Charcoal Burning in the Felbridge Area

Charcoal Burning in the Felbridge Area

Charcoal, the black residue of wood produced by smothered burning, has been used in Britain since before the Roman invasion and was the smelting fuel of the Bronze and Iron ages. The most important use of charcoal in the past, apart from domestic fuel, was as a fuel for metallurgical processes, in bronze casting, brass making, copper smelting, and, particularly in the Felbridge area, iron smelting. It was used both as a fuel and ingredient in the glass industry, which was introduced by the Romans. Their traditions of glass making continued well into the 900’s using charcoal to replace the soda ash in the mix, the purpose in both cases to reduce the melting point of the silica. Glass was later worked in a few isolated glassworks in the Weald area, where a course glass was blown from the 1300’s. Also, from as early as 1300, charcoal has been an ingredient in the production of gunpowder in Britain. Crayons, pigment in ink and pigment for tattoos and body-decoration have all obtained their black colouration from charcoal. The medieval period saw it used in the manufacture of soap and medicines, and charcoal was the primary fuel used for drying hops, and later, in the Victorian period, in charcoal-irons – halfway between a flat-iron and the electric iron. More recently, charcoal has been used as a filter, to remove toxins and colours from air and water, i.e. for removing undesirable flavour from drinking water, odour from sewage and in the manufacture of gas masks. For the general population it is still used as a fuel, but usually only in the barbeque season.

The wood used for charcoal depended on what was available in the area and the intended use of the charcoal when produced. Different charcoals have slightly different properties and are therefore specific for certain jobs. Hard woods make hard charcoal and soft woods make soft charcoal. The metallurgical industry required hard charcoal and the best wood for this are the oak (Quercus robur) and Quercus petraea) and the hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), both hardwoods. These provide the finest fuel for sustained heat, and because the charcoal is hard it is not crushed by the weight of the iron ore when piled above it in the furnace. Harder, stronger charcoals will support a greater height in the furnace and will burn hotter, producing higher carbon iron. If the charcoal was crushed, the draught up the furnace would be blocked and the furnace cooled. Blacksmiths and farriers found that sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), introduced by the Romans, best suited their needs. The sweet chestnut gives as good a heat as both oak and hornbeam, but it has the advantages of being quick to kindle and to extinguish. In the absence or shortage of oak and hornbeam, the next best fuel for the metallurgical industry was also sweet chestnut, even though it is a soft charcoal.

Charcoal, as a fuel, for hop drying and domestic heating and cooking, was less demanding, and general-purpose charcoals include, alder (Alnus glutinosa), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), beech (Fagus sylvatica), birch (Betula pendula), elm (Ulmus procera), hazel (Corylus avellana) and sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). For the drying of hops, it was also common practise to use the replaced rotten hop poles, made of alder, as fuel, therefore cutting down on the cost of raw material for drying. For gunpowder-making soft woods such as alder (Alnus glutinosa), aspen (Populus tremula), lime (Tilia vulgaris) and willow (Salix caprea), with their bark removed, were used. Soft charcoal will grind easily to a fine powder that is unlikely to cause sparks during grinding. A very desirable property in gunpowder making! Charcoal was also traditionally used in herbal medicine and included, alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus), beech (Fagus sylvatica), dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), elm (Ulmus procera), hazel (Corylus avellana), oak (Quercus robur and Quercus petraea), poplar (Populus balsamifera) and willow (Salix caprea).

Charcoal burning was practised in the Felbridge area from as early as the 1st century AD, if not earlier. The evidence to support this is that charcoal went hand-in-hand with the production of iron and there is evidence of a thriving iron industry in the area in the Roman period. After the Roman withdrawal the iron industry went into decline but there was a re-establishment of the iron industry in the Tudor period in the Felbridge area that continued until its demise in the late Georgian period. Charcoal was also used in the manufacture of gunpowder, and one of the great gunpowder making families of England held land in the area from 1588. This would suggest that charcoal was in great demand in the Felbridge area from the mid 1500’s to the late 1700’s to supply the iron industry with fuel and the gunpowder industry with one of its vital ingredients for firing the weapons being made by the iron industry.

The Felbridge area straddles the Surrey and Sussex county boundary and extends from the North at Newchapel, through a valley bottom at Hedgecourt and then rises up to a ridge to the South at Gullege. Felbridge sits firmly on a belt of Tunbridge Wells sand in the Weald, with Weald clay to the North and Wadhurst clay to the South. Historically, Wealden clay was the ideal habitat for heavy oak cover, and evidence suggests that in pre-history, up to 8300 BC, the area was covered by dense woodland with boggy patches and outcrops of sandstone. Being heavily wooded meant that the Felbridge area would have had an abundance of wood, initially as building material and domestic fuel, but later as charcoal. In addition to being the ideal habitat for oak, the area also has deposits of iron ore that were laid down during the Cretaceous period. The other main feature of the area is clay, which, together with charcoal and ore, form the raw materials for smelting, the clay being used for building hearths and furnaces, hence the thriving early iron industry that developed in the area.

The first forms of fuel for either domestic use or the iron industry would have been wood. Once alight, and if carefully tended, a wood fire could be used for heat and cooking, and a wood-fired bloomery or furnace could easily reach temperatures of 900°C and could be flashed up to 1100°C with fine, pine twigs or straw. However, wood suffers from the disadvantage of being both heavy and bulky, and would therefore have been expensive to transport. Further more wood as a fuel produces large quantities of ash and smoke. However, charcoal has the property of burning without smoke, leaving little ash, at temperatures in excess of 1200°C. Charcoal contains low levels of impurities such as sulphur, which, if present, need some form of ventilation in domestic use and can cause problems in smelting. Another advantage of charcoal over wood as a fuel lies in its lightness and ease of transportation.

Charcoal is a naturally occurring form of carbon, which burns with intense heat, and also has chemical properties that enable it to be used to extract metals from their ores. Carbon is a reducing agent and as such can reduce iron ore, releasing the iron. Iron ore is predominately made up of ferrous carbonate and when heated forms iron oxide, and without the presence of carbon nothing further would happen. In a smelter, the carbon combines with the oxygen in the oxides, removing it, and leaving the uncombined, free metal. In gunpowder making charcoal is incorporated with saltpetre and sulphur, the saltpetre supplying the oxygen while the charcoal and sulphur supply the fuel and intense heat at which it burns.

Charcoal is a black porous substance with a high carbon content obtained by the controlled heating of wood with a restricted air supply. The control of air during the burning process prevents the wood from being burnt to ash and holds the burning process at the stage where the wood is converted to charcoal, i.e. carbon. Wood is converted to charcoal at a temperature of about 500°C turning the wood into charcoal (carbon) and water (steam). The process starts with heating the wood, as the heating continues the temperature of the wood rises, this starts the reaction to form charcoal that continues until the wood is entirely blackened; thus charcoal has been produced. Further heating, combined with the introduction of air, would cause the wood to catch fire, this would complete the burning reaction of wood, yielding carbon dioxide, but this is not the desired reaction when charcoal burning.

The earliest method for making charcoal was by digging pits into the ground, filling them with wood and charring it under a covering of turf or earth. Charcoal production by this method would have been small scale producing poor quality charcoal, as there was little control over the burning. To make charcoal, the chemical reactions can be controlled by either preventing the temperature from rising high enough for full burning, or by preventing oxygen from getting to the wood. By the 17th century, charcoal burning had advanced and depended on controlling the air supply to the fire. The idea was to get a large quantity of wood to a high enough temperature for conversion to charcoal, while preventing oxygen getting to it and burning the charcoal to carbon dioxide. At the same time, the steam formed had to be allowed to escape. Charcoal burning was generally carried out in woodland, or close to wood in order to avoid moving the wood great distances.

As a point of interest, the most comprehensive information concerning the process of charcoal making in the 17th century comes from a detailed study by John Evelyn in his book ‘Silva’ published in 1664. The Evelyn family had had a long vested interest in charcoal making as they were licenced to make gunpowder for the King and had powder mills at Tolworth, Godstone, Wotton and Aldinger in the Tillingbourne Valley. In the late 1580’s George Evelyn and his son, were manufacturing gunpowder at Lee Mill, Godstone and in 1588, George bought seventy acres of land in Felbridge, possibly for the woodland for charcoal making, used in the manufacture of gunpowder. John Evelyn, who wrote ‘Silva’, was the grandson of George Evelyn and his second wife, and went on to inherit Wotton. Later in 1748, Edward Evelyn, great great grandson of George Evelyn and his first wife, acquired the iron industry of the Felbridge area, which included Warren furnace and Woodcock hammer forge, when he purchased the manor of Hedgecourt from the Gage family.

Concerns over the exploitation of one of the county’s natural resources were voiced as early as the 13th century, resulting in legislation aimed at the control of woodland exploitation, introduced in the Forest Charter of 1217. The Charter laid a charge of 2d per year per cart and ½d per year per packhorse for wood and charcoal removed from the Royal Forests. A licence was also required to burn charcoal, with a prison sentence for those who habitually offended. In 1290, the export of charcoal was actually prohibited in the Weald, which included the Felbridge area. Concerns grew with the expansion of the iron industry, which by the 16th century required enormous quantities of charcoal. In 1547, the Worth iron works, Sussex, record an average use of 3000 cords of wood for the furnace and 1500 cords of wood for the forge. This would be similar to the furnace and forge operation of the Felbridge area, and there is evidence, from the Knights Carrier’s records of the 1760’s, that Warren furnace frequently got ‘chaldrons of coles’ from Woolwich, and timber from both Wakehurst and Rowfant, to sustain the production of iron. The timber would be charcoaled in the vicinity of the furnace to supplement locally produced timber and charcoal. Local sources of wood for charcoal for the iron industry would have come from the Furnace Wood and Cuttinglye Wood area, but there is also evidence that the Alfrey family, who lived at Gullege in 1643, leased their woodland for coppicing, which would also have supplied the local iron industry.

In 1573, a Royal commission reported of the Wealden area: ‘Besides these furnaces aforesaid, there are not so few as a hundred furnaces and Iron Mylles in Sussex, Surrey and Kent, which is greatly to the decaie, spoile and overthrowe of woods and principle tymber, with a great decaye also of tillage for that they are continuallie employed in carrying furniture for the said workes, and likewise a great decaie of the highways because they carrie all the wyntertyme’. As a result of this, regulations were passed prohibiting the making of charcoal from mature wood, allowing only coppice to be used, this superseded previous regulations that had been introduced earlier in the 1500’s that ensured a dozen standard trees were left to an acre of clear felling so that regeneration through seed might follow. In 1581 and 1585, Queen Elizabeth I passed two Acts of Parliament to control the activities of ironmasters in the South East area, the objective being to preserve the larger timber, whilst permitting the production of charcoal from coppice or underwood. Fines were high, as John Thorpe and his son Thomas, of the manor of Hedgecourt, discovered in the 1580’s, when they ‘entered lands called Millwood (Furnace Wood) and Cuddinglye (Cuttinglye) and had cut down, stibbed and rooted up the most part of the woods and other of the demesnes (manor)’. For this they had to pay a Bill of Complaint to the value of £3000, and another £1000 for ‘decayed stubbs cut down of 2000 great and sound trees’.

The iron and charcoal industries of the 16th and 17th century have been blamed for the destruction of much woodland, but it is where they were most active that you find the greatest density of woodland today. The explanation for this is that the charcoal burners harvested the natural increase of the land, looking on their fuel-wood as a crop that would renew itself after each cutting. This was known as coppicing and from an early period this system had been carried out. It was a system by which within fifteen years, (or twelve for hazel), such trees as ash, beech, oak, and later, sweet chestnut, could be grown to a sufficient size, off the boles of previously felled trees. Farm animals were excluded from these coppices by the digging of ditches and the setting up of hedges of quickthorn grown on banks. The Felbridge area, although no longer covered by the great Andreadsweald Forest, is still part of the most wooded area of Britain and traces of the old coppiced woods can still be found.

Charcoal Making in the 17th Century

Wood to be used for charcoal was generally coppiced during early spring before the tree had started to shoot and before the sap started to rise. It was then cut into lengths of between 2ft and 4ft (0.6m and 1.2m) and stacked in cords to season for several months. A cord was a unit of cut fuel wood, equal to about 128 cubic feet (3.6 cubic metres), in a stack measuring 4ft by 4ft by 8ft (1.2m. by 1.2m by 2.4m). For the iron industry John Evelyn recommended that ‘Good Oak was cut into lengths of 3ft (0.9m). This was better than cordwood’. When seasoned the wood was transported to the burning point on a barrow with no sides known as a mare. John Evelyn recommended that the wood be best collected in June, as the ground was then ‘most dry and passable’.

The Burn Site and Hearth
The burn site has to be flat, without any tree stumps protruding, and all the under growth and vegetation has to be removed. The ideal site is flattened earth without dips, to prevent air from entering the burn, and without leaf litter that can catch fire. Sites were often reused for charcoal burning, year after year. This saved the labour of site preparation, as the undergrowth and vegetation would not have grown back. The cleared site has several names, the hearth, the pit, the pet or the petstead. The hearth is then marked out by erecting a stake or motty-peg, of about 6ft (1.8m) in height, at the centre and marking out a circle by using a cord of wood. John Evelyn stated that the circumference of the hearth depended upon the number of ‘stacks’ to hand to charcoal. A ratio of one stack to 2ft (1.2m) was adopted; i.e. twelve stacks required a hearth with a circumference of 24ft (7.2m).

Building a Clamp
The construction of the clamp or stack consists of stacking the wood to be charred into a mound, then covering the wood 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 following is the method as outlined by John Evelyn.

Having marked out the hearth, a chimney is built around the motty-peg in the centre, by laying a triangle of sticks around it to a height of 3ft to 4ft (0.9m to 1.2m). A layer of wood is laid flat on the earth within the hearth. This done, the main wood to be charred is set vertically against the triangular chimney, leaning slightly inwards toward the chimney. Whilst stacking, the wood should be stacked equally around all three sides of the chimney to avoid too much weight in one position and pushing the structure over.

This layer of slightly leaning wood is covered with a horizontal layer of wood, and another layer of slightly inward leaning wood is placed on top. When the stack is built to a height of about 6ft (1.8m), i.e. two layers of slightly inward leaning stacked wood and two layers of horizontal wood, a third layer of wood is laid horizontally and built up to form a dome shape, some 8ft (2.4m) tall. It is important that the layers do not touch the motty-peg to ensure there is a tunnel through the clamp.

For ease of stacking, the wood used should be about 3ft (0.9m) in length. The thickness of the wood could vary but the thicker the wood the longer the charring process. Similarly, well-seasoned dry wood takes less time than unseasoned wet wood.

Having built the clamp it is covered with small sticks of 1″ to 2″ (2.5cm to 5cm) in diameter to fill in any gaps and make it more airtight. This is then covered with damp straw or bracken to a depth of about 1″ (2.5cm). A layer of turf is then placed over this, grass side in, and the cracks filled with sieved soil. This is also to be damp and pressed down with a shovel to prevent air from entering.

The Burn
The central stake or motty-peg is then removed and about a peck, (2 gallons, 9 litres), of charcoal was tipped in, followed by burning charcoal and finally a cover of charcoal. Once the fire is alight, the chimney is covered over with a temporary turf. This process, called dressing the stack, continues at two hourly intervals until the charcoal is fully alight to the top. The purpose of this is to heat up the clamp to the 500-600°C needed to start the wood charring. The whole top is then permanently covered with turf. Vent holes are made at 2ft to 3ft (0.6m to 1.2m) intervals about half way down. These holes allow the enormous amounts of steam and smoke that is produced to vent from the clamp.

The clamp at this point is full of hot gases trying to escape through any cracks in the covering. Any holes or cracks should be sealed with earth and patted down firmly, leaving only the vent holes open. The clamp has to be damped down occasionally to stop the earth from drying out and falling away. About twelve hours after the chimney is permanently capped, the vent holes are moved further down the clamp and the first set filled in. This enables the wood further down the clamp to start charring. This process takes place about every eight hours until they are close to the ground and the entire clamp is charring.

The heap slumping indicates the progress of charring the wood. Charcoal occupies about 20% less volume than wood. It is important that the soil is patted down as the heap slumps to help keep the crust in place against the charcoal. Failure to do this will lead to cracks and the surface could cave in. The hole created is initially black, but very hot, then as air gets in the charcoal will rapidly ignite to red, and there is a danger of a major fire breaking out. The hole must be filled as quickly as possible, by pushing down hard on the crust around the hole, and by filling the hole with turf or soil. A check on the crust should be made at least every twenty minutes.

Progress of wood charring is also indicated by changes in the colour of the heap. Initially the clamp is the colour of the earth used, but progressively darkens as tars and oils are driven off from the wood, staining and blackening the crust. In addition, around the vent holes rings of yellow, white and black material appears. The yellow is elemental sulphur driven out of the wood bark by the heat. Finally, the amount and colour of the smoke coming from the clamp changes. The thick clouds of greenish steam formed initially will subside gradually to a steady trickle of white smoke coming from the vents. If blue smoke is seen, it means that air is getting into the clamp and burning the charcoal.

Charcoal burning takes between two and five days, depending on the thickness and wetness of the wood. A small clamp will take as long to burn as a large clamp. Apart from the slumping and the colour of the crust and smoke, pushing a rake handle into the clamp can also check on progress. Any wood left will thump against the handle, whereas, charcoal will scrunch crisply.

Extracting the Charcoal
When the burn is judged complete, all the vents are stopped up and the heap is allowed to cool. This may take a day or two, and is usually assisted by making holes in the heap and pouring 1pint (0.6 litre) of water down each hole before refilling the hole. To speed up the process the crust can also be made thinner to allow heat to escape. Finally, when cool, the clamp can be opened.

To open the clamp the crust is pulled off with rakes, there must be water to hand in case the charcoal is not quite cold and ignites when exposed to air. Earth and turf should be pulled clear of the heap and away from the charcoal. The stacked charcoal is then sprinkled with water and the heap is pulled apart rapidly to cool the charcoal. It is important to watch the smoke at this point; blue smoke indicates that the hot charcoal is beginning to burn and needs quenching with water. Charcoal should be watched as it cools and not moved or bagged up for a least one day in case of fire.

After cooling, the charcoal is raked out and sieved, using a ½″ (1.3cm) mesh, this removes any soil. It can then be bagged. John Evelyn stated that it was then graded, with the large bits used for iron smelting, and smaller bits for domestic heating and cooking.

Yield of charcoal varied depending on whether it was soft wood charcoal or hard wood charcoal, and on how much moisture was still present in the charcoal at the end of the process. On average it has been suggested that the weight of wood in relation to charcoal it produces is between 5:1 and 7:1. If 5:1 is taken as a proportion, a cord of wood weighing 25cwt (1270kg) would yield ¼ton (254kg) of charcoal.

Decline of traditional charcoal burning

One of the biggest users of charcoal was the iron industry, however, by 1709, Abraham Darby, working at Coalbrookdale, succeeded in turning coal into coke, relatively pure mineral carbon. Coke was easy to produce and coal was relatively cheap, which made it a viable substitute for charcoal for the iron industry. The production of coke, coupled with fluctuation in war activity, decreased the need for traditionally produced charcoal. The result of this is that the traditional method of charcoal production had to be reviewed and experiments were conducted to try and improve carbonisation methods, and to try and make charcoal production viable and competitive. One of the first changes was to build an annular brick wall to replace turf used in the traditional method and by 1800, iron vessels were being used, initially static and fired by an external heating system, centralising the production of charcoal. Portable systems were also developed that could be moved to the vicinity of the raw material, rather than the wood having to be transported to and stored at the centralised area. The advantages of metal kilns were that there was no longer a need for mountains of turf and sieved soil, they were less labour intensive, they speeded up the process, there was no longer a need for twenty-four attendance and when cool, the kiln would only contain charcoal, no longer did you have to sieve the soil out of the product.

The need for charcoal continued to decline during the years of the Industrial Revolution and with the large static charcoal producing factories it was inevitable that the traditional charcoal burn would either be replaced by the metal kiln or die out completely in some areas. However, the traditional method of making charcoal has survived and can still be witnessed, but nowadays, generally as demonstration displays and not as a way of making a living.

Traditional charcoal burner’s life

Charcoal burning is a potentially hazardous occupation. The dangers are fires, inhalation of smoke and accidents due to tiredness. A working charcoal clamp is full of hot dry charcoal that will burst into flames in a few minutes if air gets to it. The resulting fire may not only burn the clamp but also the surrounding woodland. It is for these reasons that charcoal burners, known as woodcolliers, would camp out for the duration of the burning season.

The image of a woodcollier is that they traditionally lived out in the woods close to their raw material – wood, but evidence suggests that this was only during the burning season, but that could be anything up to twenty-three weeks. For the remainder of the year they would return to their families and cottages. There is evidence, however, that some charcoal burners took the entire family with them for the duration of the season, as in the case of James Francis who operated in the Horsham area. A local charcoal burner, Robert King, appears in the 1851 Census, he was born in 1799, in the parish of Worth, and is listed as a charcoal burner, occupying a ‘cabin’ on ‘Burley Farm’, where he employs one charcoal burner’s labourer called John Cook, who is listed as his servant, also occupying the ‘cabin’. The census records that Robert King is the owner of this ‘cabin’, though this was probably only a charcoal burner’s hut. Robert King is a widower but John Cook has a family although they are not living at the charcoal burn site but in a cottage in Turner’s Hill village, where his wife Mary is listed as head of the household in the 1851 Census.

At the time that Robert King and John Cook were operating, John Stanbridge jnr. occupied and farmed ‘Burley Farm’ that was under the ownership of Sir Timothy Shelley Bart. There were only two small wooded areas on ‘Burley Farm’, however, Sir Timothy Shelley owned over 570 acres in the area and it is possible that Robert King had access to other wooded areas within his ownership for charcoal production. Another local charcoal burner was Richard Davis who was born in 1792. He is listed at Copthorne Cottage, between Great Frenches and Little Frenches in Snow Hill, in 1841. The location of this property would suggest that perhaps he was operating in the Furnace Wood and Cuttinglye Wood area, although there is no direct evidence for this at present. The only other known information about Richard Davis is that he would appear to have been working alone and as yet we can find no trace of an immediate family in the area. He died in 1850, and is buried in Crawley Down Churchyard. This too was the final resting place for John Cook who died in 1862. A slightly later charcoal burner in the Felbridge area was William Francis, who practised charcoal burning in several areas in Essex and Surrey before moving from Shere, Surrey, to Copthorne in 1899. William Francis, known as ‘Red’, together with his youngest son Ernest, made charcoal in Furnace Wood and at Hindleap Warren on Ashdown Forest. William Francis retired from charcoal burning in 1926, and Ernest died young in 1928. The legacy of William Francis’s knowledge of charcoal production did not die with him in 1932, but can still be seen at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, Sussex, where Mr A Langridge, son-in-law of William’s second son, James, both charcoal burners, set up the charcoal burner’s camp. Mr A Langridge retired from charcoal burning in the Horsham area in 1948, but did give several demonstrations at Singleton in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Whilst living in the woods the woodcollier would build small shelters out of poles in the form of a tee-pee, which were then covered with turf to keep the worst of the weather out. For a description of these huts we can turn to the Francis family, who had been in the business for generations with one branch of the family operating in the Felbridge area at the turn of the 20th century. In general, the huts were about 10ft (3m) in diameter and made of sixteen poles of between 12ft (3.6m) and 14ft (4.2m) in length. Some of these were forked at the top and all met at the apex of the cone and were tied together. Six horizontal pieces formed a girdle around the construction, leaving a place open for the door that faced the clamp so that the woodcollier had a constant view of the burn. These shorter pieces were tied to the long poles with cord. Sacks were put over the cone to form a lining for the hut and then, starting at ground level, leafy brushwood twigs were stuck all around at an angle to key the turf covering. The turf was stacked like bricks, grass side uppermost in horizontal courses. When the brushwood twigs were nearly covered, a second stage could be added, and then more turf until the top was reached. A porch, giving headroom and shelter from the rain was brought forward when the poles were first set in position. Inside the huts, two platforms were constructed, one to either side of the porch with a passageway between. These were made of stakes placed lengthways held by shorter staves driven into the ground at the ends. These were sprung with brushwood and made comfortable beds with a mattress of straw-filled sacks. Sacks also provided a curtain or door that could be turned back over the porch roof when not needed. A brazier of burning charcoal could be put in the doorway of the hut, but never left there over night because of the danger of fumes. To deflect a persistent wind, hurdles were positioned round the camp; these were made of materials to hand and could be moved round if the wind changed direction.

In some cases, as with James Francis, the entire family would be accommodated within these huts. The children would attend the nearest school and would bring back with them whatever was needed from the shop. Bread was the staple diet and a sack of flour was brought back once a week. The Francis family found that their diet was often supplemented by skimmed milk that could be bought before the First World War from local farmers, also available were small or cracked eggs and occasionally fruit and vegetables that were unsuitable for market. They also had the ‘fruits’ of the surrounding woodland, nuts, berries, snails and the occasional wild animal or bird.

The charcoal burner was totally dependant upon the weather, and a persistent wet period would mean a serious lack of money. The usual programme for a charcoal burner was to build and burn a kiln in a week, this included dismantling the kiln. Before the First World War, the Francis family could expect to earn between 20/- (£1) and 30/- (£1.50), the equivalent of a junior silversmith of the time. Extra money could also be earned from the making and selling of baskets and besom brooms, made from locally gathered materials.

Once the charcoal was produced it could be sold direct by the charcoal burner or through a merchant or dealer. There is mention of a merchant in the 1851 Census, Richard Day, who is listed as a charcoal merchant of London Road, East Grinstead, so it is possible that charcoal produced in the Felbridge area was sold through a merchant. Richard Day appears in several trade directories but by 1862, he has diversified and lists himself as a charcoal and timber merchant. By 1866, he is listed as a farmer as well as a charcoal dealer. The diversification would suggest a decline in the need for charcoal as by 1874, he is listed as a farmer and charcoal dealer, licenced to let pony traps, furniture and other goods removed by van and cart. Certainly as you move towards the early years of the 20th century charcoal production had declined in the area, and possibly one of the last charcoal burns in the Felbridge area was witnessed by Barbara Christie, n¾e Thomas. She recounts: ‘I was about the age of seventeen, circa 1932, and remember stumbling across a charcoal burner in the woods in what is now Domewood, between the quarry and the area of Brooknook, Furnace Wood. The man was fairly old, with classical features and pickled-looking – like the peat-bog man. He was very quiet and worked on his own. The burn was about 3ft (0.9m) tall and 4ft (1.2m) across, covered with turf. His shelter was constructed thus; if you can imagine a North American wigwam cut in half, with poles tied at the top, covered in turf, facing the burn. It stood about the height of the man’s shoulder height so that he could only crouch in it, not lay down, presumably to watch it [the burn] and pour water on it when needed’.

Early evidence that charcoal burning was practised in the Felbridge area can be found along side the Roman bloomery sites on the River Fel. More recent evidence that charcoal burning was practised in the area can be found in Domewood and Furnace Wood where it is still possible to find remnants of the coppiced woodland. However, this is easy to miss as the trees now have a circumference of several feet, the only tell-tale sign is that there will be several ‘trees’ growing from a single bole, the result of the original stem being coppiced and the bole sprouting several new saplings. If not re-coppiced the saplings will grow as big as trees, unfortunately because they grow from the base there is usually a hollow spot at the centre of the bole that can trap water and eventually the tree will rot. Other evidence of charcoal burning in the Felbridge area include, charcoal pits that have been found in the grounds of ‘Gnomon’ in Cuttinglye Wood and in Furnace Wood on waste land next to ‘Wedgwood’, Lake View Road, and in the area between ‘Owlswood’ and ‘April Cottage’, Felcot Road. There are also large areas of land scattered with charcoal fragments on Imberhorne Farm near the River Fel, on land that was once woodland.

Doomsday Book for Sussex
Census records 1841, 1851, 1881, FHA
Kelly’s Trade Directory 1862, 1866, 1874, EG Library
Worth Tithe map and apportionment, 1839, FHA
The Iron Industry of the Weald by Cleere & Crossley
Wealden Iron by E Straker
Documents in the Firle Muniments relating to Warren Furnace and Woodcock Hammer, FHA
The Gunpowder Industry by G Crocker
Surrey’s Industrial Past by G Crocker
Watermills of Surrey by D Stiddler
Charcoal Burning in the 17th Century by M Stratford
“Silva: or, a discourse of Forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in his Majesty’s dominions” by J Evelyn
Book of British Woodlands by M Allaby
Trees, Woods and Man by H Edlin
Searching for Hornbeam by C Howkins & N Sampson
Trees, Herbs and Charcoal Burners by C Howkins
Woodcolliers and Charcoal Burning by L Armstrong
Traditional Crafts in Britain by Reader’s Digest
Woodland Crafts in Britain by H Edlin
Weald and Downland Open Air Museum Guidebook
The Last Charcoal Burners, article by E Stroud, FHA
Charcoal Production, A Handbook by A Hollingdale, R Krishnan & A Robinson
Charcoal Burning, an eyewitness report c1932, by B Christie, FHA
The Last Charcoal Burner by J Bowden, article from Sussex County Magazine, FHA
Charcoal Burning, by T Young,
Brief History of Charcoal, by A Carew,
Fuel for the Fires: Charcoal Making in the 19th century, by C Prairie
Charcoal Manufacture, by C Prairie,

Thanks are also afforded to Ella Jarvis, grand-daughter of William Francis, for her information and loan of photographs.

p.s. In the article by E Stroud referring to the last charcoal burners; the John Francis she refers to is actually William Francis.

SJC 05/02

Extract from ‘Sylva’ by John Evelyn, 1664

There is made of char-coal usually three sorts, viz. one for the iron-works, a second for gunpowder, and a third for London and the Court, besides Small-coals of which we shall also speak in its due place.
We will begin with that sort which is us’d for the Ironworks, because the rest are made much after the same manner, and with very little difference.
The best Wood for this is good oak, cut into lengths of three foot, as they size it for the Stack: this is better than the Cord-wood, though of a large measure, and much used in Sussex.
The Wood cut, and set in stacks ready for the Coaling, chuse out some level place in the Copp’ce, the most free from stubbs, etc. to make the Hearth on: in the midst of this area drive down a stake for your Centre, and with a pole, having a ring fastened to one of the extreams (or else with a Cord put over the Centre) describe a circumference from twenty or more feet semi-diameter, according to the quantity of your Wood designed for coaling, which being near may conveniently be Chared on that Hearth; and which at one time may be 12, 16, 20, 24, even to 30 stack: If 12 therefore be the quantity you will Coal, a circle whose diameter is 24 foot will suffice for the Hearth; if 20 stack, a diameter of 32 foot; if 30, 40 foot, and so proportionably.
Having thus marked out the ground, with Mattocks, Haws, and fit instruments, bare it of the Turf, and of all other combustible stuff whatsoever, which you are to rake up towards the Peripherie, or out-side of the circumference, for an use to be afterwards made of it; plaining and levelling the ground with the Circle: this done the wood is to be brought from the nearest part where it is stacked in Wheel-barrows: and first the smallest of it plac’d at the utmost limit, or very margin of the Hearth, where it is to be placed longways as it lay in the stack; the biggest of the Wood pitch, or set up on end round about against the small-wood, and all this within the Circle, till you come within five or six foot of the Centre: at which distance you shall begin to set the Wood in a Triangular form till it come to be three foot high. Against this again, place your greater Wood almost perpendicular, reducing it from the Triangular to a Circular form, till having gained a yard or more you may pile the Wood longways as it lay in the stack, being careful that the ends of the Wood do not touch the Pole which must now be erected in the centre, nine foot in height, that so there may remain a round hole, which is to be formed in working up the Stack-wood, for a Tunnel, and the more commodious firing of the pit, as they call it, tho’ not very properly. This provided for, go on to Pile, and set your Wood upright to the other as before; till having gained a yard or more you lay it long-ways again, as was shew’d; And thus continue the work, still enterchanging the position of the Wood, till the whole Area of the Hearth and Circle be filled and piled up the least eight foot high, and so drawn in by degrees in Piling, that it resemble the form of a copped brown Household-loaf, filling all inequalities with the smaller Trunchions, till it lie very close, and be perfectly and evenly shaped. This done, take straw, haume or fern, and lay it on the outside of the bottom of the heap, or wood, to keep the next cover from falling amongst the sticks; upon this put on the Turf, and cast on the dust and Rubbish which was grubbed and raked up at the making of the Hearth, and reserved near the circle of it; and with this cover the whole heap of Wood to the very top of the Pit or Tunnel, to a reasonable and competent thickness, beaten close and even, that so the fire may not vent but in places where you intend it; and if in preparing the Hearth, at first, there did not rise sufficient Turf and Rubbish for this work, supply it from some convenient place near to your heap: There be who cover this again with a sandy, or finer mould, which if it close well, need not be above an inch or two thick: This done, provide a Screene; by making light hurdles with slot rods, and straw of a competent thickness, to keep off the Wind, and broad, and high enough to defend an opposite side to the very top of your Pit, being eight or nine foot; and so as to be easily removed, as need shall requiring, for the luing of your pit.
When now all is in this posture, and the wood well rang’d, and clos’d, as has been directed, set fire to your heap; But first you must provide you with a Ladder to ascend the top of your Pit: This they usually make of a curved Tiller fit to apply to the convex shape of the Heap, and cut it full of notches for the commodious setting of the colliers’ feet, whiles they govern the Fire above; when now they pull up and take away the Stake which was erected at the Centre, to guide the building of the Pile and cavity of the Tunnel. This done, put in a quantity of Char-coals (about a peck) and let them fall to the bottom of the Hearth; upon them cast in Coals that are fully kindled; and when those that were first put in are beginning to sink, throw in more fuel, and so from time to time, till the Coals have universally taken fire up to the top: Then cut an ample and reasonably thick Turf, and clap it over the hole, or mouth of the Tunnel, stopping it as close as may be with some of the former dust and rubbish: Lastly, with the handles of your Rakers, or the like, you must make Vent-holes or Registers (as our Chymists would name them) through the stuff which covers your Heap to the very Wood, those in Rangers of two or three foot distance, quite round within a foot (or thereabout) of the top, tho’ some begin them at the bottom: A day after begin another row of holes a foot and a half beneath the former, and so more, till they arrive to the ground, as occasion requires. Note that as the Pit does coal and sink towards the centre, it is continually to be fed with short and fitting Wood, that no part remain unfired: and if it chars faster at one part than at another, there close up the vent-holes, and open them where need is: A Pit will in this manner be burning off and charing, five or six days, and as it coals, the smoke from the thick and gross clouds, will grow more blue and livid, and the whole mass sink accordingly; so as by these indications you may the better know how to stop and govern your spiracles. Two or three days it will only require for cooling, which (the vents being stopped), they assist by taking now off the outward covering with a Rabil or Rubler; but this, not for the above space of one yard breadth at a time; and first remove the coursest and grossest of it, throwing the finer over the heap again, that so it may neither cool too hastily, nor endanger the burning by reducing all to Ashes, should the whole Pit be uncovered and expos’d to the Air at once; therefore they open it thus round by degrees.
When now by all the former Symptoms you judge it fully chared, you may begin to draw; that is, to take out the Coals, first round the bottom, by which means the Coals, Rubbish and Dust sinking down and falling in together, may choke and extinguish the fire.
Your Coals sufficiently cool’d, with a very long-tooth’d Rake, and a Vann, you may lead them into the Coal Wains, which are made close with boards, purposely to carry them to Market. Of these coals the grosser sort are commonly reserved for the forge and Iron-works, the middling and smoother put up in sacks, and carried by the colliers to London and the adjacent towns: Those which are charred of the roots, if picked out, are accounted best for chymical fires, and where a lasting and extraordinary blast is required.