roman bone intaglio

Roman Bone Intaglio



Firewood from the Oxfordshire Chilterns

by Pat Preece

Today's energy is derived from many sources - oil, coal and gas (fossil fuels), nuclear fission, water and, to a lesser extent, from the wind and sun. Until the canals provided a cheap source of transport from the mines to the factories in the late 18th century, the main raw material as a source of energy was wood. Woodlands supplied firewood for domestic heating and cooking, and wood was the basic source of power for industrial processes as diverse as smelting, and glass and tile making.

Until the advent of furniture manufacture at the end of the 18th century, the woods of the Oxfordshire Chilterns were coppice with oak and beech standards (Fig. 1). The leases of Abbots Wood, then belonging to Christ Church, have an obligation on the tenant to 'leave 40 standells or stores (timber trees) upon each acre felled and not to cut any beech of less than 9 years growth'(1). There the beech was being coppiced for poles and firewood and a selection of standards retained. Robert Plot in 1677 records of Oxfordshire coppice: 'they draw them as they call it every year some, according as the wood comes to be of fit scantling ... for billet'(2).

Beech stoll coppiced

Fig.1: Beech stool coppiced

To fuel the tile kilns of Nettlebed and Russell's Water the beech coppice had to be grown for 15 years. The beech coppice for these kilns can still be seen at the Bix Nature Reserve.

There are many words used to describe firewood: billet, bavins, many forms of faggots, blocks, stackwood, cordwood and roots. Bavins are faggots of a specific size, i.e. 3 feet long and 24 inches in circumference as laid down in a Statute of 1542(3). Seven hundred bavins were taken from Chalkwood in 1808: 'paid Tappern for cutting and making 1200 bavins at 4s. 6d per 100'(4).

Faggot seems to have been applied to any size of bundle of twiggy wood, for example:

The last item probably represents the waste after felling.

Making faggots was time consuming and, even in the days of cheap labour, expensive as can be seen from the prices charged between 1850 and 1880:

To which the price of withs to bind had to be added at 1s. 3d per 100, while the woodman took a selling commission of 1s in the .

In Kelly's Directory for 1843 four faggot dealers were listed, one at Cane End, one at Gallowstree Common and two at Beechwood Checkendon.

Faggots of various sizes were used for firing kilns and were described sometimes as kiln or large faggots. So we have Mrs Hedges(6), who owned the brick kiln in Pot Kiln Lane, buying 2800 kiln bavins in 1729, and Payne the glazier of Caversham purchasing 50 faggots from the Cane End estate in 1760. An unusual customer for faggots was 'Lewis the bargeman' who bought 150 from the same estate.

Billets were coppice poles or branches measuring 3 feet 4 inches with a circumference of 10 inches - pieces that would fit on the fire andirons or dogs, which were usually 3 feet apart. (Andirons in many different spellings are to be found in the inventories of 17th and 18th century wills and must therefore have been highly prized pieces of domestic equipment.) Beech billets were usually formed from beech coppice grown for 10 to 15 years. Many of our local woods were mostly beech coppice up to the beginning of the 19th century and supplied London with firewood.

The accounts of Thomas West of Wallingford, part owner of a barge and one of several owners who took wood fuel to London from the Oxfordshire Chilterns, refer to carrying '10 loads of billet and 20 loades of talle wood' from Mapledurham to Cranes Wharf, London, for the 'Quenes House', in the 16th century(7). It is said that Queen Elizabeth I disliked coal as fuel, preferring beech firewood. In the 17th century Pepys investigated the price of beech firewood for the navy and found that its cost from Henley varied between 14-16 per 100 loads, one load containing 500 billets, with the price of 'carriage by water' quoted between 15d and 18d per load (8). Incidentally, when researching the Pepys' account, I actually saw his writing in the Bodleian.

Later accounts contain entries of stackwood (Fig. 2) and cordwood, stacks and cords being definite measures (see Glossary). An entry in the inventory of Thomas Goswell of Neals Farm, Checkendon in 1635 states 'Items in the woods, timber, cut roodes (coppice rods) faggots, balins (bavins), stackwood and whoops (hoops)'.


Fig.2: Stackwood

The earliest use of 'logs' in the Chilterns was in 1811. Blocks were split logs - a description used around Stoke Row and Whitchurch where a 1919 entry on a wood account records 'faggot tying and cutting blocks 4. 10s' (9). On the same estate a steam sawmill installed in 1914 was used to cut blocks for sale.

Another form of firewood was roots of trees and Mrs Hedges also purchased them for her brick works: 'Brick kiln - roots 2.4s'.

Historically firewood was a valuable commodity until coal became more readily available. Every scrap of wood was used from coppicing and felling operations. These same woodlands still produce wayside 'Logs for sale' notices for the passing motorist.


Metric conversion

1ft = 0.305m


This article was first published in SOAG Bulletin No.58 (2003). The SOAG Bulletin is published yearly and is free to members.