The making of brooms, also known as ‘besoms’ or ‘besom brooms’, consisting of a bundle of twigs (often birch) tied around a stick.
|Endangered (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|South East England; Cumbria
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Not known. Many coppice and green wood workers will make a few brooms, and may have the knowledge of how to make them, but few make in any quantity.
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
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. The market for brooms is said to have grown rapidly after after the Black Death in London when laws changed to stop people disposing of human waste in the street and people had to clean the streets in front of their accommodation. Tadley and other Heathland areas were close enough to London to be able to send carts loaded with brooms to London for sale. In 1953 there were still at least ten ‘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.
The following description is provided by Jenkins (1978: pp. 88-89).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The waste material can be bundled into small bundles and tied with tarred or waxed string to make fire lighters. Bundles of these were put together in Sussex and called the ‘Sussex Pimp’ initially made at Petworth House in West Sussex. Alan Waters is the individual who has brought this craft back from extinction and has trained a few others.
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 per cent) 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 achievable price per broom does not reflect the time spent unless you can get very proficient and produce high volumes quickly. Even then the return is well below the minimum wage taking into account the time cutting as well as making. 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.
Overseas 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. Poor quality Chinese bamboo imports are also available at low prices.
Marketing: Lack of visibility of brooms to target audience, ideal venues being National Trust, RSPB and RHS shops.
Craftspeople currently known
Those known to make brooms in any quantity are:
- Mark Cottrell, Moulsford, Oxfordshire – in late 50s and makes about 1,500 brooms a year.
- Chris Letchford, West Sussex – in his mid 60s and makes about 600-700 brooms a year.
- Adam King, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire – makes about 200 brooms a year.
- Bradley Nash, Tadley, Hampshire.
- Chris and Kester Westcott, Threecopse Woodland Products
- Terry Herd of Dorset Coppice Group produces commercial quantities.
- Alan Waters, West Sussex – produces around 100 a year.
- Rosie Rendell – trained by Alan Waters.
There are various initiatives around the country to train volunteers and community groups to make besoms. Chris Letchford, for example, has trained groups at Chailey Common and RSPB Pulborough, and is running awareness raising activities with the Heathlands Re-United project in the South Downs National Park.
Jenkins, J Geraint, (1978) Traditional Country Craftsmen (Routledge & Kegan Paul), pp. 85-89
Arnold, J (1977) The Shell Book of Country Crafts (John Baker), pp. 96-100
Tabor, Raymond, (1994) Traditional Woodland Crafts: A Practical Guide, (B T Bastford), pp. 113–114
Henley, Jon, ‘How to make a besom’, The Guardian