The history of the Verderers

The Verderers are the sole remnant of the organisational structure developed after Norman times to administer Forest Law - introduced to provide for beasts of the forest, in particular deer and boar, and for the protection of their habitat.

A comprehensive account of the history of the Verderers has been published by Dr Cyril Hart OBE. See Supplementary Info for more details.

Dr Hart celebrates 50 years as a Verderer in 2002
Dr Hart celebrates 50 years as a Verderer in 2002

The earliest allusion to Verderers in Dean is in 1216; the earliest named are those in 1221.

The Verderers, usually four to each region of Royal Forest, were judicial officers, who dealt with offences including the taking of venison, the illegal cutting of, or destruction of, woodland, and encroachment through unauthorised enclosures and buildings. Information on the operation of forest law is available in the Latin roll of the Dean Forest Eyre held at Gloucester in 1282.

By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the forest law was in decline and control was difficult. Elections of Verderers were infrequent, and encroachment and poaching was rife. The ancient but disintegrating forest organisation continued to be based upon the preservation of deer, despite the fact that the Crown took no interest in hunting and during this period much of the business of the Verderers was associated with gift or sale of trees.

The situation improved somewhat from 1559 when Queen Elizabeth I introduced legislation to protect naval timber. The Verderers by now were much involved in granting inhabitants of the Forest estovers (supply of fuelwood etc).

By the early seventeenth century there was a marked trend to charcoal production associated with the iron industry which caused widescale deforestation, which in turn caused the ancient regime of forest officials to resume prominence. Such was the concern that in 1661 the inhabitants petitioned for the restitution of their customs and privileges, yet offered to relinquish their claims to wood and timber for as long as the king would suspend the ironworks and the felling of trees. The situation eventually led to the Dean Forest (Reafforestation) Act 1668 which provided for the creation of inclosures to produce timber. This resulted in a backlash from the inhabitants opposed to loss of their privileges.

A Young Oak Stand
A Young Oak Stand

By 1788 a commission found that most of the ancient forest offices were merely nominal - bestowed rather as marks of favour and distinction on gentlemen of consideration in the neighbourhood, than as appointment of real use and responsibility. Conviction and punishment were now generally in magistrates courts by justices of the peace, rather than in the Verderers Court, although the Verderers were given new powers to inquire into encroachments by an act in 1838, and hundreds of convictions for encroachment offences resulted, together with other fines for opening of quarries, erecting houses etc.

The preservation of the vert and venison continued to be the tradition duties, but by 1855 all deer had been removed from the Forest on account of their tending to foster bad and idle habits among some of the inhabitants. Deer did not return to the Statutory Forest until the 1940?s. Encroachments continued to be the main business of the Court into the twentieth century.

The 1927 Forestry Act, which created the power for the Forestry Commission to make byelaws, saw a fundamental change in the role of the Verderers. They stated that in accepting the byelaws that none of their rights, duties or jurisdiction were ruled out, but that ordinary cases of infringements against the byelaws would be more effectively dealt with in the magistrates court rather than by the Verderers.