Flag cutting in Norfolk


The meaning of this word ‘flag’ frequently referred to in parish records, is expertly explained by Colin Wells in an article entitled Post Medieval Turf-Digging in Norfolk which appeared in the Norfolk Archaeological Society’s journal Volume XLIII Part III, 2000.


Below is an excerpt which appeared, with Colin's permission, in Salthouse The story of a Norfolk village, published July 2003

In Norfolk, and also the rest of East Anglia, peat was known as turf and the combustible dried blocks derived from it as turves. These were associated with deeper, more humified and homogeneous sub-surface material, in contrast to looser and more fibrous superficial deposits which were usually referred to as flag. Fuel blocks were also made from this material and these were called flags or sometimes hover. The former items made for a superior fuel compared to the latter, which was poor in terms of calorific content. Although the two types could often be exploited on the same site, specific references to flags are commoner from sites where peat deposits were very thin, such as heathland.

The implement to cut turves in East Anglia was a special elongated spade known as a becket, which was a rectangular flat spade made usually from wood and shod at the bottom with iron. It carried a short triangular iron flange placed at right angles to the main blade which allowed two cuts to be made together with one downward stroke providing rectangular turves to be cut in succession from the peat face.
Colin Wells points out that it is remarkable such a relatively recent industry has apparently disappeared completely from the collective folk-memory. Too much time has elapsed since the turf-cutting heyday, for there to have survived an oral tradition pertaining to the skills and methods used in extracting Norfolk turf.


a detail c 1850 from a vestry meeting where cutting of flags, and also heather is mentioned

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