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Nelson and the Forest of Dean

Reproduced with the kind permission of “The Mariner’s Mirror” – Journal of the Society for Nautical Research


It is certain that Nelson was generally concerned about the supply of Oak, as were many senior officers and politicians of the time. There had been Parliamentary Committees and Enquiries into the issue in the previous thirty years. A ten-page memorandum, which Nelson wrote and is now in the Nelson Museum, Monmouth proves this. It is undated, but in it he puts forward simple and eminently sensible suggestions for bringing up the Forest of Dean to its full potential.

Nelson wrote:
“The Forest of Dean contains about 23,000 acres of the finest Land in the Kingdom, which I am informed, if in high cultivation of Oak, would produce about 9200 loads of timber fit for building Ships of the Line every year; that is, the Forest would grow in full vigour 920,000 trees.

The State of the Forest at this moment is deplorable, for if my information is true there is not 3500 Load of Timber in the whole forest fit for building and now coming forward. It is useless, I admit, to state the causes of such a want of Timber where so much could be produced, except that by knowing the faults we may be better enabled to amend ourselves.

First, the generality of trees for these last fifty years have been allowed to stand too long. They are passed by instead of removed and thus occupy a space, which ought to have been replanted with young trees.

Secondly, that were good timber felled, nothing is planted and nothing can grow self sown for the Deer (of which now only a few remain) bark all the young trees. Vast droves of Hogs are allowed to go into the Woods in the Autumn, and if any fortunate acorn escapes their Search and takes root, then the Flocks of sheep are allowed to go into the Forest and they bite off the tender shoot. These are sufficient reasons why Timber does not grow in the Forest Of Dean.

Of the Waste of Timber in former times I can say nothing but of late years it has been, I am told, shameful. Trees cut down in Swampy places, as the carriage is done by contract, are left to rot and are cut up by people in the Neighbourhood. Another abuse is the Contractors, as they can carry more measurement, are allowed to cut the trees to their advantage of carriage by which means the invaluable Crooked timber is lost for the Service of the Navy. These are also another cause of the failure of timber: a set of people called the forest-free miners, who consider themselves as having the right to dig for Coal in any part they please. These people in many places enclose pieces of ground, which is daily increased by the inattention, to call it by no worse name, of the Surveyors, Verderers etc.. who have the charge of the Forest.

Of Late Years some apparently Vigorous measures were taken for preserving and encouraging the growth of Timber in the King’s Forest and part of the Forest Of Dean has been enclosed, but it is so ill attended and that it is little if anything better than the other part. There is another abuse which I omitted to mention – Trees which die of themselves and are considered as of no value. A gentleman told me that in shooting on foot, for on Horseback it cannot be seen hid by the fern which grows to a great height, the Trees of 50 years growth fit for building, fencing etc is cut just above the ground entirely through the Bark in two years. The trees dies and it becomes either a perquisite or is allowed to be taken away by favoured people.

These shameful abuses are probably known to those high in power but I have gathered the information of these from people of all descriptions and perfectly disinterested in telling me or knowing that I had any View in a transient enquiry. But knowing the abuses it is for serious consideration of every lover of his Country how they can either be done away or at least lessened – perhaps a very difficult or impossible task.

If the Forest of Dean is to be preserved as a useful Forest for the Country, strong means must be pursued. 1st: the Guardian of the support of our Navy must be an Intelligent and Honest Man who will give up his time to his Employment. Therefore he must live in the Forest and have a House, small farm and an adequate Salary. I omitted to mention that the expense of the Surveyor of the Woods, as far as relates to this Forest, to be done away; Verderer as at present, also the Guardian to have proper Verderers under him who understand the planting, thinning and management of Timber trees. These places should be so comfortable that the fear of being turned out should be a great Object of terror and of course an inducement for them to exert themselves in their different stations.

The first thing necessary in the Forest of Dean is to plant some acres of acorns and I saw plenty of Clear fields with Cattle grazing in my Voyage down the Wye. In two years these will be fit for transplanting. NB: I am aware that Objections have been made to the transplanting of Oak. I am not knowing enough in this matter to say how far this is true when so young as 2 to 5 or 6 years. The next thing is to be careful to thin the trees for more timber is lost by being too fearful of cutting down than by boldly thinning. A Tree from 10 years of age ought by a scale given to me by a very able man, to be as follows viz: Number of Trees that such land as the Forests of Dean may contain at different periods from their first being set.



In forty years these forests will produce a great Value of timber fit for many uses in the Navy indeed except for Ships of the Line.

If on due consideration it is found not to be practicable for Government to arrange a plan for growing their Own Timber, then I would recommend at once selling the Forests and encourage the Growth of Oak Timber. I calculate that taking away the 3500 Load of timber at present fit for cutting (or be it more or less) than the Forest of Dean will sell for £460,000. I am sensible that what I have thrown together upon paper is so loose that no plan can be drawn from it, but if these facts which I have learnt from my late tour may be in the least instrumental in benefiting our Country I shall be truly happy.

After thoughts on encouraging the growth of Oak Timber drawn from my conversations with many gentlemen in my late tour: 1st: the reason why Timber has of late years been so much reduced has been uniformly told me that from the pressure of the times gentlemen who had £1000 to five worth of timber on their estates, although only half grown (say 50 years of age), were obliged to sell it to raise temporary Sums (say to pay off Legacy). The Owner cannot, however sorry he may feel to see the beauty of his place destroyed and what would treble the value to his Children annihilated, help himself. It has struck me forcibly that if Government could form a plan to purchase of such a Gentlemen the growing Oak that it would be a national benefit and a great and pleasing accommodation to such growers of Oak as wish to sell. My knowledge of this subject drawn from the conversation of gentlemen in the oak Countries I think would almost obviate all difficulties. Of my self I own my incompetence to draw up a plan fit for public inspection, but all my gathered knowledge shall be most cheerfully at the service of some able man.”

Based on the original handwritten Report which is in
The Nelson Museum, Monmouth. Tel 01600 710630.



The article about Nelson is well worth printing. From my researches, I feel sure that Nelson wrote it towards the end of 1802 and it reached “the Government” early in 1803 (the original handwritten Report is in The Nelson Museum, Monmouth). A more full, printed copy is in my book ROYAL FOREST, 1966, Oxford University Press pp.312-315. Nelson did not visit Dean Forest, but viewed towards it from a hill called The Kymin, east of Monmouth.
The report undoubtedly had a substantial part in the eventual Dean Forest (Timber) Act of 1808 under which 11,000 acres were planted, mainly Oak. On 25th October 2005, Forest Enterprise arranged and planted 200 oaks in the form of an avenue in The Dean, now called “The Nelson Avenue”. I planted one of the Oaks as HM Senior Verderer of the Forest !
Best wishes to you and your colleagues.

Dr Cyril Hart OBE

The table (above) on oak spacing supplied to Lord Nelson by a “very able man” is not so different to modern practice. But a passionate oak grower today would aim for two and a half times Nelson’s density at year 10, in order to encourage rapid establishment and early competition. Conversely, 45 trees to the acre at year 100 seems tight, especially if compass or crooked timber was required for knees and futtocks. It was said that two thirds of the oak required to build a ship of the line consisted of compass, against one third straight. This would suggest much wider spacing in order to encourage branches in many shapes.

Miles Barne

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