The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Broom making

 

The making of brooms, also known as ‘besoms’ or ‘besom brooms’, consisting of a bundle of twigs (often birch) tied around a stick.

 

Status Endangered (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Craft category  Wood
Historic area of significance  Hampshire
Area currently practised  South East England
Origin in the UK
Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Current no. of trainees  0 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  3 (see ‘Craftspeople currently known’ and ‘Other information’ for further details)
Current total no. of craftspeople  11-20 (see ‘Craftspeople currently known’ and ‘Other information’ for further details)

 

History

Traditionally, besom brooms are made from the twiggy growth of the birch tree, and the craft was particularly strong in areas where birch coppices abounded. In other parts of the country, such as North Wales and Yorkshire, birch was frequently substituted by heather. Marram grass has also been occasionally used.

The craft was particularly strong in the Tadley district on the Hampshire-Berkshire border, which was a centre for woodland craftsmanship, with large numbers of rake makers, besom makers, hurdle makers, turners and many others. It is believed that broom/besom making in Tadley dates back to at least the fourteenth century. In 1953 there were still at least teb ‘broom squires’ working in the area, although this had fallen to two by 1965.

According to Ray Tabor, the methods used by the village broom squire and the coppiceworker differed. In most coppices, besom-making was rarely a full-time job. Instead it is a summer job, to be fitted in when more demanding jobs are over and using up materials that would otherwise be wasted.

Today, there are fewer than five craftspeople in the UK who make brooms on a commercial basis, combining the work with other coppice products.

Besom brooms are extremely versatile and can be used for clearing leaves and rubbish from grass, teasing moss from a lawn, getting rid of worm casts, getting into corners brushing fresh snow. They are good for light work, and the twigs do not snag. Besoms were also used in the steel industry for sweeping away impurities from newly made steel plates, and the heads were also used to line the vats when brewing vinegar.

 

Techniques

The following description is provided by Jenkins (1978: 88-89).

  1. Collecting material for the head: The material is selected from the crown of the birch tree and left to season for several months until the twigs are hard but pliant – if used too soon, the finished besom will be too brittle. 3-5 year old coppiced birch is best.
  2. Making the handle: After the rods for the handles have seasoned, they are placed in a shave horse and the bark is removed with a drawknife. They are then smoothed with a draw shave, and the ends pointed with an axe.
  3. Selecting material for the head: The piles of seasoning material are opened up, trimmed with a short-bladed billhook and then sorted by hand. The pieces that are too small and brittle for besoms are cut away and the rejected material is later tied into bundles and sold as firewood. The brush is then sorted into two groups: a) the longer, rougher material for the core; b) the smoother, shorter strands for the outside of the head.
  4. Making the head: A handful of longer, rougher birch twigs are rolled together, and then a bundle of shorter, smoother twigs is arranged around them. When satisfied, the head is tied with two bonds of either willow or wire. The butts of each head are then chopped away using a chopping block and short-handled axe.
  5. Fitting the handles (‘tails’): The handle is inserted into the base and driven squarely home into the head. The head is then secured between the two bonds either with a nail, or by boring a hole in the handle with a small spiral auger and inserting a wooden peg.

 

Local forms

The villages of Baghurst and Tadley on the Hampshire/Berkshire border were particularly well known for their besom production. In other parts of the country, such as North Wales and Yorkshire, birch was frequently substituted by heather. Marram grass has also been occasionally used.

 

Sub-crafts

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Dilution of skills: It is possible to teach someone to make a broom quite easily and quickly but it takes time to get good at it – the more frequently you make besoms, the neater and better you make them
  • Market issues: The demand for besoms has fallen substantially (by as much as 75%) in the last 15-20 years – main customers tend to be people who used besoms growing up and they are now ageing and dying off. A new market is emerging in brooms for pagan weddings.
  • Market issues: The demand for brooms is there, but it is very difficult to earn a living solely from making brooms – need to have other products/income streams too.
  • Market issues: The demand is there but not the craftspeople to meet it – need to find some way to encourage people to take it on, but very difficult when you cannot make a living from it.
  • Lack of awareness: Many people have never used a besom and so are not aware of its versatility and what a besom can do – e.g. flick leaves off a wet lawn (which leaf blowers can’t do), get rid of worm casts and moss without damaging lawns (unlike a rake), get into lots of corners (which you can’t do with a yard broom), use delicately such as to remove leaves from gravel.
  • Technological change: Competition from leaf blowers
  • Supply of raw materials: The best material is 3-5 year old coppiced birch and it can be difficult to find the material. Cutting the birch is quite hard work, especially as you age.
  • Foreign competition: Sales took a big dive about 15 years ago when imports from Poland started – the consumer doesn’t realise that this is a different type of broom. However, sales seem to have improved in recent years.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • As of February 2017, the Coppice Products website lists 19 makers of besom brooms, although the output and skill level of each maker is not known.
  • Various members of the APT&GW do some besom-type broom making, and there is even an annual competition at the Weald and Downland Museum.
  • Arthur Haffenden – based at Amberley Museum, Sussex, in his late 80s and only making on a very small scale.
  • Those known to make brooms in any quantity are:
    • Adam King – based in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Makes about 200 brooms a year.
    • Mark Cottrell – based in Moulsford, Oxfordshire, in late 50s. Makes about 1500 brooms a year.
    • Bradley Nash – based in Tadley, Hampshire

 

Other information

Status: There are probably still enough broom makers to keep the craft alive for the time being, but there is no younger generation coming through and it is likely that in 20 years’ time there will be no one left making brooms on a commercial basis.

Number of trainees: There are no formal ‘trainees’ in the craft of besom broom making, although many people learn on short courses. It is relatively easy to learn the skills but takes time to perfect them.

Number of skilled craftspeople: There are three people who make besom brooms professionally/commercially in reasonable quantities, with a handful of others, such as members of the APT&GW who may make them occasionally.

 

References