Hainault Forest Website

A Charcoal Burner's Hut


Charcoal burning finally died out at the beginning of the 20th century, when charcoal production in the traditional way was no longer profitable. That it took place at all in the Forest of Essex is recorded in the place name Collier Row, a mile or so distant from the present Hainault Forest and is in large part responsible for the characteristic woodland appearance today. Vic George, a Countryside Warden at Hainault Forest Country Park, had researched the charcoal burners life and was to fulfil a dream of recreating a Charcoal burners camp including hut, fire, cord of wood and saw-horse, for the Parks Open Day in May 1989. Here is his story of the reconstruction by the Country Park Staff.

The main birch poles erected and tied, and thin cross members tied in place. The entrance porch is added, and small twigs woven in to make the roof.

The  initial  stages  involved  the collection of  wood  for  use in  the  building  of the hut. Not  only  was   this  the  main  feature,  but  it  was  the  most  exciting  item  in   the   whole programme, and was started first. Birch was chosen as the main material as it was readily available in suitable straight lengths. Much of the woodland is protected as an SSSI and therefore it was necessary to extract wood from those areas outside of the SSSI areas. This woodland is by and large younger with less standing oak etc. and overall birch seemed to be the best selection. It is not known what type of wood the original charcoal burners would have used to build their huts, but in view of the time taken to build the structure (as we were soon to find out), it seems likely that a timber somewhat more substantial and durable than birch would have been employed. This latter point also led us to consider that the burning sites might have been more permanent than we had first thought. The idea that temporary camps would have been constructed throughout the woodland wherever the wood cutting had taken place seems to need some modification. The responsibility for providing the wood for firing did not lie with the burners and had to be transported to them. This fact and the need for considerable quantities of water for use in quenching the fire when the burning was complete led us to conclude that there would probably would have been several, more or less permanent camps around the woods. It would make sense therefore to build a fairly permanent wooden structure requiring only maintenance to

Shorter poles were placed around the hut. The rigid structure is complete.

the turf covering.

All wood was cut using hand tools (saws and axes). It had been decided to bind the poles together with twine rather than use nails as we thought this more likely to have been the original approach. However, some nails had to be used to strengthen the structure in order it could survive heavy attention from visitors, and also be safe.

Our haste to see something of a finished product led us to undertake the construction of the hut in a rather awkward way. The twelve main poles each 3-4 inch diameter were erected and bound into position at the apex. They were each some 13ft. in length and their bases formed a circle 12ft. in diameter. Short thin cross members were bound into position lower down to form three concentric circles around the poles. This would facilitate the placing of the infill poles between the main poles at the next stage. At the completion of of this stage it became apparent that the angle of the poles in the ground had left a large area open to the elements where the doorway was to be and it was decided that a canopy would have to be made. A main porch was built, the roof of which was filled by weaving small sticks and twigs into the main porch roof poles. Poles smaller than the main support poles, and of varying length were then placed vertically around the main part of the hut to form the base on which to place the turf. Some of these smaller poles were bound into position, but most were left loose. The whole structure was very rigid at this stage and well able to withstand the crudely fashioned ladder and workman during the binding of the upper sections.

Fixing the turfs. The hut is complete.

The next stage was to cover the hut with turf (grass side innermost). I had calculated that the area of turf required to cover the structure, allowing for a 3" overlap of the turfs, could be supplied from the area within the hut, from the pit to be dug encircling the hut as a drainage channel, from under the fire and from the area which would occupy the cord of wood. Our haste to erect the main structure meant that we would now have great difficulty in getting the turf as the headroom was very restricted. A pit was to be dug inside the hut running across the diameter and about 2ft. wide and 15in. deep. The turf was only taken from this area due to access and even so the digging of the pit was that much more difficult than it would have been had it been done first. A band of turf was removed from around the outside of the hut some 3ft. wide and a drainage trench was dug in this area around the outside of the hut and leaving only a pathway from the main entrance doorway. The remainder of the turf was cut using a turfing iron and spade.

Yet again our haste got the better of us. The turfs were being placed as they were cut whereas, with hindsight, it would have been better to have cut all the turfs first and used the piece most appropriate to the job in hand. To make matters worse we covered the canopy first then worked from both sides at once from the doorway and created a problem in overlapping the turf where they met on the side opposite. Well at least we could stand back and say "Well, its coming along". Most of the turfs seemed to need some form of support due to the angle of the roof without which they tended to slide. This was achieved by pushing short lengths of stick through the turf into the one below. This was most unsatisfactory as this would have caused leakage problems during rain.

John Lebeau tries the hut for size. An inner trench has been dug to allow for headroom. The hut has an outer drainage channel, and the fire has been stacked and awaits covering with straw and ashes to keep the fire burning slowly.

The reason for the problem became apparent much later in the year after the structure was completed. No thought had been given to the shrinkage of the turfs as they dried out and the summer of 1989 was extremely good with little or no rain. A considerable number of gaps started to appear as the summer wore on and it was obvious that not enough overlap had been allowed in my calculations. Had there been a bigger overlap, say half a turf, the shrinkage problem would have been contained and, I feel sure, so would the problem of sliding and therefore the securing pegs would not have been required. This would, of course, require considerably more turf. The sides of the porch were covered by draping the turfs over the horizontal poles like washing on a clothes-horse.

The digging of the internal pit made an enormous difference to the internal environment, gaining greatly improved headroom, allowing one to assume a comfortable standing position and also better comfort when sitting on the sides. Crude beds were fashioned from poles and twigs and covered with straw sewn up in sacking. The doorway was covered with a piece of sacking to keep out the elements.

Although the construction took much more time than was expected and presented various problems, it was very worthwhile and a better understanding of how some of our forebears lived and worked was gained by all who took part in the project and, I hope, by the many visitors who came to see.

Above: Roy and Vic use the Saw-Horse to cut the lengths of timber for the fire.


Right: Vic George and Roy Benham in period costume enjoy a pipe of baccy at the Open Day.


Below: The Charcoal Burners Camp, with Hut, Fire, Cord of wood, Sawhorse and Brushwood pile.

All photographs V.E.George