England Occupations Woodworking, Plant Products (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Wood and Plant Products

Forest Trades

A woodman referred to anyone pursuing a craft based on wood in the forest. A wood cutter was one who cut down trees and bushes, whilst a wood chopper has the connotation of chopping logs or waste wood into small pieces for firewood. The latter could be in a town, such as those in the East End of London (Telkman).

Barking

Tannin in tree bark was essential for the tanning of leather and the highest amount in England occurred in oak bark, but the smaller amounts in alder, beech, willow and some others were also used. The barker stripped bark from felled trees, or from living ones, and the process, which was also called flawing or rinding, and tools used are described by Sparkes (Woodland Craftsmen. Shire Publications, 1991).

Charcoal Burning

Charcoal was the first smokeless fuel. Thousands of years ago iron masters had discovered that incompletely burned, or charred, wood burnt very hot and when given a forced draught by catching the wind or from bellows it burned even hotter. This high heat was necessary for the development of iron smelting, early steel making, fusion of the ingredients for making glass and the production of gunpowder. Not until the introduction of coke in 1709 did a more efficient method become available. Hence the importance of charcoal burners to these industries of south east England. Charcoal has had many other uses for example for household fires, in deodorants, biscuits, gas absorbents, fertilizers and heat insulation as well as in the manufacture of armour, chains, and artificial silk.

The work was done where the wood, mostly alder buckthorn, oak and chestnut, was found—in the forests. The charcoal burners, also known as wood colliers, and their families were almost a race apart living there in seclusion. So much wood was felled for making charcoal that first the Wealden forests were denuded and later those of Warwickshire when iron smelting moved there. Descriptions of the methods used are found in Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker. London, 1970), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Theobald (Old Occupations: Charcoal Burning. Family Tree Magazine Vol 4 #12, page 4-5), and a much more detailed work extending also into the modern era is that by Kelley (Charcoal and Charcoal Burning. Shire Publications, 1996).

Cork Cutting

Cork oak found in France, Spain and Italy regularly sheds its bark and forms a new layer, but it can be excised in regular sheets. Imported into England, it was cut into the required shapes, mostly as bottle stoppers, but also for flotation devices, shoes, wall coverings etc. Cork cutters were of both sexes but it was one of the dirtiest trades and poorly paid (Hurley 1991).

Felling

Builders, shipwrights’ agents and carpenters would select standing timber and trees would be felled by using the axe to make a tapering gap on the side it is to fall, then cross cut sawing from the other side (Arnold 1968, 1970). This would take place in the autumn and winter when no sap was rising, unless the bark was required for tanning when they would be felled in March. Nothing was wasted, for example the cut was made as close to the ground as possible, the smaller branches, known as top and lop, were sold for kindling faggots, and mast and brushwood from oak and beech were gathered for pig food (Sparkes 1991).

Sawying

The felled tree would be brought to the carpenter’s yard where the sawyers would cut it into planks, ba(u)lks (roughly squared beams) or blocks. This was done in the saw pit with the senior sawyer standing on the log above, and his junior partner working the other end of the pit-saw whilst standing in the pit below. Much of their time was spent manoeuvring the timbers and sharpening their saws (Steel and Taylor). Detailed descriptions many types of saws are in Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968), Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974) and Sparkes (Woodland Craftsmen. Shire Publications, 1991).

Woodlot management

Timber is produced from two kinds of woodland (Arnold 1970):

  • Standard wood is from ash, beech, birch, oak and pine allowed to grow freely to their natural height and shape.
  • Coppice wood is where certain trees are planted in rows at regular distances and cut back to their bases, or stools, after a certain length of time. In the following years these then throw up numbers of straight shoots which eventually become poles and can be harvested. The tree will then recommence throwing up more shoots. Hazel poles are ready at 7-10 years, sweet chestnut at 10-20 years, but ash takes 30 years. This wood is used for hurdles, fences, faggots, bean poles etc.

Willow growing is another special form of management described by Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946) and Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968). Osiers are grown in many localities, particularly around Sedgemoor in Somerset, in the places with names ending in -hope in Essex, -garth in the north, and -holt in the Midlands (Arnold 1968).

Constructional timber and that for furniture comes from standard wood, both hard and soft. Hardwoods are the deciduous ones, predominantly oak, ash, beech and elm in England; they are slower growing and closer grained. Softwoods are the conifers, mostly pines, larch and spruce in England and they are quicker growing, open-grained and all except Scots Pine are very straight as they do not branch like hardwoods (Arnold 1970, Manners).

Carpentry

The carpenter was one of the essential men in any village and the builder of its houses, as well as making a number of other useful items from chests and cow stalls to pumps and coffins depending on local needs. His work was more varied than that of the other wood craftsmen, the wheelwright, ship’s carpenter, joiner and cabinet maker, but some men combined carpentry with another of these trades.

Some products and specialized carpentry trades such as carvers, clog makers, coopers, and turners have separate sections here, and general references to carpentry can be found in Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), and Bailey (The Village Wheelwright and Carpenter. Shire Publications, 1975). Mayhew collected sociological information about London’s woodworkers including sections on sawyers, carpenters and joiners, cabinet makers, ship and boat builders, and coopers (Thomson and Yeo’s The Unknown Mayhew. Penguin Books, 1973). Nicolle (The Woodworking Trades: A Select Bibliography. Twybill Press) wrote a valuable dictionary for the woodworking trades.

Barrels, Coopers and Hoop Shavers

The most widespread type of container for storage and shipping for many thousands of years was the barrel. It was strong, with tight joints bound by wooden or iron hoops, and could be stacked or moved easily. The cooper made a surprising number of shapes and sizes of these containers for all manner of uses, the trade being divided into three branches:

  • White coopers made barrels, bowls, buckets, casks, churns, butter and cheese tubs, jugs, milking buckets, pails, washtubs, and vats for making home-brewed ale.
  • Dry coopers constructed the casks for holding apples, butter, fish, gun powder, soap and syrup.
  • Wet coopers made vessels for liquids such as jams, sauces, wine and spirits.

Coopering was carried out in every town in the land, and there were travelling coopers who made and mended casks in villages too small to have a resident cooper. Large ships all had a cooper on board and custom houses and excise offices each had an officer called the king’s cooper to attend to these needs.

Standard sizes were laid down in 1420 and each cooper had to brand his casks with his unique sign. Each type and size had its own name, for example:

  • A pin holds 41/2 Imperial gallons
  • A firkin holds 9 gallons
  • A kilderkin holds 18 gallons
  • A barrel holds 36 gallons
  • A hogshead holds 54 gallons
  • A puncheon holds 72 gallons
  • A butt holds 108 gallons
  • A tun holds 252 gallons

Many variations have occur over time and for different products; the student should consult Chapman (How Heavy, How Much and How Long. Weights, Money and Other Measures Used by Our Ancestors. Lochin Publishing, 1995) for details. The local pub may be named after such a measure, for example The Firkin, The One Pin, and The Three Tuns. The cooper often made a host of other wooden items like ladles, spoons, trenchers (wooden plates) and flour shovels. Details of the trade should be sought in Kilby (The Village Cooper. Shire Publications, 1977), Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and Maurin (Old Occupations: The Cooper. Family Tree Magazine Vol 10 #9, page 3-5, 1994) and there are smaller sections in Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), and Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970). The hoop maker, or hoop shaver, was formerly an important part of the cooper’s craft when the hoops that bound the staves were wooden. The various techniques used for making hoops in different parts of England are briefly noted by Wymer (1946).


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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