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Dean Forest

Volume 218: debated on Tuesday 21 April 1874

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Motion For A Select Committee

, in rising to move that a Select Committee be appointed—

"To inquire into the Laws and rights affecting Dean Forest, and the condition thereof having especial regard to the social and sanitary wants of its increasing population; and further to inquire whether it is expedient that any, and if so what, legislation should take place with respect to such Forest, and the future disposition or management of the same,"
said, the Forest of Dean, which consisted of about 21,000 acres, was one which was famous in former times, but it was now being cut up and encroached upon. In 1712, according to Sir Robert Atkyns there were only six cottages in the Forest, and these were occupied by the keepers; and in 1788 there were 589 cottages erected in it—all encroachments—with a population of nearly 3,000. Ten years later—in 1798—it was found that a number of pieces of land had been enclosed also by squatters. In 1834, the cottages numbered 1,462, and the inhabitants 7,014, the total encroachments of land amounted to 2,108 acres. The total net revenue from the whole of these 21,000 acres was, according to a Return obtained in 1872, only £117,967 for 50 years, or £2,359 per annum, which was not more than 2s. an acre. But various deductions had to be made from this, which brought down the net income for the service of the State to £1,133 per annum, or about 1s. 7d. per acre. In 1831 a Commission was appointed to inquire into the conditions of the Forest, and in 1838 and in 1842 Acts of Parliament were passed in relation to it, but since then the work of improvement had not gone on as it ought to have done. There had been inquiries on the subject, but further inquiry was greatly needed. The policy of the past in regard to the Forest had been to treat it altogether as a nursery for the growth of timber for the Crown, and until lately attention had not been directed to its mining capabilities. While in 1712 there were only six cottages of workmen in the Forest, in 1871 there were 4,400 cottages, and a population of over 22,000. The net revenue to the Crown from coal, iron, and other minerals, was, in 1821, £73; in 1844 it was £2,858; in 1860. £6,635; in 1868, £13,983; and in 1871, £14,604. It was evident that the state of the Forest had completely altered during the last 50 years and more, and it was high time now to depart from the folly of continuing the costly system of growing timber, and leaving the waste lands uncultivated and unremunerative. The more prudent course would be to make a change to suit existing circumstances. The mineral riches of the Forest were still very great, the increase in the demand for coal and iron was still going on, and had led to the opening and diligent working of more mines, and consequently to a very great increase of the population. The sanitary condition of the Forest, however, was in a very bad, and even a deplorable state. There was no parochial system, no drainage, no surveyor of highways, and no constitutional authority whatever within its bounds. It had but one turnpike road, which was totally inadequate to its wants. Speaking from an experience of 22 years, he could say that, as regarded capabilities of locomotion, the condition of the Forest was as bad now as when he first knew it. Being Government property it could not be rated, and although the Crown contributed about £315 to the poor rates, in other respects it was not rated at all. The houses were built without any regard to order, there was no water supply, and typhoid fever had prevailed. These facts were attested by gentlemen who were total strangers to the district, except so far as they had visited it, and they were given in evidence before the Committees that had already inquired into the subject. He wished Members could go down to the place and see the condition of things which was due to the absence of any sanitary highway or parochial authority. This inquiry would, no doubt, be of great advantage to the Crown, as well as to the inhabitants of the district, if it led to increased powers being given by the Legislature to the former to allow waste land to be sold for building, as well as in small plots for cultivation, and thereby enable the latter to obtain proper and sufficient habitations, with the means of raising the necessaries of life. The hon. and gallant Gentleman concluded by moving for the Select Committee.

, in seconding the Motion, said, this was not a case of the familiar claims of the conventional working man; he did not advance the dubious claim of disaffection; the case simply was that there was a population; of 23,000 in the Forest, without sanitary provision for 5,000, or proper house room for half their number. From one of those complications of Bights so often fertile in Wrongs, the evils were daily increasing without the fault of any one and unless the question was taken up by the Government the evil would go on increasing as it had done up to that time. For years after the Forest of Dean had become an extensive iron and coal field, it was administered simply as if it were a forest for supplying oak to the Navy; and an administration admirably adapted to watching the slow growth of oaks was not adapted to the growing wants of a mining population. The population had trebled itself in 38 years, and such a rate of increase could not be met by inelastic legislation. The account given of the sanitary condition of the place by his hon. and gallant Colleague was in no sense exaggerated. There were no sanitary regulations—the people often had to go a mile for pure water, notwithstanding that miners often required a good deal, and the roads were very much neglected. During the last eight years only 13 acres 2 roods 17 poles of land had been sold, and, though it was called waste, it fetched £3,357 135. 6d., or about £246 8s. 6d. per acre. Much had been said about the extravagance of miners. Was not this making them extravagant? He did not ask that the miners should have free houses and free gardens; but, seeing that the mines were sometimes closed two and three days a-week, and the miners were driven to spend periods of compulsory idleness in the public-house, it would be in every way a great advantage if they could have gardens to cultivate when the pits were closed, and in which the women and children could work, instead of working, as they did now, on the pit bank. This of itself would be a great step towards sanitary reform, for the gardens would absorb those accumulations which were now insufferable nuisances around the homes of the people.

Motion made, and Question proposed.

"That a Select Committee he appointed, to inquire into the Laws and rights affecting Dean Forest, and the condition thereof, having especial regard to the social and sanitary wants of its increasing population: and further to inquire whether it is expedient that any, and if so what, legislation should take place with respect to such Forest, and the future disposition or management of the same.'"—(Colonel Kingscote.)

said, he should not detain the House at any length, as it was the intention of the Government to grant the Committee. In doing so they did not wish to commit themselves to any policy whatever, or to the acceptance of the statement of his hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel Kingscote); not that they questioned in the slightest degree the many facts he had communicated to the House. The question was one full of difficulties, which it was right a Committee should investigate. One of the main difficulties arose from the rights of squatters who had been allowed to occupy property belonging to the Crown, and had thereby acquired certain interests in it. Their rights could not be lightly tampered with, but it was desirable that they should be defined more clearly than at present. Another difficulty consisted in the limited power which the Crown had of selling property ill the Forest. It was probable that much good might be done by legislation, but it was certainly not expedient that it should be rash or hasty legislation.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointed, "to inquire into the Laws and rights affecting Dean Forest, and the condition thereof, having especial regard to the social and sanitary wants of its increasing population; and further to inquire whether it is expedient that any, and if so what, legislation should take place with respect to such Forest, and the future disposition or management of the same."

And, on April 28, Committee nominated as follows:—Colonel BARTTELOT. Mr. WILLIAM CARTWRIGHT, Sir FRANCIS GOLDSMID, Mr. HERMON, Sir GEORGE JENKINSON, Dr. LUSH, Mr. NEVILL, Mr. PEASE, Mr. R. PLUNKETT, Mr. WILLIAM PRICE, Mr. WILLIAM HENRY SMITH, Mr. W. STANHOPE, and Colonel KINGSCOTE:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records: Five to be the quorum.

And, on May 4, Mr. GEORGE CLIVE, and Mr. GOLDNEY added.