The Saw Pit Southern Lane, 1884

Knocking Off.

Have you ever wondered how our forebears must have struggled with producing those large planks of wood from newly felled trees? I have, and whilst hovering around my old 1884 Melton Mowbray OS map, I noticed a small property in Southern Lane, or what we now call Saxby Road, opposite the old brewery. To the right hand side of the rear garden of this property is clearly depicted the existence of a small rectangle which is notated as a ‘Saw Pit’.

I found the following brief, but interesting account of the purpose of this simple structure and how sawyers of days past used them as a means of ‘planking’ logs. They were apparently utilised until well into the twentieth century in many parts of the world and without doubt it remains very likely that the method which is still utilised today in some un-forsaken part of the world – phew! As a duel task – and likely the first chore for the carpenter to prepare his product – I learn that two operatives would be employed in this tough task of early milling work, with the more important man, the ‘top sawyer’, directing the cut from above in concert with the ‘bottom sawyer’ – as seen in the picture below. The pit would have been similar to a grave or may the same principle as an old fashioned garage pit, i.e. five to six feet in depth and generally lined with bricks to create a more permanent structure. The tree trunk on arrival was trimmed of it’s branches and any other impediments and tidily cross-cut at each end to a workable length and then placed longwise over the pit and secured upon timber cross-pieces with chocks. It was now to be the formidable and daunting task of the two sawyers to physically cut along the log into planks of the required thickness using one of those large two-handled saws in a vertical up and down action.

The top sawyer – usually the boss – was always considered the more responsible operator in that he would guide the direction and angle of the blade as it proceeded along the log in order to avoid any deviation in width and throughout the whole procedure he would take the main pull of the upward thrust in unison with the man beneath him. I have recently learned that the man in front – probably a poor young apprentice lad – suffered great amounts of sawdust, showered from above as Nick Taylor of Melton assured me, “The bottom sawyer had the worst job. Face full of sawdust with every cut! He would be glad to finish the day by knocking the bottom handle off so the saw could be pulled through. Hence the term “ knock off” It all sounds like hard work to me, so I think I would prefer not start thank you.

Be advised then, that just in case one day you are preparing your vegetable garden for next year’s crops to flourish and you strike up against what might be a large brick pit under your fork, be sure to give the Archaeological Dept, at County Hall a ring before you fill it in. Finally… when I was quite young – about 10 I suppose – I remember a shop in the centre of Leicester known as Bloors Ltd., which sold saws and related carpentry stuff. I recall that it had a notice displayed prominently in the window which fascinated me and which I now quote as a party piece so long after: The notice advised; ‘OF ALL THE SAWS I EVER SAW SAW, I NEVER SAW A SAW SAW LIKE A BLOOR’S SAW SAWS.

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