Local history researcher Steven Carter recently came across a fascinating publication from the early nineteenth century. A Brief and Authentic Statement (1818) by the Reverend Payler Matthew Procter offers some fascinating insights into the Forest of Dean at the time, and for Steven in particular has resonated with his own own family history.
Now a retired teacher, Steven attended Lydney Grammar School in 1970s. Steven says, ‘My father is a true-born Forester, like his father, who was a life-saving hero of the 1949 Waterloo Colliery flooding. My Grandmother Cooper’s fascinating family history goes back hundreds of years at Berry Hill. Exploring the context for these roots and especially interviewing former Waterloo Colliery workers has made me a local history enthusiast. The Forest has a most fascinating history.’
Steven recently put on exhibitions about the Waterloo Colliery flooding at Hopewell Colliery and the Dean Heritage Centre. He has also written articles about the Colliery, the Mitcheldean industrialist and philanthropist Timothy Bennett (1804-61), and the 1861 Speech House Murder. He continues to be interested in anything connected to Waterloo Colliery. At the moment he is also investigating the history of the song 'The Jovial Foresters' and, how Edward Protheroe used slavery wealth to develop Forest tramroads, ironworks and collieries.
REV. PROCTER'S BRIEF AND AUTHENTIC STATEMENT (1818)
In The Changing Forest (1962), Dennis Potter laments pit closures and the ‘decline of the distinctive Forest culture’ of his childhood. He attributes the erosion of traditional ways to the onslaught of mass media and consumerism’s ‘newer, brighter, corroding uniformity’ (p10, 132)
Reverend Procter’s Brief and Authentic Statement (1818) reveals a social and cultural revolution in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, comparable to and perhaps more fundamental than Potter’s. Procter narrates how the Anglican Church and an associated school became established at Berry Hill, and in doing so he incidentally provides glimpses of an older, more original Forest culture.
Procter’s memoir swings through many forms, from simple narration, to sermon, theological tract and proof texts, to ecclesiastical and even salvation history; all helpful for understanding his Anglican perspective.
For me, however, with my Grandmother’s Cooper ancestors among those earliest Berry Hill folk, of particular interest are those glimpses of the Forest community before the Church held sway. This old Forest culture was about to undergo profound change, as the outside influences of Church, Crown and Capitalists penetrated the Dean and transformed its inhabitants’ lives. Where some talk of ‘improvements’, others might say ‘dispossession’. As Chris Fisher showed in Market Capitalism: The Forest of Dean Colliers 1788-1888 (1981), market capitalism replaced customary rights and most independent miners became wage labourers. With Procter we catch the beginnings of this process, with important insights into the ‘Before’.
Saxon and Norman kings had preserved the Forest as a royal hunting ground, but in later centuries the Crown became more interested in exploiting its resources, especially the iron, coal, stone and timber. Freeminers in small-scale operations, other Forest workers and local entrepreneurs, and the destitute and marginalised, settled inside the boundary whenever the authorities were weak. Each time the Crown regained strength, their crude cabins would be dismantled and squatters removed. In the late eighteenth century, however, the Deputy Surveyor responsible for the Forest reported that he had to desist from pulling down cottages, fences and inclosures because the encroachers’ repeated insults and threats made him fear for his life and property. By 1788 over 2,000 cottagers were established in 1,398 acres, with 589 makeshift cabins, many looking ‘too miserable for human occupation’, but others of stone or brick-built (By the 1830s the houses grew to 1462, with 2108 acres, until the Dean Forest [Encroachments] Act of 1838 allowed the older encroachments and prohibited further ones. In Warren James and the Forest of Dean Riots (1986) (p8-11) Forest author and historian Ralph Antis described this world, between the Severn and the Wye, cut off from mainstream English social and economic life:
"the geographical isolation of the foresters… was compounded by [their work]. Miners everywhere form closed communities, but… their isolation was increased by their absolute refusal to allow anyone from outside the Hundred of St Briavels to join [their mining…] They call such outsiders ‘foreigners’".
This wild country’s dark and frightening paths and threatening inhabitants deterred strangers. Writers before 1820, educated and well-to-do outsiders, agreed about the Foresters’ ‘wildness and lawlessness’; and showed little sympathy for their hard lives. Nevertheless, the Mine Law Court documents suggest a community centred around responsible freeminers, with a very sober, intelligent and orderly approach to solving their problems. Anstis concludes that the Foresters could be tough, touchy and fiercely independent - such that governments tended to leave them alone -, until the Crown’s increasing economic development and efficient management of the Dean confronted the Foresters with a challenge that would produce the biggest change in their way of life that they had ever known,
provoking the Warren James riots and further government attempts to rationalise and control the Forest. Eventually, in the 1830s, the Dean Forest Commission and ensuing legislation imposed a new settlement on the Forest. The continued presence of sheep roaming the Forest and Freeminers underground, however, are modern day reminders that the Foreigners’ victory was not total.
The Berry Hill Mission
In 1803 Rev. Procter became Vicar of Newland. His interaction with the extra-Parochial Foresters was at first limited to visiting the sick and baptising babies. When Procter was to preach at Coleford Chapel, curiosity attracted some of the colliers and reports from these brought Freeminer Thomas Morgan. After hearing Procter’s preaching, Thomas became agitated in his soul and asked Rev. Procter to visit his home (next to the Church’s future location, that became the vicarage), where in deep conversation they discussed the fate of his soul. Thomas requested the Reverend to return next week, and if some friends and relatives could join them. Next Thursday Rev. Procter was surprised to discover a house so packed that he could hardly open the door to get in. Rev. Procter kept up these Thursday evening lectures for the coming years and his audience were unfailingly attentive. With benevolent intentions, a warm sympathy and prolonged effort, the good Reverend worked to prepare ‘these scattered people… for the Lord’ (p11).
'The Forest being extraparochial, it should be understood that the inhabitants have no right or power to command the services of any clergyman. A cold determination to do what is generally termed a benevolent act first induced me to go there. I saw nothing of them on the sabbath-day. The church was only used by them as a matter of course and necessity: indeed a general opinion prevailed that they had no right to accommodation, and a forester was seldom seen in the aisle'
Procter admits also to a motive from ecclesiastical politics; to capture the Foresters before any Dissenter mission could.
We can see that not everyone at Berry Hill welcomed these visits. This new way of life split the village. We can appreciate the sadness for Thomas’s friend who called on him to remember their good times together and re-join his former ways, but Thomas said their only togetherness could be for his former friend to stand where Thomas stood. Local curate and Forest historian the Reverend Nicholls' later comments (The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863, p165) reveal the strong feelings aroused:
'These journeys into the Forest were not altogether free from danger. The old party did not like their sports to be interrupted. Until all fear from violence from them ceased, some portion of the congregation used to attend Mr Procter over the bounds of the Forest, after his Evening Lecture'.
In this ‘culture war’ that split the village, ‘the old party’ might feel there was more at stake than interrupted sports. A new division was created and the community’s old ways were not surrendered without resistance. Thomas had the vision for a church and a school at Berry Hill and from his own generosity and effort, local contributions and two public appeals, these were established. Later legislation after the Dean Forest Commission incorporated the Forest into the Anglican parish system.
Procter wrote his Memoir to help cover a debt of £950 that he had incurred by a technical fault when transferring property to set up the Church. His friends suggested the profits from this pamphlet could help pay off that heavy debt.
Generations of my Grandmother Cooper’s ancestors attended the Church and many are buried in the graveyard behind. My special interest in Procter’s Brief and Authentic Statement, however, is not with any triumph of the Gospel, though it influenced generations of my ancestors’ worship and education. My Grandmother inherited a strong commitment to keeping Sunday special, and my Dad and his siblings attended the school and played on the triangle of grass outside. Since my own ancestors were among these early settlers at such evocative locations as Shortstanding, Joyford, Berry Hill and Hillersland, before ‘Christchurch’ was conceived, I have a special interest in the occasional glimpse Procter provides of their early Forest culture.
Despite his churchman’s view of the Foresters, the much-loved Reverend provides direct views of his parishioners, including insights into their lives and Forest culture before the Established Church became an influential force in their community.
The Older Forest Culture
Although Procter criticises some Forest ways, his remarks also provide occasional perceptive insights into their culture. Procter’s account describes several aspects of Forest culture and life around Berry Hill from 1804 and earlier.
‘They are a people of themselves, of peculiar habits, tenacious in their dispositions, and from an idea, unfortunately too just, that the neighbouring parishes look upon them in an inferior point of view’ (p28).
Based on ‘visiting of the sick’ and ‘baptizing of the children’, Rev Procter’s first impression – despite his feelings of sympathy and Christian love -‘was of the most unfavourable kind’, as he gained ‘knowledge of their condition, their lives and conversation, of which the latter were the most deplorable.’
'But what are the real evidences of a low, debased state of morals! is an habitual profanation of the Sabbath-day? are drunkenness, rioting, immodest dancing, revellings, fightings? are the want and ignorance of the holy scriptures? and is an improper state of females on their marriage? if these are allowed to be evidences of immorality, I have only here to affirm that they are facts, not opinions hazarded, but observations made; they are rending and harrowing truths. The general state of the women, in an especial manner, gave a convincing proof of a deep-rooted depravity, abhorrent to what the world calls virtue: how disgraceful then to the christian name and profession!' (p2-4)
Procter’s words, remember, reflect his class and faith. We might look beyond the standards, to be imposed by his Anglican regime and consider the Forest community in their own terms, in the context of the hard lives they lived. Procter’s brief words on the daily dangers colliers faced evoked the precariousness of life for mining people. Considering my own ancestors were among these miners, this sentence struck me as chilling:
'Not a thought was permitted to intrude of the possibility that the pitin which he worked, might close its mouth uponhim, and his soul be required.' (p43)
This reminded me of comments from former miners, like Eric Morris, Charlie Penn, Paul Morgan and Gordon Brooks. Each said they did not dwell on the dangers of work underground – even though all had recounted to me dangerous, life-threatening moments! Such matter-of-fact fortitude implicit in all mining helps explains why the Forest so respects and celebrates its mining heritage. Procter’s note, a minor detail, that colliers returned home from their pit at 7pm (p6), recalled vividly for me warm summer evenings in the Forest.
Rev. Procter’s tireless exertions to fix the gospel in this extra-parochial part of the Forest and to minister to the Foresters resulted in building at Christchurch the Forest’s first parish church. Despite his benevolence, Procter also reflected the nineteenth-century preoccupation with sabbath-breaking – effectively controlling every minute of the lives of the lower orders, lest they revolt or fall into vicious iniquity! Importantly, he provides a marvellous window on a Foresters’ ‘scene of iniquity’ at Berry Hill, which today might be viewed more favourably. Thomas Morgan enthusiastically organised cricket matches, but on the Sunday Sabbath-day!
‘There was no fear of God before his eyes. Cricket matches were their favourite game, and hundreds assembled on the Sabbath-day to see the play. Old and young blended together, children and infants were brought, because their fathers and mothers could not come without them. Such was their mode of education, such was their Sabbath-day as handed down from father to son from generation to generation…
Thomas [looked after]…the bats, balls and wickets… He was first upon the ground, and the last to quit…
Thomas cast many a watchful, anxious look on [the sun’s] departing beams, and his heart throughout the sacred day first sighed when the evening shades compelled to desist from profaning that Sabbath which the Lord God blessed, hallowed, and commanded to be kept holy. On depositing in a place of safety the bats and balls, he looked forward to the next Sunday, regretting only the intervening six days.’
Today’s judgement might look beyond the sabbath-breaking and see a wonderfully inclusive community event, where the feared and rejected Foresters came together in a well-deserved break from their long days of hard labour in the dark depths of the earth. I am reminded, too, of Eric Morris’s almost poetic comment about how working in the dark pit helps miners appreciate even more the colours of the Forest:
'When we came up in the bond we used to look across at the trees by Lydbrook Vicarage. How green those trees were to us, never were trees so green. In the pit there were no colours, just black, or shades of black, only men’s eyes showed white. When you came up from the pit at the end of a shift it was wonderful to see colours. The autumn colours of the trees - that was almost like a reward for working down in the black. As we reached the surface that first glimpse! Only miners could appreciate to the full the green of the trees, the colours of autumn. Had anyone else walked with us from the pit they'd not have seen what we saw. They wouldn't have seen the blue sky, the green trees that we saw with our eyes'. (Eric Morris in Forest Voices: Recollections of Local People, 2008 by Humphrey Phelps, p91-92)
Eric’s comments perhaps encourage our sympathy today with Thomas Morgan’s enjoyment of his Sunday cricket.
We see in Thomas Morgan’s final days a fate that must have been replicated in many cottages (even up into recent times, as was the case for both my miner grandfathers, where pit work undermined their health).
'He had long been declining in health, and now becoming seriously ill, he gradually sunk down under a painful, tedious asthmatic affection brought on by the damps of the pits'. (p54)
Thomas was not alarmed by ‘the awful prospectof death’, but was ‘sure and steadfast’ in his hope.
'He gave a faithful evidence of his unceasing love to the cause of God, by appointing his executors to sell his little property, either to myself or the trustees, on a fair valuation, if required for the school or the church. This intention however was providentially completed by himself before his death; as much to the satisfaction of his family as could be expected'. (p54)
The reference to his family’s feelings on the matter perhaps leaves much unsaid! I wonder what their full feelings might have been.
A final insight into the Foresters involves Thomas Morgan’s wish to be buried in the chapel he did so much to help establish. The visiting Bishop, much impressed by Thomas’s character and faith, could not grant his wish. Rev Procter considered the matter closed. But the last word on Thomas comes from his fellow Foresters. Sadly, Thomas Morgan died in the year 1816 when Christchurch was consecrated. It had no churchyard so he was buried in Newland Cemetery. Later twenty foresters armed with pick axes and shovels dug him up and reburied him where the South Aisle of the church is today in front of the pulpit, half way towards the door. The grave remains under the floor and a plaque is commemorated to all his hard work and vision. His name was the first to be recorded in the burial register when the ground was consecrated for burial (Christchurch Guide). This action was both a fitting final act in Thomas Morgan’s story and offers yet another insight into the Foresters of his day.
Procter’s Brief and Authentic Statement narrates the success of his Berry Hill mission. Hidden inside the text are priceless gems offering insights into the Forester community at the time, in the days before their world was transformed by Church, Crown and Capitalists! Take a look for yourself - you can read it online for free at Google Books, here.
Steven Carter, 2021