Charcoal burning in Petley Wood
Charcoal burning in Sedlescombe


Sedlescombe was an important source of iron ore but to turn it into iron, charcoal was also needed. Sedlescombe was a well-wooded area but ordinary wood does not burn at a high enough temperature to be a suitable reducing agent in iron production. Charcoal, however, burns at a very high temperature and was used in the smelting of iron from the earliest days probably until the 18th century.

The production of charcoal basically consists of burning, or literally charring, wood at a very slow controlled rate. Once lit the kiln had to be looked at every 2 hours or so to make sure that holes did not appear and cause the wood to burn up. The charcoal burner would have to stay in the woods so that he would be ready to make repairs. Jim Smith lived in a makeshift tent in the woods

Jim Smith charcoal burnerCharcoal was made from either young coppiced wood or top and lop; the trees in Petley Wood, Sedlescombe, close to a charcoal-burning site, were coppiced on a regular basis so that a constant supply of timber was available.

The local alder trees made the best charcoal. Alders are not as common as they used to be since they are not favoured by modern forestry. There are still quite a few though growing on the banks of the River Brede in and around Sedlescombe. It is an excellent wood that can stand in either wet or dry and its roots guard against erosion of the banks of rivers. Charcoal-burning is usually carried out close to the river because the bellows were usually water-powered. The alder has much wildlife dependent on it. Caterpillars of nearly 30 moth species feed on its leaves. 

Charcoal burnersIn 1990 charcoal burning was still going strong at Petley Wood with 16 large metal kilns. 8 were lit each Sunday afternoon and burning continued until Thursday. 10 tons of charcoal were produced each week but by then the wood was no longer local. 70 tons of wood were brought to the site each week as timber offcuts from sawmills at Rochester and Ashford.

The charcoal made in Sedlescombe was very pure and had several surprising uses in the 20th century, apart from the usual barbecue and restaurant trade. For example it was used as a catalyst in the production of pure metals for space shuttle nose cones and charcoal dust was used in production of incense for churches in this country and mosques in the middle east.


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