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Henry VIII, the armada and steam


Henry VIII came to the throne in this year. It was he who, later in his reign, would put land into his ownership and call it the Crown Estate, a term still used today.

It was a time of great house building and builders needed small poles which could be faced up with hand tools and coppice sticks for wattle, used to fill the spaces in timber frames. There was also an increase in the use of wood for charcoal, which would be used in iron smelting, brick and glass making and the production of gunpowder (a mix of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre).

armada_bigToward the end of the 16th century boatbuilding had become an important industry. This was the time of defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the start of Britain "ruling the waves". British boats were extremely well constructed – strong, light and manoeuvrable.

A single boat such as the Mary Rose, which was not particularly big, would have used around 1,200 trees – mostly oak - enough to clear all the oaks from around 40 football pitches (30 hectares or 75 acres).


Britain was already dependent on timber imports, from both the Baltic nations and from New England in the United States.

Unsustainable land uses and primitive agricultural methods had led to famine, particularly in the north of Britain. This situation would have been made worse in Scotland by the Highland Clearances when vast areas of the country were left without people to look after the land.

It was towards the end of this century (the 1780s) that Britain experienced the Industrial Revolution.

Iron production using charcoal as the smelting agent reached its peak. Companies such as the Newland (iron) Company set up furnaces throughout the country and their works at Ulverston in the Lake District and Bonawe in western Scotland were among the finest examples. These works were set up on the basis that it was better to ship iron ore to places where there was a plentiful supply of wood for charcoal making.

A single furnace would have needed at least 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of deciduous coppice woodland to sustain operations.

It was only with the Industrial Revolution that coke (from coal) became the preferred fuel for iron and steel production. This however, had implications for our forests as demand then grew for timber pit props.

stephensonsrocket_bigAnother invention also placed a new demand on our forests – the steam train. The late 1700s saw steam trains being introduced and the development of passenger trains – started with Stephenson’s Rocket – saw a rapid expansion of the rail network meaning more trees were felled to provide railway sleepers.

Last updated: 11th July 2017