dam, it made sense to use this as the power for the sawmill. The mill became a reality in 1824, a timber and thatch structure that housed a frame saw and an early circular saw. By opening up a sluice to fill the millrace, the saws were driven by separate waterwheels. The water having been used, exited via the tailrace, returned to the main course of Hagon Beck.
The Sawmill is Built
The frame saw was constructed mostly from wood, the ironwork and castings being supplied by William Hase, a local blacksmith and iron founder. As with many early machines, the coming years saw various engineers and millwrights upgrading the saw and soon the original circular saw was replaced by one from Holmes of Norwich. This was soon followed by small corn mill by Ransome and Sims of Ipswich, thus enabling the estate to grind its own flour. The workload in the mill mirrored to the requirements of the estate and a small side extension to the mill became Gunton's carpentry and joinery workshops.
The Start of Decline
It was after the First World War that change really took place as the whole employment situation changed with many jobs normally undertaken by the estate contracted out. One must always take into account that the machinery was both old and outmoded and the waterwheels fell into disrepair. Locals tell that when sawing was required a portable engine pulled by horses would be brought on site to power the circular saw. Come 1942 the Second World War had created a great demand for timber and contractors were brought in to fulfil this need. They set up their own saw bench powered by a steam engine situated in a way that the crane could service the saw, both this and the steam engine were removed after the war leaving only the concrete mountings in situ. Things declined yet more the only sawing being provided by a small saw bench powered by belt drive off a tractor.
Revival - A Close Run Thing!
The Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society (NIAS) was alerted to the parlous state of this unique mill in 1976. A survey was arranged, relevant bodies were able to identify action was needed if this historic artefact was to be preserved. Norfolk County Council, Norfolk Windmill's Trust and the NIAS drew up a plan to preserve both the saw and building for future generations. In 1979, the last remaining member of the Harbord family agreed to lease the site and duly signed a 999-year lease to the Norfolk Windmill's Trust who would oversee the restoration. Much of the work had to be done by professionals but when the building and machinery were in a usable state, helped by the NIAS, they set about rediscovering how the saw worked. Three months after the signing of the lease, Gunton Park was acquired by a new owner who was instrumental in the continuing restoration project. With new saw blades acquired in 1987, the first cut was made on the restored saw. The first public opening took place in 1989 and continue to this day.
As with all preserved buildings and old machinery, it is a constant battle to keep things in good working order. In 2013 the roof thatch was replaced, thanks to a grant from Heritage Lottery Fund, and repairs to the millrace were completed. Shortly afterwards, the idea of creating a wood-trades museum became a reality which continues to expand today.