The Decline of Charcoal Burning

Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. The photograph shows one of the last charcoal burners in the Wyre Forest sitting in front of his turf hut with his dog and tools. To the right is a wind break and oak-spade basket for raking

[Image from: Bewdley Museum, 1930s or 1940s]

Charcoal Burning: Retorts

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. One man is filling a retort and taking wood from two others. On each side of the retort are mounds of ready cut wood. Full bags of charcoal can be seen to the left of the foreground. [Image from: Bewdley Museum, 1930s or 1940s]

12. Charcoal Burning: Retorts (2)

New technology helped to reduce production costs, but even before Mollerat Freres developed the retort in the early 19th century, the market for charcoal was threatened. Charcoal was expensive. It constituted 70% of the cost of iron production, therefore users of charcoal searched for alternatives, especially as deforestation was threatening the supply of wood. In the Black Country, Dud Dudley, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Derby registered a patent for using coal for smelting iron in 1622, but little is known about his method. Abraham Darby I is normally credited with the development of an effective method of coke smelting in Coalbrookdale in the early 18th century, but it took until the end of the century for the discovery to be widely applied. As a result charcoal burning continued for many domestic and industrial applications, but its use for iron smelting declined.

Charcoal burning: Retorts

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. Three men are cutting up timber to fill retorts. A horse is in the background. [Image from: Bewdley Museum, 1930s or 1940s]

11. Charcoal burning: Retorts (1) 

Charcoal burning was a long-established traditional industry, but it was influenced by technological developments. In 1810, Mollerat Freres developed a design for a kiln, based on a wrought iron cylindrical retort of 3 cubic metres capacity. It was built into a brick chamber which allowed hot gases from the fireplace below to circulate around the cylinder, before passing out through the chimney. It was loaded and emptied through a manhole in the lid. For most charcoal burners a permanent structure was not suitable and portable retorts soon developed from the fixed retorts. These were widely adopted and examples are shown in this 20th century photograph. It is not known when they were first used in the Wyre Forest.

Charcoal Burning Tools

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

10. Charcoal Burning Tools (4)

Item located in Bewdley Museum. The charcoal burners rake or “corrack” was used to rake out the clamp at the end of the burning process.

Charcoal Burning Tools

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

9. Charcoal Burning Tools (3)

Items located in Bewdley Museum. The circular iron plate was used to cover the centre of the hearth as an alternative to using turf to seal the flue of the clamp. A long-handled shovel or ship was used for covering the more inaccessible parts of the clamp. The head of a rake is the third item in the photograph.

Charcoal Burning Tools

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

8. Charcoal Burning Tools (2)

Item located in Bewdley Museum. Wood colliers used a distinctive style of wheelbarrow with an open framework for distributing branch wood around the hearth and for transporting the sacks of bagged charcoal.

Charcoal Burning Tools

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

7. Charcoal Burning Tools (1) 

A man is tending the clamp using a long-handled shovel. To his left are some of his tools:
• An axe.
• A barrel for holding water, two buckets and a yoke for carrying them.
• A basket for collecting charcoal and sacks for transporting the product
• A metal artefact, possibly a brazier. Please contact the Revolutionary Players team if you are able to identify this object.
To his right are two windbreaks. In the background, behind the trees are a dome-shaped clamp ready for firing (left) and a charcoal burner’s hut (right).

Charcoal Burning

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. Two men are filing sacks with charcoal from an oak spade basket. There are approximately 13 filled sacks in the picture. Windbreak screens can be seen in the background. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Charcoal Burning

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. A man is raking out a clamp with a “rauble” or rake and using an oak-spade basket to gather the charcoal. A full sack is in the foreground. [Image from: Bewdley Museum, 1950s]

5. Charcoal Burning (3)

The pit was left to burn for two to ten days. A good collier could tell how long the wood would take to carbonize. When sufficient burning had taken place, the pit would be raked out with a rauble. Next the pit was sprinkled with water and the dampened dust placed on the pit to keep the heat in.

Charcoal Burning

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. The photograph shows a completed clamp beginning to smoulder in the Wyre Forest. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

4. Charcoal Burning (2)

The clamp was ready to be fired.
• First the central stake was removed leaving an opening in the centre.
• Secondly, red-hot charcoal and pieces of wood were dropped into the flue to start a fire.
• Thirdly, when a fire began, the flue was covered with heavy turf or a metal lid and the whole dome was covered with earth or ashes to prevent air from entering the furnace. At first the mound would smoke, but this gradually died away leaving few visible signs of the burning within. Slowly, the fire spread out to the edges, but it could not be seen. The burners could not allow the clamp to burn out or catch fire. It had to be watched continuously. If the mound was weakened or it began to burn out, it was reinforced with turf and earth.

Charcoal Burning

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. The charcoal burner is building a clamp during the early stages before firing. [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

3. Charcoal Burning (1)

Before charcoal burning could take place there was a great deal of preparatory work:
• First, a hearth was prepared by clearing and levelling an area of ground about 22 feet square. Turf was removed carefully as it was used to cover the clamp during the firing.
• Secondly, a stake was hammered into the centre to provide a guide for building a chimney of logs, sloping inwards. Small pieces of wood were placed on the base of the hearth in a ring, leaving openings in places. Medium-sized wood followed and then larger pieces. One of the skills of the charcoal burner was to create a dome-shaped clamp, which would enable a slow burn to take place and produce good quality charcoal.

Work and Labour

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. Two charcoal burners in front of their hut, with some of their tools, including a wheelbarrow (background) and shovel (foreground). The man on the right has a clay pipe in his hands. The hut is draped with a sack printed with the message, “Joseph Oakes, Wyre Hill, Bewdley No 1903”. [Image from: Bewdley Museum, early 20th century.]

2. Work and Labour 

Charcoal burning was a highly skilled task, requiring not only manual skills to build a clamp ready to be fired, but judgement to assess the rate of burn and identify when the charcoal was ready to be gathered. Charcoal pits had to be watched day and night. At one stage, the burning process becomes exothermic, producing more heat than it absorbs. Consequently a small fire in the centre can char the whole and ruin the product. The charcoal burners or wood colliers lived on site so that they could monitor the productive process. They moved around the forest to be near timber-felling sites and so had to make temporary dwellings for themselves. The inventories of four wood colliers survive for the 18th century. In general they lived humbly and had few luxuries. Though they had permanent homes, during the period of “burn” they lived in the forest in tent-like huts, which were also constructed in the 20th century, as the photograph reveals. Their huts were made out of a framework of strong sticks, covered with bracken, turf and grasses and topped with old sacks. A central hole was left in the roof to act as a chimney. Beds of bracken were laid down, and a charcoal fire was lit in the centre of the floor. As the pit had to be watched day and night, burners usually worked in pairs. Sometimes others were employed as day labourers for tasks such as wood chopping.

Charcoal and its Uses

Image: Charcoal burning in the Wyre Forest. The photograph shows a completed clamp ready for firing in the Wyre Forest with a charcoal burner standing in front. [Image from: Bewdley Museum from an image in the Stone Collection, Birmingham Central Library (late 19th century)]

1. Charcoal and its Uses

Charcoal has been used as a fuel for thousands of years. Its history was linked with the smelting of metals for which it was an ideal fuel because it produces an intense smokeless heat. Charcoal is made by heating wood in a furnace where air is restricted to reduce the rate of burning. The aim is to remove unwanted elements, such as water, creosote and tar and to leave pure black carbon. This can be used as a fuel without imparting impurities into the products which are being smelted.

In the Wyre Forest charcoal was produced from at least the 12th or 13th centuries when there was demand for the fuel from iron workers in Dudley and Halesowen and salt workers in Droitwich. Its use expanded heavily in the 16th and 17th centuries, and remained high in the 18th and 19th centuries. In his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Worcester in 1813, W. Pitt implied that the industry was a significant part of the county’s economy. He noted that great quantities of wood “are burnt into charcoal for the use of the ironworks upon the Stour, and Staffordshire; but some is occasionally used for fuel.”

Wyre Forest charcoal, in fact, was used for several purposes:
• Glass blowing in Stourbridge and Bromsgrove.
• Drying hops in the Teme Valley for brewing.
• Boiling brine to produce salt in the Droitwich area.
• As an ingredient in gunpowder.
• Preserving food.
• Brass making in Bewdley.
• Iron smelting, not only for the Black Country industry, but also for local furnaces in Mawley, Cleobury Mortimer and Furnace Mill on Dowles Brook near Bewdley.

Many types of wood were used for charcoal burning, but their properties were different:
• Holly and beech produced a “coal” that was heavy, compact and strong, preferred by ironmasters and glassblowers.
• Oak produced a similar quality, but it tended to flake.
• Willow and alder was light and soft and produced more suitable charcoal for gunpowder.
• Ash, elm and beech produced a less dense “coal” and coniferous trees produced a light and friable product which was more suitable for domestic uses.

By the 17th century, charcoal burning had depleted much of Britain’s forested areas. In order to preserve a disappearing resource, coppicing was introduced and trees were harvested in rotation cycles lasting from 7 to 25 years, a practice which continued until the early 20th century.

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.