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Memories of Eric Snell working in Fingle Woods

Last year Eric Snell spoke to Bill Hardiman of Moretonhampstead History Society about his early experience of working in Fingle Woods. Thank you for your kind permission to publish this extract.


‘I was born and had all my education in Moretonhampstead. In the summer of 1940 I left school aged nearly 14 and got a job with Dartington Woodlands in Fingle Woods. They stretched from Clifford Bridge to the boundary across the river from the recently built Castle Drogo. They gave me a 2ft 6inch bow saw and a billhook to cut down trees, which was coppice wood, and tum them into pit props of 2½ ft, 3½ ft, 4½ ft, 5½ ft, 6½ ft and 7½ ft lengths. My wages were 2s 8d a week for 5 ½ days or 44 hours and so it did not come to even 1 penny an hour! The chaps on piece work with the pit props earned from ½d depending on the size up to 6d for a 20ft pole. The 20ft poles were put in flat ground to stop German gliders landing during the war.

My first increase in wages was to 3s 6d in April 41. I used to give mother half a crown for my keep. I noticed that I was nearly keeping up with the grown men and so decided to go on piece work. Then I thought I was rich with my wages, and so gave mother more. I travelled the 7 miles each way to and from the woods on my bike or had to walk if I had a puncture!

I think that it was in 1942 that Dr. Marian, an Austrian refugee, came into the woods to organise us making charcoal in kilns. I was surprised at first as I thought that he was German and we were supposed to be fighting them! You must realise that the only road in the whole woods was down by the river at that time, so all production of props and charcoal was taken down by a big sled, pulled by ponies owned bvJack O’Connel, who lived in one of the Willingstone cottages and the other was occupied by Paddy McClure whose son Jonny was the ‘saw doctor’ after he left school, at the Dartington Woodlands saw mills in Court Street, Moretonhampstead. We had to keep the tree stumps below 8 inches so that the sled could ride over them. The wood for charcoal was cut 4ft long and 4ft wide, it was stacked in a cord, 8ft long and 4ft high. That earned you 10s and if you were lucky with the weather you could make £2 10s a week.

Charocal workers in WW2

IMAGE – Back left  Ken Underhill Back right  Rosie Pellowe  Centre left Harry Treen  Centre centre Eileen Dayment  Centre right  Lillian Pellowe Front left  Bill Dayment   Front centre Bert Stevens  (Photo credit Moretonhampstead History Society)

We were helped by the Land Army girls who came to town in 1941, I think, and lived in two Nissen huts where Court Street car park is now in Moretonhampstead. Some were also at Linscott Farm, where we used to go to dancing classes once a week for 6d a lesson.

I started to go to the Ring of Bells lounge in Moretonhampstead with a gang drinking, and I played in the darts team when I was 15½. At 17½ I attended the magistrate’s court at the parish hall in Moretonhampstead for underage drinking and was fined 10s by Sir Henry Slesser.

I left the woods when I was 19, and the war was nearly over, but carried on in the wood industry with Brimblecombe timber merchants in Moretonhampstead and helped to build their saw mills. I worked with Reg the boss, using a 7 lb elwell axe and a cross cut saw, cutting down big timbers 3-5ft through. I travelled all over Devon and part of Cornwall doing the job. I stayed with them for 7 year and the most important job was felling most of the oak, which went into building the replica of the Golden Hind sailing ship. This was built in Brixham and then sailed across the Atlantic to America, where I think it still is. The oak came from Sir John Kenaway’s estate near Honiton, beautiful trees about 3ft across and a good 25-30ft straight trunk.’

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