Forest of Dean: Local government and public services

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 5, Bledisloe Hundred, St. Briavels Hundred, the Forest of Dean. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1996.

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'Forest of Dean: Local government and public services', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 5, Bledisloe Hundred, St. Briavels Hundred, the Forest of Dean, (London, 1996) pp. 377-381. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]


Since the Forest was extraparochial, provisions for poor relief and other functions of parish government were unusual. In the 1670s and the following decades a few people, mostly women, received financial help from the county stock, which also occasionally paid apprenticeship and funeral expenses. (fn. 1) Seven women, one of them a foster mother, received regular help in 1726 (fn. 2) and a child abandoned at St. White's was reared at the county's expense from 1768. (fn. 3) Because paternity orders could not be obtained for illegitimate children born on extraparochial land it became increasingly common in the late 18th century for unmarried women from neighbouring parishes to enter the Forest for childbirth. (fn. 4) Poverty was the general condition of miners in the 1740s (fn. 5) and it remained widespread in the Forest in the late 18th century. Although most Foresters had legal settlement in adjoining parishes they often relied on the charity of their neighbours and of others and at times of greatest distress, when the parishes were unwilling or unable to provide help, many faced starvation. In 1801, at a time of exceptionally high grain prices, local magistrates used £1,000 given by the Crown for the Foresters' relief to sell them rice, fish, potatoes, and other food at reduced prices, the sales being conducted by the keepers of the Forest walks. (fn. 6) The general poverty persisted in the early 19th century but the Foresters, of whom a quarter had legal settlement in Newland parish in 1834, sought help from their parishes only as a last resort and continued to depend on voluntary gifts and subscriptions raised by local farmers and other people. In 1834, when 102 of the Forest's 1,530 families were receiving parish relief, many inhabitants belonged to provident societies and some employers retained a surgeon for their workmen. (fn. 7) A committee organizing relief for Foresters in 1842 (fn. 8) apparently employed them in building a road between Hawthorns and Stenders, above Mitcheldean. (fn. 9)

In 1835 a majority of commissioners considering a proposal to create civil parishes for the Forest rejected it, citing among their reasons difficulties in levying and collecting rates. (fn. 10) In 1842, however, the main part of the extraparochial area was divided for poor-law purposes into two townships, that of East Dean being included in the Westbury-on-Severn union and that of West Dean in the Monmouth union. (fn. 11) At Cinderford, where new building was mostly on land in East Dean township, Flaxley parish, and Lea Bailey tithing, three small extraparochial places on Littledean hill remained outside the poor-law system until 1869 when they were constituted the parish of Hinder's Lane and Dockham within the Westbury union. (fn. 12) That parish disappeared in 1884 when East Dean's boundaries were extended to include most of the town. (fn. 13) Lea Bailey tithing, where Newland parish officers had administered relief only intermittently and had never levied poor rates, relieved its own poor from the late 17th century. (fn. 14) It came to be regarded as a separate parish and in 1836 became part of the new Herefordshire poor-law union of Ross. (fn. 15) In the 1880s Lea Bailey was dismembered and its constituent parts added to various adjoining parishes. (fn. 16) Lydbrook, which grew up on land in both East and West Dean as well as the ancient parishes of English Bicknor, Ruardean, and Newland, (fn. 17) became in 1935 a new civil parish including Stowfield, Worrall Hill, and Joy's Green. (fn. 18) East Dean was divided in 1953 into the new civil parishes of Cinderford, Drybrook, and Ruspidge. (fn. 19) In 1895 West Dean had become part of West Dean rural district and East Dean part of East Dean and United Parishes rural district, (fn. 20) which in 1935 was reorganized as East Dean rural district, Lydbrook parish being assigned to West Dean district. (fn. 21) In 1974 Cinderford, Drybrook, Ruspidge, Lydbrook, and West Dean parishes all became part of the new Forest of Dean district.

In the later 19th century periods of economic depression, particularly in the coal industry, were marked by widespread unemployment and some emigration. Plans to lower wages often precipitated strikes. (fn. 22) Voluntary relief remained of considerable importance and a committee set up in 1877, during a particularly severe slump, employed men in repairing roads. One member of the committee, Thomas Nicholson, Baptist minister of Yorkley, organized other forms of help, including the distribution of cash, food, seed potatoes, and clothing, and helped families to emigrate and young people to find jobs elsewhere. (fn. 23) In 1897 another Baptist minister, A. W. Latham, organized relief during a strike of tinplaters at Lydbrook. (fn. 24) In the early 20th century widespread poverty led to strikes in the coal industry, (fn. 25) notably the national strike of 1926 when many hundreds of Foresters received emergency relief and there were hunger marches to the Westbury-on-Severn workhouse. (fn. 26) Road building figured among schemes to alleviate unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s. (fn. 27)

In the 1670s responsibility for maintaining roads and bridges within the Forest fell on the inhabitants of St. Briavels hundred. The roads included those converging on Coleford from Mitcheldean, Littledean, and Purton passage on the river Severn and the Dean road linking Mitcheldean with Newnham and Blakeney, and the bridges included those at Cinderford, Cannop, Parkend, and Whitecroft and those carrying the Dean road over Soudley and Blackpool brooks. (fn. 28) Although there was a levy on the hundred as late as 1719 to pay for repairs, (fn. 29) by that time roads and bridges were repaired by the surveyor general of woods and his local deputy on instruction from the Treasury and the costs were met by sales of timber. In 1721 the Forest's roads were described as impassable (fn. 30) and in 1737 Parkend bridge, which carried the Purton road, was in danger of being swept away. (fn. 31) Later a contractor made a causeway, presumably as part of the Purton road, to take timber out of the Forest (fn. 32) and in the period 1761-86 the Crown spent over £11,500 on repairing roads and bridges. (fn. 33) From 1796 the main roads crossing Crown land, including a road to Lydbrook branching from the Mitcheldean-Coleford road at Mirystock and the section of the Dean road between Mitcheldean and Littledean, were administered by a turnpike trust. The Crown, which was to be relieved of its responsibility for those roads on payment of £10,645 by way of a loan to the trustees, (fn. 34) incurred some expenditure on the Parkend-Coleford road in 1813. (fn. 35) The turnpike trustees, who also looked after roads in adjoining parishes, became responsible for more roads in 1827 (fn. 36) and built several new roads within the Forest. They levied tolls at gates on the Forest boundary and elsewhere, and of the 16 gates operating in 1856 the most profitable were those at Lydbrook and Drybrook, followed by those west of Parkend and at the foot of Plump hill. (fn. 37)

In the mid 19th century roads on the Abbots wood estate were maintained by its owner, Henry Crawshay. Several of them were declared public rights of way in 1870 (fn. 38) but throughout the whole Forest no highway rates were levied and many roads, including sections of some turnpikes, remained unmetalled in the early 1870s. Sometimes road users raised a subscription to repair a particular route and on one occasion the Crown contributed to the cost of work on the Yorkley-Whitecroft road. (fn. 39) Roads in detached parts of Newland at Lower Lydbrook and Pope's Hill were maintained from 1871 by the Coleford board of health. (fn. 40) The Westbury poor-law guardians were designated the highway authority in East Dean in 1876 and the Monmouth guardians were given similar powers in West Dean in 1883. Both authorities maintained roads built with their consent by the Crown. (fn. 41) After the Forest turnpike trust was abolished in 1888 (fn. 42) the county council took over the main roads. (fn. 43)

For much of the 19th century settlement in the Forest grew with an almost total lack of services. Squalid conditions developed in Cinderford, where in the late 1860s sewage flowed down the hillside in open drains from house to house, water was obtained from a few wells, and overcrowding, particularly in terraces near Cinderford bridge, caused outbreaks of disease. (fn. 44) In 1867 a local board of health was formed to improve sanitary conditions in the East Dean part of Cinderford but its schemes were thwarted by the Crown's refusal and ratepayers' reluctance to contribute towards their cost and in 1870 it was dissolved. (fn. 45) Following a resolution of the Flaxley parish vestry in 1869 a drainage authority was appointed for the Flaxley Meend district of Cinderford but the task of laying sewers was delayed by the absence of an outfall system in East Dean. (fn. 46) Conditions in Cinderford improved after 1875 when the sanitary authority, at that time the Westbury guardians, acquired greater powers there. (fn. 47) The Flaxley Meend drainage authority, despite the wish of the Flaxley vestry to have it dissolved, (fn. 48) remained in existence until 1884. (fn. 49) An underground drainage and sewerage system built for Cinderford and Ruspidge between 1876 and 1878 emptied into Soudley brook at treatment works above Soudley. (fn. 50) The system was extended later and the sewage works were enlarged several times before 1936 when they were rebuilt in a scheme, completed in 1938, serving part of Drybrook. (fn. 51) By 1973 there were also sewage works west of the town beyond Bilson green. (fn. 52)

In 1877 the Westbury guardians began constructing what became known as the Cinderford works to supply Cinderford, Ruspidge, and parts of Ruardean Hill, Harrow Hill, and Drybrook with water pumped from an ore mine near Green Bottom. (fn. 53) The system, which included a small circular reservoir on Littledean hill, was gradually extended and 841 houses had mains water by 1885. The reservoir was enlarged and covered over in 1896 and, to increase supplies, a well was sunk at the pumping station in 1907. (fn. 54) From 1923, when a reservoir was completed on Ruardean hill, the system reached as far as Upper Lydbrook and in 1924 mains were laid to Plump Hill and down the Soudley valley to Blakeney Hill. (fn. 55) At Blakeney Hill the supply superseded an earlier scheme, which from 1891 had pumped water from a well beside Blackpool brook up to a reservoir. (fn. 56) Other small systems replaced by the main supply included one in Horsepool bottom, built from a spring by 1897, and one at Joy's Green, built from a mine in 1921. (fn. 57) In the late 1920s houses at Lower Lydbrook still relied on a standpipe supplied from a spring. (fn. 58) To improve the main supply a second well was completed at Green Bottom in 1937 and a new reservoir was commissioned on Littledean hill in 1939. After the Second World War the supply, which also served neighbouring parishes such as Mitcheldean, was augmented from springs at Blakeney Hill and Lydbrook. The Blakeney Hill scheme, which included a pumping station and a reservoir, also served Awre and Viney Hill and was completed in 1952. The Lydbrook scheme, a joint venture of East and West Dean rural district councils involving a reservoir at the Pludds, was finished in 1954. (fn. 59) In the western part of the Forest piped water was supplied from Upper Redbrook from 1931 in a scheme incorporating a reservoir at Sling and a tower at Yorkley. (fn. 60)

In 1965 the undertakings of East and West Dean rural districts were acquired by the North West Gloucestershire water board, which in 1974 was superseded by the new Severn-Trent water authority. In 1969 supplies in the Cinderford area, which had been augmented from the Newent works, were increased by the completion of a pumping station at Buckshaft, in Ruspidge, to extract water from flooded ore mines. From 1973 a water shortage in the Bream and Yorkley areas was relieved from a new pumping station near Redbrook. From 1976 much of the Forest region and some other parts of the county were supplied with water from the river Wye through treatment works at Wigpool, above Mitcheldean, and in the following years new reservoirs were built on Ruardean and Littledean hills and at Sling. (fn. 61)

In 1859 local businessmen headed by Aaron Goold formed a limited company to provide gas in the Cinderford area for industrial and domestic use. The company, which built its works on Bilson green and started production the following year, was known as the Bilson Gas Light & Coke Co. until 1907 (fn. 62) when it was re-formed as the Cinderford Gas Co. (fn. 63) By 1885 gas lamps provided by a local tradesmen's association lit parts of Cinderford's streets. (fn. 64) Oil lamps were also provided but the town's street lighting remained inadequate in 1905 when East Dean parish council assumed responsibilty for it. The gas company erected new lamps for the council, which from 1913 also provided street lighting in Ruspidge. (fn. 65) There were 113 public lamps in Cinderford and Ruspidge in 1925 when electricity, newly introduced to the town by the West Gloucestershire Power Co. from its Norchard works, at Lydney, was first used for street lighting. (fn. 66) Abbotswood and several other houses in Ruspidge received electricity from Eastern United colliery from 1919 and until the colliery joined the electricity company's supply in 1924. (fn. 67) The Bilson gasworks, which were modernized after nationalization in 1948, closed in 1955 and Cinderford's gas supply, along with that of much of west Gloucestershire, was piped from Bristol by way of the Severn railway bridge. (fn. 68) After the bridge was partially destroyed in 1960 the supply was rerouted to a crossing higher up the river. (fn. 69)

The Forest of Dean Recreative and Medical Aid Association, formed before 1889 and based in Cinderford, (fn. 70) provided an ambulance, and M. W. Colchester-Wemyss, one of the association's founders, (fn. 71) gave East Dean parish council a horse-drawn vehicle for an ambulance in 1903. (fn. 72) An ambulance kept at Cannop for taking injured miners to hospitals in Gloucester or Monmouth was perhaps that recorded in 1917. (fn. 73) In 1923 a hospital built in memory of Sir Charles Dilke, a former M.P. for the Forest, opened on the road between Cinderford and the Speech House. Paid for by grants and voluntary contributions, many of them from miners, it was a single-storeyed building with 16 beds and its running costs were met by subscriptions. The subscribers received free treatment. A three-storeyed block was added in 1926 and a maternity ward in 1940. The Dilke Memorial hospital became part of the National Health Service in 1948 and a geriatric wing was opened in 1968. The maternity ward closed in 1988. (fn. 74) In 1993 the hospital was run by the Gloucester district health authority.

In 1893 the Westbury guardians had a small isolation hospital at Soudley. (fn. 75) It closed in 1896 when East Dean and United Parishes rural district council, acting as a sanitary authority, took over an iron hospital near Green Bottom put up by the guardians earlier that year during a smallpox epidemic in Gloucester. (fn. 76) In 1908 that hospital was moved a short distance (fn. 77) and from 1911 it was run by a joint board representing also the urban districts of Awre, Newnham, and Westbury. (fn. 78) It closed in 1921 but the building was retained as a smallpox hospital for west Gloucestershire and additional wards were erected in 1923. The hospital was dismantled after the Second World War. (fn. 79) A tuberculosis dispensary opened in Cinderford by 1925 (fn. 80) had moved from Belle Vue Road to Station Street by 1935. (fn. 81) A mental hospital for elderly people was opened in the town in 1988. (fn. 82) To meet a shortage of burial places within the Forest the East Dean rural district council opened a cemetery on the road from Cinderford to the Speech House in 1956 (fn. 83) and the West Dean district council a cemetery at Mile End for an area covering Milkwall, Berry Hill, and Lydbrook in 1967. (fn. 84)

The county police authority opened stations in several places in the Forest in the mid 19th century. The first, recorded from 1848, was at Upper Lydbrook. (fn. 85) In Lower Lydbrook some policing was undertaken by constables appointed by the English Bicknor parish vestry in the early 1860s. (fn. 86) A police station at Littledean Hill in 1869 (fn. 87) moved to a new building in Cinderford town centre in 1877. (fn. 88) Parkend had a police station in 1876 (fn. 89) and among other places with a police presence later were Drybrook by 1897 (fn. 90) and Yorkley by 1920. (fn. 91)

Cinderford had no fire service in 1869 when a blaze at the town hall, then under construction, was attended by the Coleford fire brigade. (fn. 92) East Dean and United Parishes rural district council provided fire-fighting equipment for the town and for Ruspidge and Drybrook in 1895 (fn. 93) but there was no regular fire brigade in Cinderford until after 1923. (fn. 94) A fire station in Belle Vue Road, built by the county fire service in the mid 1960s, was replaced by a new station in Valley Road in 1987. (fn. 95)


  • 1. Glos. R.O., Q/SO 1, ff. 34v., 157v, 183v., 190v., 211, 214v.; 2, f. 150v.; 3, ff. 10, 17, 64v., 92, 143v., 150v.; 4, pp. 76, 216, 349.
  • 2. Ibid. Q/FAc 1, ff. 4v.-10v., 20.
  • 3. Ibid. Q/SO 9, ff. 64v., 92, 114.
  • 4. Ibid. D 421/X 5/3.
  • 5. Ibid. D 1677/GG 1205.
  • 6. Ibid. D 421/X 5/1-5.
  • 7. 3rd Rep. Dean Forest Com. 6-7, 9, 12-16.
  • 8. Glouc. Jnl. 20 Aug. 1842.
  • 9. Nicholls, Forest of Dean, 197.
  • 10. 3rd Rep. Dean Forest Com. 3.
  • 11. Dean Forest Poor-Relief Act, 5 & 6 Vic. c. 48.
  • 12. Glos. R.O., G/WE 8A/8, pp. 334, 358, 412; 9C/2, f. 57; above, Fig. 15.
  • 13. Census, 1891.
  • 14. Glos. R.O., D 2026/R 6; above, Newland, local govt.
  • 15. Poor Law Com. 2nd Rep. p. 526.
  • 16. Above, Newland, intro. (Table I).
  • 17. O.S. Map 6", Glos. XXXI. NW. (1883 edn.).
  • 18. Census, 1931 (pt. ii); O.S. Maps 1/25,000, SO 51 (1958 edn.); SO 61 (1957 edn.).
  • 19. Census, 1961.
  • 20. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/1; DA 25/100/1.
  • 21. Census, 1931 (pt. ii).
  • 22. Glouc. Jnl. 12 Apr., 14 June 1856; 23 Aug. 1862; 8 July, 16 Sept., 4 Nov. 1871; Mountjoy, Dean Collier, 63.
  • 23. Glouc. Jnl. 16 Feb. 1878; Glos. Colln. LR 10.1; J. Stratford, Glos. Biog. Notes (1887), 233.
  • 24. Glouc. Jnl. 30 Oct. 1897.
  • 25. Ibid. 30 Mar. 1912; 9 Apr. 1921.
  • 26. Ibid. 22 May, 3 July, 21, 28 Aug. 1926; Glos. R.O., G/WE 8A/30, pp. 176-8, 232, 245-58.
  • 27. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/8, min. 18 Oct. 1921; 10, pp. 593-4; 11, p. 122.
  • 28. Ibid. Q/SO 1, ff. 71 and v., 182v.; D 2026/X 23.
  • 29. Ibid. Q/SO 4, p. 258.
  • 30. Cal. Treas. Papers, 1720-8, 81, 330; Cal. Treas. Bks. & Papers, 1731-4, 238, 302; 1735-8, 298, 363.
  • 31. Berkeley Cast. Mun., General Ser. T, box 25, petition to Treasury about road repairs 1736/7.
  • 32. P.R.O., F 16/31, f. 66.
  • 33. 3rd Rep. Com. Woods (1788), 100-1.
  • 34. Dean Forest Roads Act, 36 Geo. III, c. 131.
  • 35. P.R.O., LR 4/20/23.
  • 36. Dean Forest Roads Acts, 36 Geo. III, c. 131; 7 & 8 Geo. IV, c. 12 (Local and Personal).
  • 37. Nicholls, Forest of Dean, 197; O.S. Maps 6", Glos. XXXIX. SW. (1883 edn.); XXXI. NE. (1884 edn.).
  • 38. Glos. R.O., Q/RI 52.
  • 39. Dean Forest Select Cttee. (1874), 19, 23.
  • 40. T. Bright, 'Hist. Coleford Bd. of Health' (1956, TS. in Glos. R.O., PA 93/1), 12.
  • 41. E. and W. Dean (Highways) Act, 47 & 48 Vic. c. 87 (Local); cf. Glos. R.O., DA 40/100/2, pp. 166-7; 3, pp. 115-16.
  • 42. Dean Forest Turnpike Trust Abolition Act, 51 & 52 Vic. c. 193.
  • 43. Glos. R.O., DA 40/100/3, p. 148.
  • 44. Dean Forest Select Cttee. (1874), 172-8.
  • 45. Ibid. 15, 19-20; Glos. R.O., DA 6/100; Glouc. Jnl. 14 May 1870.
  • 46. Glos. R.O., P 145/OV 2/1, mins. 21 Sept. 1869; 3 Aug. 1871.
  • 47. Lond. Gaz. 5 Jan. 1875, P 37.
  • 48. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/1, pp. 80-1, 92, 97, 104.
  • 49. L.G.B. Prov. Orders Conf. (No. 4) Act, 1884, 47 & 48 Vic. c. 210 (Local).
  • 50. Glos. R.O., DA 40/100/1, pp. 98-100, 160-3; O.S Map 6", Glos. XXXIX NE (1884 edn.).
  • 51. Glos. R.O., DA 40/100/3, p. 18; DA 24/100/5, p. 9; DA 24/100/12, pp. 132, 275; DA 24/124/4.
  • 52. O.S. Map 1/2,500, SO 6413 (1974 edn.).
  • 53. Glos. R.O., DA 40/100/1. pp. 106, 108, 133, 142
  • 54. Ibid. 2, p. 60; Pearce, 'Water Supply in Dean', 18-28; Proc. C.N.F.C. xxi. 223-7.
  • 55. Pearce, 'Water Supply in Dean', 30-4.
  • 56. Ibid. 22.
  • 57. Ibid. 32; Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/1, p. 256.
  • 58. Richardson, Wells and Springs of Glos. 92.
  • 59. Pearce, 'Water Supply in Dean', 36-7, 42-4; Citizen (Glouc.), 28 Sept. 1951.
  • 60. Pearce, 'Water Supply in Dean', 51-4.
  • 61. Ibid. 99-118; Dean Forest Mercury, 30 May 1969.
  • 62. Glos. R.O., D 2516/6/1; P.R.O., F 3/176.
  • 63. Glos. R.O., D 4853/3.
  • 64. New Regard of Forest of Dean, x. 53.
  • 65. Glos. R.O., DA 24/950/1, pp. 160, 165-6; 2, p. 33; 8, min. 23 Feb. 1906.
  • 66. Ibid. 3, p. 14; D 2516/6/2, undated newspaper cutting.
  • 67. I. Pope and P. Kerau, Forest of Dean Branch, i (1992), 143-4.
  • 68. W.I. portrait of Cinderford (1965, copy in Cinderford libr.); New Regard of Forest of Dean, x. 60.
  • 69. R. M. Huxley, Rise and Fall of Severn Bridge Railway (1984), 121.
  • 70. Kelly's Dir. Glos. (1889), 733.
  • 71. G.D.R., V 6/29.
  • 72. Glos. R.O., DA 24/950/1, pp. 137, 156.
  • 73. Ibid. 2, p. 97; Dean Forest Mercury, 10 June 1988.
  • 74. Glouc. Jnl. 1 June 1922; 30 June 1923; 17 Oct. 1925; 4 Sept. 1926; for hist. of hosp., Dean Forest Mercury, 10 June-29 July 1988.
  • 75. Glos. R.O., DA 24/124/1, p. 1.
  • 76. Ibid. DA 24/100/1, pp. 201, 205; G/WE 8A/15, pp. 102, 114; P.R.O., F 3/496.
  • 77. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/5, pp. 114-15, 230, 252-3; O.S. Maps 6", Glos. XXXI. NE., SE. (1903, 1924 edns.).
  • 78. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/6, pp. 156, 234.
  • 79. Ibid. DA 24/880; DA 24/980; DA 24/984/2.
  • 80. Ibid. CE/M 2/17, pp. 307-8.
  • 81. Kelly's Dir. Glos. (1927), 126; (1935), 118.
  • 82. Dean Forest Mercury, 4 Dec. 1987.
  • 83. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/23, p. 585; 24, p. 144.
  • 84. Ibid. DA 25/111/2, p. 970; DA 25/209/2.
  • 85. Ibid. Q/CL 1/13; P.R.O., F 16/64 (no. 219); F 16/71.
  • 86. Glos. R.O, P 138/VE 2/1.
  • 87. Glouc. Jnl. 12 June 1869.
  • 88. Date on police station, in Station Street.
  • 89. Morris's Dir. Glos. (1876), 478.
  • 90. Kelly's Dir. Glos. (1897), 134.
  • 91. O.S. Map 1/2,500, Glos. XXXIX. 11 (1922 edn.).
  • 92. Glouc. Jnl. 23 Jan. 1869.
  • 93. Glos. R.O., DA 24/100/1, pp. 81-2, 99-100.
  • 94. Ibid. FD 60.
  • 95. W.I. portrait of Cinderford; Citizen, 19 June 1987.