craft of charcoal burning is a very ancient one, practised as early as 4,000
BC in Central Africa. The basic methods changed very little until the recent
introduction of metal kilns. It has long been an important industry in the
Weald, supplying the essential fuel for ironworking in the area. John
Evelyn gives a detailed account of charcoal burning in his book Sylva, first
published in 1664, describing the traditional methods which remained
unchanged in this country until the Second World War. Of the 17th
century market for charcoal, Evelyn writes: Of these coals the grosser
sort are commonly reserved for the forges and ironworks: the middling and
smoother put up in sacks and carried by colliers to London, and the adjacent
towns; those which are char'd of the roots if pick'd out are accounted best
for chymical fires and where a lasting and extraordinary blast is required.
Today the demand for charcoal is limited to certain chemical processes,
charcoal biscuits, artists' pencils and fuel for barbecues, and the
traditional craft of charcoal burning is dying out.
Charcoal gives about twice the heat of an equivalent weight of wood, making
it very important to the iron smelting industry. The craft of the charcoal
burner lies in building a kiln which restricts the air supply while it is
burning, and then watching the kiln continuously until the burn is complete.
and Mrs. Langridge building a hut at the Museum
the kiln is built and ready to be fired, glowing embers of charcoal are
dropped into the flue until the wood is well alight. The top of the flue is
then sealed with turf and earth. Once the kiln is burning the long watch
begins. A kiln the size of the one at the Museum could take three days and
two nights to burn and must be watched constantly. Burning is controlled by
making small holes to let in a little air and repairing any part of the kiln
which slips. When the charcoal is judged to be ready, the burning is
extinguished by water and the kiln is opened up. The charcoal is then spread
out and sorted and sifted three times to make sure it is cool and clean.
While one kiln was burning, a second would be built, to waste no time.
Charcoal burning was practised all the year round.
kiln during a burn at the Museum.
Because it was essential to watch the burning kilns night and day, the
charcoal burner always lived on site with his family. The camp at the Museum
was originally built by Mr. and Mrs. Langridge, two retired charcoal burners
from Kingsfold near Horsham. Mrs. Langridge's family have been charcoal
burners for generations, and Mr. Langridge took up the craft at the time of
his marriage. His camp consisted of small turf huts, one of which can be
seen at the Museum. The simple structure of the huts, with turf and sacking
over a pole frame, follows a very old tradition, but it is an extraordinary
thought that Mrs. Langridge knew no other home until the age of sixteen.
Cooking was done over the open fire and in the simple traditional oven, and
Mrs. Langridge's only complaint is that it was difficult to dry clothes.
Every Sunday the best clothes were brought out of a chest and the whole
family went to sing with the Salvation Army, which her father staunchly
supported. A camp of this kind could remain in use for up to four years if
constantly occupied, but new huts would be built if the family returned to
the camp after working elsewhere for a time.
The construction of a
medium-sized kiln is shown in various stages at the Museum.