Faggots

Faggots

As winter fast approaches today we turn up our heating, if we want to cook a meal we have the luxury of switching on the gas or electricity. However, it has not always been that easy and to accomplish any of these things it needed a fire. An integral part of that fire was always the ‘faggot’ and to many folk that involved collecting the wood to make the faggots.

Faggots

Today the word faggot can refer to several things; a dish made from offal, a derogatory term for a homosexual, an early word for an old belligerent woman and occasionally today this – Faggot: “A bundle of sticks, twigs or small branches of trees bound together for use as fuel,” so says the Oxford English Dictionary. The etymology of the word is said to stem from the Old French word fagot meaning a ‘bundle of sticks’. This in turn may have mutated from the Italian word faggatto which itself came from the Latin word fascis – again meaning a ‘bundle of wood’.

In 1552 the Assize of Fuel set a standard measurement for faggots, a ‘short faggot‘ being a bundle of sticks 0.91 metres in length and 0.61 metres in circumference. A ‘long faggot’ had to be anything larger than the size of a ‘short faggot‘. Additionally there were ‘brush faggots‘ which were ‘short faggots‘ made from brushwood. On Dartmoor they were always called ‘Fackets‘ and could comprise of most available woods and gorse.

The tool of choice for cutting faggots was the billhook, a sharp curved blade often with a flat top edge, these would be obtained from local foundries such as the Finch Foundry at Sticklepath. Faggots were made by first laying out the lengths of cut wood on the ground, these would then be laid over the ‘binds’, cut into the appropriate length and bundled up. The bundles would then be bound tightly by means of the ‘bind’ which would be twisted tight and knotted. The knot was made by twisting the ‘bind’ and then doubling back both ends around each other and finally pushing these into the bundle. If a faggot bundle was made too small it was said that the ‘crows would carry them away‘, likewise if it was bound too loosely then it would simply fall apart which would then be the butt of many a joke. Once made the faggots would be stacked in a rick near to the farmhouse, Stanes, p.81. An excellent example of this can be seen on the Marchant’s Cross page where a bundle of faggots are stacked outside the nearby cott. If not for household consumption the faggots would be sold as was the case for those who commercially produced them.

There are numerous paintings depicting rustic men, women and children trudging home carrying armfuls of faggots, usually in snowy woods or along wintry hedgerows. But these are not just idyllic portrayals meant to hang over rich peoples fireplaces they are showing fact. Before the luxury of electric and gas stoves the faggot was one of the cheapest forms of fuel available to the moorfolk. In the main a faggot would be used to start a hearth fire and then peat would be added to provide sustained heat. To add some flame and extra heat and light boosts another faggot could be thrown on top of the peat fire. William Crossing gives a description of a typical early Dartmoor cott kitchen at nighttime:

A lighted candle is set upon the table in a tin candlestick with an immense flat stand, but the kitchen is illuminated chiefly by the cheerful blaze from a faggot thrown on top of the peat, over which a large kettle is suspended by an iron “crook” hanging down from the vast chimney.”, p.21.

So as can be seen it was not only for heat that faggots were used, also when burning bright provided light. They were also sometimes used to build drains by digging a ditch and filling it with faggots and then recovering them with earth.   These along with any that were used for military purposes were known as fascines. It was also not unknown for the local hunts to use faggots for stopping up foxholes prior to hunt days. Finally, there was another early use for faggots and that was as a fuel for when miscreants were burnt at the stake known as faggot fire.

There was an old wife’s tale that the type of wooden faggots used in the bread oven could either improve or ruin the taste of the bread. Sadly this was not the case as once the faggot had heated the oven to the correct temperature all the embers and ash would be cleared out. This meant the bread never came into contact with any part of the faggot.

On many moorland farms the annual job of hedging usually took place after the corn harvest and basically involved tidying up overgrown hedges and ensuring they remained stock-proof. Once the overgrown wood had been cleared it would be sorted into those lengths to be used as poles and the remainder as bound up faggots which would then either be used at home or sold.

The other source of faggots was from a commercial woodlands and coppices which would provide the ready made article. Cecil Torr writes that in 1863 his grandfather paid eight shillings for one hundred oak faggots taken from Caseleigh Cleeve, vol. 2, p.28. Men who made and sold faggots were known as Fagetters and one of their main  markets were the town and city dwellers would could not venture out into the countryside to collect their own wood as could the moor dwellers. Apart from the urban domestic usage another large market for the fagetters were the local bakers who would use then in their bread ovens and other industrial operations that require fire and heat for production.

When the tithe system was in operation those commercially selling faggots came under its auspices. This meant a tenth of what they produced had to go to the local rector which could prove a problem. In 1729 the court case of Bree v. Drew involved such a situation where it was alleged that the rector had been cheated out of his dues.  A man named Drew bought the rights to sixteen acres of oak woodland. From this wood he intended to make hoops, mop staves, charcoal, bands and faggots. When he gave his tithe he simply presented the freshly cut lengths of wood to which the rector took exception to. His argument was that he would then have to go to great expense to convert the unfinished wood into saleable goods and the tithe should have been given as finished and saleable goods. The court ruled that; “The rector cannot compel the payer of tithe-wood to convert the tenth part into the same articles as he converts the nine.” The case was dismissed and costs awarded to the defendant.

For those folk who owned a pony the easiest way of lugging the faggots home was by means of the crook which when loaded with large bushy faggots could cause problems in the narrow moorland lanes as noted: “The traveller may view with astonishment, and sometimes apprehension, the crooks, which slung over the packsaddle, are so laden with furze or faggot-wood that it is no easy matter to pass them in the narrow lanes.”, Murray, p. xlviii.

In the main, today faggot making is deemed as an unviable operation as far as domestic use goes as it’s very labour intensive and because modern ovens and boilers are not designed to accept firewood made in this fashion.

Faggots

Gathering Faggots on Dartmoor

There was a tradition which stated that should a younger sister marry before the eldest sister then this would be a recipe for bad luck. However, as always there was a remedy, after the wedding ceremony the eldest sister must step over a small faggot when entering the family home.

In some areas it was customary when a new house had been built to hold a ‘house warming party‘. To this all the invited guests would bring a small faggot from their own peat hearth in order to build the fire to ‘warm the house’. Things are slightly different today you normally get some grotesque vase or the like, not wishing to be ungrateful but a bottle of something alcoholic is usually more appreciated.

In the realms of Dartmoor folklore probably the most common occurrence of the faggot is the Christmas Eve tradition of the ‘Ashen Faggot‘.

One belief in the Middle Ages was that the ‘Man in the Moon’ was a faggot gatherer. An old legend tells how one Sunday an old man went gathering faggots. On his way home he met a stranger who asked him why he was collecting faggot wood on the Sabbath, a day which God decreed no labour should be done. He replied that to him it made no difference whatever the day if he needed faggots he would gather them. The stranger then said that this being the case the man could gather faggots for the rest of eternity and banished him to the moon. Here he – the man in the moon – acts as a reminder to all that the Sabbath must be kept holy and what punishment could befall anyone breaking it.

Faggots

Crossing, W. 1890. Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies. London: W. H. Hood.

Murray, J. 1856. A Handbook for Travellers in Devon and Cornwall. London: J. Murray.

Stanes, R. 2005. Old Farming Days. Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.

Torr, C. 1921. Small Talk at Wreyland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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