August 22, 2014, by Lucy
Getting into the archive: Sherwood Forest and the ‘hurricane’ of 1714
Storms and tree damage
Damage to trees is one of the more common impacts of storms recorded in the documentary record. The loss of trees is a very visible sign of an extreme weather event that can cause significant changes to the landscape in a short space of time – a number of trees were lost in the storm (ex-hurricane Bertha) which hit the UK on 10th August. Personal diaries often record the impact of strong winds and rain on individual garden trees, whilst estate records note the effects on larger plantations. John Evelyn wrote that the impacts of The Great Storm of November 1703 included, ‘knocking flat thousands of trees, which lay prostrate in rows like regiments fallen in battle’. It was reported that 4,000 oaks fell victim to the 1703 storm in the New Forest and Evelyn himself lost upwards of 2,000 on his Surrey Estate. More recently the October 1987 storm blew down 50 million trees, destroying more timber than any other single storm of the 20th century (Forestry Commission). In this post I want to explore the effects of a single storm on Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, as I start to think more about the value of forest and woodland records for our project on extreme weather.
Sherwood Forest and the ‘hurricane’/storm of 1714
My interest was sparked by a series of documents in Nottinghamshire Archives relating to the management of Sherwood Forest. Sherwood is of course most famous for its association with Robin Hood, and was once a Royal Hunting Forest. Charles I was the last King to use Sherwood as a hunting forest. By the early part of the eighteenth century, large areas of the Crown land in Sherwood had been sold or given to noble families who created country estates and the area became known as the ‘Dukeries’. The families who owned the estates continued to profit from the Forest’s timber resources.
The documents at Nottinghamshire Archives date from the end of the period when the Forest was a Royal concern and relate to the storm or ‘hurricane’ of 1st February 1714, in which a substantial number of trees in the forest were blown down. Following a survey ‘taken by skilful woodmen’, it was established that the value of the timber was a substantial £2,473 6s. 4d.
‘127 oak trees, the major part of such trees blown down or broken off nigh the bottom, value £1,082 16s. 8d.
Cordwood arising from the root and topps, and about 135 birch trees, value £438 4s. 6d.
803 damaged trees, value £952 8s. 2d.
Together £2,473 9s. 4d’ (Nottinghamshire Archives DD/FJ/10/9/7/31).
I’m hoping to uncover further accounts of the 1st February 1714 ‘hurricane’ as my archival work continues. The meteorology@West Moors database (booty.org.uk) notes a possible major gale or storm on 1st February 1714 citing the Parish Register of Wintringham (North Yorkshire) so that’s definitely one source I would like to look at.
Profiting from extreme weather: the right to the timber
At the time of the ‘hurricane’, the Surveyor of the King’s Wood at Sherwood (Queen Anne the reigning monarch) was Thomas Hewett. The Surveyor was responsible for general management, for the felling of timber for the Royal Navy, for repairs to property, for royal gifts to subjects, or for sale, and for dealing with claims to customary rights in the forest, for paying keeper’s wages and for providing hay for the deer in times of scarcity. In the documents at Nottinghamshire Archives, Hewett lays claim to his right to sell the valuable ‘windfalls,’ citing examples where windfall trees had apparently been considered to belong to his predecessors in the post of the Surveyor of His Majesty’s Forests, rather than the Crown. Hewett was requested to report to the Lord Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury to give an account of the damage. In presenting his case, he explained how unusually extreme the storm had been, ‘this was an extraordinary storm – for that there are few or no wind falls, but when such winds happen, the last of which was above 20 years since, in the time of my predecessor Mr Laycock who then had as many as amounted to several hundred pounds’ (Nottinghamshire Archives DD/FJ/10/9/7/30). As Bailey (1853) explains, ‘Windfalls they had in abundance; but a windfall bringing down timber in one night to the value of two thousand five hundred pounds, was indeed an event of no common occurrence.’
Additional Land Registry records held by the National Archives relate to ‘sales of trees blown down or damaged by violent storm of 1st February 1714’, dating from 1716-1746, including an account from Sir Thomas Hewett’s executor, suggesting that the debate regarding who could lay claim to the timber went on for some time! Hewett wasn’t the only officer of the forest making a claim, ‘One said the tops were his; another showed his patent for the lops; another claimed the bark; a fourth his percentage on the value of the whole; a fifth demanded an allowance for the superintending the process of topping, lopping, and barking and a sixth put forward his title to compensation for taking account of particulars, and correspondence with the lord-warden and the chief justice in Eyre of all forests north of the Trent’ (Bailey, 1853). Illingworth Butler explains that ‘when all claims for surveying and superintendance, and for fees, poundage, customary allowances, patent salaries, and other expenses had been met, not a penny reached the Treasury’ (Illingworth Butler, 1946).
Hewett was Surveyor of the Kings woods on both sides of the River Trent (the first Surveyor to oversee both areas) for which he received £100 a year, and also practised as an architect. He was knighted in 1719, after he had been dismissed from his other posts by Sir Robert Walpole in 1716. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1721 and died at his home, Shireoaks Hall in Nottinghamshire in 1726, aged 69.
Sherwood Forest and other extreme weather events
This was not the first time that extreme weather had an impact on the forest – during the great drought of 1624, Sherwood Forest suffered from a great fire. According to a document in the British Museum, the smoke and particles were mistaken by many that saw them, for an eclipse of the sun. When the true cause was discovered ‘there came command from the justices to raise the country there about and to bring pickaxes, spades and shovels to make dikes and trenches to break the fire in the forest’ (White, 1875).
I am confident that we’ll uncover more accounts of significant tree damage as our research continues. If you know of any as always we’d be very pleased to hear from you.
- An excellent index of sources on Sherwood Forest is provided on the Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway: http://www.nottsheritagegateway.org.uk/places/sherwood/sherwoodarchival.htm
- Bailey, T. 1853 Annals of Nottinghamshire: History of the County of Nottinghamshire, Volume 3, Simpkin, 1094-1095. Available at: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Annals_of_Nottinghamshire.html?id=xsc9AAAAcAAJ&redir_esc=y
- Illingworth Butler, Rev L. 1946 Sherwood Forest Transactions of the Thoroton Society 49. Available at: http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/articles/tts/tts1946/sherwood1.htm
- Watkins, C. (Ed). 1998 European Woods and Forests: Studies in Cultural History Wallingford: CAB International
- White, R. 1875 Worksop, the Dukery, and Sherwood Forest. Available at: http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/white1875/sherwood_p4.htm
More information on Thomas Hewett:
- Worsley, G. 2004 ‘Hewett, Sir Thomas (1656-1726)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press