Osier Cutting by H. R. Robertson. Source: Life on the Upper Thames. Subtitles and formatting by George P. Landow, [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]

The various uses of Willows and Osiers

The industrial uses of the willow, if including the sallow and osier, are thus minutely described by the venerable Evelyn: " All kinds of basket-work, for which even our rude forefathers were held in estimation at Rome.J The wood is used for pill-boxes, cart saddle-trees, gun-stocks, and half-pikes; harrows, shoemakers' lasts, heels, clogs for pattens, forks, haymakers' rakes (especially the teeth), perches, rafters for hovels, ladders, poles for hop-vines and kidney-beans; to make hurdles, sieves, lattices; for the turners in making great platters, small casks and vessels to hold verjuice; for pales, fruit-baskets, cans, hives, trenchers, trays, boards for whetting table-knives, particularly for painters' scriblets, bavin, and excellent sweet firing without smoke." We are not acquainted with the term "painters' scriblet," but fancy it may mean charcoal for rough sketching, the best of which is now made from this wood.

Whenever it can be obtained, this wood is used for the floats of paddle-steamers and the strouds of water-wheels. It was always used by the powder manufacturers for charcoal in preference to other woods, and was only discontinued from the insufficiency of the supply. Willows support the banks of rivers, feed the bees, yield abundance of firewood, drain marshy soils, feed cattle with their leaves, and in their bark ftimish man with a medicine for the ague — a disease particularly prevalent in the marshy localities where these trees abound.

The bark and leaves of the willow are astringent, and the bark of most sorts may be used for tanning; it is a fact worth noticing that the tanners of Norway and Russia use willow in preference to oak bark, and to this is attributed much of the excellence of Russian leather. [11]

Osier cutting, or harvesting the willow tree

Osier-cutting, which on the Thames usually takes place in March, is not unfrequently alluded to as the first harvest of the year. The expression seems hardly a correct one, as it is the growth of the preceding year that is not harvested, like other crops, in the autumn, but is left till the following spring; it might rather be regarded as the latest harvest of the year; at all events, it is a case that illustrates the proverb, "Extremes meet." . . . . [15]

The manner in which the rods are held between the legs while others are being cut is curious, and the same method is in use in other parts of the country. The tightening of the bolts before tying them is called winching, and may be seen in our illustration: two stout pieces of wood are used which are called the levers, and are connected by a strong cord passed roxmd the bolt. [19]

What is an osier?

The designation "osier" is applied to various species and varieties of willow used for basket-making, but more especially to the Salix vimtnalis or common osier, and its varieties. By those concerned in the cultivation of the osiers, or in their subsequent application to industrial purposes, they are invariably spoken of as " rods." The beds of osiers are called holts or hams, the small islands and irregfular plots of ground by the water being chiefly set apart for their growth. An island on the Thames is commonly termed an eyof

The simplest way by which the whole of the osier class may be distinguished from any other willow is by noting the fact that, in certain stages of their growth, they have their leaves nearly opposite, this being the case with no other class of willows. The leaves of all osiers are very long and narrow, widest at the base, slightly toothed at the edges, smooth above and hairy below. [15-16]

Classifying the osier rods

After cutting, the osiers require to be separated into the various sorts and sizes for basket-making, the long and thick from the short and small, and the rough from the smooth. The names for the different sized rods when sorted are Luke, Threepenny, Middleborough, and Grreat. Those which are spoilt by lateral shoots are put aside by themselves under the title of Ragged or Rough. The same names obtain on the Trent as with us. The derivation of the word Luke has puzzled us; it is applied to the smallest size worth tying up. The persons concerned in the industry could offer no reasonable explanation of the term; however, we were referred by a friend to Cockerham's Dictionary, where the word occurs with the meaning, "little — as luke-warm, luke-hearted." We should much like to know whether it is ever used by itself with reference to anything other than the osier. A bolt of the size known as Threepenny is now worth about fifteen pence: its old name has been retained in spite of the change of the money value that has taken place by the lapse of time. The sorting done, those that are intended for brown baskets, or to be peeled buff, are to be laid up and careftilly dried and stacked. If they are laid too closely together when green, they are liable to become heated, like hay, and then they are useless for basket-making, as the heated parts, when dried, decay and somewhat resemble touchwood; and the result is the same if, after they are dried, rain should penetrate the stack so as to wet them. [19-20]

How the rods are marketed

In the South and West of England these rods are sold by the girth (in bolts of forty inches round); throughout the whole of the North of England and Scotland, by weight. As all the finer and harder kinds of willows are much heavier for the same bidk, a fine crop of the best varieties of moderate size will often weigh as much as a crop apparently larger. There is a great difference in price between a really good sort and a common kind. [20]

Other stages in the process

Left: Preparing or polling the willow (men's work). Right: Osier Peeling (men and women's work). [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

The polling, which we have portrayed in our illustration, takes place about every seventh year, the middle of the winter being the time of the year most proper for this operation. The trees, when they have thus had their branches lopped off, are termed pollards. By many people they are considered at all times unpicturesque— a view we personally do not share. On the contrary, they seem to us to harmonise perfectly with the gentle current of the Thames, its lazy barges, and smooth, low-lying meadows. [12]


Robertson, H. R. Life on the Upper Thames. London: Virtue, Spalding, & Co., 1875.Internet Archive digitized from a copy in the University of Toronto Library.

Last modified 7 May 2012