Neolithic settlers were attracted to the Breckland region because the light sandy soil was easier to clear of trees and to cultivate. The densely wooded clay soil around the ‘Brecks’ were deemed more problematic. It was this clearance of trees that created the demand for large quantities of flint axes. In some place suitable flints lay close to the surface, but at around 3500BC as the supply of these flints were exhausted, the inhabitants had to dig through layers of chalk to reach the good quality flint, sometimes 30-40 feet (10-13 metres) below the surface. Grimes Graves is one of the best known locations to go and see these pits. The Brandon Heritage Centre houses replicas of flint axes and hand tools. To work a flint you need to know its peculiar properties of ‘flaking’. If a slab of flint is struck at right-angles then it will not crack or split, but instead a cone of flint will separate from the point of contact. This can then be worked on further.
A building material
As far back as the Iron Age, flint has been used as a building material. The Romans used flint in their walls, and many castles, such as Burgh Castle in Suffolk, still show flint in their structures. Testament to the robustness of flint. During the Saxon and Norman periods flint was used in the construction of many churches, including all the round towers in East Anglia – 41 in Suffolk and 119 in Norfolk.
By the Middle Ages flint had been perfected to be more than a simple building material. It now became more intricate in its detail. Cubes of flint were worked, laid flush in 15th and 16th century churches – known as ‘flushwork’. The edges were so flush that not even the thinnest of knives could be placed between the flints. Later a chequer style was incorporated into fine buildings, such as the Guildhalls in King’s Lynn and Norwich.
It was during the Napoleonic Wars that Brandon profited most from flint. Brandon was late in making gun flints, there were already established businesses in places such as Lewisham, Maidstone, Purfleet and Salisbury. So Brandon would have failed miserably as a centre for gun flints had it not been for one defining attribute – the black flint in and around Brandon was of the best quality. Such was the reputation of the quality achieved by the Brandon flintknappers’ that by 1800 Brandon was the sole supplier to the Board of Ordnance. The Battle of Waterloo is supposed to have been won on the playing fields of Eton. It can be claimed with equal justification that it was won in the flint yards of Brandon. All the gun flints used in the British guns, which wrought havoc among Napoleon’s cavalry and infantry, were solely made in Brandon. A Brandon flint was reckoned to be good for 50 shots, far exceeding its rivals. At the height of war, in 1813, Brandon flintknappers were supplying over ONE MILLION musket flints each month.
The flintknappers day would typically start at about 7am, with breaks for breakfast, dinner and tea. They would work for 10 hours a day and aim to knap 2,000 gun flints by the end of that day. They seldom finished before 8pm. There was no flint working on Mondays, while only the first hour on Saturday was used for knapping, the rest of the day was set aside for “telling-out” – counting all the flints that had been knapped during the week. There is record of an 11-year-old being taken on for a 7-year apprenticeship for flintknapping, eventually entering the trade proper aged 18. The environment created by the flint dust, coupled with the often damp conditions they worked in, caused many early deaths among the knappers, with them dying from ilicosis, bronchitis or pneumonia. In fact one workshop recorded that seven of its eight men died early, while at another workshop a father and three sons died within a four year period.
Three stages to flintknapping
- The QUARTERER, using a 3lb hammer taps lightly at a flint nodule balanced against a pad strapped to his left thigh. He is sensing the flint’s weak points and relies on the hammer’s weight to crack it into workable ‘quarters’.
- The FLAKER holds the ‘quarter’ against his thigh pad and uses a pointed hammer of soft steel to flake ‘double-ridged backs’ or ‘single-backs’.
- The KNAPPER knaps the flakes into gun flints. His hammer is of old steel, 9-inches long and 1-inch wide. He sits in front of a small anvil set into a wooden block, or a tree stump. He trims the edges of the flake in an anti-clockwise rotation.
The flintknappers of Brandon
Name, address – known dates of business
- William Clark, 1823-1830
- Josiah Curson, 1823-1839
- Edmund Snare, 1823-1830
- John Snare, 1823-1830
- John Utting, 1823-1830
- BRANDON JOINT STOCK GUN FLINT COMPANY, Lode Street, 1823-1830
- Thomas Towler, Thetford Road, 1844
- William and George Claxton, Bury Road, 1846
- John Snare, Thetford Road, 1846-1868
- Jephtha Jacobs, London Road, 1846-1868
- James Jacob, Thetford Road, 1858-1865
- William Peverett & Co., Thetford Road, 1850
- James Snare, Thetford Road, 1850
- Arthur Snare, 1858-1865
- William Edward Snare, Thetford Road, 1858-1868
- William Carter, Thetford Road, 1855-1865
- William Carter & Sons, 1855 only
- James Clarke, 1858-1864
- Lewis Hyam, Thetford Road, 1858-1865
- Robert Leech, 1858
- Henry Curson, Town Street, 1864-1868
- Abraham Wigger, Coulson Lane, 1865-1868
- William Edwards, Thetford Rosd, 1865-1868
- James Field, Fox & Hounds, Thetford Road, 1865-1868
- Robert Curson, Thetford Road, 1865-1874
- Mrs Lucy Eunice Snare, 1874
- Robert John Snare, 1874-1900
- William and Albert Carter, London Road, 1896-1904
- Isaac Field & Sons, Thetford Road, 1900
- Isaac Field & Sons, Town Street, 1904-1908
- Albert Field, Thetford Road, 1904-1908
- J Edward Field, Thetford Road, 1904
- Robert Field, Thetford Road, 1908
- John Robert Carter, London Road, 1908
- Robert H Wharf, Thetford Road, 1904-1908
- Edward Edwards, Thetford Road, 1904-1908
- Frederick Edwards, Thetford Road, 1908
- Albert Carter, Thetford Road, 1916-1917
- Robert Victor Edwards, 50 Thetford Road, 1916-1922
- Fred Snare, George Street, 1904
- Fred Snare, Town Street, 1908
- Fred Snare, 7 Church Road, 1917-1929