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

The 1914 Herefordshire Teachers’ Strike

During the winter of 1913-14 the discontent felt by school teachers in Herefordshire, as the poorest paid anywhere in the country, took a more militant turn when teachers resigned en masse while demanding increased wages and a new pay scale.

The immediate reaction of the Local Education Authority (LEA) was to bring in scab labour to replace strikers. Many of the strikers were popular members of the local communities and not all students were willing to be taught by the strike breakers.

On the first day of the strike students at Ledbury Girls School arrived to be greeted by the LEA scabs. The first sign of trouble was at morning break when 40 students marched into the town demanding their teachers back and chanting “we want a strike”. Upon returning to school it was reported that they upturned inkpots and desks, and “amused themselves on the piano”. Thirty students then followed the new head teacher into town during the lunch break jeering her as they went. When the teachers returned for the afternoon they found the student ‘strikers’ were blocking the main entrance and refusing to move, many sang songs in support of the strike and demanded the return of their own teachers. Other students gained entry to the school via the back door; they pulled down blinds, rang the school bell incessantly and threw clothing out of the windows. By 3 o’clock, with no chance of gaining entry to the school, the scab teachers accepted defeat and left the school, again followed by a jeering crowd of schoolgirls.

Similar scenes were witnessed at Ross Boy’s School where two scab teachers were left in charge of approximately two hundred students! Needless to say they lost control completely. During the morning most of the older boys left the school via doors and windows and marched through town chanting “Strike boys, strike”.

Most of the students returned to school but 40 stayed outside the main gates chanting and writing “Strike boys, strike” on walls, the pavement and even passing vehicles. Buy mid afternoon things were completely out of hand with all two hundred students chanting and jeering outside the main gates.

The pressure that the strike put on the LEA and the council ultimately proved successful and a settlement was reached with an improved pay scale that increased wages to a level similar to the rest of the country. Now, almost 100 years later, public service workers are again facing financial pressure from those in power.

The Whitson Riot of 1605

Hereford’s Radical History–part one

At 5 o’clock in the morning on the Tuesday of Whitson 1605, the vicar of Allensmore, Richard Heyns, was woken by a commotion. From the window of the vicarage he saw 40 heavily armed people carrying out a funeral ceremony. The deceased was Alice Wellington, who, being a Catholic, had been denied a burial.

England at this time was rife with anti-Catholic feeling due to the Protestant reformation. The reformation involved the replacement of the leadership of the Vatican with equally dodgy people closer to home. Herefordshire had become a safe haven for Catholics. But life for the vast majority of people living in this part of the county was extremely hard, most people survived by spinning hemp, begging and scrumping unlike the decadent lives of the privileged landowners.

Heyns, being part of the privileged ruling class, rushed off to Hereford to tell the bishop what he’d seen. In those days, authority in Herefordshire rested with the church, the head of which was Richard Bennett, the bishop. Bennett’s reaction to the commotion in Allensmore was to send the High Constable to arrest those that had taken part in the illegal burial.

After a struggle in which some of the constables were injured, Leonard Marsh was arrested in Hungerstone and lead back to Hereford. As the group passed Belmont they were ambushed by 40 men. Due to being threatened with more than just a bloody good hiding, the constables released Marsh.

When news of these disturbances reached London, the king demanded that an example should be made of the ‘Herefordshire-men’. This news emboldened the ‘rebels’, but worried the bishop and his magistrates, who feared provoking a wider uprising. And so followed a state of lawlessness that lasted for six weeks, in which a game of cat and mouse was played between the bishop’s men and the locals. The constables often rode into deserted villages while looking for the supposed ringleaders.

The communication network that existed in order to evacuate these villages is an example of the high level of organisation that prevailed during the ‘disturbances’. It eventually became clear that the Bishop of Hereford was unable to reassert his power, so the Earl of Worcester was given the task. Being a Catholic gave the earl the influence he needed to convince the people to get back in line, and with minimal effort the rebels of south-west Herefordshire were subdued. As with most uprisings, a suitable scapegoat had to be found. That person was William Morgan of Kilpeck who was sent to the Tower of London for supposedly organising, what is now called, the Whitson Riot.

This article heavily referenced Whitsun Riot by Roland Mathias (1963) Bowes & Bowes London

We’d like to hear from anyone who has experience or memories of radical movements in Herefordshire. Were you involved with a local socialist, communist or anarchist group? Did you take part in a memorable strike, protest or march? Did your trade union hold a lot of power and influence or did you help achieve improvements for its members? If you have a story, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch with us by emailing kay.bulstreet[at]hotmail.co.uk