The charcoal burners that feature in the Swallows and Amazons series are father and son, Old Billy and Young Billy (the Billies). They work in the traditional Cumbrian industry, charcoal burning, where they burn wood very slowly, under a mound of turf, in order to produce charcoal. They live a nomadic existence in huts in the woods, moving to different sites around the Lake. Old Billy says While we're burning .... Someone has to be with the fire night and day, to keep him down like (SA12).
In Swallows and Amazons the Billies are working in the woods on the eastern shore of the Lake, a little to the south of Wild Cat Island. They see the charcoal burners at night (SA12), then visit them the next day in their hut, which is a Red Indian wigwam according to Titty. Old Billy is described as a little, bent old man, as wrinkled as a walnut and as brown, with long bare arms covered with muscles. They see Young Billy's adder (SA13). Old Billy says that my dad .... was burning on these fells a hundred years ago, and recalls a visit from Mrs Blackett, then little Miss Turner. Young Billy warns them of talk in the Bigland pub about what is in Uncle Jim's houseboat, which John promises to pass on.
In Swallowdale Mrs Jackson tells them that the charcoal-burners were not working on this side of the lake but up beyond the moor on the other side, in the next valley (SD2). They have moved to Heald Wood some way to the west of the lake. The two much younger natives, Bob and Jack (Mary Swainson's woodman), take Titty back on the horse-drawn log to Swainson's farm (SD30). Young Billy looks after Roger for the night in their hut (wigwam) after he sprains his ankle (SD31).
Old Billy is at a hound-trail over Bigland way. He had heard that Jim Postlethwaite would be there thinking he would be the oldest, but Jim was nobbut eighty-nine and Old Billy had seen ninety-four this last back-end (SD30).
Young Billy himself was over seventy and had grandchildren much older than the able-seaman, but she was more out of breath than he was as they climbed up the wood. When Titty reminds him she must get back to Roger, he says I'll be thinking I'm getting old next. He mentions the Blackett lasses, and says that with old Miss Turner staying at Beckfoot they won't be seeing so much of the lasses. He is described as an old, bent, brown man .... (SD30).
Camp Might Have Been in Pigeon Post (on the edge of High Topps) is a former charcoal burners' camp, but the Billies are away at the low end of the lake (PP7). The Plunk ... plunk noise of John's axe and the rhythmic scrawk of Nancy's saw reminds Titty of the charcoal-burners (PP27), and Peggy says that the charcoal-burners keep their mounds burning for weeks and weeks (PP28).
There has been a resurgence of charcoal burning in the UK in recent years with organisations such as Bulworthy Project making charcoal and running charcoal making courses.
If you look in much woodland in the lakes you can see it is coppiced. That means there is 1 root with several trunks coming out of it.like this :
If woodland is managed in that way you get many poles from one tree rather than one big fat trunk. Ideal for making charcoal
The charcoal industry was probably for making iron, as there was much iron ore in western Cumbria.
The Low Wood (or Lowwood) Gunpowder works in Furness was also a consumer of charcoal. It closed down in 1935. Powdered charcoal was also a reagent used in the manufacture of artificial ultramarine at the Reckitt's laundry-blue factory in Backbarrow. Reckitts bought the pre-existing 'blue-mill' in 1928, and it remained in production until 1981...
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