Britain was a rural economy in 1700.
80% of the population were employed in agriculture and it provided the income for landowners from the landed gentry to the church.
The ownership of land was one of the most important assets in Britain. To own land was to have power. Merchants made rich by trade and the new Industrial Revolution, bought land but the land had to produce an income.
- Land use at the time was determined by what the land could support.
- Some land provided subsistence for those who worked it, other areas were in a seasonal rotation providing food which could be sold and traded and then there was land that required the owner to think long term, the woodlands.
Timber was a commodity that had seen its fortune rise and fall.
Timber fed an unpredictable market. When the country was at war and more ships were built, the demand was high.
The Royal Navy had first call on timber for its fleet. The masts required tall straight ‘old tree’ coniferous wood, long removed from British soil. The forests of Maine and New Hampshire in the US provided the timber, these white pine trees were considered to be so important that they were made the property of the King. Each tree marked, protected and harvested by the British Government for the Royal Navy.
- Seasoned timber was in short supply, for example the ship HMS Victory built in the mid 1700’s required timber from 6000 trees.
- Millions of wooden blocks were made for the ships.
- These trees were felled 15 years earlier, so it is easy to see how they would have soon run out of suitable timber if ship production increased further.
- A landowner would have needed a good deal of forethought to stockpile timber for up to 15 years and also to decide what type of timber to grow.
- Much of the British timber stock was deciduous hardwood, which served many different trades.
- British landowners had stripped Ireland bare of its trees by the C17th and the pressure was on to import general use timber
The increase in world markets also meant that more goods than ever were being transported by sea. These goods were usually carried in wooden barrels and the staves for these required coniferous timber.
- It was becoming more difficult to source suitable timber from within Britain and imports of wood from Scandinavian countries, in particular Norway, were becoming increasingly important.
- Ports on the Eastern side of Britain were soon full to the brim with ships bringing in timber from the continent.
- Timber was considered so important that it was considered to be a landowners national duty to plant woodlands on land, in fact the Royal Society for Arts awarded prizes for those who could develop new techniques in forestry methods.
The Industrial Revolution too, put huge demands on timber production.
- Charcoal was a key ingredient in early steel making and coppiced woodland was a tightly regulated industry. The standard and coppice method of forestry cultivation had to be carefully managed to produce the timber necessary to fuel the iron ore furnaces but with another twist in the tale, as iron production methods changed so the need for charcoal declined.
- Coal production though, rocketed and mines were dug deeper than ever before. The demand for pit props outreached the supply from within Britain and timber imports increased yet again.
The Industrial Revolution affected timber production in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
- Invention and innovation created markets, as in the increased demand for the supply of pit props
- However, improvements in steel production, meant steel was being used, where once timber had been, for example in ship building.
Following the Great Fire of London, the city was surveyed and among measures to be taken, houses were to be re-built with more stone and brick in their construction, to reduce the chance of such a calamity happening again.
- The reduction in the number of timber built houses spread across the country
- Improvements in the transport system meant bricks could be more easily transported around the country by canals
- The invention of better mortars improved house construction and the desire of the landed classes to build bigger houses containing larger glass windows, meant a changing fashion, away from timber.
The British wooded landscape, already denuded by hundreds of years of deforestation, was evolving yet again, driven by social, political and industrial change unlike any that had gone before.