A Fairy Tale in the New Forest: A Tom Charman Exhibition

The original article written by Sonia Aarons-Green for ArtUK can be found here: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/tom-charman-a-fairy-tale-in-the-new-forest

The New Forest Heritage Centre’s collection of Tom Charman woodcarvings can be viewed at ArtUK: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/charman-tom-18631939/search/artistel:tom-charman-18631939/page/1/view_as/grid

Tom Charman‘s curious wooden carvings and mysterious, visionary works of art draw us into the enchanting world of fairies and elementals – revealing the legacy of a Victorian fascination for clairvoyance.

Brown wood carving of a pixie head
Woodcarving of the head of a pixie by New Forest Artist Tom Charman

Born in Horsham, Sussex on 14th March 1863, Tom’s parents ran a grocery, his father from a long tradition in farming, and his mother an educated woman with a love of literature. At the age of seven, Tom records seeing a fairy riding a brown rat in his bedroom although he was not to see another for 30 years.

Two children, Christopher and Danae Charman, sitting in a garden overlooking fields and trees
An idyllic childhood

Completing his formal education at the age of 12, Tom’s love of the extraordinary led him to visit the music halls; his secretive excursions were often concluded by a beating from his strictly Methodist father. When his mother fell ill and, as the youngest in a large family, he was asked to remain at home, he would often sit and read to her through the night, further advancing his education.

At five feet and six inches, Tom was described in his son’s memoir as ‘of wiry build, fair-haired with a handsome well-boned face; quite a dandy in his bowler hat, high wing collar and cane walking stick’.

Tom unsuccessfully tried his hand at several occupations, including a door-to-door sewing machine salesman. A natural showman, by 1887 his love of performing and the music halls were providing him with considerable success as a ventriloquist, mime artist and character raconteur; he travelled the home counties performing solo and in a vaudeville partnership with his friend Jack Pain.

Sepia portrait photograph of two men, one sitting one standing
Tom Charman and Jack Pain c.1887–1889

Meanwhile, his distinctive artistic flair, inspired by Aubrey Beardsley and the caricatures of Thomas Rowlandson, had already brought some success – an early illustrative commission of numerous drawings for Charles Roper’s 1895 book Whispers from Fairyland.

Black and white photograph of Tom Charman sitting on the floor outside a makeshift tent in the forest
Tom outside a wigwam in the New Forest in summer

By the turn of the century, Tom had joined a group of actors, artists and society eccentrics in search of an Arcadian lifestyle in the New Forest. They followed the fashionable trends for travelling in horse-drawn caravans and a passion for the natural world. Among his collection of friends was the Reverend James Leith Macbeth Bain, the spiritualist minister known as Brother James and famous for the hymn tune Brother James’s Air. It was such connections and experiences which would dictate Tom’s artistic future.

Still determined to use his natural gift for illustration, Tom decided to seek his fortune in America, funded by a small legacy following his mother’s death, where he worked briefly on a New Jersey newspaper as a cartoonist. It was an unhappy and lonely experience. Unable to create and persuaded he was being poisoned by his landlord, he soon returned to Sussex.

Tom’s proclivity to see fairies as an adult – and his aptitude for clairvoyance – were revived when he reconnected with the New Forest in a move to Nomansland, near Bramshaw. By 1911, the 49-year-old Tom had arrived to help his sister Sarah and brother-in-law William Halls in their post office, grocery and bakery. He had recently completed the illustrations for Henry Burstow’s Reminiscences of Horsham (1911) in which his father Michael is mentioned as a bell ringer, but he was struggling to make a living.

A painting of a red and brown bungalow surrounded by grass and bushes
The Godshill Pottery bungalow

While walking in the Forest, Tom met the amateur geologist, anthropologist and Quaker Ernest Westlake, who was to found the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry in 1916 and set up a ‘Forest School’ on land at Sandy Balls, near Fordingbridge. Ernest had built a small wooden bungalow on The Ridge in Godshill and was living there, following his wife’s death, with his daughter Margaret and son Aubrey. Ernest and Tom discovered they shared many passions.

Brown woodcarving of a stylised Figure Seated Cross-Legged with Large Ears
Stylised Figure Seated Cross-Legged with Large Ears by Tom Charman c.1919–1935

Inspired by the prehistoric charm and weird beauty of the New Forest, Tom produced literally hundreds of carvings, recreating the creatures and elemental spirits he perceived in the twisted roots, branches and twigs. He would also sit for hours drawing the ‘little people’ that appeared to him as he walked among the trees, and uncovering the images he believed they had created in found stones and flints.

Brown woodcarving of a Perched Bird with Folded Wings
Perched Bird with Folded Wings by Tom Charman c.1919–1935

As he became better known, the popular psychic magazines of the time looked on him as something of an authority and The Occult Review of February 1917 featured an article titled ‘A Seer of Nature Spirits’, on Tom’s discoveries: ‘a form of life which passes us by entirely in our normal states of consciousness’.

Close up of a light wood coloured business card with text: "Curio Carver Tom Charman Godshill Fordingbridge Hants"
Tom’s business card

An exhibition of Tom’s carvings and stones was held at Brighton’s Old Sterne Hall (under the auspices of the Brighton Spiritualist Brotherhood, chaired by Countess Verneuil and attended on occasion by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Some 1,200 items were displayed which included ‘gnomes, lizards, snakes of all sorts, an Indian sacred beetle, a sea snail, and other weird objects…’ The report in the Sussex & Surrey Telegraph goes on: ‘He has seen Indians, clairvoyantly in the woods, and has reproduced some of them with almost uncanny exactness.’

Margaret and Tom Charman on horseback in a field
Margaret and Tom Charman on horseback, early 1920s

In the early 1920s, Tom fell in love with Ernest’s daughter, the 22-year-old Margaret, an Oxford anthropology graduate. Much to Ernest’s consternation and despite his strong objections, the relationship blossomed and eventually Ernest relented, passing the bungalow to Margaret and Tom who would go on to set up the Godshill Pottery there, with the assistance and instruction of Denise Wren of Oxshott Pottery.

Tom and Margaret Charman with a wooden caravan in a field with two horses
Tom and Margaret Charman with a caravan in fields at Robin’s Bush, New Forest, 1927

Tom and Margaret’s honeymoon – nine weeks camped in the Forest, living apparently on dry lentils and bloaters (a type of smoked herring) and, at first, accompanied by Ernest – was followed by a period on the road travelling in a Gypsy caravan. Finally, they returned to Godshill where all three set up home together. Ernest was tragically killed in London in 1922, aged 67, when he fell from the sidecar of his son Aubrey’s motorcycle as it struck a tramline.

Modern photograph of Godshill pottery with 'open' sign
Godshill Pottery on The Ridge, Godshill, New Forest in its heyday (currently closed)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived at nearby Bignell Wood, a large house at Brook, and was also passionate about the existence of fairies. Sir Arthur became a frequent visitor to the little house on The Ridge, along with others intrigued by Tom’s theories and experiences.

Oil painting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a suit with a dark red background
Oil painting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1927, by Henry L. Gates (1872–1943)

Tom was described by Conan Doyle in his popular book Coming of the Fairies (1922) as one ‘who builds for himself a shelter in the New Forest and hunts for fairies as an entomologist would for butterflies’.

Brown woodcarving of a humanoid figure sat holding knees
Stylised Figure Seated Bent Over with Arms on Knees c.1919–1935 by Tom Charman (1863–1939)

Tom’s haunting yet engaging wood carvings, decorated stones and flints, and strikingly spontaneous drawings – occasionally in charcoal but mostly in pen and ink, and watercolour – brought Tom recognition at London exhibitions in the late 1920s and 1930s. He and Margaret attended the annual Artist Craftsman shows (arranged by the Knox Guild of Design & Crafts) at Central Hall, Westminster from around 1929 to 1935. There he displayed and sold his work alongside other famous arts and crafts devotees as well as at gatherings of followers of the spirit world.

Brown woodcarving of a woodpecker perched on a branch
Woodpecker on Branch c.1919–1935 by Tom Charman (1863–1939)

It is a tribute to the late Danae Stammers (Tom’s daughter) and the Charman family that this collection is now in the care of the New Forest Heritage Centre in Lyndhurst.

The full story of the life of Tom and Margaret Charman and their children Chris and Danae is told in Christopher Pan Charman’s 2019 memoir In the Spirit of Godshill, published by and available from Millersford Press.

Black and white photograph of Christopher Charman making a pot out of clay
Young Christopher Pan Charman throwing a pot

A film of Chris Charman and his artist wife Kate – which includes Chris talking about his father’s carvings and how they revived Godshill Pottery – can be viewed on the Millersford Press website.

Sonia Aarons-Green, editor, writer and publisher at Millersford Press

Digitisation of the Drivers’ Map of the New Forest

Published 1789 by William Faden, Geographer to the King. Surveyed by Thomas Richardson, William King, and Abraham and William Driver.

Scale: three and a half inches to one mile

One of the oldest maps in the Christopher Tower Library collection is known as the Drivers’ map after two of its original four surveyors. It was published in 1789 by William Faden, Geographer to the King, in support of a parliamentary report into the New Forest. At that time the forest was in a desperate condition, pulled apart by powerful conflicting interests. The Lord Warden of the New Forest was appointed to preserve the Forest for the King’s sport but was mainly concerned with dispensing patronage to loyal cronies. The Surveyor General of Woods had responsibility for the development of timber, mainly for the navy, and the generation of revenue for the state. Almost in despair at the contradictions within the management of the Forest, the Report draws the conclusion that no person would manage their own property in such a manner.

Parliament was determined to resolve this problem and commissioned a large scale map to help clarify the exact state of the forest. As well as marking the timber enclosures in the Forest, encroachments on Crown property were shown in red, crown leases in purple and intermediate land holdings in yellow. Such is the attention to detail in this map that even a misplaced boundary stone is recorded. Such is the accuracy that it was used as a base map for most parliamentary reports into the Forest for the following 75 years. Several later copies are also available in the library, showing the rolling program of enclosing and dis-enclosing parcels of woodland over the years.

The Map

Click on a tile to view a larger image. In some browsers a low resolution image may appear. Clicking again on the image will give a clear view of that tile. Each tile corresponds with one of the original 18 linen panels from which the map is constructed.

For a modern audience it is interesting to see the detail of the development of villages such as Burley, Wood Green and East Boldre from their original encroachments. Landmarks such as Puttle’s Bridge and the Naked Man near Wilverly Enclosure are clearly visible. It is also interesting to note that the word Enclosure is spelled on the map in the orthodox way as it is in Johnson’s Dictionary rather than Inclosure as it is written locally.

The Cartouche, the decorative title in the top right corner of the map, offers a summary of the political vision for the Forest’s future, confirming its role to be a place for growing naval timber. Components of the image include:

  • a crown at the top centre of the image
  • two woodsmen with axes
  • the broad arrow on a log in the foreground designating government property
  • a warship under construction
  • a plough and a harrow, the tools for preparing the enclosures for timber growth.

The only reference to the Forest’s previous function as a royal sporting ground is on the mound between the woodsmen and the oak tree. It is an image of the memorial to King William Rufus who died a violent and mysterious death while hunting in the Forest.

Forestry Commission Lease Books

Sample Page FC Index

Forestry England, the present land manager of the New Forest Crown Lands, has a collection of leases, easements, sales, and other contractual matters dating back to 1813. These documents have been copied and bound together in large lease books by the successive managers of the Forest- The Commissioners of Woods and Forests up to 1851, The Commissioners of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues from 1851-1919, and by the Forestry Commission from 1919 onwards up to the 1950s . The books are kept at the Queen’s House in Lyndhurst, but they cover more than just the New Forest. Nearby forests such as Bere and Alice Holt are included as well as others further afield such as those of Dean, Delamere, and even the Island of Alderney.

These records cover a period when the Forest underwent huge changes reflecting developments in society and technology. The first records date from the Napoleonic war when the supply of naval timber was critical for the survival of the nation. Once ships came to be built of iron this role was eclipsed and the Forest came to be valued more for its picturesque qualities. In the First World War the supply of Forest timber rapidly gained importance for its use in physically supporting the trenches and the light railways that brought supplies to the Western Front.

Under the Ecademy project, within the Our Past, Our Future Landcape Partnership scheme, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, these records have been digitised.

FC Lase Book Index Page

The Christopher Tower Reference Library at the New Forest Heritage Centre has been preparing these records for publication on the web, and the first tranche, covering the period from 1813 to 1920, is now available on the New Forest Knowledge site. As well as showing how land use changed and developed over the century, these records cast light on the lives of the individuals and families who lived, worked and took their leisure in the forests, providing a rich resource for the family or social historian.

Altogether the leases comprise more than 40,000 pages of largely legalistic prose, containing often lengthy, repetitive sentences. Like the Shipping Forecast, their rhythm and cadence provide a sort of poetry. Often the documents are supported by hand sketched plans of the area in question. Only the most recent books are typed: the majority from this period are beautifully handwritten. None, however, can be searched digitally. Fortunately each book was comprehensively indexed at the time of its creation. Furthermore many of the later transactions have been inscribed in four Atlases covering the New Forest, so that a visual scan can often identify where a transaction has taken place.

Stop Press! Casual study has revealed the fact that not only are transactions about property recorded, but also employment contracts… See Lease Book 11, page 339, which records the extension of Lawrence Cumberbatch’s role as Deputy Surveyor of the New Forest to that of Deputy Surveyor of a string of other forests in the County of Southampton.

Please click on the links below to view some supplementary materials or click on the button to download them.

Click here to browse the full list of Lease Books and accompanying Atlases.

Setley POW Camp – Post war civilian occupation – Linda’s story

A new collection of photos has come to light offering another glimpse into the post war civilian occupation at Setley Camp.

Linda Fletcher spent the first 2 years of her life, 1951-1953, at 11 Larch Close, Setley Camp.

Post war living at Setley Camp. Courtesy of Linda Fletcher. New Forest Remembers WWII.

Linda went on to say, I don’t know when Mum and Dad (Mr & Mrs Collins) moved in, possibly 1949 after Dad was demobbed.  I have some photos, if you ignore the baby (me) in them you will be able to see the Nissen Huts up close, they all had a little fenced garden at the front obviously added on after the war.

Post war living at Setley Camp. Courtesy of Linda Fletcher. New Forest Remembers WWII.

In the background of a few of the pictures you will see other brick buildings. The child with a dolly, at the communal washing lines, is me again but this time I am visiting my parent’s good friends Mr & Mrs Horne, we had been rehoused to Boldre and eventually Mr & Mrs Horne went to live in Brockenhurst. Quite a lot of the Camp people settled in the area.  The last picture is of me on Dad’s motorbike and sidecar with the Camp’s perimeter fence in the background probably taken at the end of the 50’s.

Linda on her dads motorbike and sidecar. Post war living at Setley Camp. Courtesy of Linda Fletcher. New Forest Remembers WWII.

If you have any memories or photos of the camp please do get in touch.