This year marks the 180th anniversary of a remarkable series of poems. It was in 1841 that A Collection of Poems on the Forest of Dean and Its Neighbourhood by Catherine Drew (1784-1867) 'of Littledean Woodside, Gloucestershire' was first published. Now remembered in a memorial plaque at the entrance to Cinderford's St John's Churchyard where she is buried, there was little in Catherine Drew's early life that suggested she would be so remembered two centuries later. From a working-class background, and with only a few days formal education, Catherine seems to have begun writing poetry in later life and was eventually encouraged by her friends to publish them. Printing the book was made possible through money raised from advance subscription.
Her slim volume (it contains only eight poems) quickly established Catherine as one of the recognised Forest poets and authors of the first half of the nineteenth century (alongside Richard Morse, P. J. Ducarel, and William Wickenden). At the heart of her 1841 collection is the poem 'The Forest of Dean in Times Past, Contrasted with the Present' - that, according to Forest Historian, and contemporary of Drew, Rev. H. G. Nicholls, was written in 1835. Spanning eleven pages in her published collection, and hundreds of years of Forest history, for us today much of its fascination lies in the insight it gives into some of the social and industrial upheaval Drew witnessed in her lifetime.
Recently researcher Steven Carter, deeply interested in the industrial and social history of the Forest, revisited the poem and here he gives us his personal appraisal and appreciation of what he found.
I thought I knew this poem, from the brief extract that appears in The Forest of Dean (1858) by Rev. H. G. Nicholls. That part provides an interesting historical summary of the important half-century prior to the poem’s composition dated by Nicholls as 1835. Since reading the entire poem, however, I realise I had greatly underestimated the work.
Catherine Drew’s poem is ‘written in a conversational, plain English’, with simple rhyming couplets (aa, bb, cc, etc.), and is epically long (over 400 lines), without any division into verses. But this great poem is no more ‘simple’ than are the leaves recurring in the Forest; and the many lines are like steps on a long walk, with something to capture our attention at every stride. Like an enjoyable walk, it was never too long and you look forward to retreading the path. The poem’s form or structure resembles a walk: we accompany Catherine on her ramble through the Forest; and our thoughts at times fly down the tramroads, sail along the Severn and spin out to faraway oceans. As someone usually inattentive to poetry, it is hard for me to convey the amazing qualities of Catherine’s brilliant poem. After reading it, I was left with a sense of having truly encountered ‘THE FOREST OF DEAN’ itself.
Enthusiastic for local history, I enjoyed every historical reference; whether to the ‘TIMES PAST’ of Catherine’s youth, when lax Forest authority failed to prevent the settlement of squatters and encroachers (such as my own Berry Hill ancestors); or to Catherine’s ‘PRESENT’, where the population had increased and a missionary Church, a reassertive Crown and wealthy Capitalists were transforming life for ordinary Foresters like Catherine herself. The poem captures these big changes and provides insights into my own ancestors’ everyday lives. She asserts her Forest community’s authenticity, integrity, and their useful contribution. She movingly describes their joys and their woes. Her own voice displays their moral character, so unlike many outsiders' demonising caricatures of Foresters as uncivilised, wild and lawless folk. But neither history nor Foresters are the main subject of this poem. Catherine offers more than mere historical utility, more than a mine to dig out golden nuggets of history. Beyond this, we encounter directly and cumulatively the Forest itself.
Catherine declares her theme to be ‘Dean’s ancient forest’, where she ‘was born and bred’, ‘The sweet asylum of my youthful days’, where ‘I dearly loved to tread’. But now ‘I’m growing old’, entering her fifties, she looks back ‘and pleased survey, Those scenes that did my youthful thoughts employ’. She is happily content the Forest has formed the stage and fabric of her life:
Nor would I change thee, wild romantic wood,
Though she lived to be 82, this great work now serves as her ‘Farewell, old Forest dear, farewell to thee’; her tribute and celebration, in which she depicts the changing Forest during changing times. Catherine’s remarkable achievement, for me, is that she succeeds in her theme and portrays so well the ‘Dean’s ancient forest’.
'This is a poem that is utterly and inescapably rooted in the Forest [...] Hers is poetry that is tied irrevocably to the Forest of Dean: it could not be transplanted to another place'. (Reading the Forest: A History and Analysis of Forest of Dean Literature, 2019)
She provides a giddying journey through the Forest in dramatic, fast-moving scenes, depicting tiny details, wildlife and beautiful nature; human inhabitants, with their joys and sorrows; tramroad routes to Bullo Pill and vessels that ride the Severn; and she even envisages the timber of the Forest becoming ships riding the oceans and defending the Empire’s furthest reach.
Her panoramic view to me reflects how Foresters might 'take in' the Forest. Not seeing just one single point of focus, but rather the eye flowing near and far, with senses overwhelmed by the ‘everywhere-ness’ around you. She sees a tree or a sheep, which grows and branches out into many thoughts. She emerges as someone rooted, knowing the Forest thoroughly, describing not just what is immediately visible, but an underlying depth.
'Hers is a poetry that talks of the Forest of Dean simply rooted in her own experience and knowledge of it, and expressed through a deep love of and loyalty to it as a place [...] Hers was a poetry then that[…] seems to have been primarily enjoyed by readers in the Forest of Dean, a readership whose pleasure was derived from a recognition of the history, places and people of the Forest of Dean in which they lived.' (Reading the Forest: A History and Analysis of Forest of Dean Literature, 2019)
Catherine does something else, as Jason Griffiths (above) explains, that can be seen in other Forest literature. She conveys the relevance and presence of the past alongside the present – the past never feels left in the past as so much of it is evident in the landscape. As Dennis Potter put it, the past is always running alongside us and can at any point grab us! Thus, this distinctive place is ‘space infused with meaning’, with its own ‘unique history and character’.
'The specificity of her work to the Forest, her admiration for working people like herself, and her plain direct style, did much to endear her to these local readers'. (Reading the Forest: A History and Analysis of Forest of Dean Literature, 2019)
After following her wanderings, it is like your mind has been spun through and around the Forest; and at the end the jigsaw pieces fall together into something resembling completeness. Catherine’s Forest is both up close, there for you to touch, feel and breathe; and yet vast, magnificent, and transcendent; the pulsating heart that gives life for all else. This Forest feels like the centre of the world and, like tree roots spread invisibly below, so the Forest reaches invisibly to the world’s end.
In reading and enjoying this marvellous poem I identified ten merging scenes:
Catherine’s poem opens with her remembering her youth, enjoying the natural wealth of the Forest, its birds, flowers and groves. Soon though she turns to the Forest as a lived and worked environment, both past and present, a lived place rather than an individual experience of nature. She is prompted by the landscape to contemplate a time when the Forest was sparsely populated by only ‘a few free miners’. Catherine narrates the early origins of freeminers’ rights and moves up to more recent times.
None but a few free miners then lived here…
But noble miners, there have been, I ken,
By their old works, stout able-bodied men…
She laments the incursion of the ‘foreigners’, i.e. those wealthy capitalists, born outside the Forest. In times past,
….firm and sure were made the Forest laws…
But now the foreigners have got the game.
Catherine presents not some mythic past Golden Age, but an actual time and place she knew. Her poem is no generalised, idealised forest. Instead, she is rooted in this particular Forest and actual historical times. Her descriptions are not romanticised nor sentimental, but real, matter-of-fact and from her own experience, brief yet powerfully vivid. For example, on free miners’ daily risks,
Sometimes I’ve known a faulty rope give way,
And plunge them headlong from the light of day.
She also challenges the traditional denigration of her Foresters:
… don’t colliers despise,
Who underground their useful lives destroy,
While you enjoy the air, and light of day.
2. Deer Hunt
Her ramble comes next upon a deer hunt. The deer ‘shifts and winds in hope thus to evade,’
Until at last, spent out, he slacks his speed,
Then Ranter foremost, quickly makes him bleed.
The scene is vivid, yet economically told, and without sentiment.
After their sport, the huntsmen move away,
Unto some neighbouring tavern, and enjoy
The good sirloin… The hall resounds,
With noisy mirth till wine their senses drown.
3. Tyranny of the Foreigners
Catherine contrasts her present, marked by ‘tyranny’, with the distant ‘old times’ of Berkeley, who was ‘good as well as great’, when free miners proved their character in a clear demonstration of loyalty. A Great Rebellion broke out in Scotland, probably the last Jacobite uprising for the Stuart cause in 1745, whose invasion of England reached as far south as Derby. ‘The Foresters crossed the Severn, to join Earl Berkeley’s volunteers, in such numbers as to acquire the appellation of “Berkeley’s ducks”’. Forest of Dean poet Richard Morse also celebrated their bravery:
When the throne was endanger’d by traitors,…
To oppose them the Foresters sent a brave band,
Determined the rebels’ approach to withstand.
(From 'The Foresters' Song', Lays of the Forest and Other Poems, 1840. In: A Native Forester, 2012, by David Adams & Chris Nancollas.)
Catherine characterises Berkeley’s days as a time of freedom, when,
…no tyrant did oppress,
And although poor we did not know distress;
For all industrious, till’d his little land,
And built his cottage…
Such freedoms and traditional social bonds ‘are done away’, swept aside by the eruption of the early industrial revolution into the Dean. Now, in Catherine’s present, ‘foreigners over we free miners crow’ and ‘now there’s tyranny enough I know’. The old moral code has broken down, so ‘the honest labouring poor’ are despised and face abuse, even ‘when we do not offend’. Catherine reasserts morality’s demands:
Let us by labour earn our daily food,
We wish no more, and range our native wood…
Give us but labour, and its due reward.
Any power from unions was still decades away. Catherine’s only answer to ‘distress’ is to reaffirm the traditional, two-way loyalty; and to insist that those with power must recognise that the country’s good includes taking responsibility for the poor:
[You] must know the peasantry do bear a part.
Their useful lives and liberties defend.
4. Oak Tree
Catherine next remembers resting her ‘weary limbs at noon’ under the ‘friendly shade’ of ‘the brave oak’, ‘a real majestic tree’. But now it is marked ‘to be cut down’. The woodman levelled this ‘monarch’ and immediately men and boys with ‘jovial jests’ and a rosy maid singing cheerfully, all labour upon ‘his limbs’ until sunset. A century back ‘thee’st been a noble shade, to cattle’, but now destined for the Navy,
thou’lt plough the deep, …
Triumphant o’er the ocean may’st thou ride.
Even the ‘sweet peace’ enjoyed by ‘free-born Britons’ is thanks to Forest Oak, ‘A surer bulwark than the China wall.’
5. Lightening Strikes
At first tinge of light, ‘The labouring man does to his labour rise, …Then calls his boys’. Walking to work, they shelter from a storm, but a lightening shaft strikes dead his son John. Catherine captures the family’s grief, simply but effectively;
“What will poor mother say, how can we go,
Back to our cottage to let mother know?”…
The storm is spent, and nature seems at rest,
But still, the tempest rages in the breast.
A young shepherd goes ‘with aching heart’ to tell his employer that one sheep has been stolen. This ‘good old man’ is philosophical:
Cheer up my man, ‘tis folly thus to grieve,
For all thy tears, will never catch the thieves;
Come, fetch a mug of my best ale, and drink
Success to honest men…
7. Pretty Milkmaid Sally
Next, we are with ‘pretty Sally’, ‘The pretty milk-maid’ as ‘she hails the early dawn’. She is the one 'For whom young Collin sigh’d, but sigh’d in vain'. Catherine here communicating the story in a single line.
8. Holy Trinity Church
The Church had once been distant. Then at Berry Hill it first divided and then transformed the Forest community. It has now become a ‘blessing’ for Catherine’s community. At Holy Trinity, Rev Berkins, ‘our much esteemed friend’, is a ‘grand pillar of our forest weal’.
And more than all – thee faithfully dost preach,
The very doctrine that our Lord did teach.
Reflecting on that churchyard, ‘Beneath these sods’ all will lie, men and masters:
No envy here – nor there no tyranny;
The conqueror death has ended all dispute.
9. Tramroad Journey
Catherine reflects on the ‘monied men’ who ‘come here to speculate’ and who had, during her lifetime, so transformed the Forest with noble houses, tramroads and deeper pits.
Protheroe! Thy name is to the Forest dear,
For many thousands thee has ventured here;
Deeper thy pits than any here before,
The lowest vein of coal for to explore.
Catherine might not have so praised Protheroe, the largest by far of the new entrepreneurs, had she known that his ‘many thousands’ had ultimately derived from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and enforced labour on West Indies sugar plantations, the suffering of thousands of enslaved Africans. She does lament, however, that before such ‘monied men’,
It was much better for the labouring poor;
Men loved their masters – masters loved their men,
But those good times we n’er shall see again.
Catherine regrets the loss of the closer bond that existed when local Foresters were in charge.
Under those masters honest men did thrive,
But thanks to God there’s Bennetts still alive.
Catherine refers here to James (1783-1841) and Thomas (1781-1861), two brothers prominent in the 1841 Coal Awards. In 1841 over 400 colliers accompanied James Bennett’s coffin from Drybrook to Mitcheldean. His son, Forest industrialist Timothy Bennett (1804-1861), was Mitcheldean’s greatest philanthropist. Here, Catherine’s appreciation was not misplaced. Catherine also remembers when Cinderford was ‘a wild unpeopled spot’.
But now there’s houses where the brambles grew.
She next traces the tramroad route, ‘down through Soudley Green’, into the tunnel, passing the Hay Hill estate of ‘The good old Squire’ Jones, ‘the Foresters’ best friend’, and on to Bullo Pill wharf. There, forest coal is loaded onto vessels that will ride the Severn tide ‘for Gloucester, Worcester, and elsewhere’.
10. The Foresters’ 'Manifesto'
Adoring and proud of her Forest, Catherine also defends the people that Forest gives birth to. She claims an honest dignity for her Foresters.
'[She] is no radical; rather she is a poet who reflects her own perception of the times and her own moral position in respect to her own economic and social situation and those of her fellow Foresters. She is at pains to point out that money in itself is no indicator of moral superiority. Drew’s view is that the working men and women, the labouring poor, should value what they do have and endure, and in some respects this alone makes them better people than the shallow and sometimes morally questionable rich.' (Reading the Forest: A History and Analysis of Forest of Dean Literature, 2019, p78)
In her ‘A Word to the Chartists’, Catherine castigates the Chartists and advocates instead individual moral reform.
'Drew in this respect tends towards the socially conservative and throughout her published work is an advocate of the dutiful, stolid working life as a route to a morally rewarding existence. Drew advocates, for women in particular, a safe and conservative life.'
(Reading the Forest: A History and Analysis of Forest of Dean Literature, 2019, p77)
She frequently demonstrates an acceptance of the prevailing social order. Such acceptance, however, is far from uncritical and is perhaps born of necessity. She regrets the loss of the traditional social bonds, ‘those good times’ when 'Men loved their masters – masters loved their men', and contrasts the harmonious ‘old times’ of Berkeley, who was ‘good as well as great’, with the ‘tyranny’ of the ‘foreigners’, who ‘over we free miners crow’. The 1831 riots demonstrated her community’s relative powerlessness and their lack of options in the face of these new ‘moneyed men’ like Protheroe, who so easily associated with the Crown and the Dean Forest Commissioners in imposing a new settlement on Catherine’s world. She is critical of all undeserved disapproval of her Foresters. She denounces social hierarchies that lack genuine moral foundations. Failure to consider the common good, pay a proper wage or even failure to provide work, she condemns as ‘tyranny’. She is as assertive as the times allow, judges people’s true worth and roots her claims in the God-watched natural moral order. Her concluding manifesto seeks adjustments that better consider the Foresters’ needs. She calls on the new elites to care for the poor; and calls Foresters to respect themselves, regardless of how others decry them. Her own evident honesty and integrity requires us to question the then prevailing criticisms and stereotypes that outsiders imposed on those Foresters. In her poem we can respect these earlier people with their straight-forward moral code, their struggles and their cares.
Then think my friends upon the labouring poor,
Even today Catherine’s Manifesto sounds powerful. Writing in the pandemic, I am reminded of the impressive courage, calm and kindness many ordinary workers display, like, for example, those in supermarkets, amidst the panic buying and sometimes even customer rudeness and abuse.
Catherine Drew’s spectacular achievement and enduring legacy is to reflect the ‘Dean’s ancient forest’ in her words. She provides the nearest we might approach to walking the woods both in her TIMES PAST, the late-eighteenth century Forester’s world; and in Catherine’s PRESENT, the aftermath of the invasion and partial dispossession by the ‘monied men’, the world of the new settlement being established from the Dean Forest Commission and legislation of the 1830s. What might have been lost, Catherine’s precious poem has preserved and made accessible for later generations.
Even more, we grasp the ungraspable, a sensing of the Forest as a whole, transcending its boundaries, transcending time, a living entity, an overwhelming mystery encountered but never fully possessed. Despite Catherine’s claim that ‘No lofty theme shall now my pen employ’, her poem left me with a sense of awe, standing in the presence of something greater than myself. Some, like Catherine, might trace from nature ‘up to nature’s God’. For others ‘pure nature’ might their ‘active mind employ’ in deep awareness of the great mystery of the Great Forest. Catherine displays a spiritual alignment with her Forest; and her poem can awaken our Forest spirituality.
Catherine provides more than snapshot postcard of a forest. Her relationship to ‘Dean’s ancient forest’ is appreciative, personal, and life-sustaining. Today, Catherine would no doubt abhor contemporary attempts to privatise, marketize or sell off the Forest of Dean. She would reject reducing the Forest’s magnificence to mere economic coin. Catherine, unquestionably a potential dedicated recruit for the ‘Hands off our Forest’ movement, would consider such threats to the Forest as originating in a mindset which makes no sense, has no soul, a modern-day ‘tyranny’.
As Catherine Drew’s great poem becomes more widely known, it will deservedly take a bigger place in – and help to nurture - the Forest consciousness of future generations.
Steven Carter, 2021