A Charcoal Burner's job was a humble one, but one that in pre industrial society was extremely important none the less. Charcoal, as everyone knows, makes a great heat source for grilling your favorite food. However, for centuries in olden times many trades depended on charcoal as their main source of fuel. Iron working, blacksmithing, brick making, glass making, foundry work such as casting bells and cannons, gold and silversmithing, all used huge quantities of charcoal. True, anthracite ("hard") coal is even better as a fuel, but mining technology was poor up to the 19th century. That made coal more expensive, and it was scarce in many areas of England and Europe. Another very important use for charcoal up to modern times is in gunpowder! A early formula for gunpowder called for " ten parts charcoale of whyte wyllow, well peeled withal." The making of charcoal was often regulated by the Crown and other landholders since it was a key commodity for so many important industries.
To make a batch of charcoal, a large pit is dug, with vent holes or trenches cut at intervals around it. Baulks of timber would be stacked inside of it. Then the charcoal burner would start a small fire in the center of the timber pile, and cover it up with earth, leaving a hole in the top of the mound. The trick was to keep the fire from getting too hot, but burning slowly and evenly by stopping up or uncovering the vents. The charcoal burner would tend it night and day for several days, until the wood had burned down and cooled. Then the mound was dug up and the charcoal gathered into baskets or sacks, and hauled off to market. The need for charcoal, as well as the clearing of forests for farmland (the two went hand in hand) turned the forests of yore into the fens and bogs of today in England, Scotland and Ireland. - By P.J. DeSolier