Big Wood, Castle Covert, Ditton Enclosure, Old Lodge Coppice, The Moat, and Woolers Wood … what might have hauled the timber from these woods in Burwarton, Shropshire into the Front Line of the First World War?

In 1913 90% of the nation’s timber requirements were imported. Why was wood a strategic material? It literally propped up the main energy source of the war effort – coal. Not just for our own industries but those of the allies too. When war was declared, Germany ruled all timber shipments to UK “contraband”.  The danger of our dependence on imports was forcefully brought home. Overnight, the timber industry faced major supply problems.  Britain’s important Baltic trade in timber and wood pulp was severed.

FINLAND’S SAILORS TO THE RESCUE

The Burwarton and Peaton Estates are located between Ludlow and Bridgnorth. The Estates comprise today 11,000 acres around Brown Clee; the highest point in the county. The woodlands extend to 1,400 acres with broadleaves mixtures predominating on the lower ground while conifer are planted commercially to 1650 ft.

Between 1809 and 1917 the Grand Duchy of Finland was a self-governing part of the Russian Empire with the Tsar as Grand Duke.  Flying the Russian flag, Finnish vessels were a target for German surface raiders, mines and u-boats. In London, Hull, Inverness and Liverpool the tides of war stranded the rescued sailors in this country.

In 1916 we weren’t able to produce enough timber for pit props, duckboards, dugouts, trenches, and railway sleepers. Imports were threatened by the U-boat campaign. It was all hands to the pumps.  Lumberjacks from Canada began arriving in April 1916. As the war ground on, the shortage of labour became more and more acute. Almost three-quarters of Finland is covered by forest. The rural population grows up amongst the trees The Finnish sailors represented a pool of labour of great potential. It was natural to turn to these young, fit men. By the end of the war there were almost 1,400 Finns working in the British woods.  Amongst the very first assignments of the men in Liverpool was in Burwarton.

WITH A FOLLOWING WIND

The work involved the extraction of trees blown down in the more exposed parts of the woods. The first contract was signed covering the Finnish workers on 31st July 1916.  A photograph of the sailor-foresters depicts a series of bell tents – this may indicate the work was completed before the onset of winter. One assumes they gave satisfaction, as this was followed by a more significant contract dated 21st June 1917 for the felling of conifers in the Ditton Enclosure.

Quarrying had been for long the main source of employment. It provided the transport infrastructure for the timber via an inclined plane down to the Cleobury Mortimer & Ditton Priors Light Railway. As the work expanded it seems likely the accommodation included standard-sized wooden huts equipped with bunks and straw mattresses – no doubt the sailors were reminded of life below decks.

Kaleb grave 2 cropWhat might link far-off Shropshire via the First World War to the Baltic ? In Burwarton churchyard is the grave of Kaleb Blomberg, a Swedish-speaking Finn.

HOME FROM HOME

Finland has five million inhabitants and over three million saunas  – one per household. Hundreds of years ago, when bathing in this country was something to be done only rarely or never at all, Finns were cleaning themselves at least once a week Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. For Finns the sauna is a place to relax. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity.  When a Finnish family moved house, one of the first things they would do is build a sauna. The sauna is part of the national identity and those who have the chance usually take a sauna at least once a week. The sauna is almost a sacred place. In Finnish folklore, the sauna is the home of the sauna-elf.

It’s no surprise therefore that with unlimited supplies of fuel and wood to build a sauna; the sailors set to build their bathhouse. A Finnish newsletter, which we have not been able to retrieve, showed a picture of a sauna built by the sailors. Shropshire might, therefore, have played host to England’s first sauna.

A plentiful supply of wood was essential. The metal stove with stones on top (kiuas) is heated with a fire of birch wood. Well-dried birch is preferred because of its quality, fragrance and long-lasting burn. The stove heats the hot room to 80–110 °C. Water is thrown on the hot stones. The steam produced has its own special word only employed in this context.  Löyly increases the moisture and heat within the sauna.  Its original meaning was ‘spirit, breath, soul.’ The bather sits on a high bench near the ceiling where the hot steam reaches them quickly.

In summer once you begin to feel uncomfortably warm, you can jump in a lake, the sea, or a swimming pool. At Burwarton the sauna was handy for the Bridge Pool into whose waters the sailor/lumberjacks could plunge after steaming. In winter, rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice will serve. After the sauna it is customary to enjoy a sausage with a beer. After cooling off one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. How often and for how long you repeat this, is a matter of personal preference. Usually one takes two or three cycles, lasting between 30 minutes to two hours.

ARE THEY HERE TO STAY?

Lumijärvi from the Liverpool mission was put in charge. The men felt more comfortable with a man who spoke their language. He became fond of Burwarton. “This region is among the most beautiful in England, just on the border with Wales.” Fond enough for his family and that of Pastor Sjöblom to join them for the summer. Sjöblom paid monthly visits which looked after the men’s spiritual needs.   Lumijärvi was in charge of all aspects of the camp except food and medical. The local doctor was paid 2½p per head per week for each logger working on the estate. His fee included free-of-charge camp visits when required.

More work followed and the work force of almost 100 Finns moved from their bell tents which provided seasonal shelter to more permanent huts. It is believed the huts were in a field near the estate saw mill. No doubt the pressure for timber supply helped, but more contracts followed. By 7th January 1918 conifers from Old Lodge Coppice were to be extracted by road and transported to Ditton Priors station. There was too little time for admin; the details of the next jobs were merely added to the cover of this document: two areas of spruce and one of larch, thinning of Scots Pine on Cleobury Hill. The Finns were working all over the estate.

Some of the sailors may have made themselves a little too much ‘at home.’ In Scandinavia the Finns have a fearsome reputation as hard drinkers. There’s an old joke which runs as one Finn said to the other “of the lighter French wines I prefer Courvoisier.” Ei tippa tapa eikä ämpäriin huku. The Finns  just say “a drop won’t kill and you can’t drown in a bucket.”  We understand some of them got drunk at the Boyne Arms.

Mitä sinulle kuuluu? “what are you hearing?”

The news from home was dramatic. The Russian Tsarist Empire was also taking a bath. March 15th 1917 the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The February and October Revolutions ignited hopes of Finnish Independence.  On 15 November 1917, the Bolsheviks declared a right of self-determination “for the Peoples of Russia.”  The declaration of independence was adopted by the Finnish Parliament on 6 December 1917. Finnish independence was recognised by the UK 6th May 1919 as part of the post-war settlement.

AFTER THE WAR

Controls remained in force until six months after the Armistice. In 1919, the Forestry Commission was founded to restore Britain’s devastated forests – less than 5% tree cover.

Kaleb also stayed on after the War. He was already proving himself invaluable. When called upon to help with the erection of the steel work for a new quarry building, he employed his knowledge of ship’s rigging to raise the girders with ease. He had been a ship’s carpenter. When the quarry closed, he became a carpenter on the Burwarton estate. His speciality appears to have been fences and gates and his craftsmanship featured at the Agricultural Show in Shrewsbury in 1949. He was still hard at work at the age of 65 in 1954.

Haluaisitko tanssia kanssani? Would you like to dance?

Kaleb's gate 2015-12-16 09.17.36 resizedKaleb married a widow on 17th December 1921. He was thirty-two and Agnes Amelia Garbutt, known as Milly, was thirty-eight.  Kaleb died in January 1972 and Milly in March 1978, aged ninety-four.  They are buried in Burwarton churchyard.

This headstone is not our only memorial of Kaleb Blomberg, the Finnish sailor, whom the tides of war brought to our shores. At Cleobury North the churchyard gates are part of the war memorial. They were dedicated by the Reverend KF Jones on St Peter’s Day 1952. They were made by Kaleb Blomberg and B. Wellings – the smaller wicket gate is their original, the larger one is a replica of their work.

Kaleb's boat img_0340A fellow carpenter on the Boyne Estate, told us of his most fitting memorial. “Kaleb built a small boat, about 12 feet for the Boynes to go fishing on Cleobury North pools  (now a trout farm). Is this Shropshire’s most unusual and unexpected survival from the War? A ship’s carpenter stranded by the tides of war from his home in Finland who spent the next 56 years of his life in these parts, put his hand to something he knew best.

Research: Ditton Priors Local History Group

Special thanks to Rona Cobb, Mary Rawlings

Text: Keith Pybus