The Burgum family history society is a member of the Guild of one name studies and researches the names

A Day in the Life of a Charcoal-Burner

Many of the Burgums in the Forest of Dean (and later elsewhere) were involved in the iron industry. Many worked as forgeman or iron-workers. Before coal, charcoal was produced for use in the iron industry and this article is about its production. The article was first produced for the Dean Heritage Museum, following an invitaion from its the curator, Ian Standing, to take part in the charcoal-burn. So enjoyable was the experience that I have since taken part in many more charcoal-burns...

Stones surrounded the small wood fire on the forested hillside. I crouched and stared at the crackling embers as they warmed my face. The sun was falling further below the horizon and, in the twilight, dark shadows began to chill the air. I craned my head to the right, observing the white smoke bellowing up through the trees thirty yards to my right. No red embers there, I thought, supping my coffee. Not yet. Returning my gaze to the camp fire, I considered the long night ahead. So this was it; this was to be my day, or rather night, in the life of a charcoal-burner...

Charcoal-burning played a significant part in the history of the Forest of Dean and, in particular, was essential to its forgemen and smiths. (Forgeman was, historically, the principal occupation of the Burgums in the Forest). Just as I found myself, in the beginning, drawn to the Forest of Dean (the land of our ancestors), so now I find myself drawn to its history and its crafts. When Ian Standing, then curator of the Dean Heritage Museum, offered me the chance to experience the craft first-hand, I readily agreed.

The preparation had taken place several days before, using wood approximately three feet in length. These pieces would be stacked upright, in a circular fashion, slanting towards a central flue. Roughly graded, more wood was placed on until a dome-shape was made. The entire dome, or "pit"was then encased in turf and earth, sealing it from the outside air. Finally, the set was ignited with hot ashes via its central flue and the top itself was capped. Starved of oxygen, the wood gently smoulders without burning, in a process called distillation. The process is controlled with a series of vent holes that are created, or blocked up, as necessary.

My fellow charcoal-burner for the night was Di Court and together we inspected the smoking stack. White smoke issued from the vent holes and permeated through the top of the dome. All was well. Blue smoke would demand action with the sealing of an offending vent hole -we wanted charcoal, not ashes! We continued to study the rounded surface of the stack for future problems. We searched for cracks, or a thinning out of the outer earth casing. (As the process continues, so the contents contract and the risk of a collapse steadily increases). After a little tampering here and there, we returned to our own camp-fire and set about cooking supper.

Charcoal-burning led a lonely existence, remaining with their stack day and night until the process was complete, perhaps some five days later. Some of the burners were nomadic, raising their families in the Forest, while others travelled considerable distances offering their services to landowners and farmers. Accommodation tended to be a temporary conical hut, built by binding poles together and covering them with sacking, turf and twigs.

Our accommodation was similarly constructed, although the sacking was replaced with tarpaulin sheeting, covered in twigs and fern. This was to be our temporary home during the night. In the evening light, we sat by the fire and watched the fire brown our food scraps. (Well, it was actually steak and mushrooms!). It did smell good. We ate and drank, and put the world to right. We listened to the crackling fire and the active song-birds. Sometimes we heard a human voice, a child from further up the valley. As night fell, most of the sounds subsided. After a final inspection of the stack, we retired to our hut and our sleeping bags. The alarm was set for ninety minutes time.

Charcoal-burning is an ancient craft, dating back thousands of years to the bronze and iron age. The ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans all produced charcoal, the only fuel capable of raising temperatures sufficiently to smelt most metals.

The alarm awoke me from a very deep sleep. Di was up first and scrambled up the hill towards the stack. The white smoke was barely visible in the darkness. However, red embers indicated that holes were beginning to appear in areas of the dome. By torch light, tufts of grass and earth were enough to effect repairs. An inspection by torchlight revealed no further problems and soon we were back in our sleeping bags, awaiting the next ninety minute call.

In today's world, where we reflect on the massive destruction of the rainforest, it is natural to hark back to a simpler time, when the Forest was being skillfully managed by its inhabitants; or was it? The romantic image of sweet wood smoke drifting above the trees and through the vales of Dene is a valid one, but there were times in its history when the demands for charcoal threatened to destroy the very Forest itself.

Our campfire still gave off a glow and I tied my boots before walking up the slope once more. This time the news was not good. An entire side had collapsed, revealing a stripe of glowing wood. No major fire; yet. We set to repair the damage, laying ready-cut turfs over the scar. An earth covering sealed the edges. Still more turfs were required and I went off in search of a grassy bank. More earth was also necessary. Di continued to effect repairs. It was now dawn and it was easier to see. The air felt warm and I was wet with sweat. We worked for an hour and I suddenly realised I was having the time of my life. Finally, all the repairs were made and the dawn chorus had begun. We made coffee and discussed our drama. We could still get another ninety minutes sleep before breakfast. Once again, we set the clock and retired to our sleeping bags.

A thousand years ago, the Forest was, at least in part, preserved and saved for royal recreation and the hunting of game. Six hundred years later and it was the demand for naval ship-timber that provoked preservation Acts upon the area. 1612 saw an increased demand for charcoal with the introduction of blast furnaces into the Forest. Significant production ceased at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the late introduction of coke, although charcoal was produced in smaller quantities until the 1940's.

The alarm sounded for the last time. Our repairs had held well and only minor work was required around the stack. Breakfast! A few chips of wood soon had our own camp fire warming the coffee. We sat and watched as the sausages turned brown. Eggs and buttered toast added to our morning feast. We were dirty, hungry and smelled of wood smoke, but beneath it all I felt elated. The experience, I reflected, was unusual if not unique and I felt great satisfaction. I breathed in the bright morning air and began eating my sausages. I crouched and stared at the crackling red embers as they warmed my face...