A quick scroll through the census returns of the mid-19th century gives a clear picture of the Buckholt as a centre of Agricultural and Woodland industry. Agricultural Labourers, Farmers, Woodmen, Woodcutters, Charcoal Burners, Cordwooders, Carpenters, Sawyers, Hoop Makers (Coopers), Forgemen and Masons made up almost 90% of the working population of the village, with the remaining 10% being service providers to the community, such as a Washerwoman, and a Shoemaker.
This demographic changed little until the turn of the century when the traditional woodland industries began to decline. The early 20th century saw the relocation of many of the old families who had occupied the village throughout the previous century. The woodland community dwindled and eventually disappeared as the Buckholt Wood became an area of commercial plantation.
Although the Buckholt was historically an area of low-income employment, since the 1950s the village has become increasingly popular as a desirable country location for a professional population.
Monmouthshire Charcoal-Burner’s camp, c.1910
For many centuries one of the principle industries of the Buckholt was Charcoal Burning, still evident from the vast amount of coppice and Beech in the wood. Charcoal Burning is a method of producing carbon through the controlled heating of wood with a restricted air supply. Used primarily to create fuel for the smelting of metalliferous ores, especially iron, Charcoal Burning is a process that has been in existence since metals were first smelted (approximately 5000 years). It is a job that has been carried out in the woods of Wales for at least 2000 years and certainly even in the 19th century this was an industry that was already ancient in the Buckholt. The name of the village itself – The Buckholt – is a reference to the Beech trees that have historically grown in such abundance in the wood. The earliest documented record of the wood is in a charter drawn up by John of Monmouth in 1248, but its Anglo Saxon name (Boc-holt meaning Beech Wood) alludes to a much more ancient origin. Beech wood creates a charcoal with a carbon content of 85-92% and the charcoal produced by the Woodcolliers of the Buckholt that would have supplied the ironworks of Monmouthshire and the Forest of Dean, was renowned locally as being of very high quality.
Although Beech was preferred, other hardwoods including Alder, Ash, Birch, Hazel, Crab Apple, Elm, Oak, Willow and Poplar could also be used. Wood of a small diameter (2-5”) was required and therefore the coppice system was often established to ensure uniformly sized cuts. An acre of well-grown coppice could be harvested every 16-17 years and would typically yield 30 tons of greenwood.
Buckholt Coppice new and old
The wood for the charcoal burning was usually cut between September and March, into lengths known as billets. A billet could either be “longwood”, measuring 4’4”, or “shortwood”, measuring 2’2”. The billets were stacked for seasoning close to the burn-site in the form of “Cords”, that is;
‘a stack of wood (which is the boughs and offal of the trees to be converted to charcoal), four yards long, three and a half high (in some places but a yard) and as much over in other places… In other places the cord is four feet in height and four feet over (i.e. across)… the content 128 cubic feet’.
John Evelyn 1662
It was important to choose a good, level and well drained area for the platform on which the burn would be sited. Platforms were approximately 15 feet in diameter and preparing the site was hard work as the ground had to be manually cleared and levelled. Where possible charcoal burners preferred to reuse old charcoal sites as these always resulted in better yields. It would have been necessary to have a supply of water on hand to deal with emergencies during the burn. Water was in ready supply on the east side of the wood where a natural spring feeds the Mally Brook, but for the charcoal burners on the Manson’s side of the wood water would have been drawn from a well or collected in rainwater butts and stored in large casks on site (see photo above).
The charcoal was produced in a circular dome-shaped pile known in Wales as a Clamp, in an ancient technique described by John Evelyn thus:
“You shall begin to set the wood in a triangular form till it come to be three foot high. Against this again place your greater wood almost perpendicular, reducing it from the triangular to the circular form, till having gained a yard or more you may pile the wood longways as it lay in the stack being careful that the ends of the wood do not touch the pole which must now be erected in the centre, nine foot in height, that so there may remain a round hole which is to be formed in working up the stackwood, for a tunnel, and the more commodious firing of the pit, as they call it, tho’ not very properly. This provided for, go on to pile, and set your wood upright to the other as before; til having gained a yard or more you lay it long-ways again, as was shew’d; And thus continue the work, still enterchanging the position of the wood, till the whole area of the Hearth and Circle be filled and piled up at the least eight foot high, and so drawn in by degrees in piling, that it resemble the form of a copped brown household loaf, filling all inequalities with the smaller trunchions, till it lie very close, and be perfectly and evenly shaped”. John Evelyn 1664
The piled wood was then covered with a layer of green bracken, overlapping turf and earth, with the circular hole at the top (the chimney) being left open for firing up the Clamp. The Clamp was lit by climbing up a ladder laid against the pile and dropping dry sticks followed by burning wood or coal into the chimney. The fire was topped up with more wood until a good strong heat had built up in the centre of the heap, at which point the top was covered with a large, thick turf and sealed up with earth. The pile was then left to smoulder and shrink until the charcoal was deemed ready to extract.
Charcoal Burning was a demanding job and the clamp required constant attention round the clock during the period of the burn. Wind might cause the wood to burn too rapidly on one side and the woodcollier would have to act quickly to fill any resulting holes in the turf covering. Mild weather was desirable as this produced the most even burn and therefore the finest charcoal.
After 4-6 days the clamps could be damped-down with water and the outer covering of earth carefully raked off. Any ‘brands’ (partially charred wood) would be removed and put aside for the next burn and the charcoal would then be sorted into lump charcoal (the big stuff) and braise (the small pieces). The charcoal was bagged-up in sacks and sold by the dozen as 10 sacks of Large Coals and 2 of Braise. In the Buckholt a standard sack held 1½ cwt of charcoal.
In the Buckholt, Charcoal Burning provided a specialist livelihood and a way of life for the close woodland community and the many cottages of the woodland workers were scattered around the perimeter of Buckholt Wood. However, during the process of the burn the woodcolliers would need to be on site to mind their kilns and for this, they constructed dome-shaped huts from a framework of wooden hurdles covered with brushwood.
Like the Clamps, these frames were topped all over with cuts of overlapping turf laid grass-side-down, like slates, with a small wooden front door fashioned from planks or poles tied together. Although a woodcollier might work alone it was more common for small teams of men, and sometimes women, to share these temporary dwellings and the arduous work, for the duration of the burn. The charcoal burning season lasted throughout the summer months and many of the Buckholt woodcolliers turned to wood- cutting to see them through the winter.
Monmouthshire Charcoal Burners Hut, 1893
With the development in the 19th century of wood distillation that manufactured charcoal on an industrial scale in metal kilns, the traditional woodland occupation of charcoal burning fell into decline. The Buckholt was one of the very few places in Wales where the traditional practice continued into the 20th century and an elderly local resident once described as a child in the 1920s seeing the glow of the charcoal fires in the Buckholt Wood at night. Since 1950 all of the woodlanders’ cottages within the Buckholt Wood have been abandoned and have fallen into ruin as the industry that had been at the heart of the Buckholt for so many centuries has finally receded from living memory.