New Forest charcoal burners span thousands of years and charcoal is the oldest of all New Forest industries. It is easy to underestimate the importance of charcoal to our forebears but it proved vital to the development and evolution of mankind. Charcoal consists mainly of carbon, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from wood. It is produced by a process known as pyrolysis – the heating of wood at a very high temperature in the absence of oxygen.
Man’s use of charcoal extends back as far as human history itself. However, it is its properties for smelting metals that made its biggest impact in history. Charcoal burners, known as wood colliers, are thought to have operated in the New Forest since the Bronze Age and, possibly before. In fact, it was charcoal that enabled tin and copper to be smelted together to create the bronze which defined the Bronze Age that spanned from c. 2500 until around 800 BC.
This was followed by the Iron Age. Iron proved more difficult to smelt than copper, requiring higher temperatures but again, this was achieved with the use of charcoal. From that period until 1700 and the introduction of coke, all iron was produced using charcoal as its heat source. The iron industry flourished in late medieval times in Hampshire including two sizeable mills at Sowley Pond, on the Lymington road outside Beaulieu, which were used for iron working until well into the 17th century. New Forest charcoal would have fueled the Sowley works as well as others in the county and it has also been recorded that ships transported large quantities of this local charcoal to Cornwall for use in the tin industry that flourished there for many centuries.
When the Romans invaded, it must have been a pleasant surprise to find that the ancient Britons that inhabited the area could produce charcoal, as they would certainly have needed charcoal for their pottery kilns. Their New Forest potteries produced a variety of different styles and types of pot, from the late third to late fourth centuries, and to this day fragments of Roman pottery can be found in certain parts of the New Forest, particularly around Amberwood and Sloden inclosures.
During the Norman period, there was ample evidence of charcoal burners in the New Forest after its founding by King William I (William the Conqueror) in 1079. After his death, his son William Rufus ascended to the throne as King William II and it was in August 1100 that he was killed by a stray arrow while hunting in the Forest. His body was left where he fell as his brother Henry, along with the rest of the hunting party, raced to Winchester (which was the English capital at that time) to claim the throne as King Henry I. It was a New Forest charcoal burner named Purkiss who found the body and transported it in his cart to Winchester, where the former King was buried in the cathedral. Purkiss would have had no difficulty in finding his way to Winchester as the Forest burners often went to the city to sell their charcoal.
From the Middle Ages to the 19th century charcoal makers would have been a common sight in the New Forest and their method of production using an earth clamp would not have changed significantly over the centuries. It was a skilled craft with the skills passed from father to son down the generations. The burn site had to be flat, without any tree stumps protruding, and all the undergrowth and vegetation had to be removed. The ideal site was flattened earth without dips to prevent air from entering the burn, and without leaf litter that could catch fire. Their sites were often reused for charcoal burning year after year. The cleared site was generally known as the hearth and the construction of the clamp or stack consisted of stacking the wood to be charred into a mound, then covering it with turf and earth to prevent air getting to the fire. The methods for burning varied, with each family of burners guarding their own particular way of doing it.
The charcoal burn took up to five days, depending on the thickness and wetness of the wood. A small clamp took as long to burn as a large clamp. When the burn was judged complete, the heap was allowed to cool which took a further day or two. In view of this lengthy process and the need to constantly monitor the burn, the charcoal burner lived in the woods in a makeshift hut that he constructed near the burn and in past centuries these temporary homes/shelters would have been a common sight across the New Forest. The charcoal burner always lived a rough and lonely existence, accompanied only by the sounds of the Forest, and many days would often pass without seeing a single soul.
From the Tudor period, more and more large standard trees were required to build ships for the Navy. This led to much friction between the charcoal burners and the Forest authorities over the ensuing centuries – a period when the Forest had a reputation for lawlessness and corruption among its officials. The inference was that the charcoal burners, of which there many, were destroying timber and depriving the Navy of wood suitable for their ships. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 which, among other things, made it illegal “for any collier to make or any Keeper or Under Keepers suffer any Coal-Hearths or Coal-Fires for making Charcoal within the said Forest to be made except in the waste ground and not within one thousand paces of any Inclosure.” A fine of £100 would be payable for every offence which would have been very severe by the standards of the day – equivalent to around £10,000 today.
It would appear from the phrasing of the law that Crown officers (Keepers and Under Keepers) responsible for the day to day administration of the Forest were not regarded as being entirely reliable in carrying out their duties! This is was borne out by the fact that in 1789 a report indicated that the provisions of the 1698 Act were being almost wholly disregarded, no doubt as a result of very few officials of the Forest administration being above suspicion of one crime or another. Indeed, it is an indication of the lawlessness of the Forest during a prolonged period that a Select Committee of the House of Commons subsequently reported in 1848 that conditions in the New Forest were worse than they had been at the time of the previous report.
Minstead is reported to have been the centre of, not only the Forest’s charcoal industry for several centuries, but also the centre of the Hampshire charcoal industry. This is thought to be due to the fact that the Manor of Minstead was a significant area of private land within the Forest but outside of its laws, which made it easy for timber to be taken from the Crown land for burning in adjacent “hearths”on private land. Among those producing charcoal in the village during the 1600s were the Purkas family, no doubt descendants of Purkiss who discovered the body of William Rufus, several centuries previously.
Possibly as a consequence of the authorities at last making a stand against the many abuses that were taking place, by the middle of the 19th century coppicing of trees (cutting off growth at ground level) was carried out to provide charcoal timber rather than taking mature trees. It was a method by which, within fifteen years, suitable timber could be grown from the stools of previously coppiced trees to a size sufficient for charcoal production.
At the end of the 19th century, this old Forest craft was beginning to die out with coal and coke having taken its place. In his book “The New Forest”, first published in 1899, Horace Hutchinson commented that “the race of Purkiss has flourished exceedingly in the Forest, and burns charcoal to this day. The charcoal burning trade, however, is not what it used to be. The big manufacturers send down their own men to the Forest nowadays to burn the charcoal they require and, thus, interfere with the hereditary trade…………The trade, however, has lately been drifting out of the hands of the Purkiss family in favour of the Tinsleys………….The old encampment at Mark Ash is still there but that at Castle Malwood has disappeared and this caste which formed a living link with the prehistoric past seems likely to die out all together“. It has also been reported elsewhere that the influx of ‘immigrant’ burners from the big manufacturers had to be limited after certain incidents more fitting to a boxing ring!
By the early part of the 20th century the New Forest charcoal industry appears to have died out completely. However with the outbreak of WW1 and the threat of gas attacks to frontline troops from 1915 onwards, charcoal production was re-introduced to the Forest using the traditional method of clamp burning covered with turfs as described above. It is reported that there was only one man left, Frederick Cull of Copythorne, who still retained the secrets of this method of production. His family had originally been part of the charcoal burning community based around Minstead and his father, Maurice, was thought to have been one of the last two charcoal burners remaining in the Forest at the end of the 19th century. Armed with the knowledge passed down by his father, who by that time was deceased, Frederick and his brothers recommenced charcoal production in the Nomansland area for the duration of the war using the Forest’s hardwoods. Because of its absorbent and purification qualities, the charcoal was sent largely to France for use in gas masks and water filtration.
With the end of hostilities, the demand for charcoal fell dramatically as did production in the Forest. In his book “The New Forest Beautiful” published in 1925, author F E Stevens writes about charcoal, “It is practised still in the Forest, though only, as far as I can trace, by one man. He is the very last……………The last lone “operator” of an almost forgotten trade plies it in the woods of the central Forest not far from Minstead. He lives in a camp during the burning season and alone, for it is a one man job, though highly skilled“.
Just over a decade later the prospect of war was looming large again. As a consequence, immediately prior to and during WW2 the industry went through another brief revival, with the requirement for forty million gas respirators for the UK civil population, all needing charcoal for their filters, which the New Forest burners provided. Production this time was by the more modern method of metal ring kilns which produced the finished product more quickly.
The Forestry Commission had started trials of these around the Forest in 1936. A bundle of old Forestry Commission correspondence held in the National Archives dating from 1936, refers to experimental trials for mobile charcoal retorts (ring kilns) in the New Forest. Their purpose was to generate income from waste timber in various locations in the Forest which included Cadnam, Nomansland, Millyford (Emery Down) and Burley. The design and operation reduced the burn process to around 20 hours – a significant improvement on the old earth clamp method It appears that this particular trial came to a halt following the onset of the Second World War but it is the first instance of ring kilns being used in the Forest. After the war the demand for charcoal dropped materially as the craze for summer BBQs was still some decades away.
The last significant charcoal production in the New Forest ceased around the late sixties/early seventies. Up until that time, three different firms pursued the trade. The largest site was in Pondhead Inclosure, situated near Lyndhurst just off the Beaulieu Road. Nine kilns were working there surrounded by neat piles of timber, cut and stacked ready for burning.
Nowadays, this old Forest tradition is being revived in Pondhead by the award winning conservation charity, Pondhead Conservation Trust with the aid of a modern charcoal retort which produces premium charcoal with a high carbon content in 10 hours or less. The timber they use comes from the coppice restoration work that they are carrying out in the inclosure with the aid of volunteers. All charcoal is sold through local shops for BBQs and further details about New Forest charcoal supplies and/or volunteering can be found on their website at www.pondheadconservation.org.uk
Unfortunately, nowadays over 90% of charcoal consumed in the UK is imported, coming mainly from Africa and Asia and often from non sustainable forest resources. It is also generally of inferior quality to charcoal produced in this country, containing a lower carbon content and hence the need for accelerants!