About the Forest

The Royal Forest of Dean

By Frederick C Goode

The Forest of Dean lies on the western side of the county of Gloucestershire, and is located within the triangle formed by the river Severn in the east and the river Wye in the west.

This area was recorded as The Forest in the 'Domesday Book' (1086) and as Dene or Dean after O.E. (old English) Denu, valley. It is also believed the Forest of Dean was named after the remnants of the ancient Norman' Old Castle of Dene' together with the 'Valley of Dene ' near Littledean.

The Forest of Dean area was once a vast forest covering over 100,000 acres, and over hundreds of years its great forests yielded vast supplies of naval timbers. For the past thousand years, the forest has gradually diminished until during the rein of King Charles 1 it was estimated that only about 14,000 acres remained as woodland.

The forest underwent further massive devastation and it was not until the 17th century that about 11,000 acres of forest was replanted. In 1938 the Forest of Dean became England's first National Forest Park, today the forest has increased its woodland area and now covers approximately 24,000 acres. A lot of this reafforestation is now done using softwood trees and not the indigenous hardwood trees, which the forest was once renown for.

Mining has also been carried out within the Forest of Dean's boundaries for over 2500 years, as its rocks were rich in ores, coal and building stone Even before the Roman conquest of England, iron ore was mined in the Forest of Dean, an example of this early mining can be seen today at the Royal Forest of Dean's Mining Museum at Clearwell Caves not far from Drybrook.

The early miners of the forest were a fiercely independent people, in the thirteenth century they were granted a Charter allowing them to become Freeminers of the forest. To become Freeminers they had to be male, over 21 years old, born within the hundred of St Briavels and work in a mine for a year and a day. Freeminers obtained the right to mine anywhere in the forest except under churchyards, gardens and orchards.

The demand for iron ore and coal increased to such an extent that by the early 1800's the population of the forest had increased many times. Along with the increased demand for iron and coal and the influx of miners with their families into the forest area, the population began calling and petitioning for the establishment of new churches and schools to serve their needs.

Although churches at Ruardean, Mitcheldean, Abinghall, Flaxley, Newland and Coleford ringed the Forest of Dean, the centre of the forest had no church and was described as bereft of churches and extra-parochial.

The Reverend H Berkin, who preached to the miners and their families, was the main leader of the demand for new churches and schools, he saw the results of his efforts achieved with the building of the Holy Trinity Church at Drybrook and its opening in July 1817. On the 6 July 1817 the first child baptised in the new church by the Reverend H. Berkin was Mary Anne, the daughter of James and Ann Bennett. As the first church within the Forest of Dean, it became known as the Forest church by the miners and their families.

Between December 1847 and February 1866 the Reverend Henry George Nicholls was the vicar of Drybrook parish, he established schoolrooms at Hawthorn. In addition to his many duties, he found the time to write three authoritative works on the history of the Forest of Dean, two of his three works are, Iron Making in Olden Times and An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Forest of Dean.

His last recorded Baptism service was on 12th November 1865; his last Marriage service was conducted on 6th February 1866. The Reverend H. G. Nicholls died in 1867 and is believed buried at Drybrook, he was only 44 years old, and it is believed that the size of his parish and the workload that he undertook led to his early death. He left a wife, Caroline Maria and twin boys Frederic William and Henry Millett aged 3years.

Since the late 1880's the mining industry in the Forest of Dean has declined, today there are still about 150 Freeminers in the forest area. The last of the major ore mines closed in 1945 and the coalmines were finally abandoned about 1965.

With the industrial change and the dispersal of the miners and their descendants throughout the world, it is very difficult for some people to trace their ancestors within the Forest of Dean It was only after I was able to access the Drybrook parish registers, that I found 4 sisters and 2 brothers of my great grandfather that our family knew nothing about. It is hoped that contact will be made with the missing families sometime in the future with a view to resuming our family relationships.

This surname index of baptisms have been compiled and printed in this booklet and on microfiche to assist researchers and librarians preserve the original parish registers and to quickly search for baptisms and variations of names and dates within the Drybrook parish registers.

A gazetteer from the middle of the last century described the early people of the forest as lawless and with having peculiar rites. When I made a brief visit to the forest in April 1995 I found the people of the forest to be a proud, friendly and very helpful people. I am very happy that my ancestors came from this area and I am proud to find that I am related in some way to the ancient foresters of Dean.

Taken from the book

Holy Trinity Church Drybrook
Surname Index of Baptisms
1817 to 1839 & 1860 to 1888

Copyright © Frederick C Goode July 1998