One day, there came that way, a sooty collier…

Some kids at our primary school came from Collier Row: a name commemorating sturdy Essex pitmen perhaps? Hardly; while most people today think of a collier as a miner or deliverer of coal, the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is actually a ‘maker of charcoal’. Collier Row was on the edge of Hainault Forest, south-west Essex before most of it was cleared in the mid-19th century.  Wood harvested from the Forest would have been turned into charcoal. Hainault’s sister Forest survived a similar attempt at enclosure and there is a detailed account of the colliers of Epping Forest by Hazzledine Warren (1909), in the journal of the Essex Naturalist, just before the tradition stopped. Warren includes various photographs two of which below show the hut where the colliers would live while tending the burn and a burn in progress.

Pictures of charcoal making in Epping Forest from the Essex Naturalist, 1909.

Charcoal-making was widespread in woods across the country. Before the development of coke it was essential for most forms of metal-working with large quantities being used for smelting iron; charcoal was also used in the glass and chemical industries. Just down the road from Epping in the valley of the River Lea are the remains of the old gunpowder works. Charcoal from alder, willow and particularly alder buckthorn were highly valued for gunpowder. In the second world war it was much sought-after and hundreds of tons were obtained for the armaments factories (Edlin, 1949, Linnard, 1986). In the early 1980s I saw some large-scale charcoal production, still using traditional methods in Hungary.

Large-scale charcoal-making in Hungary in 1983.

Charcoal was generally made in the woods as illustrated by the Epping pictures, because it was light to transport out, often in sacks on pack ponies, to where it was needed compared to having to move piles of logs. The charcoal might however crumble into dust if it had to be transported too far, so sometimes the user industries also came to be associated with the source of the charcoal. The numerous hammer ponds in the Weald provided the water-power for the forges there while at the bottom of the Duddon Valley (Cumbria)  are the remains of one of the last blast furnaces to be using wood as a fuel in England.

The Duddon Valley furnace

The wood came from pollards in Epping and Hainault but more commonly the wood was harvested as coppice, then cut into short lengths and burnt on hearths. These were flat circular areas about 5 m across, often made by cutting back into the hill on slopes and building up the front. A central chimney of more-or-less upright pieces of wood was created round a central pole, then the rest of the wood was stacked around this to form a low dome. Straw, or inverted turves were used as a layer to stop the charcoal being contaminated by the soil that was spread over the whole dome to limit the supply of air to the stack. The central pole was removed when it came to light the stack; burning ashes or similar were dropped down and the top sealed. The wood could not burn normally because there was not enough oxygen, but sufficient heat was generated to drive off water, some volatile compounds such as creosote and tar, leaving almost pure carbon.

A recreated stack in the Wealden and Downland Museum in Sussex; the remains of charcoal hearth from a wood in south Wales.

During a burn the stack had to be watched to ensure that it did not break through the outer covering of soil, allowing in air or the whole stack could go up in flame. More earth would be shovelled on if it looked like a break was developing. Screens (like hurdles) might be used on the windward side to further reduce the risk of uncontrolled air intake. If all went well, the initial white smoke (much of it steam) would go to a blue haze and then die down. After up to10 days the burn should be complete and the stack cool enough to be opened. The 1250 kg of wood in a typical stack might now be just 250 kg of charcoal.

Women and children would often help out, with the families moving on when a series of burns were complete to the next site where felling had taken place. This itinerant life-style, their rough huts in the woods,  inevitably dirty ‘noir comme un charbonnier’ as one French saying had it, could lead to colliers being seen as set apart from normal society, not just in Britain but across Europe more generally (Graham, 2012, Woitsch, 2009).

Charcoal making still goes on across the country, now usually using portable metal kilns that allow for more efficient control of the air supply and burns to be completed more quickly. Many wildlife trusts organise burns using the wood from conservation coppicing, then sell the bags to their members to use for their barbecues.

Modern kiln and charcoal for a barbecue.

Arthur Ransome’s stories about the Swallows and Amazons feature describe what must have been some of the last traditional colliers in the Lake District. The children also build and fire their own stack to smelt what turns out to be copper ore, not gold as they hoped; perhaps not something we should encourage modern youngsters to try!

EDLIN, H. L. 1949. Woodland crafts in Britain, London, Batsford.

GRAHAM, H. 2012. ‘Alone in the forest’? Trees, charcoal and charcoal burners in eighteenth-century France. In: AURICCHIO, L., COOK, E. H. & PACINI, G. (eds.) Invaluable trees – cultures of nature 1660-1830. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

LINNARD, W. 1986. Sooty bands from tents of turf: Woodcolliers and charcoal-burning in Wales. Folk Life, 25, 47-73.

WARREN, S. H. 1909. Charcoal Burners in Epping Forest: Their Primitive Hut and the Formation of Hut-circles. Essex Naturalist, 16, 65-73.

WOITSCH, J. 2009. Charcoal makers in Bohemia: from privileged craftsmen to strange forest dwellers. In: SARATSI, E., BURGI, M., JOHANN, E., KIRBY, K. J., MORENO, D. & WATKINS, C. (eds.) Woodland cultures in time and space. Athens, Greece: Embryo Publications.

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