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The Purkis Walk. The Rufus Stone to Winchester

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English Curse

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The Lonely Men of the Forest

AN ACCOUNT OF PAST AND PRESENT CHARCOAL BURNERS IN THE NEW FOREST

by J. S. P. AGG LARGE

Click here to view larger version of picture.

Removing waste from an empty kiln

CHARCOAL burning is probably England's oldest industry. Under the solitary shade of the greenwood tree, even the ancient Britons practised this smokey ritual, living the lives of hermits and superiorly aloof from the reckless society around them. It must have been a pleasant surprise for the Romans to find something which the ancient Britons could do, for the invaders certainly needed the native charcoal burners for the manufacture of their earthenware vessels and glassware.

As far back as the bronze age charcoal was used for cremation purposes. It seems incredible that a people utterly ignorant of even the most rudimentary scientific knowledge should have hit upon the means most recommended now for the disposal of human remains by scientists, but this appears to have been the case.

From Roman times onwards charcoal burning areas attracted industries in the same way that coal did in the last century. Glassworks at Buckholt, in north west Hampshire, relied on the local burners, as did the early brick producers of the New Forest. Most important of all was the iron industry which flourished in late medieval times in Hampshire, Sussex, Surrey and elsewhere.

This is well illustrated in the New Forest where ore was collected along the shores of the Solent and brought inland to the forges among the trees for smelting. The east wall of the old church at Brockenhurst and the entire former church at Hordle (which has now been demolished) are examples of local iron work, and more are to be found in the Palace of Beaulieu.

Two sizeable mills at Sowley Pond, on the Lymington road outside Beaulieu, were used for iron working until well into the 1 7th century, and a local saying that the Sowley hammer can be heard still means rain is on the way to the older generation in these parts.

It was Queen Elizabeth Ist who brought about the first signs of decline in the New Forest charcoal industry through encouraging the exploitation of coal deposits in various parts of her kingdom. She initiated a law, which was known as "an Act that timber shall not be felled for burning," which stipulated that all oak, beech and ash trees growing within 14 miles of the coast should be left untouched.

This was obviously designed to give the shipyards along the coast, at such centres the Lymington and Buckler's Hard, a monopoly of the wood, and she went on to inaugurate a system of enclosures to protect growing trees - a policy which was continued by James 1 and William 111. This was very far-sighted of her, because in 1771, when indiscriminate felling for local building had become fairly common, parliament noted with grave concern the lack of suitable timber for naval craft.

Although Elizabeth's law severely hit the charcoal industry, and caused the Sussex burners to leave the county in search of better hunting grounds in the north, industry generally did not suffer because of the increasing awareness of the value of coal, and its availability in many places at near surface level. Indeed, sea coal had already been in domestic use in London for 200 years.

Ever since the time of the Conquest, when the New Forest became William the Conqueror's favourite hunting ground, for esters had been subjected to fierce penalties lest as their presence should adversely affect royal sport. Even as late as George I's reign poaching was punishable by seven years' transportation to America, and killing a deer or interfering with forest trees could result in death.

Savage penalties are not always effective deterrents, however, and right up to the last century the belfry of Lymington Church was utilised as a poachers' larder. Charcoal burners, too, had to be careful not to contravene the tree damaging acts, and although their numbers continued to decline, the activity was still a regular one in the loneliest forest clearings.

Towards the end of last century their lot was further worsened by the policy of certain big manufacturers who sent down their own men to the Forest to do the burning. This policy naturally produced friction between the foresters and the outsiders, and the influx of 'immigrant' burners had to be limited after certain incidents more fitting to a boxing ring.

Until the beginning of this century, three circles of charcoal burning remained, their turf-covered wig-wams looking rather like small versions of Zulu kraals, surrounded by large circles of brushwood and rough fences made of posts. The interiors were even more spartan; a large sack stuffed with leaves would serve as a mattress, a rough piece of wood acted as a table, and in a corner would be a big iron cooking pot. Here the charcoal burner would live whilst at work..

The production process worked on the principle of generating as much heat as possible with the minimum intake of air, just enough to maintain a smothered combustion. The forest charcoal burner would use 15 tons of timber at each burning of the 'heath', but it was in the building of the cone that great skill was required. The timber was split into convenient lengths then laid in a round conical shaped pile, with ashes and rubbish thrown on top. Then the pile was carefully but solidly beaten down and turf or bracken laid over it as a seal. Channels were then made to ensure that just enough air could enter to effect the combustion process, and then the heath was lit. Escape channels were then made for the combustion fumes, which were highly poisonous, and one imagines that many have been the pursuants of this trade who have met with an early death through lung cancer, long before cigarettes were even thought of.

The burning had to be continuously supervised for it always had to take place slowly to produce the maximum heat. If the pile caught alight too fiercely it was quenched with water. The pile remained alight for four days, at the end of which it was an incandescent mass. The cooling process was a long one, too, and it took many more hours before the charcoal could be handled. During the last war the industry went through a brief revival, for 40 million gas respirators needed charcoal filters, and the New Forest burners provided them. After the war the demand for charcoal dropped alarmingly, but today there has been something of a new lease o f life for the industry, as the chemical concerns use a large quantity for their workings with carbon. The oil industry and filter manufacturers also use charcoal for small applications.

Oak and elm are generally used by the burners today. Firs are not suitable in view of their highly resinous nature.

The most famous charcoal burner of all time was undoubtedly Purkis, who transported the lifeless body of King William 11 in his cart from the fatal spot near Stoney Cross where the arrow pierced the monarch 's forehead, to Winchester, the then capital of England. This would have been a familiar journey for him, for the burners often used to travel to the City from all parts of the Forest to sell their charcoal.

The trade was practised by the Purkis family at Castle Malwood right up to the end of last century when another local family the Tinsleys, took over most of the production. Now, however, the old encampments at Castle Malwood ( near Stoney Cross) and Mark Ash have disappeared, and a new era of burners hold sway, their mode of life more in keeping with the 20th century.

Three different firms pursue the trade in the Forest today, all making it their number one activity. The large st site is at Pondhead Enclosure, situated near Lyndhurst just off the Beaulieu Road. Nine kilns are working here surrounded by neat piles of oak wood, cut and stacked ready for burning. The kilns these days remain alight for only 24 hours, whereupon th e charcoal is removed and shovelled into sacks, ready for collection by the firm's transport.

Powerful, caterpillar-wheeled tractors today heave the oak trunks to the kilns in place of the old carthorses, and the kilns are all metal cylindrical structures in stead of the old, conical shaped logs covered with turf. Most of these modern metal kilns are made specially for the burners by Mr. Philip Blake, the village blacksmith at Broughton in Hampshire.

The burners of today live during the week in caravans on the site, returning at the weekends to their cottages somewhere in the Forest where their wives and family live. Fifty years ago they would have spent the working week in a tent, made with a framework of poles and heaped with sacks and turf, to keep out the rain and keep in the warmth.

The charcoal burner has always lived a rough and lonely existence. His world is the rustle of the forest by night, the mournful hoot of the owl, the furtive scratching of the badger. Sometimes the day will pass without sigh ting a single mortal, the outside world invisible through the thick curtain of green which encompasses him on every side.

Not so very long ago his food consisted of hedgehog roasted in clay, nettle tea, snails toasted in hot ashes, or pheasant - the diet of the gipsies. 20th century civilisation has improved his lot to the extent of tinned food displacing the hedgehog and perhaps a radio to compete with the owl, but still the forest is the same -- the aloof whispering giants of oak which witnessed the hunting parties of the kings of long ago. What a tragedy for the spirit of romanticism if the materialism of our century proves too strong a call for the last of the burners, and the ancient smokey rites are performed for the last time.

Click here to view larger version of picture.A kiln burns steadily.

 

Note: this article comes from pages taken out of a magazine, but unfortunately nowhere on the pages does it tell me from which magazine. I believe the pages to be approximately twenty years old - so when you read about the situation for charcoal burners in current times, in the article, remember it refers to some time ago.  

If you want to see a more modern description of Charcoal Burning made in the context of supporting sustainable woodland management, then click on the picture below.                   

 Clear and simple description of the manufacturing of charcoal.

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The Fire Kindlers.

Introduction Foreword Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9

The Purkis Connection.

Purkess

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