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The Fernhurst Society

Tales from the Archives - 11

Charcoal burners in Henley Woods

In 1885 Charles Willcock, lay reader at Henley, went to visit the newly arrived Francis family, itinerant charcoal burners who had set up camp in the woods near Upper Lodge. ‘Home’ was a self-built cabin, conical in shape and reminded him of a North American wigwam. As they were going to be there for several months, Mrs Francis had constructed an earth oven and the family also kept chickens and would barter the eggs for vegetables and other foodstuffs.

Two years later, another family comprising Mrs Davis, her daughter and two sons arrived to work the same area, but their accommodation was quite different and consisted of a ‘house cart’ which, Mr Willcock noted, had a very smart exterior and was very neatly and comfortably furnished.

The main woods ‘coaled’ in the area were oak, chestnut and birch, which made use of lengths that were not saleable as firewood. It was a hard and could be dangerous life. A young man and his dog were found early one morning accidentally suffocated in a charcoal cabin near Bexley Hill. Apparently he had hung his wet coat on the back of a chair to dry near some burning charcoal. There was insufficient ventilation in the cabin and the inquest surmised that the coat must have fallen into the fire and although the man had tried to reach the door was overcome by fumes before and both he and his dog perished.

If you would like to know more about this story, or research other local topics, the Archive is open on Tuesdays, 2.30-5pm in the Village Hall. Other times by arrangement.

Christine Maynard
Fernhurst Archive

One of a series of short articles bringing you some of the incidents from our rich village history. Collated by Christine Maynard, based on documents preserved at the Fernhurst Archives, these originally were published in the monthly Fernhurst News.

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