Twenty-five dramatic years – the emergence of the modern New Forest, 1851-1877

I have remarked previously of the many times Victorian legislation impacted on the lives of every citizen, and often having repercussions into our own time. The period we are looking at here is essentially defined by the passing of two contradictory parliamentary acts, namely, the Deer Removal Act of 1851 and the New Forest Act of 1877, later to be enshrined locally as the ‘Commoners’ Charter’.

The 1851 act can, perhaps, be considered as the culmination of more than a half a century of legislation and reorganisation in the management of forests in the ownership and control of the government, including, the Crown. It would be rather tedious to try to describe these changes in detail and I would therefore like to turn to John Wilkinson who in 1861 summarised the background position quite succinctly in a paper entitled, “The Farming of Hampshire” (The Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, Vol. 22, 1861).

A sawmill at work in the forest

‘In the New Forest the oldest plantations, the first fruits of culture are those of William III (1698). Authority was then given to plant 6,000 acres. The next are Phillipson’s 1756, then Pitt’s 1776. In 1808 a new system arose. A Commission of three was appointed, and the Surveyor General of Woods and Forests became the chief commissioner. Planting then first began on an extensive and regular scale, so as to include from 1808 to 1851, 7,200 acres.’ Somewhat exceeding the total area originally permitted and designated! Wilkinson continues, ‘in the last named year (1851) the Deer-removal Act was passed, by which the Crown acquired the right of planting 10,000 additional acres, in consideration of giving up the right to keep deer.’ The logic, if it may be so designated, was that with the removal of deer the commoners would be relieved of the competition these animals offered to their grazing commonable beasts and as a consequence would readily agree to the loss of some grazing caused by planting the designated acreages. We perhaps may turn to the preamble of the Act itself which states that ‘the persons having rights of common etc., and persons having estates adjoining the New Forest would be greatly benefited by the removal of the royal deer within the Forest and that Her Majesty had signified her intention to give direction for their removal with all convenient speed…’ In fact the benefits promised to the commoners did not materialise though the landowners with properties abutting the Forest did, because amongst other things, it relieved them of the expense of erecting and maintaining deer-proof fencing to their properties.

Deer Removal Act 1851. Title page of the Parliamentary Act of 1851

The Deer Removal Act also specified that the areas enclosed for timber growing and, when these matured enough to be thrown open, they would be replaced by additional equivalent areas for making new timber plantations. The consequences of this process soon become obvious and concern was voiced by many who conjectured that by this means the whole open forest area would eventually be planted and very little left as open heath, bogs and lawns. The projected process became known as ‘the rolling powers of afforestation’ and offered a real threat to the well-being of the commoners by systematically diminishing the amount of grazing available for their animals. Conifers began to planted in the mid-eighteenth century and were introduced more systematically to the silvicultural mix in the New Forest by 1776 (Stagg, Silvicultural Inclosure in the New Forest, 1984), and the 1851 act, I think for the first time, permitted the systematic planting of relatively fast growing conifers which provided useful commercial timber but led to regimented and closely planted rows of firs.

Illustration by Heywood Sumner of old trees in Mark Ash Wood

Would the New Forest disappear?

Underpinning this was a greater threat to the survival of the Forest itself (except for timber production). And this led to the fear that in due course all the forest land would disposed of on a commercial basis and though the commoners could justifiably expect compensation for their loss of rights it inevitably would lead to their extinction and that of the New Forest in which they lived. This process was not without precedent as nearby Cranborne Chase had undergone such changes as, indeed, had other forested lands with common rights elsewhere in the kingdom. The result would be that the whole area would then become agricultural consisting of separate farms interspersed with areas of timber inclosures.

The role of the Deputy Surveyor

The Deputy Surveyor, Lawrence Henry Cumberbatch (1827-85), appointed in 1849 at the early age of twenty-two (probably the youngest appointee ever to the post) summed up the position very neatly when he wrote to his superior stating, ‘all the best pasture would be taken from the commoners and the value of their rights would thus be materially diminished, which would be of great importance to the Crown in the event of such Rights being commuted.’ (Sumner, edited by Gordon Le Pard, Hampshire Studies, 1999). In a letter he wrote to his boss, the Commissioner of Woods, dated 31 Dec. 1853,  he expressed even more clearly his views, “It appears to me to be important that the Crown  should, as soon as possible, exercise its right of inclosing  the 16,000 acres, because, exclusive  of other advantages, by so doing all the best pasture would be taken from the commoners, and the value of their rights of pasture would thus be materially diminished, which would be of importance to the Crown in the event of such rights being commuted” (i.e. in the event of disafforestation). This communication became a bone of contention at the Select Committee meeting in 1875 and when Lord Henry Scott (1832-1905), made the first Baron Montagu, 1885, as MP for South Hampshire, sought clarification of the Crown’s intentions; he received the following revealing reply from the Hon. Kenneth Howard, Commissioner of Woods, “I think it was good advice to give to his employers” but it would have been done better if he had given it by word of mouth”.

As the consequences of these developments it dawned on the local Forest population opposition, led by influential local landowners, to fight the consequences of the act led first to the constitution of a Select Committee of the House of Lords in 1868 and seven years later to the establishment of Parliamentary Select Committee to examine the consequences of the Deer Removal Act.

Lawrence Henry Cumberbatch

The recognition of amenity values

The furore that was raised by these issues led for the first time to the legal consideration of the amenity value of the Forest which should be considered alongside the essentially commercial roles of both Forestry and commoning. Individuals, most notable perhaps in providing the basis for this aspect was The Rev. William Gilpin (d.1804) with his Forest Scenery (1791) (see ‘Reflections’, A&T 23 Dec. 2016). By promoting his conception of applying the picturesque to scenery he had shown the significance of pictorial interpretations of the Forest, and it was the famous art exhibition of 1875 held in Regent’s Street, London, under the secretaryship of the most notable defender of the Forest, G.E. Briscoe-Eyre of the Warrens, Bramshaw, that significantly helped provide and promote a national view of the importance of the New Forest as a source of aesthetic inspiration for the wider population and, more simply, as an area where the people at large could quietly enjoy the amenities offered by the natural qualities of the New Forest with its glorious mixture of heath, lawn, bog and woodland.

Hunting and shooting

The forest was created as a hunting ground for royalty and the prime objective was the deer but it was an activity that had been discontinued by Stuart times and became extinct by the reign of George III. In fact it was pointed out at that time that the king, who much enjoyed hunting, restricted his activity to Windsor Great Park. Later the pursuit of foxes became popular for a much wider public, who gathered at the meets, mostly as passive witnesses. Gerald Lascelles, Deputy Surveyor from 1880 to 1914, in his reminiscences, Thirty-five Years in the New Forest (1915), has an extensive and informative chapter on this subject and the New Forest Committee’s Report of 1847, recorded, “The Hunts have a large following and in our opinion add to the amenities.” Alongside hunting was the sport of shooting (by licence), at first it was uninhibited but later the Forestry Commission drew up certain restrictions and in some of the locked timber inclosures shooting was forbidden. It is perhaps worth noting some of the species that were shot which included hares and rabbits and, among the avifauna, plovers, woodcocks, widgeons, moorhens, teal and many others. I think this sport probably had its origin in the Royal Licence issued at Balmoral on 21 September 1861, on the receipt of a petition singed by many named landowners; it specifically stated that “the licence was hereby given was given to them [99 named individuals] for their recreation only, and not for the destruction or spoil of Game, or Birds, or Beasts of the Chase, Warren, or Forest, in our said [New] Forest.” And it specifically excluded red or fallow deer, which I presume would have been survivors of the operations of deer removal, and red grouse, black game, or hen pheasants.

The alleged “last deer” at Irons Hill painted by Sir Charles Burrard

1877 and afterwards

It is not my intention to deal with the very many problems that beset the New Forest communities following the 1877 act. They are far too complex to allow of brief treatment. But as a backcloth to this we should consider the observation reported to the Select Committee of 1868, in which it was stated, “the interests of the Crown and the commoners are at variance and there must be a perpetual struggle of conflicting interests.” I suppose the key factor was the continuing need for the Forestry Commission, the official body with overall authority  who had taken charge of commercial timber production since 1924, to pursue that activity as its prime purpose. The Deputy Surveyor, Dallas Mithen, appointed in 1969, sought to pursue the principle of the clearance of the hardwood (primarily the oak and beech woods) and replant them with fast growing conifers. The matter came to head with the matter clear-felling the hardwoods in Rushpole Wood (just to the north-east of Lyndhurst), extensively reported in this newspaper in numerous reports and articles between 1969 and 1972. Anthony Pasmore in his authoritative, well-researched and detailed history of the Verderers’ court after 1877 (Verderers of the New Forest 1977, especially the chapter ‘The Forest’s Woodlands’ pp.227-244) deals in detail with the intricacies these issues and the beautiful glass goblet bearing on its base the engraved signatures of those active in bringing the matter to light is on display in the museum in the New Forest Centre. The outcome marked an important and durable turning point in the Forestry Commissions’ role in the Forest which was declared and confirmed by James Prior, then Minister of Agriculture, in May 1970, and enshrined in what has become known as ‘The Minister’s Mandate’.

To learn more

The Christopher Tower Library in the New Forest Centre has detailed and extensive published material, including all the New Forest Acts and official reports dealing with this significant period of our local history.

Photos courtesy of CT Library, St Barbe Museum

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times in April 2018