Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

PROTEST AND DISSENT IN THE DEAN

In A.Graham on June 24, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Much of the history of the Forest of Dean has been that of protest and dissent. Of course our neck of the woods is not alone in this, but the abundance of coal, iron and timber in the Forest made it a focus for the struggle between those who wanted to own and exploit its natural resources, and those who were dispossessed in the process.

Iron had been mined in the Dean as far back as Roman times, and its timber was used to make charcoal for the furnaces or to build ships. Later its coal was mined – first by the freeminers and then increasingly by the big mining companies who were out to capitalize on the rich seams below the Forest. And as the Forest was felled and its timber depleted, those who wanted to profit from these resources sought to enclose large sweeps of the woodland.

A clear conflict of interest that culminated in the action taken by Warren James and the freeminers of the Dean in 1831. But even earlier there had been bitter opposition to enclosures, not only in the Forest, but throughout rural England.

The 1600s were typified by unrest, including of course the bitter Civil War. But even before the struggle between Parliament and the King erupted, there had been unrest in various parts of the south west and the midlands, including the Forest of Dean. This included the “Western Rising” of 1626 to 1632. It was a series of massive anti-enclosure riots that swept parts of Wiltshire, and the Forest of Dean. They were provoked by poverty, lack of food, and the loss of common rights. The enclosure of the forests threatened those who had relied on access for raw material and pasturage.

In order to raise money, King Charles 1 had granted leases to those eager to exploit the Forest – despite strong objections from the Foresters themselves! It all came to a head when Sir John Winter basically bought the Forest and set about enclosing large areas and felling the trees, in order to pay for his investment. By the time he had finished, the forest was in such a poor state that one contemporary report referred to it as “the late Forest of Dean”.

The enclosure of common land in the English countryside took place over a couple of centuries. It had started in late Tudor times as rich landowners seized land that ordinary commoners believed was theirs, for common use. There was sporadic unrest and revolt by those who believed that traditional rights were being taken away. During the 17th and 18th centuries a series of local Acts of Parliament gave this seizure of common land a gloss of legality. Those common rights that were swept away included the right to allow sheep, cattle and geese to graze or pigs to forage. By the end of the 20th Century this process was largely completed in most areas of our green and pleasant land – leaving only a few common pastures and village greens.

Except, of course, in the Forest of Dean, where local “sheep badgers” are still with us and freeminers (in diminishing numbers) guard their ancient rights. The Forest was, perhaps, exceptional. It was traditionally crown land, and the rights of freeminers were documented, rather than being based on tradition and custom. But this did not prevent repeated incursions into the rights of those who lived and worked in the Dean. The plunder of the forest’s timber reserves by those who had been appointed to safeguard these resources meant that the woodland needed periodic replenishment. Vast areas of land were enclosed, to be replanted – which naturally led to conflict, particularly with the local freeminers. After all, they weren’t the ones responsible for the wholesale rape of the Forest!

As for the enclosures in general, they transformed the English countryside. Many landowners became very rich, whilst others were robbed of centuries’ old rights. The enclosures also saw the notion of private ownership emerge as the model of ownership, as opposed to the collective rights of previous generations of country dwellers.

“AN ACT OF THEFT”:

In a discussion programme led by Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4, broadcast in 2008, the enclosures were described as “an act of theft”. Ownership of land was the key to power and authority, and it’s not surprising that most JPs (who sat in judgement in local courts) were landowners. At the same time, commoners were often regarded as inherently subversive. Any rights they thought they had were discarded.

Those historians who justify the enclosures argue that they were necessary for progress – to make farming, for example, more efficient and to allow the introduction of new farming techniques and technologies, to feed a growing population. It allowed the growth of roads, connecting communities, and later the railways.

That’s as maybe. But very few in the rural population were able to benefit from these “improvements”. Thousands were dispossessed, and driven from the land altogether. They were the ones who became the new generation of urban poor, living in squalor in our industrial towns and cities.

In reality it was a case of the few gaining wealth by grabbing land from the many. Incidentally, the last episode in this sordid story was the “Highland Clearances” in Scotland, which continued with ruthless determination until the late 19th Century.

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