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Dennis Potter


Warren James (1792–1841) was a miners' leader in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, England, who led the Foresters to action against the Crown, in 1831.

His  father, also Warren James (1751–1809), married Ann Kear (1755–1836) in 1777. At first they lived in a rented cottage in Bream, but in 1782 they moved to an encroachment cottage, which they had built on land between Parkend and Whitecroft.

A map dated 1787 shows the family house as being on the southern edge of Parkend, and describes it as a 'Turf' cottage, built on encroached land, and valued by the Crown at 15 shillings per year.

Warren James (the younger) was born in July 1792, and was baptised at Bream Chapel on 29 July 1792. He was the fourth son, and sixth born, of nine children. The younger James appears to have had no formal education, although later documents show that he could read and write as an adult. Along with his six brothers, he followed his father to became a miner at an early age.

Little is known of his family life, though the family were undoubtedly impoverished. Encroachment cottages were single storey, built of loose stones and covered with turf. They had no windows, only a low door, a crude fireplace with chimney, and a floor paved with stones. Life must have been very hard for a large family living in such conditions; and all the time, hanging over them, was the threat that the Crown could destroy their home and remove them from the land.

This was to happen in 1813, when the house was demolished and the land it was on replanted with trees. Now aged 20 or 21, James moved with his mother to Bream. He never married.

No photographs of James exist, but the following description of him, aged around 40, is given on a prison document: Height - 5feet 3 inches. Complexion - dark. Head - round. Hair/Whiskers - black to grey. Visage - oval. Forehead - long, sloping back. Eyebrows - brown. Eyes - hazel. Nose - sharp. Mouth - large. Chin - medium. Remarks - stout. Although conjecture, he may also have looked young for his age, as the same document describes him as being 30 on arrival in Tasmania, when he was in fact 40.

The Forest of Dean is home to tremendous natural resources; primarily timber, coal and iron ore. These had been exploited on a small scale since before Roman times, but the possibilities of large scale extraction had not escaped the attention of the Crown. Free-mining rights had been granted to foresters at least as far back as 1244, but there had been a long tradition of disputes between the Crown and Foresters over these rights.

In 1612 the Earl of Pembroke attempted to enclose extensive areas of forest. In an effort to preserve their rights, the Foresters took him to the Exchequer Court and won. There had also been previous riots, such as those which took place in 1631 when Sir Giles Mompesson built three new coal mines.

As the Industrial Revolution began to take hold, the Crown became more determined than ever to introduce the free market into the forest, and with it the right of outside industrialists to own land and mineral rights.

They began by outlawing the Mine Law Court in 1777, and physically destroying the Mine Law documents; which constituted the laws by which the forest miners governed themselves.

Soon after, outside industrialists began opening large iron and coal mines. The Free Miners found it difficult to compete with these and often ended up working as a wage labourer for one of the new owners.

In 1808, Parliament passed the Dean Forest (Timber) Act in response to a severe shortage of naval timber. The act included the provision to enclose 11,000 acres (4,452 ha) and responsibility for its execution fell to a young, newly appointed, deputy surveyor named Edward Machen. He established his office at Whitemead Park, in Parkend, and in 1814 he enclosed and replanted Nagshead, the main woodland of Parkend.

By 1816 all 11,000 acres (45 km2) had been enclosed. Ordinary foresters were already poverty stricken, but now their plight had grown worse; They were denied access to the enclosed areas and so were unable to hunt in them or remove timber. In particular, they lost their ancient grazing and mining rights.

Unrest was growing, but at first there was no organised resistance as the foresters had been told that the fences would be removed after 20 years; once the oaks were mature enough to withstand grazing.

In 1828 and 1829, the Foresters petitioned to have the fences removed, but were turned down. In 1830 the 'Committee of Free Miners' chose Warren James to petition the Chief Commissioner and others in London.

A petition from James, opposing the commission's parliamentary bill, was presented to the House of Commons on 11 June 1830, but foundered.After further efforts to have the fences removed failed, James finally called the Free Miners to action. A notice, dated 3 June 1831, was distributed and instructed Free Miners to meet on the following Wednesday "for the purpose of opening the Forest".

James and Machen knew each other well, as both were regular churchgoers at Parkend. On Sunday 4 June they held a public meeting outside the church gates in Parkend. It was a final attempt to resolve the matter peaceably, but they could agree on nothing. The date given on the notice is "Meet on Wednesday next the 7th instant for the purpose of Opening the Forest...." Wednesday was in fact the 8th, but the wording may only be confusing in the context of modern-day interpretation. In any case, it was on the 8th that they met.

Machen confronted James at Park Hill enclosure, between Parkend and Bream, but James, who was leading a group of over 100 foresters, proceeded to demolish the fences there. Machen, and about 50 unarmed Crown Officers, were powerless to intervene. He returned to Parkend and sent for troops.



On the Friday, a party of 50 soldiers arrived from Monmouth, but by now the number of Foresters had grown to over 2000 and the soldiers returned to their barracks. By Saturday night, there was scarcely a mile of unbroken fence in the forest, but the next day a squadron of heavily armed soldiers arrived from Doncaster and the day after, another 180 infantrymen arrived from Plymouth.

The Foresters’ resistance soon crumbled. Most melted away into the forest and returned home. Warren James was arrested, and committed to trial at Gloucester Assizes on Monday, 13 August 1831.

Machen was the first, and chief witness at the trial. He spoke about the notice James had issued, and how he had, in turn issued his own notice cautioning that such action was illegal. He referred to his meeting with James, on the Sunday, and said that James had claimed possession of a document which proved the enclosures were unlawful.

Machen went on to say that, on Wednesday morning (the day of the riot) he had gone to James' house in the morning, asking him to produce the document. James replied that it was in his house and said he would fetch it "and in a minute or two returned, with a pick axe on his shoulder."

Machen then described how he and another magistrate had followed James to the enclosure at Park Hill, how he had warned him again, how James had made the first 'blow', and how he (Machen) had eventually read the riot act.

After listening to several more witnesses, the jury found James guilty of felony under the Riot Act, but made a plea for clemency on the grounds of his previous good character. The judge, Mr Justice Patteson, sentenced James to death, but within two weeks this was commuted to transportation for life.


Relief guard arriving at a prison hulk  (E Tucker 1821)

Warren James was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, (Tasmania). Of the others who were arrested, one other was also sentenced to death, but this too was later commuted to transportation. Nine people were sentenced to imprisonment, for periods of up to two years, and several others received smaller sentences or fines. Around a hundred others elected to voluntarily rebuild the enclosures, rather than be charged with rioting.

The conditions on transport ships were notoriously bad and convicts frequently died en route. James arrived in Tasmania on 14 February 1832, and was assigned to a working party attached to the Public Works Department in Hobart. It seems that he kept his head down for four years, but on 19 January 1836, he was sentenced to a week's imprisonment for 'neglect of duty and insolence to a magistrate'.

Hobart Chain Gang 1831

 Then on 24 February 1836, he was sentenced to thirty six lashes and sent to work in a coal mine near Port Arthur, for 'gross contempt towards the commandant when addressing the prisoners'.

Meanwhile, back in the Forest of Dean, the foresters, supported by Machen, had been petitioning for his pardon. This was granted on 16 February 1836, but didn't reach (or wasn't granted to) James until 13 September, and was given without free passage home. James decided to stay in Van Diemen's Land, though his reasons are unknown.

Certainly he would have been unable to pay for the passage without assistance, and by now he was also in poor health. It also seems that he had cut himself off from his family and friends, as he apparently had no contact with them since leaving England.

Warren James died in rented rooms in Argyll Street, Hobart, on 26 October 1841.

A moving account of his last few days was given by his landlord, William Overell, at the inquest. In it he describes James' terrible condition and how he had refused medical attention. The coroner recorded the death as being due to "Atrophy of the belly" and "very acute inflammation of the liver".     Text from Wikipedia


Petitioners from Bream

The threat of forest privatisation is nothing new to the folk of the Forest of Dean. Over the centuries they have challenged every move to deny them access to the forest, sometimes they have succeeded sometimes not, but they have never given up without a fight. Perhaps the most memorable confrontation occurred in the mid 1800’s.

The process of enclosing common land by the rich and greedy had, by this time, pushed many people into a life of poverty and misery.

In the Forest of Dean there were still laws guaranteeing Foresters, free miners and peasants free access and use of the forests resources. But things were beginning to change. The greed of land owners and industrialists, especially Lord Nelson at the Royal Navy, led to the passing of an act of parliament which set out to increase the enclosed land from 676 to 11,000 acres. Not only did this privatise the timber and coal industries, but it denied people the ability to scare even the most basic of livelihoods.

When an economic slump hit the Dean at the beginning of the 1830’s the Foresters lives became unbearable so they got organised. The Committee of Free Miners was set up. The Committee elected local lad Warren James to lobby those in power to reverse the enclosures.

As a peasant and squatter, James was well aware of the hardships facing the people. So when the Free Miners demands were ignored he tabled to motion that all enclosure fences be torn down.Things quickly escalated and at its peak there were 3000 men women and children organised into gangs, destroying fences, turnpikes, crown buildings and the houses of local gentry.

Eventually troops managed to end the rioting, and although James was arrested and transported to Tasmania, other rioters received quite lenient sentences. Most of the fences were rebuilt but the radical nature of the Foresters has lived on and many free mining and commoner rights still exist today.

Warren James was a man who was caught up in the social unrest that swept through the Forest of Dean in 1831, and who emerged as spokesman for the Foresters in their struggle to protect their ancient rights and way of life. The Forest Riots of 1831 were about insecurity, fear, poverty and starvation as a result of enclosures, enforced wage labour or unemployment, and the local foresters fought to resist the twin onslaught from the Crown, who owned the Forest, and from businessmen who sought industrial profits from it.          Text from Hereford Heckler Radical History


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