BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd September 2002 (p.16), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE CLOG BLOCK CUTTERS

A stream which rises just south of Wirksworth is the infant River Ecclesbourne, the 'eccles' element of its name believed in fact to refer to the nearby parish church.

The course of the river came to be followed by the Wirksworth to Duffield branch of the Midland Railway, giving access to the main line stations as well as bringing passengers into Wirksworth, especially on market days.

The route through the Ecclesbourne valley is quite beautiful, passing between low rolling hills scattered with spinneys and copses. In the late nineteenth century charcoal burners could be seen at work from the train, whilst another rural industry was carried out beside the river until at least seventy years ago. This was known as clog block cutting and it took place in summertime where alder trees grew thickly along the river banks.

Alder is soft to work with but extremely hard-wearing and even after repeated wetting does not warp. For that reason it used to be popular in Derbyshire for platters, but was chiefly felled for clogs. Alder wood changes from white to red when cut, but by the time it is worked has faded to a pale yellow.

Aspen was a good alternative wood, both light and durable, but was always less abundant then alder. In the reign of Henry V, supplies of aspen were reserved for making arrow-shafts: those who turned it into clogs or pattens risked a penalty of one hundred shillings.

TO THE MILL TOWNS

Clog block cutters worked out in the open, under a tarpaulin hung from four posts in wet weather, using yellow wood-shavings when they needed a fire. They sawed the alder wood into short logs, before splitting them lengthways into rough blocks. Then, using a tool like a scythe blade, with a handle at one end whilst the other end turned on a swivel joint fixed to a crude bench, the men trimmed the pieces into uniform 'clog blocks' These were mostly about 14" by 4" and 8" by 3" from which a wide range of sizes could be shaped.

Finished clog blocks were sent in sacks to the clog-makers, mostly to the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although earlier this century clog and pattern factories were also to be found at Glossop, Chapel en le Frith, Chesterfield and Derby. There the blocks were rounded off, shaped into soles with a hollow on the top surface for the ball of the foot, and fitted with a leather upper.

Back in places like the Ecclesbourne valley, the clog block cutters were already planning a year, or perhaps two, ahead, felling the most mature alder trees so that they could be left to season. By late autumn the men had left, the cycle of their toil seen in piles of yellow shavings and freshly-cut, bright red tree holes, until one year when it was not worth coming back, for nobody was buying clogs anymore.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd September 2002.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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