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Oral History

The New Forest Centre, through its Register of Language and Traditions project conducted in partnership with the National Park Authority and the Commoners Defence Association, collected people's memories from across the Forest. The project resulted in the Our New Forest exhibition, the text of which is available in the PDF document below, and in the Listening Post, an area within the Museum where you can listen to excerpts from recordings.

Click here to download the Register of Language and Traditions report by Dr. Jo Ivey.

Our New Forest Exhibition


Tradition in the New Forest is a way of life and those living in the Forest have held on to their traditions for longer than those in many other parts of the country. Despite this there has been much change over the last century. Only when threatened do we take notice of our traditions and this exhibition is based upon a project to record New Forest Traditions and produce a ‘Living Register of New Forest Traditions and Language’.


Verderers in Court


Commoning System

The New Forest is grazed by stock owned by the Commoners of the New Forest. Ponies and cattle are seen today with some sheep, and pigs in the autumn. The latter devour the acorns which can be fatal to ponies and cattle.

The Commoners occupy property to which certain rights attach and since 1964 include the adjacent commons, many owned by the National Trust to the north and west of the Forest. Commoning, although a way of life, is usually just a part of providing an income and is often conducted alongside other activities. For others is has become a hobby.

The Court of Verderers of the New Forest provides management of the Commoning System. In their present form they were set up by the New Forest Act of 1877. Not only do they manage the stock that roam on the Forest but they also act as regulators of development on the Crown Lands.

Agisters are employed by the Verderers to provide the day to day management of stock including checking animal welfare. In the spring they collect the ‘marking fees’ for each animal and in the autumn organise ‘drifts’ to round up the stock. They also have the job of attending road accidents and are on call 24 hours a day.

Animals often remain on the Forest throughout the year, but those in poor condition will be removed to the Commoners holdings. Pony sales are held from May to November.

timber harvest


Timber production is still a major part of the local economy. Forestry Commission Enclosures were limited to 16,000 acres in 1877 but a further 5,000 acres were added in 1949. Many of the old broad leaved areas were converted to conifer in the 20th century.

Bucklers Hard

Ship Building

The combination of mature timber, particularly oak, with a coastline has meant a long history of ship building including sites at Buckler’s Hard and Lymington. Many of Admiral Nelson’s fleet were built at Buckler’s Hard.

Charcoal Burning

Excavations have shown this to be a long established industry, in use by Roman times. Charcoal was provided for other industries including pottery, iron, salt and brick production.

cob building

Cob Buildings

Locally worked clay has provided the raw material for cheap cottage building for many centuries. A good base of sandstone or brick and courses of puddled clay (cob) topped with thatch is the traditional method of cottage building.

Salt Manufacture

Salterns around the coast from the Iron Age have provided an important preservation tool for food and tanning. The industry faded in the 19th century due to a combination of high taxation and the exploitation of rock salt elsewhere.


Customs duties on imported goods in the 17th century led to a regular but illicit trade between France and the New Forest. With numerous well wooded valleys and a small population it was a relatively easy area in which to distribute goods aided and abetted by a few locals.



The New Forest was designated a Royal Forest for the purpose of protecting the beasts of the chase by King William in the 11th century. Forest law was introduced to ensure that the ‘Vert’ - the green cover, and the Venison - the deer, were undisturbed. This was relaxed over the centuries with the King’s favourites allowed to hunt, even in his absence. Hunting was formalised in the 18th century by which time foxes were as much a quarry as deer. Whilst keepers activity following the Deer Removal Act of 1851 decimated the numbers, these were eventually replaced by incomers from surrounding areas. The 20th century saw increasing activity by anti-hunt organisations culminating in the national ban on hunting in 2001.

Horse and Pony Racing

Now used by a golf club, Lyndhurst Racecourse was the scene of many races in the 18th and 19th centuries. This tradition is still carried on with the annual point-to-point races held on Boxing Day. The start and finish point is not known until late so an intricate knowledge of the Forest is essential.

Visitors and Tourism

The opening of the railway line across the Forest in 1847 made the area accessible to large numbers of ordinary people. Growing car ownership, particularly after the Second World War, has meant ever increasing numbers have opportunity to enjoy the New Forest. Until 1972 it was possible to drive and camp virtually anywhere on the unenclosed lands. Since then more than a 130 car parks and 10 campsites have given excellent access whilst helping to protect some areas. Current figures show that each year there are 24 million day visits to the Forest, three quarters of which are from local residents.


William Rufus

The death of King William II (Rufus) in the New Forest is one of the Forest’s most famous stories. Reputed to have occurred near Minstead, there is a stone on the site of a tree, off which an arrow glanced to kill him. Walter Tyrell was believed to have shot the arrow. He fled the scene whilst the King’s body was supposed to have been drawn to Winchester on a charcoal burners cart. Some say it was an accident, others a plot. John Wise, the Forest’s first real historian said ‘the story reads at the very first glance too much like a romance’. Most of the details make little sense and have been queried many times. The real site is now thought to be ‘Thorougham’- Park Farm on the Beaulieu Estate.

Mary Dore

Mary does not appear to have been a malignant witch. Her spells were chiefly used for the purpose of self-extrication in situations of danger. She is said to have turned herself ‘into the form of an hare, or cat, when likely to be apprehended in wood-stealing, to which she was somewhat addicted’.



Living on the fringes of society Gypsies have for centuries camped in the Forest, but had to move on regularly. Their numbers, and some names, are recorded in the 19th century census returns but by the 1920s they were restricted to compounds before being forced to integrate into ‘society’ in the 1950s and 60s. They had much in common with commoners who were similarly engaged in scratching a difficult living from the Forest.

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