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How the Forest was Won

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October 2006

Let me introduce myself. The Reverend Henry Pool, Rector of the Church of St Paul at Parkend in the Forest of Dean, the only church in Gloucestershire laid out on an octagonal plan, at your service. It is the year of Our Lord 1822, and we have just celebrated the consecration of the church, which has been built using money from the Church of England and the Crown. It is the third of three, the others having been built by my colleagues, the Reverend Proctor at Bury Hill in 1812 (where the congregation was so enthusiastic that it had to be enlarged three years later) and the second by the curate of Micheldean in 1817 and given the name, Holy Trinity. Each of these glorious ventures also provides a small school room bringing education to the children of the Forest for the first time.

As I look back, it has taken a long time to reach this point as the Foresters have shown themselves to be a group where law and order have some headway to make. They are largely miners of one sort or another, living in poor housing, without sanitation and mostly without the guidance of the Lord or the advantages of the Poor Relief which comes from the establishment of Parishes. These ragged wretches are the descendants of those who eked out an existence from the lands which were subject to Forest Law in the times we would call the Middle Ages.

At that time the Forest, an area of about 9,300 hectares, was subject to laws which protected it as a forest for the purposes of timber and game hunting. Habitation was not allowed but the presence of iron ore, stone and timber made it a tempting target for those struggling to exist on the boundaries of the protected area. And so, inevitably and quietly, people moved ever closer to the forest, squatting in hastily and poorly constructed cabins within its boundaries where areas were cleared and enclosed to provide sustenance. When an area had been plundered, the settlers abandoned their cabins and moved on.

And so it was until 1668 when the Crown decided that matters had gone far enough. The Forest was to be divided into six Walks, each to be presided over by a keeper and each given a name linking it to the King and his relatives. One was to be called "James' Walk" and another "King's Walk", although history later changed this to Speech House. It was the job of the keeper to watch out for fires and ensure that the trees could reach their full height and not be interfered with by the unwelcome illegal squatters whose numbers were ever on the increase. Indeed just twenty years ago in 1802, the estimable Lord Nelson visited the Forest to inspect and encourage the planting of oak trees for use as ship building materials for the British navy. Following his visit, twenty four posts were created for salaried woodsmen whose job it is to replant areas of the forest and who have been given specially constructed cottages high up in the Forest hills. As a sign of the nationally important work that these men are doing, the lintels of their homes have been inscribed and will almost certainly endure far into the future.

By 1752 I hear that the King had become so worried about the numbers of these illegal settlements in the Forest that he asked the keepers to send him details. 134 was the number recorded by one keeper who was so frightened of reprisals from the lawless residents that he asked for his name to be kept secret! These settlements were randomly scattered throughout the perimeters of the Crown land or were to be found in the most remote and inaccessible places but were growing in size, year on year. Each time the settlers replanted the hedges around the boundaries of their homes, the new shrubs were planted on the outside of the former hedge thus enlarging the plots. In the Forest this practice came to be commonly known as "rolling hedges" and, of course, as plots grew so did the numbers of illegal encroachments. However it will be some years, (1838 The Dean Forest Encroachment Act) I am sure, before the laws of the land offer protection to these people by legitimising their right of abode.

Such a law would also permit the people of the Forest to go forward in building proper roads and dealing with sanitation issues. In Cinderford I have witnessed open sewers running in the roads. Hitherto there has been no government structure to help these people to deal with such matters but with the establishment of the new parishes, of which my own is one, I have high hopes that these great social benefits can be realised.

Legal settlement and the developing colliery works at Cannop have seen more and more people moving to the Forest in the last few years. With the opening of my own new church building, it is good to see an end, at last, to the preaching which has taken place in the past from the back of wagons and tents. However, I think it unlikely that the Non-confirmist preachers from Staffordshire, who have been prevalent in this area of late, will cease their assault for the souls of the Foresters. Along side our own Anglican schools, I hear that the people of the Forest are now availing themselves of the Sunday Schooling being provided by the Baptists and Bible Christians!

There is not much uniformity about this provision but I suppose it will be some years (1870) before the Government steps in to ensure that it is not just those with links to the Church, or those with philanthropic employers such as the colliery owner, Edward Prothero at Cinderford who has built his own school, who can access education of some sort.

Yes, a lot of progress has been made in recent years in winning the souls of the people of the Forest and bringing to them decent housing, parochial government and education. The Forest has long been a society apart, but no longer! Work to do, I must take my leave...

Based on a report given to The Thornbury Society by Dr Jurica.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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