The Nineteenth Century

By 1810 the management of the whole of the Crown’s landed estates were placed by statute under three Commissioners of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, to whom all the powers of the two Surveyors-General of Woods and Forests were transferred. When the offices of the Chief Justices of the Forest were finally abolished by statute in 1817, their powers and duties also were taken over by the First Commissioner. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, the agents of the Crown acted upon the recommendations of the Commissioners of Inquiry, and actively promoted the disafforestment, enclosure and ‘improvement’ of the forest wastes. In 1795 and 1796 Acts enabled the Crown to sell to local landowners the various Walks of Rockingham Forest, ‘freed . . . from . . . the Duties and Burthens . . . of . . . the Laws and Customs of the Forest’. In 1812 the deer were removed from the forest of Aliceholt and Woolmer, and two-thirds of the area were enclosed as  a ‘Nursery for Timber’. Between 1810 and 1855 Acts were passed for the disafforestment of the forests of ‘South, otherwise East Bere’ (Bere Porchester), Delamare, Windsor, Exmoor, Sherwood, Salcey, Hainault, Wychwood, Whittlewood and Woolmer. Commissioners were appointed to ‘divide, allot and inclose’ the open forest wastes. A proportion was allotted to the Crown ‘in severalty’, varying according to the area of the forest wastes in which the property in the soil belonged to the Crown. The Commissioners of Woods and Forests reported in 1812 that about 100,000 acres of suitable land would need to be enclosed and planted to meet the Royal Navy’s requirements of oak timber, but that neglect of the royal forests ‘had produced . . . and almost total despair with regard to the prospect of Naval Timber from those Plantations.’ It was hoped to use the Crown allotment in Exmoor Forest for this purpose, but after partition the Commissioners decided that it would not in fact be suitable, and in 1818 it was sold for fifty thousand pound to a Mr Knight, who enclosed it. In most cases most of the forest wastes were divided between the lords of the manors and the commoners, in proportion to the value of their interests: the allotments were then to be fenced at the expense of the proprietors. The loss of their common rights caused great hardship among the poor of the forest districts. In 1831 the commoners rioted in the Forest of Dean, threw down the enclosures, and drove their cattle and sheep into the coppices: they had to be supressed by soldiers. Later Acts tried to resolve this problem by making an allotment to the ’Rectors, Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor’ of the forest parishes, who were as trustees to apply the income for the benefit of the poor. Some later Acts, such as that of 1835 disafforesting Wychwood Forest, did not extinguish common rights: common fields were to be set and cleared in each parish in compensation for the common rights which the forest inhabitants had previously enjoyed over the whole forest waste.

The offices of Lord Warden, Ranger, and other forest offices were in most cases abolished, and compensation allowed by the Acts to the holders. The deer remaining at large were removed, and on completion of the work of the Commissioners the forests were declared to be disafforested, and no one henceforth liable to pay any penalty for hunting therein, except in enclosed parks. In the Forest of Dean poaching was rife, and there were frequent violent clashes between keepers and poachers. As a consequence in 1850 the deer were officially banished, and in five years they had all been killed off. The Deer Removal Act of 1851 ordered the deer in the New Forest to be destroyed also. However the attempt to remove the deer failed in both forests, because fresh stock kept coming in from adjoining woods. It was then realized that grazing by the deer was necessary for the survival of the open ‘lawns’ in the New Forest, and so the 1851 Act was abandoned. This Act was unsuccessful also in its attempt to develop the New Forest as a source of timber by a ‘rolling programme’ of inclosure. The New Forest Act of 1877 represented a change of policy. The Crown’s powers of inclosure were greatly limited, and statutory definition was given to the commoners rights, which they could freely exercise under the supervision of the verderers: the Court of Verderers was reconstituted for this purpose. Grievances arising from restrictions on commoners rights during the fence month and the period of winter heyning were overcome. The verderers were enabled, in return for an annual payment of one pound, to secure for the commoners the right to turn out their animals during these periods from year to year. Provision was also made for the preservation of the picturesque character and ornamental value of the New Forest. Despite this, controversies continued between the verderers, as protectors of the commoner’s rights, and the officers of the Crown, who wished to enclose and encoppice to promote the growth and sale of timber.

Epping Forest was the last remaining portion of the forest of Essex, and the objectives of the environmentalists were achieved there by different means.  The rights of the commoners were championed by the Corporation of the City of London, which wanted to see Epping Forest preserved as an open space. By a suit in the Court of Chancery the Corporation vindicated commoners rights over the whole of the waste land within the forest ‘according to the assize and custom of the forest’.  It obtained an injunction ordering enclosures made during the previous twenty years, amounting to nearly 3,000 acres, to be thrown down, and restraining further enclosures. In 1875 and 1876 the Corporation purchased 3,000 acres of the open waste lands of the forest manors. Finally, by the Epping Forest Act of 1878 what remained of the forest of Essex was disafforested. Crown rights over vert and venison, the forest courts and offices, and the burdens and restrictions of the forest laws and customs were abolished. The Corporation of London was appointed Conservators of the Forest, with the duty of protecting and managing the forest as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public: a duty it discharged through an Epping Forest Committee. The rights of registered commoners were to continue unchanged. They were to elect, as members of the Committee, four verderers, who were required to be resident in one of the forest parishes. These verderers were no longer to be officers of the Crown administering the forest law on its behalf.  Instead they were to be guardians of the interests of the commoners and of local interests generally, but they were to have no greater powers than any other members of the Committee. The Conservators were empowered to regulate the rights exercised by registered commoners – e.g., to depasture horses, cattle and sheep, and to agist swine, and to exclude animals for which no common rights existed. The twelve forest parishes were to continue to nominate reeves for appointment by the Conservators, and the reeves to mark commoners cattle, receive the fees therefor, and impound uncommonable cattle. They were to use a scale of marking laid down by the Forest Court of Attachment in 1790- that is, one horse or two cows for each four pound per annum rent paid by the commoner, and one horse of two cows ‘for every poor cottager having a family and right of commoning’.