Sticking is not the activity it once was; in fact I should think most people have never even heard of it. A hundred years ago when these pictures were taken it was a valuable part of the rural economy. A century later we just turn on the central heating to warm the house, but then the process was much more labour intensive. You had to clean the ashes from the fireplace and lay it with newspaper, small lumps of coal and pieces of wood known as kindling, ready to light the fire. (Before the days of newspaper you would have used dry leaves or straw.) Once the fire was well alight you needed more substantial logs to keep it going, or if you were grand enough, coal. And I have not got into the labour involved once the fire had gone out. When it was cold you removed the ash and cinders which were valuable too, and were kept for the next time the fire was lit. You would clean the grate and, once or twice a year, sweep the chimney. Even the soot was used to put on the garden. All these activities I remember well from the time I used to light the fire at home, well into my thirties.
It was in lighting the fire that the sticks came in. If you think of kindling at all you probably imagine neat bundles of split softwood offcuts, but this is kindling you would normally have to buy from a shop. In the city you might have a gas fire, but if you wanted kindling you would have little choice but to buy it. Sticks on the other hand were free, picked from the forest floor or hedgerows; an advantage of country living. You did not have the right to trespass of course, but there were ample roadsides and verges to be cleared.
Standing timber was a valuable commodity, but fallen trees counted as firewood. If you were the tenant of a field you had no rights over any standing trees, but any that fell you had the right, indeed the duty of removal and cutting up for eventual burning. Sticks were further down the supply chain and needed no cutting up, but they still had a value to the poor. Everything had a value, and the gathering of what today is merely the detritus of the countryside had the incidental effect of making the country scene much tidier.
The stick picking in these photographs was not just the occasional stick picked up on the way home; this was a major operation with a couple of donkey carts, a hand cart, a wheelbarrow and two old prams. It was very much a task for the women and children of the village. This took place in Costessey Park, where sticking provides wood for the poor and clears up the park at the same time. If you look carefully at the left of the picture of “Return from Sticking” you will see two boys have picked up a large log! This had obviously been laboriously cut to length by hand (no chain saws in those days) and I don’t suppose they should have taken it.