The Forests Following the Restoration

After the Restoration, Charles II followed the example of his predecessors by granting away some of the remaining royal forests. In 1664 he disparked Clarendon Park, the last remnant of the royal forests in Wiltshire and granted it to the duke of Albermarle. In the north the disafforestment of the Forest of the Peak, and schemes for inclosure of those portions of it which were suitable for arable or pasture, were completed by royal commissioners appointed in 1674. The expansion of the Royal Navy and the growth of the mercantile marine, however, caused alarm for the Navy Board over the shortage of timber. The Crown made one last attempt to revive the forest law and the forest courts, not for the preservation of the king’s hunting rights, but to promote the production of timber. In 1667 the Marquess of Worcester, as Constable of St Briavels and Warden of the Forest of Dean, was ordered to revive the forest courts there and to see that the forest laws were obeyed. But the reign of Charles II saw the end of the great forest courts. In September 1670 the Earl of Oxford, as Chief Justice of the southern forests, held the last Forest Eyre in the New Forest, at Lyndhurst. The last ‘Court of Justice Seat’ in Waltham Forest sat at Stratford Langthorne in September 1670: fines were imposed for killing deer and cutting oaks, assarts were arrented and enclosures ordered to be thrown down. A like court for the Hampshire forests, held at Winchester in September 1672 by Sir Thomas Fanshawe, deputy Justice of the Forest, brought the long history of the Forest Eyre in the southern forests to an end. North of Trent the last remaining royal forest was Sherwood: here the Marquess of Newcastle held a Forest Eyre in 1663, which was continued by his deputy by way of adjournment as late as 1676.

The attempt to revive the ancient forest system as an instrument of Crown policy was doomed to failure. The officers of ‘Chief Justice and Justice in Eyre of His Majesty’s Forests, Chases and Warrens’ north and south of the Trent were held by noblemen such as the Dukes of Monmouth, Newcastle and Devonshire. Their payments were increased in accordance with their rank and dignity, but they did little or no work for their offices: the execution of Crown policy had long passed into the hands of the Surveyor-General of Woods and Forests. There were two of these, north and south of the Trent, until Thomas Hewett was appointed in 1715 to both Surveyorships, with an annual fee of fifty pound for each office. They were, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, responsible for the general management of this category of Crown properties – for the felling of timber in the forests for the Royal Navy, for repairs to Crown property, for royal gifts to subjects, or for sale; for dealing with claims to customary rights in the forest, for paying the keepers wages and for providing hay for the deer in times of scarcity.

By the end of the eighteenth century the forest was regarded as unprofitable and out of date. A royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the condition of Crown woods and forests, and published a series of seventeen Reports between 1787 and 1793. The Commissioners reported that north of the Trent there survived only Sherwood Forest, while south of that river there were the New Forest, Aliceholt and Woolmer, and Bere Forests in Hampshire, Windsor Forest in Berkshire, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, Waltham or Epping Forest in Essex, Whittlewood, Salcey and Rockingham Forests in Northamptonshire, and Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire. The general picture was one of neglect and decline. In 1736 the Conservator and Supervisor of the Forest of Dean had reported to the Treasury, ‘Within the last thirty years those Elections [of Forest officers] had been neglected, the Courts discontinued, and offenders left unpunished.’ The ancient forest offices of verderer, regarder and agister had ‘become merely nominal and . . . bestowed rather as ‘Marks of Favour and Distinction upon Gentlemen of Consideration in the Neighbourhood, than as Appointments of real Use or Responsibility.’ In some forests the local forest courts had also fallen into abeyance. In Rockingham and Whittlewood they appear to have been discontinued after the time of Charles I. No swanimote was held after 1769 in Bere Porchester Forest: in that year the court could not be opened because no verderers attended.

There had been an attempt, through Acts of Parliament, to revive the election of local forest officers and the holding of local forest courts in some forests: these measures were intended to preserve the forest woods and to increase timber production by enclosure of the forest wastes, such as the Dean Forest (Reafforestation) Act of 1667: the forest officers, together with four men and the reeve from each forest vill, and a jury of twelve held their ‘Speech Court’ once a year at Kensley in the presence of the deputy constable of St Briavels, however the proceedings were largely ineffective. The violent opposition of the commoners frustrated the attempt to enclose the forest wastes. The New Forest Act of 1697 gave statutory powers to the local ‘Verderers Court’ to impose fines for such offences as stealing timber, burning the heath and destroying the covert. A later Act of 1819 gave it jurisdiction over the exercise of common rights in the New Forest. Two thousand acres of coppices were to be enclosed and planted with oak and beech, and a ‘rolling programme’ of further enclosures was projected as the trees matured, but this aroused opposition from the commoners. In any case 1862 was the last year in which a considerable quantity of New Forest timber was supplied to the Royal Navy. In Waltham Forest Attachment Courts, attended by the verderers, foresters and woodwards, continued to be held until the middle of the nineteenth century. These courts supervised common rights on the forest wastes. They oversaw the reeves of the forest parishes, who branded the commoners cattle, and these Attachment Courts were also responsible for preventing illegal enclosures, and for giving landowners leave to cut timber in their own woods. This consequently led to thousands of acres of woodland in Essex being cleared during the eighteenth century with the licence of the Chief Justice of the Forest. This process continued during the nineteenth century. The unenclosed wastes in Epping Forest were reduced from 12,000 aces in 1777 to 3,500 acres in 1871, by illegal enclosures by the lords of the forest manors, and by sale of Crown rights by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests which amounted to disafforestment.

The Commissioners therefore reported on the forests as potential sources of profit to the Crown and to the local landowners. They said of Sherwood Forest, ‘No Deer being now kept for the King in any Part of the Forest, except Thorney Woods, the Forestrial Rights are productive of no Profit or Advantage’. In the Forest of Dean, as in the other forests, there was widespread destruction of the woods, by the ‘free miners’, by wood-stealers who lived by shipping stolen timber to Bristol, by the cottagers and other forest inhabitants, and by the forest officers themselves. There was no effective management of the woods for profitable timber production, and regeneration was prevented because the young shoots were eaten by the deer and by the commoners cattle, which roamed the forests at will. However the Crown derived little profit from the herds of deer which still remained in some forests: the Forest of Dean, for example, had in 1788 ‘supplied only Four Bucks and Four Does Annually for the last Seven Years.

The reports gave close attention to the question of enclosures and commoners rights in the forest. The legal entitlement to common of pasture was defined by the ‘couchant and levant rule’ – in other words, commoners were allowed common for no more cattle than they could keep on their own land during the winter months when they were excluded for the forest. But, as a result of the decline of the forest organization, there was widespread disregard of these regulations. The commissioners therefore divided the forests into two classes. In the Forests of Dean, New Forest and Aliceholt and Woolmer, the Crown was the principal landowner. Their ‘Vicinity to the Dockyards’ made them a vital source of timber for the Royal Navy; therefore it was ‘a National Objective to keep and to improve’ them. The deer were to be removed, because they ate young trees and crops. These forests were to be freed from the Forest Law, the commoners compensated for loss of their common rights, and lands allocated to the Crown were to be enclosed for timber production. The second class of forests were for example, those like Wittlewood, Salcey, Rockingham, Wychwood and Sherwood, where the soil was for the most part owned by local landowners. The great obstacle to the efficient economic exploitation of forests such as Salcey, said the Commissioners, was that ‘the Interest in this Forest, exclusive of the Right of the Commoners, is divided between Three different Proprietors’ – the Crown, to which belonged ‘the great Timber and Saplings, the principal owner of the woodlands (the Duke of Grafton), and the hereditary Warden of the Forest, who had the ‘Care of the Deer’: by exercising his right of cutting ‘Browsewood’ for them, he prevented the proper growth of ‘Timber Trees. ‘In Rockingham Forest,’ they said ‘where the Crown has little property left, where a considerable part of the Land is already in Tillage or Pasture, and the Country pretty fully inhabited, it cannot be desirable that those (Forest) Laws should be continued’: their ‘Restraints and Burthens . . . by impeding its Improvement, must be a loss to the Public as well as to the Proprietors’. The Commissioners therefore recommended that these forests should also be disafforested. The forest rights of the Crown should be sold to the landowners who owned the soil, or exchanged for an apportionment of land for enclosure and economic development. Commoners would receive an allotment of land.