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Charcoal Burners

Charcoal Burners

“The charcoal burner has tales to tell.

He lives in the forest, alone in the forest,

He sits in the forest, alone in the forest,

And rabbits come up and they give him good morning,

And rabbits come up and say, ‘Beautiful morning’,

And the moon swings clear of the tall black trees,

And owls fly over and wish him good night.

Quietly over to wish him good night.”

A. A. Milne

Upon Dartmoor there used to be a breed of elusive men that lived and worked in the woods that are hemmed along the moorland fringes – these were the charcoal burners or ‘colliers’. They appear to be an austere band of brothers who spent their days deep in the oak woods for months at a time but today there is little trace of them both in the landscape and the documentary records. The craft of charcoal burning easily dates back to Roman times and has remained an important industry up until fairly recent times. The actual process has changed very little since those early times and in some cases still is practiced today. Muir, p.225 describes the charcoal burner:

The colliers who practised this craft lived itinerant, often solitary existences, moving through the coppices as the poles matured and sometimes being joined by their families, but perhaps only for the summer. Their habitations were tent-like shelters made from materials close to hand and the home life of a collier – such as it was – seems to have changed little from medieval or earlier times to the early industrial age“.

One area however does contain remnants of this ancient craft and that is the woodland around Drewsteignton, namely Hannicombe, Charles, and Hore woods, all are perched on the south side of the Teign Valley. In 1797 the Rev. John Swete took at tour through Hannicombe and Charles woods and whilst he does not make mention of any charcoal burner he does give a description of the landscape they worked in:

We began our descent to the River Teign. The declivity was long and steep: deep delving through Coppice and Woods, which precluded every view beyond themselves, excepting it were now and the, at the flexures of the road which being more open permitted me to get a glimpse of an opposite hillside“, 2000, p.32.

It is the very mention of, “Coppice” that indicates the presence of the charcoal burners as it was from the oak coppices that the charcoal burners obtained their wood. But charcoal was not the only resource that was obtained from an oak coppice, Worth, pp. 473 -474, explains that the bark would be stripped for tanning leather, the poles used for building, fencing, paling and hurdle making, the brushwood was collected and tied into faggots and the remainder turned into charcoal. These coppices would be cut every 16 – 20 years and in 1808 Vancouver pp. 245 – 50, notes how in the area of the Teign Valley  a coppice would fetch between £15 – £20 an acre. The bark would command a price of one shilling a hundredweight and the charcoal about 2 shillings a bushel. The charcoal was used for various chemical and metallurgic processes, the manufacture of gunpowder and as fuel for cooking, especially in milk scalding during the cream making process. As time progressed the tan extracts came from other sources and coal replaced charcoal as a means of fuel and so the industry went into decline in most areas. However as Worth notes:

Here in the valley of the Teign, the collier lingered still, when the younger generation in my western quarter held him not in memory even. It has taken a world war to bring him back to both quarters; but he is no longer the skilled builder of a pile, he is the operator of an oven.”

So, what was the traditional method of charcoal burning?  Firstly a small small core of brushwood would be built around a thick stake known in some parts as a ‘motty pin’ or ‘mottle peg’ around which three foot oak poles known as ‘billetts’ would be heaped. The poles leant towards the centre thus forming a cone that had an opening or chimney at the top formed by the central stake. Once this was built the ‘wig-wam’ would be covered and sealed with turf which was then dampened down with water and beat flat. It was vital to leave several holes which would allow a draught to draw the fire once it was lit. Then by skilful use of the chimney and the draught holes the central stake was removed and the brushwood was ignited. Once the pile was alight the holes would be sealed leaving the wood to slowly carbonise which could take several days. The usual tell-tale sign that the process had finished was when the pile began to emit small wisps of blue smoke. It was then that water would be poured over the fire and the charcoal stored for use. This process would all take place on an oval platform that was usually built into the hillside and varied in size from 3 x 4m to 14 x m, in many cases these were aligned along the natural contours of the landscape. The actual hearths, which were circular ranged in size from 2m – 6m in diameter which were of a considerable size. The art was to keep the fire sealed enough to let it slowly burn without going out or burning away too fast. This would the remove the more volatile properties of the wood and then leave the charcoal. It was said that charcoal made by this method as opposed to ovens gave a harder finished product that held higher temperatures thus making it better suited to cooking etc. Estimations suggest that once the charcoal was produced it had lost 84% of its original wooded weight or a simpler analogy is that it takes 10 tons of wood to make 2.5 tons of charcoal. It was for this very reason that the charcoal burning took place in the actual coppices because it was much easier than hauling the wood to a central processing point.

What evidence is in the modern landscape of the charcoal burning process and how can you recognise it? The most common features are the remnants of the charcoal burners hearth and a woodland survey carried out by the Dartmoor Nation Park in 1985 revealed 29 of them in Whiddon, Hannicombe and Charles woods. Below is a table relating their locations and record numbers and figure 1 opposite shows a dispersal map:

Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7362 8955 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB823 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7439 8977 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB843
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7362 8966 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB824 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7441 8927 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB844
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7363 8941 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB825 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7441 8973 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB845

Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7369 8964 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB826

Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7447 8969 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB846
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7385 8956 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB827 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7317 8952 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB846
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7414 8937 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB828 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7390 8947 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB771
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7425 8988 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB829

Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7291 8941 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB803

Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7427 8974 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB834 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7309 8956 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB815
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7428 8977 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB835 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7309 8955 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB816
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7432 8977 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB836 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7312 8952 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB817
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7434 8940 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB837 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7317 8958 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB818
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7436 8937 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB838 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7340 8964 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB819
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7437 8925 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB839 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7352 8952 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB820
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7438 8927 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB840 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7361 8938 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB821
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7439 8923 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB841 Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7362 8950 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB822
Charcoal Burners Hearth – SX 7439 8976 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB842

Platform – SX 7372 8963 – ADS Record ID – NTSMR-ZB799

So what does one look for when trying to locate such a feature? Firstly the main requirement for charcoal burning was a flat surface and if the coppice was situated on a valley side this meant a cutting had to be made into the hillside to produce one. Today these can be recognised as a flattish surface that clearly slices into a slope thus forming a platform, they are circular in shape and vary in size. The biggest give away is that under the modern leaf litter the ground will be littered with charcoal fragments. It is very probable that the finished charcoal was taken from the coppices by means of the ancient track that leads up through Charles wood and from there could go to Chagford or Moretonhampstead. In the other direction the track leads across the old Fingle Bridge and up to Drewsteignton where it would be easy to reach either Okehampton or Exeter. The loads would have been taken out on packhorses laden with wooden load carrying crooks,

More to the point how can you trace the charcoal burners themselves. Most document will either refer to them directly as charcoal burners or colliers, in fact the term collier often applies more to charcoal burners that the widely accepted miners. Surnames can also indicate connections with charcoal such as Collier, Colliard, Collyeer, Coleman, Coulman or Colman, Reaney, 1997, p.105.

But what of the men themselves? As noted above the charcoal burners led a solitary life camped out in the coppices with just nature for company. It was said that you could always tell a collier from his black, sooty appearance and the constant smell of wood smoke. Hennell, p196, describes such a man: “… his face and hands still ingrained with charcoal-dust and his clothes plastered with it till their folds are as rigid and uniform as the creases in the hide of a rhinoceros”. The photograph in figure 2 opposite shows a collier carrying water on his packhorse, presumably for use at his hearth. The charcoal burners have the distinction of having one of the oldest trade corporations in this country and their patron saint was St. Theobald. Within the corporation were three degrees of member, aspirant, master and hewer and Heckethorn, pp. 321 -322, describes their initiation ceremony. A white cloth is spread on the ground and upon this is placed a salt cellar, cup of water, a lighted taper and a crucifix. The aspirant then swore upon the salt and water to always keep the secrets of the association after which he was told the words by which he would know another brother of the association. Following this the significance of the items which lay before him were explained. The white cloth represented the winding-sheet which every mortal went to their grave in, this was a reminder of one’s mortality. The lighted taper signified the candles that were placed around the deathbed and the cross was a symbol of man’s redemption. The salt cellar was a reminder of the theological virtues which everyone should follow. The catechism of the hewers was as follows:

Question – From come ye, cousin of the forest?

Answer – From the forest.

Question – Where is your father?

Answer – Raise your eyes to heaven.

Question – Where is your mother?

Answer – Cast your eyes upon the earth.

Question – What worship do you pay to your father?

Answer – Homage and respect.

Question – What things do you bestow on your mother?

Answer – My care during life, and my body afterwards.

Question – If I want help what will you give me?

Answer – I will share with you half my day’s earnings and my bread of sorrow; you shall rest in my hut and warm yourself at my fire.

The ‘Society of the Prodigal Son’ used a symbol which consisted of three doors above each of which was written: “The past deceives me; the present tortures me; the future terrifies me“. There was also a triangle with the letters; S. J. P. of which the ‘S’ stood for the wisdom of Solomon, the ‘J’ the patience of Jobe and ‘P’ the repentant prodigal son. So, as you can see the charcoal burners were a serious, god-fearing set of men which probably reflects a life of solitude spent working in the woods.

Charcoal Burners

Heckethorn, C. W. 1992 Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries, Kesslinger Publishing.

Hennell, T. 1984 The Old Farm, Robinson Publishing, London.

Muir, R. 2005 Ancient Trees, Living Landscapes, Tempus Publishing, Stroud.

Reaney, P. H. 1997 A Dictionary of English Surnames, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Swete, J. Rev. 2000 Travels in Georgian Devon, Devon Books & Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.

Vancouver, C. 1969 General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Worth, R. H. 1988 Worth’s Dartmoor, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. Very interesting thank you. I found the initiation ceremony surprising and appealing.

  2. Great work! Thank you for posting this. Questions… Did charcoal burners stay by the camp but sometimes employ people to cut wood for them (and then sell the charcoal). Might they also have exchanged cut wood as payment for charcoal? Or did they do all the cutting themselves?

  3. I came to this site after looking up “charcoal burner” as a result of finding one John Hill of Moretonhampstead listed as a charcoal burner. Unlike the solitary souls described above, John was married and had 9 children (5 of whom died between birth and 6yrs) between 1668 and 1691. He died in 1705.

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