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The Woodland Economy of the Past

Author: Bob Delderfield, Peter Marett
Last Updated: 15 May, 2016

Pound Wood, like the other woods of south-east Essex, survived into the 20th century because it was a valuable resource. For centuries the local population required firewood and timber but there was also a large market in London to which materials could be carried by barge from Leigh or Benfleet or by waggon via Rayleigh and Billericay.

In the Middle Ages, the local woods, owned by St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, Pound Wood included, would have provided an income from the lessees who supplied charcoal, fuel faggots, and timber to local and London markets. Boat builders at Leigh would also have required timber and the sea-walls around reclaimed marshes such as Canvey were built and repaired with faggots and hurdles made from the underwood. Records show that woodland was twice as valuable as arable land and equal to good pasture.

Essex has no stone for building. Only Hadleigh Castle and the village churches were made from imported stone supplemented by rubble from Roman ruins; all other substantial buildings were made from local timbers – usually oak – and a few survive to this day. The Prior’s Chamber and Refectory at Prittlewell Priory, the Old House at 17 South Street, Rochford, and Southchurch Hall (all today open to the public) contain massive timbers dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries and these could well have come from woods in the Hadleigh-Thundersley area.

Dr Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University has examined these timbers and calculates that the construction of the Prior’s Chamber and Refectory at Prittlewell Priory would probably have required some 440 oaks of various sizes. A medium size hall house would need some 200 trees. It would take about 35 to 40 acres (15 hectares) of woodland to supply enough building material for one such house to he built every five years. So a wood the size of Pound Wood could have provided sufficient timber to build a house the size of Southchurch Hall once every five years. This would not, of course, mean the felling of all the standard oak trees at once. The timber was extracted on a sustainable basis – as one mature oak was taken, another grew on to maturity and oaklings were protected to provide a continuous supply of slowly maturing trees to take their place. And every winter coppice poles of between eight and fifteen years growth would have been cut for stakes, fencing, hurdles and firewood. During this time, an entire area of woodland would rarely be clear-felled in one go, although there is evidence of occasional clear-felling of some areas in later centuries.

Pound Wood therefore existed as a sustainable source of timber and fuel for centuries.

In Medieval times some areas of woodland and pasture were incorporated into ‘hunting parks’ in which rich landowners indulged in the sport of deer hunting or from which professional hunters obtained meat for the tables of the great houses. Henry II acquired estates in Hadleigh and Rayleigh as a result of confiscating the lands of Henry de Essex after the latter deserted in battle against the Welsh in 1163. A park already existed in Rayleigh but the king appears to have established two more in the area. Records mention a park in Hadleigh in 1239 and one in Thundersley in 1254 and confirm that they continued to exist until the 16th Century. Hunting lodges existed in The Chase, Thundersley, at Thundersley Manor in Church Road, and also at Jarvis Hall in Thundersley Park Road. King John had a palace near Kenneth Road, the possible remains of which have been unearthed beneath a house at the end of Kingston Way. However, hunting was probably infrequent here and deer were more likely to have been taken live for re-stocking other parks. Royal lands here probably had more significance as pasture for pigs and cattle and sources of timber. Nevertheless, poaching was punished severely by amputating fingers or hands.

Rayleigh Park was the largest of the three. The probable remains of the park ‘pale’ or boundary can be seen in the bank and ditch which form the north-eastern boundaries of Tile Wood and Pound Wood. This earthwork can also be traced through the fields between the two woods, and forms the original parish boundary between Rayleigh and Thundersley, before the A127 was built. Pound Wood thus lay just outside the royal hunting park, and the ditch and bank, which would have been topped with paling stakes, would have confined the animals to the park area and prevented them from entering the woods and damaging the young growth. Pound Wood thus remained a source of timber and fuel, providing an income for its owners, The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.

Another significant woodland product was charcoal and its production in this area may have been an indirect consequence of the existence of the hunting parks. Charcoal was used for smelting iron and later as an ingredient in the gunpowder industry. There is some evidence that Thundersley and Hadleigh woods were ‘discovered’ for this purpose by courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I who hunted in the area. Gunpowder was introduced into England in the 14th century but not manufactured here until Elizabethan times. It may have been the discovery of suitable wood in this area which led to its establishment. Thundersley charcoal was taken to the country’s first gunpowder factory at Lea Bridge near Barking and thus may have played a part in the Gunpowder Plot hatched by Guy Fawkes and his colleagues.

Charcoal burners are recorded on Daws Heath and may well have used coppiced timber from Pound Wood. The charcoal was made by slow-burning faggots under a mound of ferns, thistles, and long grass. Two heaps could be built in a week, each containing five cords. (A cord of timber consisted of a pile of coppiced poles four feet high and eight feet wide, with each pole about four feet long.) Charcoal burners usually camped out among their heaps, or may have occupied huts on the heath, living a life of extreme poverty in very spartan conditions.

Every week a six-wheeled waggon, pulled by a team of five horses, hauled two hundred sacks of charcoal (10,000 sacks in the course of a year) to London using the old turnpike road which ran past the Woodman’s Arms, through Rayleigh, Billericay and Romford.

This industry appears to have been supplemented by another, less legal, activity. Daws Heath, being a quiet, isolated area, made an ideal location for hiding contraband brought ashore in Leigh and Benfleet Creeks. Its reputation as a rough, lawless area haunted by ghosts and witches kept even local people out. Thus the charcoal waggons reportedly hauled brandy and tobacco as well as sacks of charcoal as they left Thundersley. The shrimp carts from Leigh made a detour into Daws Heath for the same reason before rejoining the turnpike road to London at the Woodman’s.

By the early part of the 19th Century, the charcoal industry nationwide was in decline (coal was becoming the main fuel of the industrial revolution) and in 1818, Henry Young, Minister of Agriculture, remarked that there was not a third of the charcoal made in the whole of Essex as was once made in Thundersley alone. By the close of the 19th Century charcoal burning on Daws Heath was but a distant memory.

Disturbances to the ground surface within the wood point to additional economic resources. A number of shallow pits or dells suggest that gravel was extracted from the wood at some undefined period, probably for local use. Some local house deeds preclude the removal of gravel from the land, suggesting that this was a resource whose exploitation was possible, but not always desirable.

The ponds in the wood are more difficult to explain. Shaw’s Dam formerly impounded water on the Hunford Brook and the size of coppice stools on the breached dam indicate that this is a feature of some antiquity. Archaeological investigation suggests that the pond is not a natural hollow but its purpose is far from clear. The pond may have been constructed for watering livestock or for stocking with fish but this is unlikely in a wood. Perhaps this part of the wood was at one time open pasture. Alternatively, the pond may have been a source of water for some form of industrial activity or nearby habitation. The origin of this dam and pond remains a mystery but archaeological investigation continues.

Timber production probably continued into the early 20th century but, like the other woods in this area, Pound Wood appears to have declined in economic importance and produced little income for its owners after the 1930s. It was sold to the Essex Wildlife Trust in 1993.

Coppicing was resumed in 1994. Although this yields a small income from wood sales, its prime purpose is now the maintenance of wildlife habitats lost when coppice becomes overgrown.

Management today depends on grant aid and volunteer labour and until new local markets are developed for timber, fencing poles, woodchip and barbecue charcoal, Pound Wood will have no economic value. Its significance today lies in its conservation and recreation potential, items upon which it is impossible to place monetary values. Today, many woods on the urban fringe have an undefinable value to the large local populations who seek such benefits in their increasing leisure time. For many this includes appreciation of the wildlife which current management techniques seek to promote. The significance of Pound Wood has thus changed in the most recent years of its history but it remains an important resource whose future would seem to be secure now that we have entered the new millennium.