Landscape and Settlement in the Forest of Dean by Nicholas Herbert

Landscape and Settlement in the Forest of Dean

Nicholas Herbert

Meeting of 10 May 2018

The Forest of Dean is different because it was a medieval royal forest which meant special laws and management to preserve game and its habitat. This treatment created a clannish, suspicious population; not surprising as they needed permission to build a house – even on their own land and a dog’s feet had to be mutilated so it would not chase prey.

By 1086 all the main settlements by the Severn were well established. The river was essential for access, with muddy inlets (‘pills’) giving some routes further into the Forest. This area was not wooded, and good for farming. Places like Ruardean and English Bicknor were just small villages at this date. The Royal Demesne was surrounded by privately owned manors, but these still had to abide by Forest Law. William I ordered the population removed from some small manors to return the land to the Forest.

A rising population, new settlements, monasteries and market towns meant more land being brought out of the Forest – this was a good time for the country. Illegal clearance (assarting) was going on in the 12th century. Assarting on the west side of the Forest led to a large new parish called Nova Terra – Latin for Newland. By 1210 Newland was big enough for King John to give permission for a new church. This was built in a central position with a few houses around it and lots of hamlets in the area. The old burial path from Coleford to Newland is a footpath today.

Fines were imposed for taking land from the royal forest, but – as money became more important than hunting – they began to charge rent.

The Eyre Roll of 1258 (lists made by royal representatives visiting the Forest) lists inhabitants of Staunton and English Bicknor holding land:

“Adam Aldrich of Bicknor taken into cultivation 8 acres of land planted four times with winter corn and three times with oats – 5s 6d”.

In 1305 the King decreed all newly assarted land would belong to Newland parish, and tithes would be paid to Newland’s vicar. This led to 22 small pieces of land dotted around the Forest becoming part of Newland parish.

Assarting continued until the 1349 Black Death, with the Crown actively promoting the process as they rarely visited any hunting forests except those near London.

The unofficial market at Newland in late medieval times was stamped out by the authorities, and by the 17th century Coleford was the market town for the parish – this action was part of the reason why Coleford became the largest settlement.

Because the central Royal Forest had so little habitation, the establishment of new settlements happened in fairly modern times and is documented – this makes it very interesting for historians. The early 17th century saw more permanent dwellings rather than the itinerant wood and charcoal workers. James I allowed large furnaces to be established with the people to work them; but lots of other settlers arrived and supported themselves mostly by stealing wood. The 1634 eyre records 150 new cottages, mostly around Cannop and Soudley ironworks.

In the 1650s Cromwell put John Wade in charge; he began to clear out illegal settlers and 400 families were expelled and their cottages pulled down. After the Restoration of Charles II, the Duke of Beaufort (the King’s man in Gloucestershire) appointed new keepers, each with a Lodge, to guard against timber stealing and new cottages being built. The chief Lodge was Speech House. He split the Demesne into six Walks. At this time a writer described forest folk as “A sort of wild, robustic people”. 1634 eyre records list over 60 officers overseeing the Forest for the Crown; including a Bowcarrier. Newland Church holds a tomb of an officer – a forester in fee – carrying his horn and at his feet a hunting dog.

The Great Enclosure happened because the ironworks closed and the policy was to preserve timber for ship building. Nurseries were fenced off and the authorities tried to control mining and other activities. By the 1730s illegal settlers were already creeping back in. In 1752 the keepers of the six walks reported 134 cottages; and 879 in 1812 – this amounts to over 4,000 people taking 2,000 acres of Forest. (Still leaving 24,000 acres of Crown land intact).

Squatter settlements appeared wherever there was common or waste land; mostly it was the poor from surrounding parishes. They often earned their living from simple woodworking e.g. barrel staves, spade handles. Much went to Bristol from the ports of Brockweir and Redbrook. These cottages were mainly wood cabins; sometimes picked up and moved. 18th century buildings were more generally single storey dry stone with no windows and turf rooves. The Forest had more illegal settlement than anywhere else, and Foresters undertook rioting, illegal settlement, wood stealing etc better than anyone!

This created the typical Forest layout with scatterings of cottages. Many hamlets have no central street as individual cottages just joined up.

Eventually the authorities had to accept these settlements and building of churches and schools was licensed to civilise this barbaric race! This included Christchurch. The 1838 Act gave squatters security and tenure; those settled before 1788 got freehold and later ones got leases with an offer to purchase the freehold – most did.