Richard Benfield

The People’s Charter of 1838 included a demand for universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, secret ballots, annual elections, payment of MPs and the abolition of the property qualification for MPs. On 4 November 1839, nearly 10,000 Chartist sympathisers armed with homemade weapons marched on Newport, intent on demanding the six points of the Charter. Among the marchers was 19-year-old Richard Benfield, a miner from Tredegar, who was born in Wollaston in 1819.

In his book, The Last Rising: the Newport Insurrection of 1839, David Jones reveals that in October 1838 the organisers held meetings in the Forest of Dean where Foresters promised assistance and that two men from the Forest were among the 35 delegates attending one of the final planning meetings at Blackwood on 1 November.

The rebellion failed when troops opened fire killing 22 Chartists. Benfield was among the men captured. In the aftermath, 200 or more Chartists were arrested and 14, including Benfield, were indicted for high treason. All three main leaders, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty and were sentenced at the Shire Hall in Monmouth to be hung, drawn and quartered. Following a huge public outcry, the executions were commuted to transportation for life. Benfield and four others were sentenced to transportation for life, later commuted to three years imprisonment with hard labour. Thirteen others were imprisoned with hard labour for up to a year.

Richard Benfield at his Trial

Richard Benfield and his comrades were transferred from Monmouth to Millbank Penitentiary. Benfield was granted an early release after a year and returned to Wollaston where he married and tried to scratch a living on a 6-acre plot of land. He then returned to Tredegar to work in the iron mines where he continued to agitate for the Charter. He married Mary Bray in 1944 and had six children. The family emigrated to America in 1866 where he died in 1885.

Primary source documents concerning Richard Benfield and his trial for treason can be found here:




Resident Forester

The Life of Warren James is an account by a ‘Resident Forester’ of the 1831 uprising in the Forest of Dean led by Warren James. It was printed only a few months after the events and has been used as a primary source for historians studying the events surrounding the riot. In my opinion, it was written by a member of the local gentry or the ruling elite and is full of tropes and some half-truths. I think the purpose of the text was to justify the action taken by the authorities against the Foresters who rebelled. The underlying narrative attempts to patronise and undermine the character and motives of rioters and their ”reputed champion”, Warren James. So, it must be read with caution.

Foresters are initially described as “bold”, “daring”, “wild and free” with “lion-like courage”. Their “externals were rough and unpolished” with a “total ignorance of refined life”.

The Resident Forester quotes Lord Gage who thinks that actual poverty was unknown in the Forest of Dean and argues that Foresters were ”highly privileged with pious ministers” and “the poorest among them is better off than any town mechanic; and the richer are petty princes, living on their own lands, rent and tax free.”

However, at the same time, the Resident Forester tells a story to illustrate how Foresters were ‘patriotic and loyal servants who followed their masters with unquestioning deference’.

Those involved in the riot were regarded as “misguided”, “misled”, “mistaken”, “deluded” in defending what “they imagine to be privileges” but actually “trampling on the laws of their country” and contrasted with those with “heads more enlightened than their own.”

Warren James is characterised as good but as a naïve and simple “sentimentalist” easily influenced and misled by a “malign being” from London. He is contrasted with another rioter John Harris who was “a wretched man”, “void of principle or feeling” and “the terror of the neighbourhood”.

And the Resident Forester finally adds that events would have turned out differently if only the Foresters had acknowledged that “the advice given them by Mr. Machen was in the spirit of truth and friendship, but ’twas only believed when it could not benefit them”.

So who was the  Resident Forester?  Could he have been Philip Ducural, the man who issued a warrant for the arrest of Warren James? He was a well-known poet and author and therefore skilled at creating a narrative and telling stories.


The following text has been transcribed using language, spelling and punctuation as close as possible to the original document.

Ian Wright

As the disturbances in the Forest of Dean are become the object of intense interest, both from the novelty of their nature, and the strict line of justice that has been adhered to, in regard to those implicated in the transaction, it may not…perhaps be amiss to consider the motives by which those misguided men were influenced.

Others, who, in various parts of the kingdom have been denominated Rioters, are looked on with detestation and horror—but far different are the sentiments evinced for the Foresters.

Whilst we view them with a disproving eye as trampling on the laws of their country, the tear of commiseration will shed down the cheek of humanity, when pondering o’er the woes of a race of men so firm, so unbending, so devoted—in a taken cause!

The Foresters were ever a distinct body of people; they lived on their own were governed by their own laws and stood firm for what they imagine to be privileges. Bold, daring and truly hospitable, was ever the character of these men; whilst there was everything to apprehend from their sudden resentments there was nothing to fear from cherished sense or recollection of a wrong.

With spirits wild and free as their own woods, hearts open and generous, their externals were rough and unpolished. They were at once the dread and veneration of their neighbours; so that the cousins of Hereford and Monmouth would at any time prefer the right hand of fellowship to that of trying their prowess, even in what they term a friendly row. Their muscular strength exceeds that of perhaps any living race of men; and it is not surprising to those acquainted with them, to see a native of the Forest, under the middle size throw with apparent ease, a man twice his weight and almost twice his size, who encounters him in his wrestling matches, of which noble exercise they are most passionately fond. As soldiers or sailors, they were never obscure characters—their lion-like courage shone forth conspicuous—no idea of bodily suffering deterred them, which the following anecdote will illustrate more clearly; it was related to me by the brother of a general officer, who shed his blood on the plains of Waterloo: —

A native of the Forest had engaged in the general’s service, during the short interval of peace, in 1814. At the renewing of hostilities with France, general………  was ordered again into actual service.  George begged permission of his master to enlist; this was refused. “You shall go with me George,” he said, “but I want you near my person, which if you enter into service will be impossible.” “Ah sir,” said George, “that is all I want—to be near you, it mayhap you go to battle.” George accompanied his master; but during several skirmishes in which the English troops engaged, George abandoned the host assigned him (as baggage, guard), at the risk of his own life, to view from an eminence his master’s party; but when the last decisive day arrived, and “all who nobly stood or bravely fell” were met, George threw himself on his knees, and in terms rendered eloquent from the energetic force with which they were spoken, besought permission to fight by the side of his brave master. The general could no longer withstand so noble a request; he honored him by uniting him with a party whose valour rendered them so conspicuous on that occasion. When near the close of the day, he found his master faint from wounds and fatigue, George brought him a small bottle of wine and a biscuit. “George,” said the general, “have you anything to eat yourself ?”—”Pray eat on, my dear master,” was his answer; “never mind me, I am but one, and a poor one too, hardly of any use; if I go, another can fill my place, but you, my master, thousands live and act in you; if you fall”—here his voice faultered, and the tears never shed for himself chased each other down his manly cheeks, at the thought, “if you fall, what should I live for?”

The master was worthy of his servant— he insisted on sharing his bread and wine with his faithful friend. He left his master, and shortly afterwards both were severely wounded. Turning to a comrade, who had pledged himself to remove him from the scene of action, and who approached to raise him from the ground— “Hot work this, Jem,” said the fallen hero, “but never mind, ’tis for the honour of old England; but where is the general, tell me? Look out, and see where he is—ah! He is off his horse; fly! never mind me—see what you can do for him.” “But stay,” said his comrade, “the enemy will be here.”—”Go,” replied George, “I will not be moved, no, not an inch, till I see my master is no worse off than myself.”

The soldier found the general had been carried off deeply, and indeed mortally wounded: he returned and related to George what he had learnt. “Thank God then,” said he, “we shall die together, for I feel I’ve not long to live; make what haste you can, that I may see him—I think if I could see him but once more, I could give three cheers for old England.”

We regret to say he did not see his valued master again, for upon moving him from the ground, the wounds opened afresh, and in a few moments this brave fellow breathed his last, nor did the noble general survive him but two hours.

Their total ignorance of refined life was, a few years ago, a subject of merriment to their more polished neighbours. It is related of one of them well known in the precincts of the Forest, that being at an inn, and calling for a pint and pipe, the servant brought them, and also placed by his side a spittoon. John fidgetted for some time in his chair, and then gently removing it with his foot, expectorated on the floor. The girl, who prided herself on her house-wifery, again placed the metal dish at his feet; John now lost all patience, he could command his temper no longer. “I tell thee what, wench,” said he, “if thee doesn’t move this cullender away, curse me but I’ll spit in him.”

Such are the outlines of the characters that are coming under our consideration. In later years, however, the spirit of the Gospel, which has been preached with evangelical purity, has caused a prominent change in the customs and manners of this interesting race of people. It has here, as in every place where its power is felt (from the cheerless abode of the benighted Esquimaux, to the torrid zone of western Africa), diffused its benign influence; and those men (who a few years ago, when ember died, inspired the surrounding country with terror), were viewed in the late disturbances only as a misled, mistaken, people—but without (except by those individuals whose office called upon them to oppose their proceedings), the least idea of personal danger. It must ever form a subject of regret to a benevolent heart, to reflect, that it could afford gratification to heads more enlightened than their own, to lead into error and ultimate exile, a set of men who, they must have been aware, depended on their judgment for direction, in regaining what they imagined their birthright.

Proud of their birth—stern in their idea of right and wrong – ‘tis not to be wondered, that whilst they considered themselves torn from those privileges, they should stand up to a man to defend their disputed cause.

The Forest of Dean lies in the western part of the county, is of a triangular form, included between the Wye, the Severn, and the small river Leydon. It contains 30,000 acres, is twenty miles long and ten broad, and was anciently overrun with woods. The oaks that grow where the wood is still preserved, are reckoned the best in England, and from this Forest most of the timber formerly employed in ship building was brought, which was so, well known to the Spaniards, that whet they fitted out their armada in 1558, to invade England, those who had the direction of that expedition were expressly ordered to destroy this Forest, as the most effectual way to ruin our marine.

But since the discovery of many mines of iron, and the passing of several acts of parliament for erecting forges for the working of them, these woods became gradually reduced, and several towns and villages have been built in the Forest, where the manufacture of iron is carried on.

However, in the reign of Charles II, an act was passed empowering certain persons to enclose great numbers of trees, for the preservation of the timber; and some years ago, many cottages which had been built in and near the woods, were ordered to be pulled down, because the inhabitants damaged the trees by lopping them for fuel. As forests are the property of the crown, the king has a large and strong building in the midst of this Forest, where there is a swanimote court, to preserve the vert and venison—it is called the Speech House; the judges of it are verderers, chosen by. the freeholders of the county. The miners have also a court in this Forest, held at the castle of St. Briavels, where they have laws of their own, proper for the carrying on of their affairs and deciding their differences, in which there used to be a peculiar custom of an evidence’s swearing by touching a Bible with a kind of consecrated stick, and not with his supposed defiled, because dirty, hand. In it is a prison for offenders. The government of this castle has always been given to some of the nobility. Many of these ancient forms are now fallen to decay.

It was a mistaken idea relating to the act of 48 Geo. III. c. 72 (by which authority the Forest was enclosed, the provisions of which were the same as those of 20 C. 11. c. 3, by which it was enacted that eleven thousand acres of the Forest should be always set apart for the preservation of timber; and that the lords of the treasury might, when they saw that the timber was out of danger, and properly preserved from being injured by cattle, throw open to the public), that induced the people to take the steps they did.

As a great deal of the timber was considered by them to be already sufficiently strong, they supposed it their privilege to have the benefit of such land for the use of their cattle. The surveyor general of the Forest, E. Machen, Esq., was of a different opinion; he saw the fences could not be thrown down and the cattle admitted, without exposing the young trees to considerable damage. Now that either party were right, it is not for an individual to decide—the committee formed for that purpose will, in the limited time, no doubt determine; till then the point will be contested. It is much to be regretted this investigation had not been entered into before so many families were brought to misery and want, by being deprived of the services of those who were their support had this, I say, been done, none but madmen would, in open violation of a known law, have proceeded to the lengths that Warren James, and his infatuated companions were induced to do.

Warren James was born in the Forest of Dean, in the year 1794. From his youth he was of a mild, reserved, and peaceable turn of mind, if anything, rather inclined to melancholy; he was what would, in refined society, have been denominated a sentimentalist. He was of the most abstemious habits, and was often known to eat, after returning from church, on a Sunday, morning a dinner formed solely of vegetables and repair thither again to attend the afternoon service. He disdained any show in apparel; and this has on some occasions exposed him to not a little inconvenience. It is related of him that on attending a neighbouring fair, for the purpose of disposing of a horse, his appearance was such as to excite suspicion as to how the animal came into his possession, and he was in consequence held in custody, until satisfactory evidence could be produced on his behalf.

He was his mother’s favourite son; she had been for some years a widow, and Warren resided under the same roof with her, to the day of his heading the party in the demolition of the Forest boundaries.

Sometime previous to the period mentioned, a sister of his went to reside in London, and from the acquaintance there formed, was led to believe the Foresters were a people denied their privileges and deprived of their birthrights; this was imparted to her brother, who at once felt it incumbent on him to take a prominent part in endeavouring to redress their wrongs, as to his judgment they always appealed in any point of difference or dispute, for he was not a man to act without much deliberation; uninfluenced by passion, when once he had determined, no power or argument could shake him from his purpose.

He, on the first intimation of these rights (as they were called), convened a meeting at the Speech House, from which a deputation, consisting of such men, as were thought most fit for the office, was chosen to wait upon lord Lowther; money was collected for their expenses, and they set out on their important embassy. What the nature of the interview was, it is not for me to say, but they returned with the fullest confidence of restitution.

It appears that Warren James had long, though secretly, brooded over the desired delivering himself and countrymen, from what he felt and was persuaded was a thraldom; but this was not with the wild impulse of riot, but the calm determination of a man willing to resign private benefit for public good, as he has been frequently heard to say he would willingly give up his own life, if by that means he could gain his countrymen their liberties. He felt it a duty—he viewed it as an honour; and the information having first come from his sister, his companions looked up to him as their grand spring of action—as the champion of their long-lost liberties.

Thus, called upon, he could not (without acknowledging doubts which do not appear to have existed), recede from the point to which he had brought so many: his London friend, falsely so called, encouraged this desire; and Warren was firmly persuaded that he should find friends. among the higher powers.

Whatever form or name is possessed by the malign being who thus urged him on, it is a subject of regret that he cannot be held up to public odium so fully as he deserves.

Early in the spring, a person who resided near to Warren, (or, as he is generally called Warry,) had occasion to speak to him respecting the trespass of his cattle. “Oh,” said he, “never mind, in two months all will be free—the inclosures will be thrown open, and we shall have plenty of free land; the twenty years are now expired that they were to be closed.” This neighbour expressed his doubts as to the legality of such, undertaking—”Come with us,” said he, “You have nothing to fear; the King and Lord Lowther is on our side.”

About a fortnight previous to the eighth of June, on which day they believed the term of years to expire, Warren engaged a printer, named Stinson, residing in the town of Coleford, to print him fifty copies of a notice, announcing a meeting of the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean, on Wednesday, the eighth day of June, for the purpose of opening the Forest, and asserting their right of common, of which they had, as they said, been so long deprived. Those papers were signed, “Warren James.” They were posted up in the most conspicuous places; and that they might be more extensively circulated, a number were given to the attendants on a funeral from Whitecroft, which took place about that time.

In consequence of this, E. Machen, Esq. issued a cautionary notice, warning all persons who had any value for their liberty, against joining them in their work of destruction; and advising those who were quietly disposed, against letting curiosity: take them to the spot, as in that case, the innocent would be likely to suffer with the guilty.

On Sunday, the fifth of June, Mr. Machen sent for Warren – “How can you think,” said he; “of misleading the people in this way? What are you doing? You will bring yourself and them into trouble.” “Oh,” he replied, “we are all right: the Forest was given up to us in parliament last year.” A number of persons were assembled round them, to listen to what was passing; Mr. Machen turned round to them. “This is absurd,” said he; “if you know yourselves to be drawn on by a man who can say nothing more to the purpose than this, it will be your own fault.” Mr. Machen remonstrated with him some time, begged him not to mislead the innocent, and told him if he wished to be informed as to the laws relating to the inclosure, to come to him, bring anyone he chose with him, and he would read to them the Acts of Parliament. “Oh,” said Warren, “I have an act of parliament: l am determined to go on.” Mr. Machen asked him, why he did not bring it down, and show it him; he replied, he would. Mr. Machen then left him, as he could not dissuade him from proceeding in the way he had marked out.  He was then asked by the assistant surveyor when and where he intended to begin. He replied, “on Wednesday morning, at Whitecroft, just below Park Hill enclosure.”

The lenient manner in which these communications were received, inspired the more timid with fresh courage: their champion had openly declared his intentions, and still all was quiet—no effective measures were set on foot to prevent them from putting their designs into execution. “Surely then,” said they, “we must be right; they would prevent us if they could, but this they do not attempt.” New life seemed to animate them—fresh vigour to impel them to action; and they waited with impatience the day that was to restore to themselves and their posterity, their long-lost liberties. A few days, and they would emerge from what they now looked on as slavery—expel usurpers, and supply their posts out of their friends and brothers. The time that intervened was that of deep discussion; ’twas a point no one could determine—everyone was interested in—and all wished, yet almost trembled at, what might be the result.

The more calm part of their neighbours were of opinion, that their mode of proceeding was what would lay them open to the greatest danger. All wished if they had been deprived of their liberties, that they might be restored them; yet this was a way likely to involve them in the utmost perplexity, whether they succeeded in their endeavours or not.

At length the memorable day arrived. Mr. Machen went over to the residence of Warren James, between six and seven o’clock in the morning. Warren was not in the house, but on Mr. Machen sending for him he came, accompanied by twelve or fourteen persons. Alter remonstrating with him for some time on what he had in agitation, he said, “You tell one person you have an act of parliament, and another that you have a charter; if you have any document, why don’t you produce it?” He replied, “I have a charter.” Mr. Machen then inquired where it was. He answered, “In that house,” pointing to his own house; “and I will get it.” He entered the house, but appeared in a few minutes, bearing on his shoulder a pickaxe; which, as he produced nothing else, we supposed to have been the charter to which he alluded: He directly turned off, followed by several persons who were assembled; they proceeded until they came within a hundred yards of Park Hill enclosure, where they took their station. Parties of about ten or twelve each, were seen pouring in from all quarters; they were hailed on their approach with loud cheers, and much shouting, by those already assembled.

Their number soon increased to nearly two hundred: about eighty of these were provided with either spades or pickaxes. H. Davies, Esq., banker, of Monmouth, who was on the spot at the time, went up to the party, and asked them what they wanted. One of them directly came forward, and gave him a paper on which was written—” King William and Reform! Our Rights, and nothing but our Rights!” ” And that,” said he, ” is what we want.” Some complained that foreigners came to the Forest without coats, and presently were seen riding about in their gigs. One of the men said, that they would tear up the railroads, and drive all the foreigners out of the Forest.

Mr. Davies asked them what could induce them to attack the enclosures, as his brother did not employ foreigners. They however continued by the enclosure gate, where the special constables were stationed, flourishing their pick-axes round their heads, and striking them violently into the ground. They then rushed in a body towards the enclosure. Mr. Machen advanced, and forbid them touching the bank. Warren now made a rush, and struck into it with his pick-axe. One of the mob called out, “There’s the first blow”: they then fell to work, some with tools, others with their hands.

Mr. Machen read the riot act, and, as they still persisted in tearing down the fences, it was again read by another magistrate, in about the space of twenty minutes; but all attempts on the part of the magistrates were alike ineffectual: they continued their work, and by ten o’clock they were four hundred strong. The assistant surveyor, going up to Warren, told him he was afraid it would go badly with him: he replied, he did not fear, that he had the law in his own hands, and said, “I would advise you not to meddle with me or my party, we are too many for you.” The special constables were all unarmed, and any further interference, when their numbers were so unequal, was deemed highly dangerous. Before the day closed, they were joined by about eighty women, who seemed still more intent on the work of destruction than the men.

Their mode of proceeding was this; they took few yards at a time, which a large body rushed on, and by mere muscular strength overthrew. This appears still more worthy of note, from the thickness of the walls, which were mostly composed of clayey earth, in some places seven or eight feet thick. Gorse of many years growth had strengthened these boundaries, by shooting down roots into the earth of a prodigious size, and interlacing its branches in such a manner on the top, that it appeared to a spectator to require a work of time to effect its overthrow, and not that of two or three days. They first cut away some of the strongest of the roots, and then proceeded in the way mentioned, tearing down all before them, and at the fall of each fresh piece giving loud and repeated cheers.

The second day they were joined by thrice the number, as the proceedings of the former one had inspired them with fresh courage; and so far did this influence prevail, that several gentlemen in the county supplied them with hogsheads of cider, and every necessary provision, which Warry was busily employed in conveying to the spot. It was them deemed necessary to call in military aid, and a party from Monmouth, consisting mostly of pensioners and recruits, were marched in, to put a stop to their invasions.

But this plan defeated its own purpose, as their (by no means imposing) array was calculated to inspire anything but terror; and their reception in the town of Coleford proved that they carried good humour with them wherever they went. The Foresters having had intimation of their approach, hastened down to welcome them, and whilst they waited in the yard of the head inn, the “Angel,” for orders, greeted them from without by the appellation of the “ragged regiment,” and invited them up to the Forest, to see them at work.

We shall not attempt to fathom the motives which made those men prefer remaining in a large room over the market-house, together, to that of being billeted at the different inns in the town. Be it as it may, this was their choice; they all spent the night here, having a guard constantly on duty at the door. The Foresters were well aware of this timidity on the part of the soldiers, and on Thursday evening the town of Coleford was full of them. They went to the different houses to ask for food and drink, which, from the strengthened idea of the legality of their proceeding were freely given.

Thus, with spirits elate with drink, the hope of conquest, they sallied forth running to the spot where the soldiers were quietly maintaining their watch, with a tremendous shout. No language can do justice to the feelings of the inhabitants in this crisis, as it was fully expected a serious disturbance would ensue; but they contented themselves with shouting, talking and laughing, at what they termed “ragged regiment,” until about twelve, o’clock, when they all retired in peace.

The next day the small military party were very prudently marched out of the place, as it was evident their presence only served to make “darkness visible,” or, in other words, to show how futile was their power. Their departure was no sooner announced in the Forest, than the most enthusiastic joy was felt. They considered that they had now completely prevailed; and their rights were by this bold effort restored them. They looked on themselves as masters, where they had long been servants; this they expressed by pushing round the cider (we do not say the glass), with the greatest hilarity. One proposed the health of their champion, “Warry,”— another, “Confusion to all foreigners,”—and a third, more inclined to be witty, ex-claimed, “Let us not trample on a vanquished enemy; here is a quick march and better quarters to the ragged regiment.” This was drunk with loud and repeated cheers.

They then proceeded to the house of Mr. Gold, where they soon levelled his boundaries with the ground, turning in the cattle to browse on the flowers and shrubs which surrounded his dwelling, remarking they would teach, the foreigners to come and drive over them.

They afterwards divided themselves into parties of about a hundred each, one of which was dispatched to the residence of Mr. Gething, the sub-agent for the Park End collieries. They told him they were come to pull down his bounds. Mr. Gething, who had wheat round, his house; calmly represented to them the injury he should sustain, if the wall was taken down: Let it stand,” said he, “until, my wheat is in, and then I pledge my word (and you all know you may depend on me), to take it down immediately, and lay it open to you.” Some were for proceeding with their work, but the majority were in favour of the speaker, and they left his property untouched.

Another party proceeded to the residence of Mr. Turnbull, one of the Forest keepers or as they are generally called, woodmen where they began to demolish his bounds. Mr. Turnbull came out and expostulate with them, as his wife was at the time in a dangerous state of health, and he very justly dreaded the consequences that might result from such measures. They were no sooner apprised of this, than they, to a man, turned about, and walked quietly away—one of them remarking, “We don’t want to harm: the woman; but it is to her you owe your escape—for mind—soon as she’s well, we’ll have ’em all down, mind that.”

So active and so unanimous were they in their undertakings, that by Saturday night; there was scarcely a mile of unbroken wall to be seen in the whole Forest. To look at the destruction of so much boundary in so limited a period of time, would scarcely admit of belief, and particularly from their extreme strength, as in many places they appeared fit for fortifications, but in three days were level with the earth. It. was reported on Saturday evening, that a regiment of horses would enter the Forest the next day, to put a stop to any further proceedings. This report becoming current, they called a council of war when all swore to stand to a man. Warry endeavoured to inspire them with fresh courage, “We have nothing to fear, for not only, the King, but the duke of Beaufort is on our side—he is the poor man’s friend, and will see us righted”. They continued at work, men, women, and children, until, a late hour.

Several farmers had with the most premature boldness driven their cattle to the Forest, and expressed their delight that the pastures, so long the property of the crown, were now become public. Some, more rural in their taste, set up a gipsy tent, and entertained their braver friends with compliments on that achievement they were themselves too cowardly to engage in, but of the benefits of which none were more eager to partake. But those high-flushed expectations were now to be broken in upon.

Scarcely had the inhabitants of Coleford returned from their church on the Sunday morning, when their ideas were diverted in afresh channel by the imposing appearance of the advanced guard of the third; a regiment of dragoons. In a moment all was anxiety and dread, as to what might be the result of this visit. It was our brave defenders, our countrymen, that were entering—but for what purpose? to destroy perhaps our friends and brothers, or to fall by their hands—in either case, how dreadful. It had been reported to the commanding officer that the inhabitants of Coleford were in the utmost dismay, and added, “Put your men on the trot, or ere you get there the streets will run with blood.” They, therefore, advanced with drawn swords, prepared for what was revolting to their feelings (intestine broils), but were pleasingly surprised on their entrance to find the town in perfect peace, and without the slightest personal fear, as they were in the most perfect cordiality with their neighbours; and though their present mode of conduct was of a formidable nature, yet they felt they were in no danger from their proceedings as far as regarded themselves.

Warry was perhaps the least of all concerned. He attended the services of the Church at Park End twice that day, and talked of the entry of the soldiers with the greatest coolness. “They want to frighten us,” said he, “but we have nothing to fear; let me only live free till after next Thursday, and then I don’t mind what all the regiments in England can do; only stand firm, that’s all”.

At an early hour on Monday, his grace the duke of Beaufort, the marquis of Worcester, and every magistrate and gentleman of influence in the neighbourhood, assembled at the head inn in the town of Coleford, to take into consideration the measures necessary to be adopted for putting a stop to the further destruction of property in the Forest. Several from Monmouth, together with some of the inhabitants of the town, were sworn in as special constables.  The party of foot that were before marched out, returned again to remain in the town. Two police officers from London arrived to assist in the apprehension of the offenders. Several scouts who had been sent out into the Forest; returned with information that they were still continuing their work undismayed. Hundreds upon hundreds were busily employed in the various parts, and the order for the day was, to have up the railways, and take down the keepers’ lodges and woodmen’s houses, erected by order of government. This bold avowal called for an immediate and effective measure, as the interest and even lives of individuals would in that case be laid open to danger.

It was first proposed to get possession of the person of Warry, and the other ring-leaders, to interrogate the former as to his authority, that, if possible, those persons who had misled him, might be brought to suffer the punishment so justly their due. The appearance of the town was that of a seat of war, and there seemed to be a suspension of all business. At nine, the select party set out in the following order;—first, the special constables—next, a large party of the woodmen—then, the marquis of Worcester, and several gentlemen, who felt themselves called upon on this occasion; the company of the third dragoon guards followed, with a great number of the inhabitants: To a country so unused to military display, the imposing appearance of the third dragoons produced a powerful effect.

Two lads, who had accompanied as spectators, were seen to run forward for the purpose of giving the alarm, when P. Ducarel, esq. (who had before observed them very busy in demolishing the fences), ordered them into custody, and they were sent back into the town to be detained for examination. Feelings of consternation now pervaded every heart, as it was confidently expected that the Foresters would not give place, so that bloodshed on the one side, or both, appeared inevitable. This period of suspense was broken in upon by a request, that a party might be sent to Ruardean Hill, to prevent further damage, as, though they were aware the military were advancing, continued at work with increased vigour. The Foresters, true to their several appointments on the Monday morning, looked round in vain for their friend and champion. He was not to be found; and on enquiry, a friend of his informed them, that it would be their ruin if he was taken prisoner before Thursday, but then he would come forward and assert their rights. How far this gained ground among them is not known; he was not there to invigorate them, and by the time the party reached the Forest, not a man was to be seen. The disappearance of their champion had raised some doubt in their minds, as to the legality of their claims.

A small party of soldiers accompanied the marquis of Worcester to the house of Warry, but he was not to be seen, though the bed was still warm, and his watch in the window going, so that it was evident he had but just made his retreat as the party were advancing. The officers immediately proceeded to search the house; and opening a small box several letters were discovered, which were written by the duke of Beaufort, endeavouring to dissuade him from his purpose, telling him to lay his own and neighbours’ grievances before government, and not to bring himself and them into trouble, by acting, so contrary to the laws. These letters being made public, the fabric on which these poor deluded men rested fell to the ground.

They had been given to understand that the noble duke was agreeable to their proceedings, but they were now undeceived, and fully concluded that there existed no foundation whatever for their former high dependence; their intentions were frustrated, their hopes destroyed—and those very men, who but yesterday were lifted to the clouds with the hopes of success, to-day were seeking a hiding place in the most secret recesses of the very lands they had hoped to pass their lives on with tranquillity, as the undisputed masters.

About the middle day, the party returned with seven prisoners, who were brought in handcuffed to the legs of the soldiers; they were put in confinement at the Angel inn, and consisted merely of those who had been engaged with the others, but none of the principals in the riots. In the afternoon another party went out to Ruardean Hill, but returned with only one man as prisoner, who though they had continued their depredations until the forces appeared in view, yet contrived to evade their pursuit. It was a heart rending spectacle to behold mothers, wives, and children, waiting in the street the return of the several parties, dreading lest they should behold their beloved relatives brought in manacled, yet fearful of betraying their feelings, aware it would be exposing them to still greater danger—but the agonized look and stifled sob plainly spoke, “Is he with them?” One poor woman, whose only son (her sole dependence), was taken, was obliged to have a chair brought her, for at the sight of him she had sank overpowered by the pressure of her calamity.

Several were seen following the soldiers, enquiring, “What will be done to them?” who with that spirit of courtesy for which the third dragoons are so eminently distinguished, endeavoured to afford consolation to the poor sufferers, by assuring them that the punishment of those then in custody would be very light. Indeed the conduct of this body of men cannot be too highly spoken of; the calm humane deportment, their regret at being obliged to act against their countrymen, and yet their firm adherence to the line of conduct it was deemed proper to adopt, united to the universal good behaviour and polished manners of each individual, caused them to be treated at every house with the most affectionate respect, even where their presence was an actual inconveniency. Orders being given for them to proceed some to the Speech House, others to different stations round the Forest, they were parted from with the utmost regret, and a regiment of foot came in, to assist in the apprehension of other of the offenders; these had orders to be ready at a moment’s notice for marching.

Tuesday, the party stationed at the Speech House brought in more prisoners.

Wednesday, intelligence was received that Warren James would give himself up, if bail could be taken for him. This, after a meeting of magistrates had been convened to consider of it, was refused, as the nature of his offence was such as to render it highly improper. Communications being received that Warry was supposed to have taken refuge in a coal pit; at a short distance from the place where he resided, a party of the foot soldiers were taken to the Forest, for the purpose of apprehending him, but how to get at him was the grand point to be considered. It was not known who were his companions in such a place, and these who descended would be entirely in their power, but this was obviated by information gained (by the man who was found hardy enough to head them in this enterprise), respecting a signal given by the sister of Warry. About twelve at night this signal was given by William Watkins from the mouth of the pit, when the voice of Warry, with which he was well acquainted, called out, “All right” he was answered by the same, words, “All right!” and immediately drawn to bank.

As the soldiers were, agreeable to the orders they had received, lying on the ground, he did not immediately perceive his danger, until the muscular gripe of Watkins startled him to a sense of his situation. He directly exclaimed, “I am betrayed”. Although instantly surrounded by the soldiers, he did not lose his presence of mind, but said calmly to the captain of the regiment, “I’m betray’d by treachery; was not this the case, nine hundred men would have surrounded and defended me with the last drop of their blood! but do your duty; I have nothing to fear.” He was brought in before the people were stirring, and properly secured. Being asked if he would not like to exchange his pit dress, which was almost as black as the coal he worked, he replied, looking at his sleeve, “No, I shan’t; my dress is good enough for the company I am going in.” When brought before the magistrates, he evinced not the slightest trepidation; nor could anything be elicited from him to throw further light on the subject; he merely said, “If I have done wrong, I, not you, must suffer.” He was then conveyed to Gloucester castle, escorted by a party of dragoons. Here, then, was the decisive blow to all his followers, who beheld their errors at too late a period to retrieve them. They saw that the advice given them by Mr. Machen was in the spirit of truth and friendship, but ’twas only believed when it could not benefit them. Their hopes of future good were exchanged for certain present evil. Their wives and children must for a time be left to the mercy of the world, and themselves either prisoners or exiles.

Several more were taken in the course of the next day; but as Coleford fair was on the 20th of June, the regiment had orders to leave the town, to make room for those who were expected on that occasion at the several inns; they therefore proceeded to the different stations assigned them in the neighbouring villages. Each succeeding day added to the number of prisoners, and though the neighbourhood was restored to a sort of tranquillity, yet the sufferings of the poor Foresters were such as to affect every individual with the deepest sympathy. The magistrates at length issued a notice offering pardon to all concerned in pulling down the enclosures, except the actual ring-leaders, if they would give their work—some for the term of a month, others for that of a fortnight; according to the part they had taken in the destruction of the. fences.  This offer was accepted with the utmost gratitude, and most of those who were implicated were thus once more re-stored to their families.

Among the many who were looked upon as ringleaders, the name of John Harris, or as he is better known by that of “Poisefoot,” stands conspicuous; not for any prominent part he took in the disturbances, but for the punishment to which his subsequent conduct has exposed him. Perhaps no greater proof can be adduced to show how low human nature can sink, than is exemplified in the life and conduct of this unhappy man: he would, most probably, have rested in obscurity, had his name not been in such a striking manner associated with the Forest disturbances, as to lead to a general supposition that he was himself a forester; but they disown him, and it is their pride that they can with justice do so.

Harris is a native of Wales, but has for several years resided at Berry Hill, a distance of about two miles from Coleford. His character was such as to make him the terror of the neighbourhood—he was a bad husband, a worse father, and a dangerous companion; it was his constant custom to punish his children at night if they could not furnish him with some fruits of their dishonesty during the day.

It is easy to judge what effect this was likely to have upon them; they grew up what he desired to make them. His conduct towards his wife was what might have been expected; alike void of principle or feeling. His methods of raising money were sometimes of a singular nature some of which I will quote.

In the harvest of 1829, he applied to Mr. Teague, a respectable farmer, residing at Carter’s Piece, for permission to assist him in reaping his wheat; by that means, to entitle his family to what is called “friendshipping”; that is, to allow them to glean in the fields during the time of cutting the wheat—which liberty is, generally, in this country, granted to the families of those who give their labour on the occasion. Mr. Teague, although he did not like the man, thought it best to be on good terms with him; and, therefore, acceded to his request. He came, and had the modesty to bring only his wife and five children with him.

At night, Mr. Teague informed him that his further services would be dispensed with, as his labour cost him more than he could afford. Mr. Teague saw nothing more of him during the harvest; but some months after, was not a little surprised in receiving a bill, charging him seven shillings per day, for two clays’ labour. On Mr. Teague’s making enquiry what it was for, he answered, “For reaping.” But,” said he, “‘did not all your family lease?”—(glean). “That,” said Harris, “argues nothing; and as for you not seeing me on the second day—Why, I was on ground if you did not, and if you don’t pay; me, I’ll put you in St. Briavels Court for the money.” He kept his word, but was thrown, with costs. At the same period, he had a trial with a Mr. Raiford, for the payment of a hogshead of cider, which he had neither received, or, indeed, ever heard of, until an application was made by Harris for the money.

But this being, sunk so low, was an object of intense interest to the excellent and indefatigable minister of the church of Berry Hill, (the Rev. Mr. Garnsey,) who endeavoured, by every possible means he could devise, to awaken this wretched man to a sense of his awful situation; but all its vain. He sometimes seemed to feel, and always appeared thankful; so powerful is advice given in the spirit of true Christian affection; but his conduct remained unaltered: he could never be prevailed upon to pay a debt, unless compelled by law.

The disturbances in the Forest were such as in effects, not in cause, suited his peculiar taste: he was one of the foremost with his tongue and hands, but like the others, made his escape from the scene of action, and retired home; where he was heard to swear, he would not be taken alive. A warrant was issued for his apprehension; but the known desperation of his character, made this undertaking to be looked upon in no very pleasing point of view. But William Watkins, the same who apprehended Warry, and who had been sworn in a special constable, had hardihood enough in his composition for offices however difficult and perilous; and he proceeded (accompanied by a keeper, of the name of Powell), to Harris’s house. A person, named Smith, also repaired there, to assist in his apprehension.

As they approached the house, Harris was eating his dinner: Watkins said, “Harris, I have a warrant against you, for pulling down the enclosures.” Harris came toward the door, and swore he would stick the knife he held into the first that came inside the house. Watkins, who was a man of a resolute turn of mind, was not to be deterred by threats, and he entered, followed by his assistants. “Harris”, said he, “you had better be quiet, and come along with me: you may easily get out of it by doing a little work, or finding bail at sessions.” Harris replied, “Who the devil will be bail for me? Get out, I tell thee, or it will be worse for all of ye.” Watkins replied, “This is of no use; I am come here to take you, and will not quit without you; so come quietly, it is as well.” Harris, at that moment, exchanging his knife into his left hand, and thrusting his right under his frock, pulled out a pistol, and swore he would blow out the brains of the first who came near him. He then cocked the pistol. Watkins attempted to get behind, for the purpose of securing him by the arms; but Harris at the moment turned round; exclaiming, “Keep Back!” and snapped the pistol at Watkins’s head: a spark flashed close to his eyes. Watkins immediately caught him in his arms, and threw him on the ground. A violent struggle now ensued he was thrown down three several times, and in one of them, his face was cut against a chair; but he was busily employed, even when down, in cocking the pistol, which, alter some struggle, Powell succeeded in wresting from him; but so determined was he, that he made a desperate attempt to regain possession of it. He was then properly secured. Powell unloaded the pistol in the presence of the magistrates: there were two balls, and a great deal of powder in the barrel. Harris complained that ill language had been made use of to provoke him; but this charge is without foundation. He was immediately committed to prison.

Thus, two men, as opposite as human nature could possibly be, became inmates of the same prison, charged with similar offences.

Little did Warry foresee when he stepped forward as the champion of his neighbours’ liberties, that he should become for life the associate of such a man as Harris; but we cannot say where we will stop when we overstep the bounds of propriety. The trials which took place at the assize at Glocester, excited considerable interest. Some were of opinion that Warry would, then and there, adduce such reasons for his conduct, as would exonerate him from the charge of riot, but it was not the case; he made no defence, nor did he attempt to implicate his advisers. His counsel (Mr. Charles Phillips) endeavoured to prove that Warren had not remained an hour after the reading of the riot act; but the only thing advanced by himself was, simply to say, he remained but a very short time afterwards. Mr. Justice Patteson overruled this point, as no evidence could be adduced to prove that he did actually retire; and even if he did for a short space of time during the hour, he could not be protected from the penalties of the statute under which he was indicted, if it was proved that he afterwards continued to act in conjunction with the mob. The jury, after a short consultation, found the prisoner guilty; but recommended him to mercy on account of his former good character, which was corroborated by the most unexceptionable evidence: judgment of death was then recorded. Whatever might he the internal feelings of Warry, he maintained his firmness throughout. Although fondly attached to his aged mother, and, as a man of penurious habits, no doubt his cottage and land were also near his heart: he calmly said to one who spoke to him, “I don’t care if they hang me, only, let it lead to the good of my countrymen.”

Who, that reads these pages, but must feel for the heart-broken widowed mother of a son, who, had his fortitude been evinced in a better cause, might justly have been her pride and boast; but her son she never saw from the time he secreted himself in the pit, to elude his pursuers, nor can she expect it, until she meets him in another world.

Harris, on his trial, attempted to prove that the constables had treated him with undue severity; and his son who was, evidence on the side of his father, swore that he had himself loaded the pistol, to protect the premises which had lately been robbed:—that he had cast the bullets, and placed the pistol on the shelf. The learned judge, in stunning up the evidence, explained the law as laid down in the particular act of parliament by which these men were indicted the jury after a short deliberation, found the prisoner guilty. His lordship then, in a very impressive manner, passed the awful sentence of death upon the unhappy prisoner, without holding out the slightest hope of mercy being extended towards him.

It is a singular and painful fact, that the day this wretched man was placed at the bar, his two sons were suffering the sentence of the law, by being privately whipped, at Monmouth, for stealing in that town; and it is said that one of them, rubbing his shoulders, exclaimed, “Well, this is not half so bad as father used to beat us for not stealing.” His wife, with that faith and affection found only in woman, not dismayed by apparent difficulties, got a petition drawn out; and the first person who signed this request That his life might be spared, was William Watkins—the very man he had attempted to deprive of existence. This was followed by many others, and was attended with the desired success.

No sooner was it known that Harris was condemned, than the Rev. Mr. Garnsey, actuated by the true spirit of gospel philanthropy, paid a visit to the prisoner, to see if he could be of any service to the unhappy man; who, no doubt, had been ofttimes the subject of his applications at a throne of grace. His entrance was preceded by that of the chaplain, at whose appearance, the miserable culprit burst into tears; his obdurate heart was broken up with a sense of his offences; and this, almost, hopeless character was now an earnest seeker of divine mercy. Mr. Garnsey was deeply affected at the scene before him—he approached him —”Ah! Harris,” said he, “had you listened to me, you would not now have been here.” He admitted the truth of this remark, and told him, that he had never ceased to pray for mercy since he had been there, and that his prayers had not been unavailing.

During the further conversation that, ensued; the reprieve, which had been granted; arrived at the prison. But no language can do justice to the scene of that moment: he fell on his knees, and, when utterance was given, they poured forth their united, their heartfelt thanksgivings at the throne of grace. Mr. Garnsey then proceeded to give him such advice as would tend to strengthen the powerful awakenings produced by the near prospect of death. Previous to his taking leave of the prisoner, Mr. Garnsey asked him if he had any message to send to his neighbours and friends. He replied, “Yes, remember me to them all.” “That,” said this excellent man, “is not what I want, Harris; have you no word of warning or advice to give them “He then desired him to tell them to keep the sabbath, for it was first to sabbath breaking he laid all his misery—to look at him, and take warning not to be content with merely coming to church on a sabbath day; with other words of admonition, which were faithfully and affectionately delivered to the people on his return, and there was scarcely a dry eye perceptible among his crowded auditors,  when he delivered the solemn warning of a, man, whom they, for perhaps the first time, regarded with sentiments of pity and regret.

It was a remark of the late Lord Gage, that actual poverty was unknown in the Forest of Dean. —”The poorest among them,” said his lordship, ” is better off than any town mechanic; and the richer are petty princes, living on their own lands, rent and tax free.” But the face of things is now altered: sorrow and woe is to be found in their dwellings, and many and bitter are the tears shed for the fate of those beloved friends from whom they are separated. We trust these awful warnings will deter others from giving up their better judgment to those, who only lure them to destroy, by selling their advice as legal, and living on the hard earned penny of the poor.

That the Foresters will retrieve their characters as peaceable subjects, no doubt exists; and may they be renowned, as they ever have been, for open warm-hearted hospitality. They are highly privileged with pious ministers. In the true spirit of friendship, it is the desire of all who wish them well, that in future emergencies they would ask their advice, and be governed by their directions, who have no other interest than that of leading them to happiness in this life, and eternal felicity in a world to come.

It is not generally known how much praise is due to Edward Machen, Esq., for his efforts and influence in the mitigation of the offenders’ sentences. Be regarded those poor men as friends and neighbours and to him it is owing, that some now suffering imprisonment are not banished for ever from all a Forester holds dear—his wife, his children, and his native woods.


The Murder of John Gethin

This is a story some of you may have come across before. I have included some further information about some of the characters involved and provided some background that may or may not be relevant and is a bit of a mish-mash of information. Any thoughts or further information on the story would be appreciated.

In 1587 a Newland tanner, Edward Whitson, transported a cargo of calfskins by a boat owned by John Gethin from Brockweir in the Wye Valley to a French ship in the Kings Road (near Avonmouth) in the Bristol Channel provoking a violent confrontation with Bristol merchants who claimed a monopoly on the export of calfskins. The merchants were led by Thomas James who was born in Woolaston in the Forest of Dean. The confrontation resulted in the murder of Gethin by James. According to William Adams writing in 1623:

“This year in July 1587 near about St James fair Mr Thomas James and many other merchants of Bristol, having obtained letters patents from our Queene for the sole transportation of calf-skins, and having intelligence that a woodbush of Brockwere was loaden with calfskins by Edward Whitson of Newland in the county of Glowcester, tanner, to be shipped aboard a French ship called the Esperanso in Kingrode, without compounding with the merchants for the same transporting or of paying any other custom: whereupon Mr James, Thomas White, John Brimsdone, merchants, and others to the number of 13 went from hence in the searcher’s pinnace, having one musket, half pikes, and some other offensive weapons, to meet the said woodbush and to make seisure and forfeit of the said goods prohibited. The forest men were bold, and suspecting blows might happen, ye said Edward Whitson, with Walter Ely and others to the number of 11, had well fitted themselves with bows and arrows, pikes, targets and privy coats, stronger than our men for offence and defence. They met in Kingrode, resisted and shot arrows at the pinnace, whereof Mr Thomas White and others were hurt: but our men being hurt and so moved in their own defence, a musket was shot off (supposed) from Mr James, which killed John Gethen, master and owner of the boat, for which the 2 sheriffs troubled him and seized upon his goods and others’ that were with Mr James. But Mr James himself was indicted and arraigned at the Marshalsie in Sowthworke, and when no man gave evidence against him he was released as not guilty; but it cost him much besides his trouble. Thomas Kedgwin wrote otherwise, but I knew the business better than he.”

The Society of Merchants Venturers was established by a 1552 Royal Charter from Edward VI granting the society a monopoly on Bristol’s sea trade. The society interpreted this as a granting of a monopoly on all trade within the Bristol Channel. However, the granting of this Charter ran counter to customary rights held ‘since time memorial’ by traders in the Forest of Dean who regularly sent their goods by sea to Ireland and France. The 1552 Royal Charter represented a breach of customary norms by the emerging mercantile class represented by the Merchant Venturers in claiming ownership of resources that had traditionally been held in common. In doing so they ran into violent conflict with a community from Brockweir in the Forest of Dean whose strongly held belief in custom and practice meant that they would defend their interests with the use of arms.

Thomas James (1555-1619)
Thomas James was also a member of the local Forest of Dean gentry. His father, Edward, migrated from Brecon to Woolaston on his marriage to Margaret Catchmay-Warren. Margaret’s father was William Warren from Hewelsfield Court near Brockweir. Her mother was the daughter of Mariana Catchmay who was the daughter Sir Thomas Catchmay who owned the Bigsweir Estate just up the Wye from Brockweir.

As a young man, Thomas James migrated to Bristol and served an apprenticeship as a merchant where he engaged in trade with the Spanish with whom he fell out and was later accused of corruption. He married Anne Gough in 1578 and had fifteen children.

Ann Gough was the daughter of William Gough (1535 -1626) and closely linked to the ownership of Hewelsfield Court. After the death of William Warren in 1573 Hewelsfield Court passed to George Gough, who had married William’s daughter Mary (Margaret’s sister) who then held it as a widow.

Their son another William Gough succeeded to their Hewelsfield estate, and it later passed to his son Richard Gough who left it to his daughters Alice, wife of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, and Eleanor, wife of Sir William Catchmay.

Henry Gough, who was probably Ann’s brother, was another member of this extended family who migrated to Bristol and became a merchant venturer. He was elected Sheriff of Bristol 1585-86. Gentry families were often closely connected and intermarried!

Thomas James (Merchants Hall, Society of Merchant Venturers).

Thomas James became a very successful businessman and a leading member of the Merchant Venturers. Thomas James acquired over 400 acres of land and property in the Forest of Dean in Woolaston and Tidenham area close to Brockweir.

Trade with Spain

Thomas James gained a considerable amount of his wealth from trade with Spain. The merchant venturers were primarily interested in power and money and were not concerned with the interests of the developing nation state. Consequently, they did not allow war with Spain to interfere with their trade. Dr Richard Stone, Lecturer in the History Department at the University of Bristol has discovered that in Bristol:

Data from the port books and wharfage books show that in spite of England being at war with Spain 1563-1608, there was no decline in trade, which rose from £12k in 1563 to £34k in 1600. Some of that can be attributed to licensed privateering, up to a third in 1595-5, but most of it was ordinary trading, which was illegal but evidently profitable. Computer analysis by region of Bristol’s trade in 1600-1 shows imports from, but no exports to, Spain. That suggests that Bristol ship owners or captains were making false declarations for customs purposes. Bristol merchants probably had closer relationships with Spain than with London. Similar analysis of Bristol’s exports to France 1600-1 show most going to La Rochelle but also to Bayonne and St Jean de Luz, close to the Spanish border. In 1594-5 most exports went to Brest and La Rochelle. Bristol’s trade with St Jean de Luz was particularly active during wartime, notably 1600-1 and1624-5

On the import side, analysis by commodity of trade 1594-5 shows goods coming in from St Jean de Luz, in fact coming from Spain. Analysis by origin of imports 1594-5 shows a cluster of places of origin around Seville, eg Cadiz. Seville was prospering because of the influx of silver from the new world: it would be understandable for Bristol merchants to want to cash in. Data for 1600-1 show Seville sending goods to Bristol. The inference is that Bristol merchants were declaring that they were trading with ports in France eg Toulon, but were in fact trading with Spain. In 1575 shipping from Spain was dominated by English ships. In 1600 English ships were engaged mostly in privateering or were transferring to neutral destinations. The conclusion is that merchants all over Europe were co-operating to make trade happen, irrespective of war.

The Forest of Dean
When William Camden’s Britannia, was first published in 1586 it reinforced the reputation of the Forest of Dean as a ‘dark and terrible place’. Camden wrote that the Forest of Dean:

“was a wonderful thicke forrest, and in former ages so darke and terrible by reason of crooked and winding, as also the grisly shade therein, that it rendered the inhabitants barbarous and emboldened them to commit many outrages. In the reign of Henry VI they so annoyed the banks of the Severn with their robberies, that there was an Act of Parliament (8 Henry VI) made on purpose to restrain them.”

Although some such attacks did take place Jason Griffiths points out that:

“the reference to an act of Parliament serves to re-enforce both the significance of the attacks and to set up a binary opposition between central government and this unruly region needing to be restrained, a recurring trope in Forest of Dean literature. In amongst the trees, the dark forest, starved of actual and metaphorical light, is engendered barbarity and lawlessness.”

Saxton’s Map of the Forest of Dean 1577

The Forest of Dean had a highly distinctive social, political and economic history for several reasons The Normans kings designated it as an ancient royal forest to be used for hunting by the King. However, it also contained within its boundaries rich deposits of coal and iron ore which could be reached by the digging of shallow pits. In addition, there were large stands of oak suitable for construction. Therefore, it was only ‘a dark and terrible place’ to outsiders but a highly industrialised place with the economic and social life of its population regulated by its own local laws established through custom and practice over generations.

The inhabitants also had to abide by Forest law laid down by the Crown to protect the deer for hunting. During the sixteenth century, the royal forest administration harvested some of the timber for shipbuilding and made a small profit selling cordwood to smelt the locally mined ore and bark for tanning. However, by the second half of the sixteenth century, the forest had fallen into neglect by the authorities and the local inhabitants were permitted to exploit the forest almost at will.

As result, the inhabitants treated the Forest as their own, encroaching on Forest land building cabins, drawing sustenance from its woods and wasteland above the surface and minerals below, in particular coal and iron ore. Timber was used in coal mines and for building and wood for making charcoal. Since veins of ore were close to the surface, workable pits could be dug by as few as two or three men, with virtually no capital outlay. The miners were members of a close-knit community that had its own court for the settlement of all mining disputes and by custom and practice claimed unrestricted rights to mine coal and iron ore in all lands within the forest bounds. Ore mined extensively in the area around Bream and Coleford would have been transported past Orepool in Sling to St Briavels or Stowe and to  Brockweir and then up the River Wye to the Severn.

Grazing and Wood
The right to common, pannage and estovers was also claimed by the people of the Forest of Dean for centuries and the local population ran animals to graze in the woods. The tenants’ right to common pasture in the royal demesne of the Forest was exercised mainly in the detached areas that adjoined their parish.

The area between Brockweir, Hewelsfield and St. Briavels was bounded by a great tract of extraparochial land called Hudnalls. In 1608 it covered 1,205 acres and comprised the land later distinguished separately by the names Hudnalls and St. Briavels common with the north and west parts of the land later called Hewelsfield common. Although encroached upon, the extra-parochial areas remained part of the royal demesne of the Forest until the 19th century.

Brockweir was part of the Parish of Hewelsfield which also contained the village of Hewelsfield further inland from the Wye. The tenants from the parishes of Heweslfielsd and St Briavels claimed an ancient right to cut and take wood at will from the Hudnalls. They ascribed this right to a grant by Miles of Gloucester, earl of Hereford, recorded in 1282 when they were said to be destroying the woodland. A Perambulation of the Forest of Dean 1281-2, appertaining to the Boundary of the Bers (Berse) one of the Bailiwicks.” It reads:

“The Wood of Hodenhales is a royal forest of the King and is cut down by the men of St. Briavels. These men claim the right of taking wood thence for themselves freely and have always taken it from there.”

It was interpreted as more extensive than the estovers claimed by the tenants in other parishes adjoining the Forest. Hudnalls probably supplied some of the regular trade in wood from that part of the Wye Valley from Brockweir to Bristol for coopers and other craftsmen. An ancient ceremony involved the distribution of bread and cheese to the poor in St. Briavels church at Whitsun and by tradition, it was instituted in connexion with a grant of a right of taking wood in Hudnalls.

Noblemen, Knights and Gentry
The Forest in inhabitants also included the local gentry who owned land surrounding the statutory Forest. In addition, noblemen who were royal favourites were granted leases to farm parts of the Forest. These included Sir William Herbert, first Earl of Pembroke, Sir William Wintour, Richard Breame, and William Guise. In doing so they sometimes came into conflict with the inhabitants of the Forest and local gentry, particularly if they were taking more wood than was agreed in the lease as was often the case.

Among the local gentry were the owners of the Bigsweir estate which lay on the Gloucestershire side of the weir and was originally owned by the Bishops of Hereford. The freehold to the estate passed to Thomas Catchmay in 1445. It remained the main house and estate of the Catchmay family for several centuries. Thomas Catchmay already held other lands. John Catchmay was living at Bigsweir in 1509 and Thomas Catchmay in 1555. By 1608 the Bigsweir estate was held by George Catchmay who then employed at least eight servants. Thomas Catchmay (born 1445) was Thomas James’ great grandfather on his mother’s side of his family.

The man who hired Gethin and owned the calfskins was Edward Whitson (1540-1629), a member of a gentry family from Newland. In 1610 he was recoded as being a church warden at Newland church.  Members of his extended family included the brothers John Whitson (1557-1629) and Christopher Whitson (1545-1605), sons of William Whitson both born in Clearwell, the village next to Newland.

In his book John Whitson and the Merchant Community of Bristol published by Bristol Historical Association in 1970, Patrick McGrath describes Whitson’s career, fame and fortune.

In September 1570, when Whitson was about 14 or ·15 years old, he was bound as an apprentice as a merchant to Nicholas Cutt who was the fifth son of a wealthy merchant and alderman, John Cutt. The family had a house in Corn Street and had purchased the manor of Burnett in Somerset which was later to be acquired by Whitson himself. Nicholas Cutt had taken up the freedom of Bristol as a merchant in 1568 and the next year he married Bridget, the daughter of another rich alderman, Robert Saxey.

After the death of Nicholas Cutt, Whitson married Bridget and succeeded to the business which provided the basis to subsequent wealth. When Philip II laid an embargo on the English ships in 1585, Whitson fitted out the Mayflower to make reprisals. Her cruise was successful, but Whitson sold her to Thomas James. He became involved in the early voyages for the settlement of North America sending out Martin Pring. He became a member of the Merchant Venturers and major of Bristol in 1603 and 1615. He represented Bristol in four parliaments, in 1605, 1620, 1625, and February 1625–6. He married two more times into very rich families increasing his wealth and power but died from a fall from a horse in 1629. In December 1614 Whitson and four other leading Bristol Merchant Venturers were licensed to export 1,000 calfskins yearly for 40 years at preferential rates.

John Whitson

Tanning is the process of treating skins and hides of animals to produce leather. Tanning hide into leather involves a process that permanently alters the protein structure of skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition, and also possibly colouring it. Before tanning, the skins are dehaired, degreased, desalted and soaked in water for six hours to two days. Traditionally, tanning used tannin, an acidic chemical compound from which the tanning process draws its name, derived from the bark of oak.

In 1608 the muster for Newland tithing (which comprised the Newland village area and the Redbrook area in the Wye valley) included 26 tradesmen and craftsmen. There were five tanners, most probably working in tanneries on Valley brook near Newland village, where they were conveniently placed for the Bristol, French and Irish trade using the Wye and for a supply of bark from the Forest woodlands.

A complex set of rights, customs and practices determined by custom and usage regulated industry and trade between the Foresters and others. Iron, cordwood, timber and calf skins were transported to Ireland and France via the River Severn and Wye and boatmen on the Wye had a close relationship with the miners and other Foresters. The river community in Brockweir was a close-knit community and was one of the centres of this trade. It is reasonable to assume that miners, woodmen, traders and boatmen from the Forest of Dean believed they had the unrestricted customary right to trade with whom and where they liked since time immemorial.

Brockweir lies on the bank of the Wye where the Brockweir and Mere brooks enter the river. Brockweir had some houses by the late 13th century and provided a substantial part of the Parish’s population by the mid-sixteenth century.

Medieval Brockweir was closely associated with nearby Tintern Abbey. Hewelsfield manor was retained by Tintern until the Dissolution when the abbey also had a grange at Brockweir, which probably comprised buildings and land adjoining in Woolaston parish where Thomas James was born. Manor and grange were granted with the other abbey estates in 1537 to Henry Somerset, earl of Worcester. The manorial rights of Hewelsfield passed to his descendants, the earls of Worcester and dukes of Beaufort. Little evidence for the early agricultural history of Hewelsfield has been found, but the original pattern of tenure, as in other manors created on the Forest fringes, was probably one of the small freeholds. The medieval manor of Hewelsfield had little agricultural land in demesne, though it did include some woodland.

In 1551 there were reported to be eighty communicants (church members) in the parish and in 1563 twenty households. At that period the small population was roughly divided between the two villages of Brockweir and Hewelsfield. The population was estimated at forty families in 1650 and two hundred people in forty houses in 1710.

Industrial and economic activity in the area was boosted in 1568 when the Company of Mineral and Battery Works established in 1565, built wireworks at Tintern which was just down the river from Brockweir. The products included cards for the woollen industry, nails, pins, knitting needles and fish hooks.  The site was convenient because the Wye offered transportation to markets. At the end of the sixteenth-century gentry and noblemen started to take an interest in the iron business and George Catchmay acquired the lease of the Tintern wireworks with several other noblemen.

Lawless Elements
For centuries many inhabitants of Brockweir were employed in the trade of the river Wye including transport and boat building. In 1563 there were thirteen sailors registered in the parish of Hewelsfield. Brockweir was the highest point reached by a normal tide on the Wye and a key transhipment point. The products of Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and the Forest of Dean (principally iron and timber) were sent back to Bristol and beyond.

Brockweir, approached as much by water as by road, was an isolated community with an independent character. Only one narrow road led into the village, and goods were usually carried by donkeys or by water, with a ferry taking travellers to and from the Welsh bank of the Wye. It was a notoriously rowdy place full of dockers, sailors and bargemen. The minister appointed to its new Moravian church much later in 1832 described the life of its watermen as being centred on beerhouses, skittle alleys, and cockfighting and said that it had the reputation of a ‘city of refuge’ for lawless elements. Of course, this characterisation of ‘the lawless elements’ in Brockwier was the view of an outsider whose mission was to ‘save them’ and convert them to his religion.

John Gethin
John Gethin inherited his boat from his father, also John Gethin. J J Dicker describes Gethin as a prosperous man:

In in 1571 we find John Geathene the elder leaving by will his ‘best boat’ to his eldest son and his ‘second boat’ to his second son, with the proviso “my wife to have use of the boats to carry to Bristol the wood I have on Wye bank.” Geathene was a prosperous man for he left £10 each to his third son and two daughters (both named Joan). It is probable that John Geathene had been married twice and had a daughter Joan by each wife. This duplication of names was not infrequent in the middle ages.

As a relatively wealthy man, Gethin was probably a leading figure in the small community of Brockweir but dependent on local custom and practice to pursue his trade. Gethin and his men would also have been well-armed.

The Armed Hand
In reference to the military muster of 1522, David Rollison concludes that, at this point, the men of the Forest of Dean were amongst the most heavily armed and trained of all English districts. He concludes the following:

The weapons and armour presented by the Hundred included 112 swords, 121 daggers, 8 shields, 114 glaives, 31 sallets, 18 Forest Bills, 7 horse and harness, 13 horses only, 16 harness only, 4 almain rivets, 1 lance, 22 hauberks, 5 gorgets, 1 splint, 1 axe and 1 javelin. Of 621 men recorded in the returns, no fewer than 408 were in possession of a weapon and armour, including no fewer than 200 longbows …. The ‘able-bodied’ category included men who were fit for military service: we must assume that many older and less fit men were also capable of using their weapons at target practice and hunting.

The list above is the 1522 Muster for Hewelsfield which includes Brockweir. The name Thomas Gethyn appears in the muster and may have been a relative of John Gethin. In 1539 fourteen men were mustered under Hewelsfield and ten under Brockweir and the corresponding figures in 1546 were eleven and nine. Later the balance swung fairly heavily towards Brockweir.

In the years after this event,  Thomas James became one of the most powerful figures among the mercantile elite in Bristol and built up a fleet of ships that he used as privateers to attack the Spanish. He contributed a ship to the Cadiz expedition of 1596 which captured, sacked, and burned the city. He was successively Sheriff in 1591, Alderman from 1604 until he died in 1619, twice Mayor in 1605 and 1614, Master of the Merchant Venturers in 1607 and 1615 and Member of Parliament for Bristol in 1604 – 1611 and 1614. During this period the Merchant Venturers consolidated their power and monopoly on trade in the Bristol area.

Meanwhile, James consolidated his property in the Forest. He was granted the rectory of Tidenham by the Crown in 1607 and in 1614 he held a freehold estate of 40 acres from Waldings manor. A mill and land in Woolaston, Hewelsfield, and St. Briavels conveyed to Thomas James by Edward Shere and others in 1583 included a watermill on the River Cone., Another branch of the James family owned an estate based on Stroat Farm.

Given his considerable power and influence in Bristol, it is no surprise that James was able to get away with murder. He died in 1619 as a very wealthy man. The Merchant Venturers that followed him continued to murder and plunder and became notorious for their involvement in the slave trade. However, given the local connections between the main characters involved in the murder is it possible that the conflict also had its roots in competing interests in the Forest of Dean as well as Bristol.

This perhaps was the first shot in a conflict between the Forest of Dean community and the Bristol mercantile elite. In the next century, Bristol merchants to developed financial alliances with various members of the local gentry and noblemen. This led to the increasing polarisation within the forest community between ‘improving’ gentry, industrialists and freeholders, on the one hand, and those who depended on less formal access to the resources of the locality as part of their subsistence and occupational strategies. The foresters resisted and there was rioting.

Finally, in the early nineteenth century, the Bristol Merchant Venturer Edward Protheroe was able to invest his huge wealth gained from the trade in enslaved Africans and effectively take complete control over large sections of the Forest of Dean resources by the development of his coal mines and rail networks.

People Uncategorized

Harry Barton

This article traces the life of Harry Barton from the Forest of Dean who started work in the Lightmoor Colliery at the age of thirteen. He fought in World War One, remembers the 1926 lockout, migrated to work in the Yorkshire coalfield and then returned to the Forest to work at Northern United Colliery. He then became an activist in the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association which was the trade union representing the Forest of Dean Miners. During World War Two he joined the Communist Party and encouraged miners to commit to the war effort, campaigned for a second front and a united labour movement.  The main source for the article is from an interview by Elsie Olivey on 7 June 1984 which is held at the Gage Library in the Dean Heritage Centre, Soudley. Additional material is from the Dean Forest Mercury and the Gloucester papers.

George Henry (Harry) Barton (1898 -1990) was born in a house at the bottom of Church Road in Cinderford on 14 July 1898. His father, George Barton married Eliza Merritt on 26 August 1897. Just after he was a born the family moved to the Nags Head public house which the family managed for about six years. They then moved to a house on the corner of Flaxley Street until Harry was about eleven and then back to the house on Church Street. These houses were very close to each other. His siblings were Edith born in 1899 but died in 1903, Charles born in 1903, Ernest born in 1905, Una born in 1908 and Fred born in 1909 but died in 1910. Harry started at Bilson school when he was four years old and remembers:

“I would never get home very early in the evening and our mother used to worry where I had got to. I wasn’t very old but I used to stand watching the blacksmiths in the Triangle, shoeing the horses. And right on the end of that was the mortuary right in the Triangle. It used to frighten us kiddies when we got to know that there was a mortuary there. That’s when my mother used to say to us to go shopping for her, when I got to the Triangle, I used to run like hell past the mortuary, because I used to think of a dead body being in there or perhaps two or three! I wasn’t the only one mind who was frightened of going past there!”[1]

As a child, Harry was passionate about his education and enjoyed school. He won an essay competition and was an avid reader of comics. However, Harry said, “he was never allowed to flourish because of the conditions we lived in”. Most Forest boys at the time left school at thirteen or fourteen and went to work in the pit while the girls went away to work in service.

“I was thirteen because my mother persuaded me to get me down there because she wanted the money. When I walked home from the pit on the first week, I had nine shillings and I thought I had got the world! And my mother gave me threepence pocket money out of that nine shillings and the rest bought the week’s groceries.”[2]

Lightmoor Colliery

Harry’s father was a registered free miner but worked most of his life as a buttyman at Lightmoor Colliery A fortnight after his thirteenth birthday, Harry started working for his father.[3] At this time it was common for buttymen to employ their sons to learn the trade of hewing coal.  Harry described Lightmoor in this way:

“when you got down underneath, you would have thought you were in Fairyland! Because it was all bricked in, all the way round in a circle, like a tunnel that a locomotive would go through – all bricked round like that. And all brilliantly lit all the way up until about 500 yards from the bottom of the pit, all the way round all the districts up to there and then from there it would be in darkness. You had to use acetylene lamps then.”[4]

Harry’s first job was “wheeling coal out in a barrow from the coal face along the road to be tipped up and put into carts”. This was probably the Coleford High Delf which was about 4ft 6in in depth. Harry described the system at Lightmoor working on this seam:

“The coal was cut to the depth of 4ft 6in and each man had got to do a yard and a half of the cut – 4ft 6 deep and a yard and a half wide and that was his share. They used to work in pairs, you were paired with a man somewhere along the face. You did it regularly, he was your butty in all things that you worked on the coal face.

This road was nearly a mile long from the main road which we called Barton’s Road. My grandfather and father worked that road. The next road below was 30 yards on down, then there was another road which was called ‘Morse’s Road, that meant. you were from Ruspidge. On a little bit further was ‘Woolford’s Road,’ named after the Woolfords in Belle Vue Road.”[5]

Minimum Wage Strike

One of Harry’s earliest memories was the 1912 national miners’ strike when the Miners Federation of Great Britain won a minimum wage:

“The following year in March 1912, there was a strike by all the miners in England, a whole strike same as now, but everyone came out, for a daily minimum wage. Because you would go into the pit to work, and you’d find out when you get there, that whatever money you had, if you didn’t make the days wage or what you’d think would be a days wage, you would not get anymore – the boss would not pay it out, and that was prevalent all through the country, you only had what you earned. And very often a man would be in a very very hard place awful difficult to make a living. So they all came out on strike, they were out for a month and they won it. Every miner no matter who he was, when he went down the pit, he was always sure he’d set his money made up then, if he could not get it. That was the first time the minimum wage was paid out in this country in March 1912.” [6]

As a teenager, Harry attended the Baptist chapel and between the ages of 16 and 18, he was given the role of preaching to the younger children.

Butty System

When he was 17, he started to work as an assistant butty with his father:

“Now when I was about 17, my grandfather who was a buttyman with my father, retired when he got old, he got the coal dust on his lungs. And father said to me one day he was going to take me in with him as a butty, so I was a butty. That was alright by me because we paid the men who were working for us and we shared the money out between us afterwards.

“I used to work out what the men’s wages were who were working for us. And I used to work it out on paper the night before, on the Thursday night. Well, when we were at work the next day, I would go to the main office after we came out of the pit and draw the money out from there. I’d got it down on paper what these men were due to be paid out of the money I had picked up. Whatever was leftover I shared between my father and me, that was the butty system.” [7]

Harry added that he didn’t think the system was fair:

“those men were as good a workmen as I was or my father. But it was just the system involved and it was a system that the old men of the Forest of Dean used years and years ago.”

Harry said he worked on other seams at Lightmoor which were only 18 in to 2 foot thick which meant lying down to undercut the coal with a pick. The coal had to be dragged out to the main roads by hodders, usually teenage boys, crawling on their hands and knees.

“There were districts in there – there was one to the left of the colliery called “Lowery”, there was a district called the “Rocky” there was a district called the “No Coal” there was a district called the Coleford High Delf and a district called the “Brazillary”. They were all different seams of coal.”[8]

At this time the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA) which was the trade union representing Forest miners was quite weak:

“Well, the Union at the time I was in Lightmoor was very poor. G.H. Rowlinson was the agent for the district when I was in there, I didn’t think much of him, we’d come out and have a meeting up by the pit head and he’d say, “Men, as far as I am concerned, we must put our shoulder to the wheel.” Him, “put his shoulder to the wheel”, he didn’t do damn all. I used to laugh my head off, I used to tell my father, “I have heard some things in my life, I can’t see him putting his shoulder to any wheel.”[9]

World War One

In August 1914, war was declared and the majority of the European working class responded to the call of arms. At first, miners were exempted from conscription which was introduced in 1916 for the majority of young men over 18 years.

“You had got the choice as a young man, you could either work in the pit – if you had never been in a pit before you were always accepted because you could be trained. If you didn’t go in the pit when you was directed by the Government you was in the Army.” [10]

Although he was already working at Lightmoor Harry decided to volunteer for the army because “I was a bit tired of pit work.” He added his father” didn’t like it but he had to put up with it”.  However, he regretted his decision because he said “I had a bit of a rough time out there but I don’t talk much about it, I got over it.”  Harry said:

“I was a driver in the Garrison Artillery, I was what they called the Wheel Driver which meant that I was in command of that gun and I’d got three pairs of horses in front of me. There was eight horses to a big gun because it was the heavy artillery. Those drivers in front had to do what I told them to do, I was in command of that gun and if anything happened to it I would be responsible not those who were in front.”


On his return in 1919, he started to work back at Lightmoor:

“I went to work in the pit a bit and I had Nephritis which was the first stages of Bright’s disease and I was in bed for two months, that was from exposure in France you see. I got stronger and better and I went back to work in the pit.”[11]

After two or three years, he moved to Leicester to work in a die casting foundry to be near his future wife Helen Popejoy, also from Cinderford, who was working in a factory there. He worked in the factory for eighteen months. He described how they first met:

“She came up the street, Cinderford street, up from where she worked in the drapery shop at the Co-op. She had her friend with her Miss Reed. Our boy was waiting for her, Will Woolford, they came up together and after a while, I asked her “will you come for a walk with me?” That’s how we started.” 12]

1926 Lockout

He then moved back to the Forest and was working at Lightmoor before the 1926 lockout and tells the following story:

“But just above the Dilke Hospital there used to be an old colliery up there. Woorgreen, they called it. Now I got to find out that they were digging for coal up there, when the strike was on, and selling this coal, so one of my friends, a chap called Sid Cooksey, (he married my cousin Lil Young). He asked me one day if I’d go up with him. I said, “What for?” He said, “To see if we can get some coal.'” He wanted it for his home look. So he could sell it and get some for his home look. and I said, “I don’t want the money, I’ve been alright, looking after my money.” But he was a married man look, so anyway I said, “I’ll go”, so we took another man called Stan Rogers up with us he was a relation – he married a cousin of mine. We went up there and searched around and there was sure to be a hundred miners up there digging holes to get their coal out. Anyway, we looked around, well we thought, they had all got the best of the plots, we got no chance at all.

There was a siding in there, where they used to run the heavy wagons, (where they used to fill them) all the way up. There was the rails still there and the siding, I went across there on my own, they were looking round other places trying to find a place to start. I started scraping down between the sleepers and I hit the coal! 18″ of coal: It was all the way up that railway line, other blokes had been digging their hearts out and they didn’t know that. I just called my mates over, quietly I said, “come on over here I want you a minute.” They came over, they saw it and I said, “let’s rip this all across there.” We got three and a half tons of coal out from there in about 5 hours.

We sold it to ‘Westbury Union (the workhouse) and sold it for £3.10s. Of course, coal was cheap then. Well, I didn’t sell it, Stan Rogers he went down and got theirs and we had £3.10s between us. It wasn’t so much as I wanted the money, I was alright. I could have lasted a long time. I looked after mine, well, I was saving up to get married, that’s the reason, but unfortunately, it (the strike) took a lot of it away, we had to delay it (the wedding).”[13]


Harry then moved to Yorkshire and found work at Askern Main Colliery near Doncaster and, in 1928, married Helen:

“When we got married, I was out of work. We’d got one another that’s all that mattered with me. We had to live with this landlady for 6 months, then the Colliery built a lot of houses and we were allocated one. This was in Yorkshire then. In those days when you were young, you don’t really notice the lack of money, because in those days everyone was in a similar position. When we first got married and started off on the Monday, we didn’t have a half penny. We were buying our home and that, but we could always go down to the Co-op to get our groceries and pay on the Friday.”[14]

Harry explained that at Askern Main, there was the danger of explosive gas which was not present in the Forest of Dean coalfield where the outcrop of the coal seams come to the surface. He added that, unlike Henry Crawshay and Co. who owned Lightmoor, the Askern Main colliery owners invested in new technology. Harry said he was working on belt and pan faces:

“As time went on, I was in charge of a belt face, the belt was continually running and men were flinging coal on it …  I was in charge of a coal face up there with about 40 men on there and it was a gas mine and my job up there was to go on the coal face and before any men got on there I took the ‘Davey Lamp’ and tested all around to see if there was any gas. If there was gas around they wouldn’t be allowed on there.” [15]

He returned to Cinderford in about 1938 and he started to work at Northern United and remembers the difference between the two pits:

“when I came back from Yorkshire to work in the Northern Colliery. They had got the cutters in there and the pan faces working in there. But they had not got the pan faces working like they did in Yorkshire. When I was up there the pans that were on the face would come up and down shaking the coal down into the tub down on the end. Now at Northern Colliery the ground where they were working was so steep, they had no need to shake the pans, they just put the pans down and chucked the coal on and it slid all the way down to the tubs, it was all on the slope. It was all hard work regards walking.” [16]

After a year Harry was elected as the Secretary of the Northern United pit committee which was made of FDMA members who were elected to deal with day to day disputes and relations with the management. He was then elected as the Northern United delegate on the FDMA Executive. One of his jobs was to collect the entrance fee for the annual Forest of Dean Miners’ demonstration at Speech House in July.

“As a general rule, I was on the gate I just looked after the money as I was Finance Officer of the Miners Federation … it was really a day for all the miners in the district to meet up, and to have, or talk at least, a chat by the agent, Mr John Williams – see people used to congregate, and stand up outside and listen. And he had to tell them what he thought about the Forest and how they were getting on in the mining trade and also what they should do in the future and things like that, trying to make it entertaining as he possibly could.”[17]

World War Two

In May 1940, Harry was elected as the Northern United representative on the Forest of Dean Coal Production Committee which was made up of workers and colliery managers to discuss ways of increasing output in conjunction with the pit committees to support the war effort.

In September 1940, it was agreed the FDMA should join the South Wales region, whose President was Arthur Horner, and would now be called the No 9 area of the SWMF.[18] In a ballot of all the membership, Harry was elected to be representative of the Forest of Dean on the South Wales Miners’ Executive. He won the election by 2000 votes, He had to spend one or two days down in Cardiff at South Wales offices each week and held this position for two years. Harry said:

“When I was working at Northern Colliery, I used to earn 12 shillings a day. But when I went down there, I got 34 bob”. [19]

After this he was also elected as finance officer for the FDMA Executive:

“I held that job for 9 years and I was handling anything up to £100,000 a year from 5 pits, that was working then. A magnificent salary of £75 per annum. That’s all I had. I was allowed one day off to do all the balance sheets and I had to draw up 12 balance sheets a year…. at the end of the year, I had to make it all into one big one. And I had to take those books to Gloucester every year to be audited by the auditor in Gloucester.” [20]


The SWMF Executive now had a significant minority of delegates who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) including its President Arthur Horner.  In addition, some of the Labour Party members on the SWMF Executive were sympathetic to communism. At this time the CPGB was quite influential, particularly in mining areas.  This was not surprising as many British communists had a reputation as good trade unionists and some miners were attracted by the spirit of internationalism and working-class solidarity advocated by the CPGB. Russia was an ally in the war against fascism and the outcome of the war was dependent on its ability to defeat the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Many British communists like Horner did not strictly follow the party line emanating from Moscow and this allowed for a degree of ideological fluidity. Consequently, Harry joined the CPGB and in 1942, was elected chairman of the Cinderford Communist Party where he worked closely with other local communists such as Len Harris and Tim Ruck.

Communists campaigned for miners to commit to the war effort and for a second front to be established in the West to take the pressure of the Soviet forces in the East. Harry would have worked closely with Horner while he was in South Wales who was often invited to speak at meetings in the Forest. In September 1942, Harry was appointed as the FDMA representative on the Welsh Regional Board under the Ministry of Fuel and Power.[21]

Throughout 1943, regular meetings were organised in the Forest by the CPGB where they put their case for a united labour movement, a second front and increasing production for the war effort. The arguments in favour of affiliation were put forward in the letter’s pages of the Dean Forest Mercury by Harry and his CPGB comrades who often debated with Labour members over the issue of the second front and CPGB affiliation to the Labour Party. Harry argued that the role of the production committees was not to force the men to work harder but to secure the experience of the men to work cooperatively to increase productivity.[22] In a letter to the Dean Forest Mercury the Harry argued:

“A united labour movement with clear political leadership could secure such measures as coal rationing; a National Government for India; better conditions for members of the forces and their dependents; Trade Union recognition and production committees in every factory; and full mobilisation of the Nation’s resources for the speedy opening of the Second Front.”[23]

The Labour Party and CPGB were united on one point summed up by Harry In November 1943:

Coal is the basis of victory and peace … Give the miner a square deal and he will produce enough coal to bury Fascism.[24]

In September 1944 Harry was elected as secretary to the Forest of Dean Trades Council which was made up of delegates from most of the main trade union branches in the Forest to discuss and campaign on issues of mutual concern.[25]

Post – War

In January 1947 George Jenkins was elected as the Forest of Dean representative on the SWMF Executive replacing Harry. However, Harry continued to work for the union and in June 1949, he was elected as secretary of Cinderford Miners Welfare Association which was responsible for the Miners’ Hall in Cinderford.[26] It is unclear when Harry retired but Northern United, the last deep mine in the Forest of Dean, closed in 1966 when Harry was 67 and it is unknown if this was the end of his working life.

In June 1984 Harry gave his interview to Elsie Olivey which has provided most of the material for this article. In the interview, Harry said he remembered Arthur Horner as a communist but did not mention that he was himself a member of the CPGB. After the end of the Second World, the nature of Stalin’s regime became public in the West including his use of show trials purges and work camps. This combined with the developing Cold War meant that the membership of the CPGB declined and at some point, Harry, like many others resigned from the Party.

Harry ended the interview by talking about his marriage to Helen:

“I’ve got the best wife a man ever had, and that’s no joking, we’re very happy, and she knows it.”[27]

[1] Harry Barton interviewed by Elsie Olivey on 7 June 1984, Gage Library, Dean Heritage Centre.

[2] Ibid.


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. George Rowlinson was the FDMA agent from 1888- 1918.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.


[17] Ibid.

[18] Gloucester Journal 21 September 1940.

[19] Barton, Gage Library.

[20] Ibid.

[21] South Wales Gazette 4 September 1942.

[22] Dean Forest Mercury 19 February 1943.

[23] Dean Forest Mercury 26 February 1943.

[24] Dean Forest Mercury 12 November 1943.

[25] Dean Forest Mercury 22 September 1944.

[26] Gloucester Citizen 25 June 1949.

[27] Barton, Gage Library.


God’s Beautiful Sunshine

Transported Convicts (1789-1826) Uncategorized

Richard Aston

There is some confusion over which Richard Aston was transported and where he was born. The first piece of research below was done by Jennings and Evelyn Fish and Gill Webb and posted on Ancestry. However, the second piece of research below carried out by Huw Blake and posted on Ancestry highlights some inconsistencies and challenges their conclusions.




In the years 1789 – 1842 approximately sixty men and women from the Forest of Dean were transported to Australia mostly for committing minor crimes against property. The lists briefly outline the stories behind their transportation. This is ongoing research so there may be mistakes. I plan to add to more convicts and expand on their stories with further research.


The Justices of the Peace (JP) or magistrates had responsibility for law and order in each county. The post of JP started in medieval times, but became more important in Tudor times. They were unpaid and usually took on the role for prestige. JPs were usually landowners from the county who were appointed annually to the role. However, many did the job for years. The role also included a organising road and bridge repairs, checking weights and measures in shops, licensing ale houses, d supervising poor relief, etc. A JP had the authority to arrest a suspect on suspicion of a crime and interrogate them for three days.

Responsibility for the day to day maintenance of law and order still lay with local communities through the Parish Constable. The Parish, or ‘Petty’, Constable was appointed by the JP for a year. The post was unpaid and done in addition to the person’s usual day job. They were usually local tradesmen or farmers, which meant that communities were ‘policing’ themselves.

The majority of constables’ time was taken up with reacting to information given to them in the form of reports of crimes, or warrants issued by justices of the peace. They were obliged to execute all warrants for arrest and orders given through the courts, justices of the peace, sheriffs and coroners for their jurisdiction. In addition, they were expected to respond to allegations and reports of felonies committed, and arrest those who they witnessed committing felonies and misdemeanours.

The Parish Constable was expected to perform all of the main duties associated with local policing.

  • Keep order in inns and ale houses.
  • Keep the peace in the parish.
  • Send illegitimate children back to their original parish.
  • Impound stray farm animals.
  • Arrest people who have committed crimes.
  • Prevent crimes such as trespassing and poaching.
  • Carry out punishments such as whipping vagabonds.
  • Watch the behaviour of apprentices.
  • Look out for vagabonds.

Local people were duty-bound to help the Constable if he requested it, keeping the community responsible for enforcing law and order.

Public prosecutors, empowered by the state to pursue the prosecution of criminals in England, were not introduced until as late as 1879.  Prior to this, the victim had to find the perpetrator and detain them, often with the help of a local watchman, or constable, collect evidence and bring it before a JP, return to the jurisdiction for the trial, and provide witnesses if there were any. This was a time-consuming and costly process and so, for a private citizen to pursue a prosecution they must have been sufficiently motivated and/or wealthy enough to do so.

However, in 1818 an Act was introduced which empowered the courts to award an allowance for loss of time and expense to prosecutors and witnesses in the cases of felony. In 1926 another Act was introduced to extend this system to cover most misdemeanors.

The more minor offenses such as petty theft were dealt with summarily by magistrates at the petty sessions. For more serious cases such as murder, assault and theft, a larger number of JPs would meet four times per year at quarter sessions.

The most serious cases, such as murder and rioting and serious crimes against property, would be passed on to the assize courts, where a judge and jury would pass judgment and this could lead to a sentence of transportation or death. The sentence was usually fixed by the mandatory penalties of England’s Bloody Code, a series of statutes that prescribed capital punishment for many forms of theft and transportation for others.

Tickets of Leave and Pardons

There were only three ways in which the law might release a convict from bondage before the end of their sentence. The first was the ticket-of-leave. The convict who had been given a ticket-of-leave no longer had to work as an assigned man for a master and was also free from the claims of forced government labour. He could spend the rest of his sentence working for himself, wherever he pleased, as long as he stayed within the colony. The ticket lasted only a year and had to be renewed, and it could be revoked at any time. The second was a conditional pardon, which gave the transported person citizenship within the colony but no right of return to England. The third, though the rarest, was an absolute pardon from the governor, which restored him or her to all rights including that of returning to England.

A Certificate of Freedom

A Certificate of Freedom was a government-issued document given to a convict at the end of their sentence. This stated that the ex-convict had been restored to all the rights and privileges of a free subject and could seek out employment or leave the colony. Certificates of Freedom were introduced in 1810 and were generally granted to convicts, who had served their 7, 10, or 14-year sentence. Convicts who had received a life sentence could receive a pardon but not a Certificate of Freedom.



Transported Convicts (1789-1826) Uncategorized

Oliver Woore

Oliver Woore was born in 1803 and lived in Coleford where he worked as a stonemason. In September 1826 he was charged, with Mary Wheeler, of stealing two hives of bees and the honey therein from Thomas Hobbes but the evidence was not sufficient to indict them. On 2 April 1828, at the age of 25, he was sentenced to death commuted to life for the theft of one cask and 2 jars containing rum, brandy and peppermint from William Smith of the Rising Sun in Bream. After a spell on a hulk, the Justitia, he was transferred to the Vittoria which set sail for New South Wales on 1 Sept 1928 and arrived on 17 Jan 1829.