Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

“WEST COUNTRY REBELS”, by Nigel Costley

In John Wilmot, Reviews on November 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm


“WEST COUNTRY REBELS”, by Nigel Costley (foreword by Tony Benn), published by Breviary Stuff Publications. ISBN 978-0-95700005-4-4

In this handsomely illustrated work, Nigel Costley has produced a kind of compendium of unrest, revolt and law- breaking activity throughout the West, from the days of King Alfred, through the conflict of the 1600s, the industrial revolution, up to the present day.

In its pages readers will find accounts of resistance to the enclosures, the “Captain Swing” revolts, the Chartists and the fight for trade union rights. But also in its pages are mention of pirates and smugglers whose activities were once notorious in parts of the west country.

His canvas is fairly broad, ranging from Cornwall up to the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean. It does much to counter a popular image that the West is a peaceful picturesque sort of place, where tourists can come to enjoy a sense of tranquillity. Indeed, over centuries the West often seemed like a cauldron of seething discontent. And we still commemorate highlights, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs – and remember our own Warren James. Perhaps tourists heading for the west country should take a copy of this book with them, to give them a fresh perspective!


With such a broad range to it, the book perhaps lacks detail. It’s more concerned with broad brush strokes, but I still found plenty of references to characters and events that nudged my memory or aroused a sense of curiosity. The early days of the Co-operative movement, for example. And the Foot family dynasty, who represented the radical face of Devon (a county not often noted for its radicalism!). Or the “Red Peer” – the Honourable Wogan Phillips who was a member of the Communist Party and fought the Cirencester and Tewkesbury seat in the 1950 election, before becoming the only Communist peer in the Lords..

For those who prefer their history a bit more local, there are plenty of references to the Forest of Dean, including its part in the “Western Rising” between 1626 and 1632, and a look at “Forest Radicals” such as Charles Dilke, radical MP for the Dean, David Organ, tireless miners’ leader in the hungry 1920s, and Morgan Philips Price, Labour MP for the Forest for 24 years.


We move on through the General Strike, volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Labour’s victory in 1945, right up to the Thatcherite years, typified by the ban on trade unions at GCHQ, the “right to work” marches and the anti-poll tax riots.

This is a book that’s easy to dip into, or for those who want a more consecutive sense of our history, to start at the beginning and work your way from there. And though it’s not cheap, it’s handy both as a reference, or just an easy read.


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