Would You Believe It?
by Julie Bunting
Besom Makers Around The Peak
The word besom has passed out of everyday use in little more than a generation; even the written word is at odds with its pronunciation of ‘beezum’. The dictionary definition of besom – ‘a broom made of twigs tied round a stick’ – adds that the word also had use as a derogatory term for a woman. During research for this article, a Matlock man offered the quote ‘She's a funny old besom’. An updated version may well be ‘daft as a brush’.
Ninety years ago, an elderly Derbyshire man recalled that besom-making had been one of the gypsy trades, carried out in quiet country lanes where he had often come across a gypsy, busy with a pile of broom or ling (heather) and a dozen or so shafts, making besoms. Over the next few days the gypsy’s wife would be seen with an armful or donkey-load of besoms, selling them door-to-door.
A skilled craftsman could make a besom within five minutes and a respectable output in a besom workshop was between 60 and 80 a day. Besoms are not used like brushes but are swung sideways on the half flat. There was always a steady demand from housewives, who swished their besoms across stone floors, back yards and paths, while farmers sometimes bought a dozen at a time for brushing yards, cleaning out stables, cow sheds and pig sties.
Skilled at basket weaving
Many villages had a besom maker. A former resident of Two Dales, recalling her childhood of the early 1900s, told how she used to visit David Allsop who lived on the hillside above the village. As a child she enjoyed hitching a lift on Mr Allsop’s horse-drawn cart for a ride up onto the moors, where he cut heather to bind into besoms, sold at nine pence each.
Two families of brush and besom makers were recorded at Stoney Middleton in 1851, named Jupp and Jackson. Daniel Jackson was listed as a besom maker there in 1895, presumably of Messrs Jackson and Johnson, who carried out this type of work in the chamber over the smithy.
Youlgrave once had a fine-sounding Besom Hall, on the left at the top of steps leading down Bankside. The property was described some years ago as a derelict cottage with no written record of its past.
Hathersage goes one better with a Besom Lane. Besoms were made at outlying Thornhill in part of an old building called The Moot, an activity that died out during the 19th century. It survived somewhat longer in a broom shop beside Stone House, described in Sheffield Clarion Ramblers’ Handbook of 1930/31 as ‘the first house on the left at the top of the hill from Fox House, on the way to Sheffield’. This besom maker was William Peat, continuing a trade started by his grandfather in 1826.
Some besom makers were also skilled at basket weaving. Heather and twigs from East Moor supported these twin trades at Cutthorpe near Chesterfield, where four families were kept in business by demands from the collieries and the iron and steel industries of Sheepbridge and Sheffield. Besom and basket making were carried out at Cutthorpe for about 300 years, into the 1960s.
Whether or not besoms are still produced in the Peak, they remain a useful means of sweeping up dead leaves in the garden and are even favoured as an unused prop in ‘rustic look’ kitchens, without ever doing a day’s work.