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Charcoal Burning in the Forest of Dean.

Mark wrote: "...I thought you might appreciate these Charcoal burning images for display on your site and hope that doing so will help identify the location and person. ... I recently acquired the attached photos all 9.5” by 7.5” from the Baltimore Sun newspaper archive in America. Judging by the various stamps on the back they originated from ‘The Times’ newspaper over here and were taken in 1930 somewhere in Longhope. It would be great to know exactly where they were taken and who the Charcoal burner was although there is not a great deal to go on in respect of location except the row of Popular trees in the ‘The Stack’ image. Identifying the Charcoal burner may give a greater chance of identifying the location and to this end, I have found reference to a newspaper article (I don’t know which paper!) dated the 3 September 1930 (the dates match!) about Charcoal burning in the Dean which apparently mentions a Mr E.A. Roberts of Longhope who believed he was the last Charcoal burner of Dean, but as I have not actually seen the article I am wondering if these images were taken for it".

Any further information anyone is able to provide would be gratefully received.

1 The Flue

Image 1, ‘The Flue’, is of particular interest as it shows the burner and his attire in close up and more importantly the foundation around which the stack is built. 2-The-Stack

Image 2, ‘The Stack’, was used albeit slightly cropped as a Senior Service cigarette card in the ‘Our Countryside’ series first produced in 1938.


Image 3, ‘The Burn’, has some detail that is not obvious particularly in these small screens, namely the dog sat in the foreground and a second photographer in the background, only just visible through the smoke.

John Edwards added: "... Some time in 1942 the L.G.S Geography Mistress, Miss Hatton took several of her class to see a traditional forest charcoal kiln in operation.We went along Forest Road towards Whitecroft. Approx half way between Norchard et al and Whitecroft on the left between the road and railway was a man abt 30 operating his Kiln which looked quite like the one above. He was very knowledgeable and told us what he did why. He also told us about the wood distillation works near Cannop".

Lisa Morgan added (March 2014): "... The man in the photos is my grandfather Edward Roberts. My mother doesn't know the exact location in the Forest as he travelled around the Forest and sometimes stayed in a wigwam whilst charcoal burning. It's lovely to see these photos as we haven't seen them before. Sadly i never met my grandfather. Thank you for sharing them".

Annette Hughes added (September 2014): "... These photographs appeared in The Times newspaper on 3rd September 1930 and an article about them was published the next day. The article is titled Charcoal Burning at Longhope and it describes the site as the slopes of May Hill. The gentleman in the photograph is Mr E.A Roberts (Edward Arthur Roberts born 1893, Plump Hill) he is my mother-in-law's great uncle".

Jane James added (June 2018): "... Edward Roberts is also my great uncle. His sister Selina was my grandmother, her married name was Mathews. My late mother and family lived at Steam Mills, it's lovely to see photos of a relative that I believe was the last charcoal burner in the Forest"


______ An Ancient Calling That Serves Modern Industry. ___

The following article, written specially for the ' Western Daily Press.' describes the life of one of the last charcoal burners in England, who still follows a calling which was once general throughout the country before the discovery of coal:— It was with the feeling of one who was about to explore the remoteness of a past age that I climbed a green slope in Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Forest of Dean, where one of the last charcoal burners in England follows his calling. For charcoal burning glows in the imagination of an age of knight errantry and damsels in distress, and has small part in the smoky industrialism of the modern world. Charcoal burning I decided was nothing if not romantic. Nor was I disappointed as I walked through a portion of woodland that the axe had laid low, to where a caravan had come to rest for at the caravan door a pair of blue eyes twinkled merrily and Mr E. A. Roberts smiled a smile of welcome. Six yards away stood the latest product of his handiwork—a round stack of wood, in three tiers, set in a shallow pan of earth. Each tier was built of stout sticks the thickness of a man’s wrist, and a little over two feet long which were placed end ways-on as they leant slightly towards the centre in a solid phalanx I stood and admired. Here clearly was an almost lost art which somebody had succeeded in keeping alive for something more than mere art's sake

An Ancestral Calling.

Mr Roberts smiled again, “Its 64 years ago” he said, “since my father as a boy built one of theses in that same shallow pit.” I inquired whether his family had lived in this same spot all these years. He shook his head, and told me that he travelled from place to place charcoal burning, as his father and grandfather had done before him. He then descended from the caravan and explained to me some of the mysteries of his strange occupation. "A shallow pit needs firm level, solid floor.” The pit in question was like a plate, on which the stack of piled-up wood stood, not unlike the solid and inverted contents of a pudding basin.

A Work of Art.

Mr Roberts then told me how this stack contained no less than eight tons of wood, and demonstrated how, after he had laid the hollow core, he proceeded to build it up, placing the bigger pieces near the centre. On the outside the sticks, in their three slanting tiers, appeared artistically uniform. Indeed, the whole effect was one of a work of brilliant craftsmanship, and I could not help regretting that in a day or two the hand that had built this imposing edifice would set fire to it on its progress of slow metamorphosis. I asked Mr Roberts whether he cut the wood himself. He shook his head, and pointed to the ranks of timber on the hillside which were waiting for his charcoal burning skill. I then pointed to a large heap of shavings “Those,” he said, "are for covering the wood so that the earth won't get into the charcoal.”

Fire Without Flame.

He then led me away to another stack of wood, which was ready for ignition. The entire surface had been covered with wood shavings, as was indicated here and there by small touches of white, for the whole had been overlaid with black earth. "I always cover them up with turf or black earth," he told me, "for you must not let them break into flame.” I then asked him where he lighted this miniature beacon. "I place a ladder up against it and drop a shovel full of fire down the centre.” Twenty yards away another of these mounds was smoking. Already it was about half as high as the other two and had lost the greater part of its elegant form. At first sight one might imagine that the fire-heated crust of earth was charcoal itself, until Mr Roberts applied the rake and disclosed the charred wood shavings.

Used In Modern Industry.

I asked him to what use this once popular commodity was put, and he told me that he served a chemical firm. "Charcoal,” he said, “gives a big heat without smoke. It knocks out coal for heat, and is used for copper refining, steel finish¬ing, artificial silk and glass making.” He added that at present there was a big demand for charcoal, and that he journeyed from place to place spending months at a time charcoal burning irrespective of the season of the year.

Works by Night and Day.

Mr Roberts's personality is eloquent of a charcoal burner's life, and one only has to see and listen to him to realise that charcoal burners are born and not made. "I don't know that there's any that has lie work so many hours a week as I have.” “From daylight to dark every day, and every two hours through the night, I wake up regularly every two hours and attend to the fires by night, and I do it without an alarm clock. It's a job you can't keep clean at; when you wash you're dirty again in five minutes. I work my fires according to wind and weather,” —he pointed to screen of tins he had made on the windward side of the miniature volcano. "Seventy-five per cent, of the nature goes out of the wood and only 25 per cent, is charcoal. Each of these stacks must burn three days.”

"Nothing Healthier in the World."

I asked him whether he found charcoal burning healthy. “There's nothing healthier in the world than charcoal,” he said. "Ever had a charcoal biscuit?" I shook my head and inquired whether he ever ate it. “I sometimes have a chew,” he admitted, "there's nothing finer for the teeth; taste¬less, no drugs.” His own perfectly white teeth added full conviction to his words as they smiled from a face that charcoal burning had helped to bronze. I wandered back through the woodland feeling that if romance of olden time had benefited, modern life was at least the richer through charcoal burning.


Transcribed from an article in the Western Daily Press, September 15, 1930.


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