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The Forest of Dean by H. G. Nicholls

We reached Coleford before seven


to the Reformation, care seems to have been taken to provide the population of the Forest with the means of religious worship. The border churches of Mitcheldean and Newland were far larger than the people residing in their immediate neighbourhood required; and there were others, of which the memorials only remain in the names of "Chapel Hill" and "Church Hill," the former in the parish of English Bicknor, and the latter at Park End. This last was connected apparently with Ruerdean, if we may judge from the "Churchway" which ran in that direction and gave the name to an adjacent colliery. The "Laws and Customes" of the free miners, dating as far back certainly as the year 1300, show that the services of the Church were then generally known--the King's Gaveller being therein directed to visit the mine "between Mattens and Masse," and the miner was to "swear by his faith." For 200 years after the Reformation no further provision was made, indeed none was apparently required, as the Forest had been more than once nearly depopulated during that period, and was said to be almost without inhabitants in 1712.

In common with many other mineral districts, especially those in the West, the Rev. John Wesley established a connection with our Forest miners. He visited Coleford as early as 1756, and did so again in 1763; and his Journal thus records these visits:--"Monday, 15th March, 1756.--We reached Coleford before seven, and found a plain loving people,

who received the word of God with all gladness. Tuesday, 16th.--Examining the little society, I found them grievously harassed by disputations. Anabaptists were on one side, and Quakers on the other; and hereby five or six persons have been confused. But the rest cleave so much the closer together. Nor does it appear that there is now one trifler, much less a disorderly walker, among them." Wednesday, 17th (August, 1763).--"Hence we rode to Coleford. The wind being high, I consented to preach in their new room; but large as it was, it would not contain the people, who appeared to be not a little affected, of which they gave a sufficient proof by filling the room at five in the morning."

It appears, also, as stated in the interesting MS. of worthy Mr. Horlich, an Independent Minister, that in the year 1783 "one Mr. Stiff occasionally, on the Lord's Day, went to some sequestered spot in the Forest, where himself and some of his family took their station under the extended branches of one of the trees, for the purpose of reading the Word of God."

But no sustained effort to impart religious instruction to the inhabitants of the Forest was made until 1803, when the Rev. P. M. Procter became Vicar of Newland, to which parish the Foresters were always considered to belong. "At this time," he says, in his 'Brief and Authentic Statement,' published in 1819, "I saw nothing of them on the Sabbath-day. The church was only used by them as a matter of course and necessity: indeed, a general opinion prevailed that they had no right to accommodation, and a Forester was seldom seen in the aisle. The first impression I received respecting the inhabitants was of the most unfavourable kind. For some months no other intercourse took place than what the visiting of the sick and the baptizing of the children occasioned. By these means, however, I came to the knowledge of their condition, their lives and conversation, of which the latter were the most deplorable--habitual profanation of the Sabbath-day, drunkenness, rioting, immodest dancing, revellings, fightings, an improper state of females on their marriage, and an absence and ignorance of the Holy Scriptures."

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