Forest Of Dean Riots – 1831

Hereford Heckler Radical History #6 – Warren James and the Forest of Dean Riots of 1831

The threat of forest privatisation is nothing new to the folk of the Forest of Dean. Over the centuries they have challenged every move to deny them access to the forest, sometimes they have succeeded sometimes not, but they have never given up without a fight.

Perhaps the most memorable confrontation occurred in the mid 1800’s. The process of enclosing common land by the rich and greedy had, by this time, pushed many people into a life of poverty and misery. In the Forest of Dean there were still laws guaranteeing Foresters, free miners and peasants free access and use of the forests resources. But things were beginning to change. The greed of land owners and industrialists, especially Lord Nelson at the Royal Navy, led to the passing of an act of parliament which set out to increase the enclosed land from 676 to 11,000 acres. Not only did this privatise the timber and coal industries, but it denied people the ability to scare even the most basic of livelihoods.

When an economic slump hit the Dean at the beginning of the 1830’s the Foresters lives became unbearable so they got organised. The Committee of Free Miners was set up. The Committee elected local lad Warren James to lobby those in power to reverse the enclosures. As a peasant and squatter, James was well aware of the hardships facing the people. So when the Free Miners demands were ignored he tabled to motion that all enclosure fences be torn down.

Things quickly escalated and at its peak there were 3000 men women and children organised into gangs, destroying fences, turnpikes, crown buildings and the houses of local gentry.  Eventually troops managed to end the rioting, and although James was arrested and transported to Tasmania, other rioters received quite lenient sentences. Most of the fences were rebuilt but the radical nature of the Foresters has lived on and many free mining and commoner rights still exist today.

Further reading- Bristol Radical Pamphleteer #6 by Ian Wright available here

7 thoughts on “Forest Of Dean Riots – 1831

  1. What a truly awful article: badly written; poorly researched; judgemental and patronising (both to Warren James and the events of 1831 and to the modern day reader).

  2. Hello from Canada!
    Any good sources on Warren James & Riots of 1831? I have been told that the mother of James was an Anne Kear. I’m doing some research on the Kear family. My father & grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1912 from Woodhouse, Sheffield. Apparently, my branch of the Kear family migrated from Gloucestershire around Cheltenham up to Yorkshire in the mid-1830s. Trying to find out why & how I fit into the socioeconomic changes/tensions of the early 1830s. Many thanks on any insights,

    Peter Kear, Huntsville, ON, Canada.

    P.S. Many of the political malcontents/leaders of the 1837-38 Rebellions in Upper & Lower Canada were sent as political prisoners to Tasmania, which I believe was a convict colony at the time.

  3. Just back from The Forest of Dean following a visit from Kent today.
    Having learnt a bit about this unique area your article seems pretty accurate to me. Maybe you need to add that from 1200 and something if you had lived and worked for a year and a day in the Forest you had special rights and this was what Warren James was trying to protect.

  4. Hi,
    Thank you for your very interesting article on Warren James and the Forest of Dean riots. I had read about this history before, but your pamphlet helped me make connections between the history and the irruption of enclosures and free market capitalism into the lives of these Foresters. Although the booklet was brief, it helped me understand the importance of this episodes and has encouraged me to look into this in more detail.
    Many thanks!

  5. see the KENT labourers revolt and CAPTAIN SWING RIOTS OF THE 1830..SPREAD TO REST OF COUNTRY…4 rioters executed..female rioter..sentence commuted to TRANSPORTATION..Kent riots spread to the rest of the country.
    Transportation of better known TOLPUDDLE MARTYRS ?manchester…FOR ORGANISING a union/union activity…there is a book called CAPTAIN SWING..AUTHOR richardson.
    LOCAL HISTORY GROUPS IN MANY BIG CITIES AND TOWNS was one in KILSYTHE..NORTH LANARKSHIRE..SCOTLAND also dover…see alsoCANTERBURY CHRISTCHURCH UNIVERSITY[Kent uk] for extra mural studies lectures.

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