Category Archives: London

Wood Colliers (or charcoal burners to you and me)

With the sun occasionally showing its face and gardens coming to life, many people will be dusting down their barbecue.  So I think it is time to take a visit down to the woods and seek out a charcoal maker or two.

Top Dog's hot dogs

If we are honest, most people don’t give charcoal much thought;  it’s black and messy, it comes in a bag and it impresses people if you can light it.  Even more impressive if you have thought ahead and got it going early enough so people aren’t waiting half the afternoon before you sizzle a sausage.  Plus if you keep it burning long enough to cook all the burgers then you really are a barbecue top dog

However, charcoal has been around a lot longer than our modern obsession with burnt sausages.  Charcoal burners and their apprentices, known as wood colliers, have been part of British woodlands since before the Bronze Age.  In fact, it was charcoal that enabled tin and copper to be smelted together to create the bronze which defined the age.

Charcoal burners were not confined to any one area of the UK, so it is not a traditional regional craft but it would have been one of the essential crafts in most areas in the same way as blacksmiths and wheelwrights.  So, although it is officially outside the remit of this blog about traditional regional crafts, I am including it anyway!

Charcoal burner outside his hut

This image was taken in the Wyre Forest, it caught my eye as you can see an oak spade basket lying next to the hut.  (Image courtesy of www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk)   

Charcoal ceased to be important in the process of metal smelting when people worked out how to make coke in the seventeenth century.  But it has continued to have many uses and at the beginning of the twentieth century it was still in use, predominantly in the production of artificial silk.  It is still essential in water purification – did you know you can turn red wine into white wine by pouring it through charcoal?  Shame it can’t do the same to water.  I have also learnt through investigating for this post that charcoal tablets are good for relieving wind and indigestion.  I might get some for someone I know!

Image courtesy of www.charcoalburners.co.uk

By 1980 production in the UK was down to a few thousand tonnes a year and things were not looking good for the wood colliers.   It is only very recently things have started to pick up.  Over the last twenty years there has been a massive increase in demand for charcoal for the domestic barbecue market.  But as we live in a topsy turvy world, instead of sourcing the charcoal from UK suppliers, 90% of the stuff sold in the UK is produced by chopping down the endangered rainforest and mangrove habitats of South America, West Africa and South East Asia.  It is then transporting half way around the world just so we can sizzle our sausages on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  You can find a fantastically detailed post on Aaron Price‘s blog describing charcoal production in Namibia.  Read it and see if you still enjoy your sausage cooked on imported charcoal.

Do you know who is making your charcoal?

To counter the issue of imported charcoal, there has been a massive push in recent years to reestablish viable charcoal production in the UK, so that our barbecue habit can be sustained in a more responsible manner.  By buying from a British supplier the carbon emissions from your bag of charcoal can be cut by up to 85% due to the transportation costs being so dramatically reduced.  The local product is also far more suitable for use on a barbecue as it is also less dense than imported charcoal and so is easier to light and it reaches cooking temperature much quicker.  Plus, it has a carbon content as high as 90% compared to only 60% in many imported varieties which means a better burning experience.

Brand new charcoal kiln - Hand made in Wales

All this can only mean one thing – If you use British charcoal you will find it easier to impress your friends with your barbecue skills whilst also collecting brownie points for not destroying the planet for the sake of a sausage.  It’s a win win situation.

You could go even further and buy your own kiln and make your own charcoal but I personally will leave that to the experts and concentrate on not burning the sausages.

 

 

Below I have gathered together some links to local producers of charcoal and related products so you can find local suppliers.  If you can’t find a local supplier then the large supermarkets and home stores do now stock British charcoal – impressing  Sunday luncheon guests is now within everyone’s reach!

www.bmwilson.co.uk  –  Blacksmith who makes charcoal kilns

Charcoal Suppliers

www.forestryfuels.com – Beds, Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambridge

www.croydoncoppice.co.uk - South London

www.lakelandcoppiceproducts.co.uk - Cumbria

www.dorsetcharcoal.co.uk - Dorset

www.wildwoodcrafts.com - Malvern

www.nigelsecostore.com - online supplier of Sussex based WildWood Charcoal products

www.charcoalburners.co.uk - West Sussex.  Website has detailed description of the process of small scale UK charcoal production

www.fourseasonsfuel.co.uk - West sussex

www.englishcharcoal.co.uk     Great site extolling the benefits of buying British, plus has detailed timeline of the history of charcoal production

www.bioregionalhomegrown.co.uk      Supplier of British charcoal to Sainsbury’s etc

And finally……….

www.charcoal.uk.com      These people make charcoal tablets for help with flatulance etc

www.fao.org  Document on the future of charcoal production in Africa.

www.fao.org  Analysis of trends within Charcoal production industry in Namibia

 

NB – If you are a UK charcoal burner and would like a link through to your website then please drop me a line.

 

 

Posted in Cumbria, Dorset, Heritage Crafts, London, Sussex, Traditional Crafts, Wales, Wood | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Lambeth Pottery

Right – here it is.  My first blog post for Dulwich OnView my local online community magazine.  I can’t believe how hard it was!  I was limited to eight hundred words and it made me realise that I do drone on abit.  I find it very hard not to include everything I know.  Anyway here it is, all very interesting stuff and great I have found a regional craft right here on my doorstep.  I may well feel obliged to revive the local industry from my garden shed, now there’s an idea!  I could make mugs.

Article from Dulwich OnView

Anyone who lives in Dulwich and likes a bit of gardening will know that six inches below the ground lies thick and heavy London clay.   I was doing some digging in my garden the other day, swearing at the nasty stuff and I thought to myself – someone should open a pottery to get rid of some of this.

So, whilst breaking my back digging a hole only just deep enough to plant a tulip bulb, I dreamt up a fantastic plan to rid my garden of the gloop.  I will start an swap scheme, anyone who wants a bag of my lovely clay to make pots, can come to my garden and dig themselves two sacks full of the stuff and in exchange they can fill the hole back up with couple of sacks of loam rich compost. Now those who know me will realise I always have some new plan or scheme, some good and some really bad, but I honestly think that this one’s a corker. How can it go wrong?

As this was obviously such a brilliant scheme, I gave up the digging and went inside to start my cunning plan.  Why should I dig when people would soon be queuing up to do it for me?  One quick google search later and I discover Lambeth has always been the home of London pottery and interestingly, it is where Royal Doulton all started.  I never knew that!

To be honest since traditional industries usually developed near the raw materials and since I know Lambeth is built on top of an endless supply of London clay, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it used to be famous for pottery.

Pothouse on River Thames - Upper Fore Street c1866. Image courtesy of The Vauxhall Society

Pottery has been produced in Lambeth since the Roman times, at least.  The potteries, or pothouses as they were known, were concentrated near the river in the area between Vauxhall Bridge and Lambeth Bridge.  Here they could take advantage of the supply of water, easy access to transportation and the low lying location, which provided the most perfectly humid atmosphere for making pots and most importantly was the supply of London clay.

Large Charger – Pickleherring Pottery 1618 image courtesy of The British Museum

Lambeth’s fame for pottery really took off in the sixteenth century when tin-glazing came to England.

Tin-glazing, or Delftware, is a method of producing a white glazed pottery, which can be over painted with metal oxides to create intricate patterns or pictures and back then this was cutting edge pottery technology.

Lambeth Delftware proved very popular, pothouses produced tiles, wine jars, and apothecary pots.  The industry got a real boast in the mid seventeenth century with the introduction of tea and chocolate into English polite society.  The ladies who lunched were desperate for the very latest teapots and cups to show off at their tea parties.

Hoffbrand Collection English delftware apothecary jars 1640 – 1745. Image courtesy of Royal College of Physician

However, during the eighteenth century Staffordshire took over as the centre of the English potteries and Delftware production in Lambeth declined.  I suppose it would have been very easy for pottery production in Lambeth to fizzle out altogether but I guess the kilns and expertise were there and needed to be used and in the last half of the eighteenth century Lambeth pothouses began to produce a robust type of pottery called salt glazed stoneware,

John Doulton’s salt glazed sewage pipe Image courtesy of www.westnorwoodcemetery.com

The most famous of the Lambeth stoneware potteries is now known as Royal Doulton, but it started back in 1815 as Doulton and Watts.  If truth be told, Doulton and Watt’s made their mark by making the most boring, unglamorous of stuff – leech holders for doctors, ink bottles and chemists pots and most famously the sewage pipes under the roads of LondonIn the 1850′s, after making themselves some money from all the boring stuff, the company began a new initiative called Doulton & Co’s decorative stoneware.   They teamed up with nearby Lambeth School of Art to produce highly decorative tableware, sculptural panels and tiles.

Doulton & Co vase 1874

 

 

It must be said, there were other stoneware potteries in Lambeth and James Stiff and Sons and Stephen Green’s Imperial pottery deserve a mention, but it is fair to say Doulton quickly eclipsed other local firms.

Then, in 1901 the company became Royal Doulton courtesy of Edward VII and continued to be a big employer in the area.  But pottery production on any great scale stopped abruptly in 1956, when the factories had to close due to the new clean air regulations.

 

But never mind the history lesson – back to today and my cunning plan.  You may have noticed that times are hard and banks aren’t lending, yet I really think I may have discovered the solution for many Lambeth residents.  It’s been here all along, right under our feet, gardens full of a heritage product!  Tons and tons of world famous ‘Lambeth Doulton Clay’!  Never mind swap schemes, I’m going to sell my clay!   Local clay for local potters.  With a bit of clever marketing I am sure it would work.  Now I just need a plan to decide what to do with the massive hole I will have in my back garden!

Entrance to the original Doultons Headquarters on Black Prince Road

 

In the meantime, before I get around to digging myself some London clay I have . found someone who already uses it to produce lovely little bird sculptures.  Find them here at LondonClayBirds.co.uk.  How sweet are these!!

 www.trinitycourtpotteries.co.uk

www.britannica.com

www.vauxhallcivicsociety.org.uk

www.archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

www.doultonartists.co.uk

The Lambeth cholera outbreak of 1848-1849 – Amanda J. Thomas,  McFarland & Co Inc.

Urban achievement in early modern Europe:golden ages in Antwerp, Amsterdam – Patrick K O’Brien, Cambridge University Press

 

 

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