This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 1st June 1998 (p.unknown), 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)


The word besom has passed out of everyday use in little more than a generation and even the written word is at odds with its pronunciation of 'beezum'. Yet a besom has one particular association that is familiar to everybody and that is as a witch's broomstick. The dictionary definition: 'besom - broom made of twigs tied round stick' adds that the word has been used as a derogatory term for a woman; during research for this article one local man offered the quote: 'She's a funny old besom'. An updated version may well be 'daft as a brush!'

Seventy-five years ago an elderly Derbyshire man recalled that besom making had been one of the gypsy trades, carried out in quiet country lanes, on commons or out of the way places. He had often come across a gypsy in a lane, busy with a pile of broom or ling (heather) and a dozen or so shafts, making the besoms ready for sale. Over the next few days the gypsy's wife would be seen with an armful or donkey-load of brooms selling them door to door.

The method of manufacture involved making a head from a bundle of heather, packed at one end in the centre with smaller twigs to provide a firm bed for the shaft. This end of the bundle was tightly bound with sugar cane or the more readily available hemp cane then a ready-tapered shaft was driven and packed into the tightly bound head. A strong nail was knocked into the cane binding, the business end of the head trimmed with an axe, and the job was done. A skilled worker could make a besom within five minutes but a respectable full-time output in a besom workshop was between sixty and eighty a day.

There was a steady demand from housewives who swished their besoms across stone floors, back yards and paths, while farmers sometimes bought a dozen at a time for brushing yards, cleaning out stables, cow sheds and pig styes. Besoms were not used like ordinary brushes but were swung sideways on the half flat and did the cleaning work well. When they got 'clarted up' the dirt was knocked out and the besom left upside-down to dry.

Many villages had a resident besom maker. An elderly reader from Two Dales recalls that as child in the early 1900s she used to visit David Allsop who lived on the hillside above the village, hitching a lift on his horse-drawn cart for a ride up onto the moors where Mr. Allsop cut heather to bind into besoms, sold at nine pence each.

At Stoney Middleton, Daniel Jackson was listed as a besom maker in 1895, presumably of Messrs. Jackson and Johnson who worked in the chamber over the smithy. E. Jackson was still in business in 1904.The smithy was apparently shared by more than one manufacturer since in 1901, when one former besom workshop had already been converted into a cottage, William Jupp's old besom making room was being used for storage by Messrs Cockers, shoe makers. The enclosed yard was still called the Besom Shop Yard.

At Thornhill near Hathersage, besoms were made in part of an old building called The Moot but this activity died out during the 19th century.

Some besom makers were also skilled basket makers. Heather and twigs from East Moor, near Baslow, supported these twin trades at Cutthorpe near Chesterfield, where the skills of four particular families were kept in business by the collieries and iron and steel industries of Sheepbridge and Sheffield. Besom and basket making were carried on at Cutthorpe for about three hundred years and died out only during the 1960s.

Maybe nobody makes besoms in the Peak any more but they are still being made elsewhere as a time-honoured means of sweeping up dead leaves in the garden, or even as an unused prop in today's 'rustic look' kitchen.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 1st June 1998.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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