Charcoal Burning in the Wyre Forest

Text: Malcolm Dick

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. A burner is standing outside his hut in the Wyre Forest. Outside are the various tools of his trade, including a shovel or “ship”, sacks for carrying charcoal and a windbreak.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum from an image in the Stone Collection, Birmingham Central Library, late 19th century.]

Summary: Charcoal burning was a traditional craft, but vital to substantial parts of the Midlands’ economy. Between 1700 and 1900, the Wyre Forest on the borders of Worcestershire and Shropshire, was a major centre of production. Charcoal was used as a fuel in several regional industries. Using photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the text explores the history of the industry and identifies a number of the techniques of charcoal burning which had not changed for centuries. The industry experienced the introduction of new technology, but competition from other sources of fuel meant that the market for charcoal declined. During World War II charcoal burning for commercial purposes disappeared from the Wyre Forest.

The Making of Snuff

Text: Malcolm Dick

Image: Snuff Grinding: gearing in the snuff mill, Golden Valley, near Tickenhill, Bewdley (late 20th century)

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]


Snuff was an important consumer product in the 18th century. Rich and poor “took” snuff and it was processed in several locations. Outside Bewdley, a snuff mill was created to grind the raw material, tobacco. The history of the industry is linked to early 20th century photographs, which show the abandoned and derelict mill and machinery.

Bark Peeling

Text: Malcolm Dick

Image: Two women stripping bark from a small tree, Wyre Forest (early 20th century)
[Image from Bewdley Museum]

Women use small irons to strip bark from a small tree on the ground. The women first cut the bark with the iron and then worked it between the wood and the bark with a back-and- forth action (see photograph). The aim was to produce strips of bark between one and three feet in length which could be easily stacked and transported.


Bark Peeling was a long-established woodland craft which used the same techniques for centuries. It contained an essential product which was used to process animal hides before they could be turned into products for sale. Several 19th and early 20th century century photographs held in Bewdley Museum record the work of bark peelers and the tools that they used.

The Wyre Forest and Bewdley

Image: Bewdley, from Perspective Views of Market Towns in the County of Worcester, by Thomas Sanders, 1770.

The Wyre Forest was, and is, a woodland area covering the border areas of two English counties, Worcestershire and Shropshire. Now a tourist attraction, this area of oak, hazel and birch was formerly an area of extensive economic activity. Several industries were located in Bewdley itself in the 17th and 18th centuries, and its hinterland was home to many woodland trades such as charcoal burning, bark peeling, horn making and snuff milling. During Britain’s Industrial Revolution, this area was not associated with ground-breaking innovations, but it served the needs of domestic and industrial consumers for leather goods, household items, snuff and charcoal.

For a number of reasons the Wyre Forest was ideal for industrial production:
• The plentiful supply of oak provided the raw material for furniture, fences and poles and for two significant industries, charcoal burning and bark peeling for leather tanning.
• Bewdley had an important cattle market and this not only provided meat, but leather for tanning and horn for the hornworking industry.
• Running water from streams flowing into the Severn and the river itself, provided a resource, not only for human consumption, but for local industries such as tanning and chemicals. Other industries, such as flour or snuff milling could utilise water as a form of energy to power water wheels.
• The River Severn was a major transport route, enabling goods to be moved from the Wyre Forest to ShrewsburyWorcesterGloucester and Bristol.
• Bewdley provided a crossing point over the Severn, connecting the Wyre Forest by road to markets beyond the Wyre Forest. Bridge construction improved the route. The first town bridge was built over the river in 1447. Thomas Telford designed a fourth bridge further upstream which was completed in 1798.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Bewdley developed into a commercial and industrial centre with a thriving inland port. The imposing 17th and 18th century residences and warehouses which were built by merchants and industrialists survive to indicate the town’s prosperity at the time. Tanning, horn working, cap making, brass founding, pewter making, rope making and even the production of chemicals by a major local entrepreneur, Samuel Skey, were industries associated with the town.

Bewdley, however, declined economically in the 18th and 19th centuries, partly because of the opening of the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal in 1772, one of the engineering achievements of James Brindley. It connected the industrial heartland of the West Midlands with the River Severn at Stourport and led to gradual bypassing of Bewdley’s port facilities. The town survived with much of its architectural heritage intact. Its industrial and commercial heritage is recorded in the exhibitions, displays of artefacts and photographs at Bewdley Museum.

Woodland Industries in the Wyre Forest

Image: Northeast View of Bewdley by James Ross (1784).

[Image from: Bewdley Museum.]

Although the print should not be taken as an accurate historical record, it does show aspects of the Wyre Forest which contributed to the areas industrial importance:
• Bewdley’s wooded environment;
• the River Severn;
• the third Bewdley bridge;
• evidence of town’s commercial significance as a port.

Summary: Studies of industrial history in the 18th and 19th century largely focus on coal, iron, engineering – the heavy industries – or others such as textiles, brewing and ceramics. These studies have affected our understanding of the English Industrial Revolution. We see it located in a few industrial locations: the Black Country, the Ironbridge Gorge, the coalfield in the Northeast, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and London. Although large-scale mining, blast furnaces and factory-based industrial production were features of the period, there are other dimensions to industrialisation. These large industries and the people who worked in or profited from them required other manufactured products. The woodlands of the Wyre Forest near Bewdley in Worcestershire provided an important location for some of these industries. These included:

• Charcoal Burning. Wood was slowly burned to produce charcoal which was used in smelting and other manufacturing processes, long after the discovery of coke smelting by Abraham Darby in the early 18th century.
• Bark Peeling. Bellows, gloves, shoes, saddles, harnesses and other goods were produced from tanned leather. Tanning required vegetable tannin, which was extracted from tree bark to turn “raw” hide into useable products.
• Snuff Making. The demand for snuff rocketed in the 18th century. It was processed close to Bewdley, from tobacco which was transported along the Severn from Bristol after being imported from overseas.

These industries are explored in three separate parts. Most illustrations are taken from images which are located in Bewdley Museum and accompanying text is used to provide a historical context and describe manufacturing processes.