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Unique literary treasures return from United States to join UoG and Dean Heritage Centre collection

Lost poems written by a 19th century working woman known as the ‘Forest Poetess’ have returned to Gloucestershire to be part of a collaborative literary project involving University of Gloucestershire, the Dean Heritage Centre and local volunteers and schools.

Forgotten poems, hand written in the 1860s by Forest of Dean poet Catherine Drew (1784-1867), are among an extraordinary collection of materials that have recently arrived at the Dean Heritage Centre in Soudley in the Forest of Dean.

The poems will become part of the new Forest of Dean Writers Collection at the museum thanks to a partnership project with the University, made possible by National Lottery Players through funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The four poems, written 160 years ago, recently arrived from the United States after being sent by Catherine Drew’s descendant Michael Wright.

old letters on a table
Forgotten poems, hand written in the 1860s by Forest of Dean poet Catherine Drew, are among an extraordinary collection of materials that have recently arrived at the Dean Heritage Centre

Among the other precious items in the package was an original copy of Catherine’s book of poems published in 1841, of which only 100 copies were printed. Remarkably, the donation includes Catherine’s own lace-trimmed cotton night cap. The book and the cap were taken to America by Catherine’s son, Absalom, as a keepsake of his late mother when he emigrated in 1874.

Michael Wright said: “My mother and her aunt Alice treasured and cared for these artefacts as an amazing part of our family history. I am delighted to return them to the Forest of Dean where they can help tell the story of Catherine Drew and be an inspiration to future generations.”

Unique collection of material spanning 200 years

The Forest of Dean Writers Collection is bringing together a unique collection of material spanning more than 200 years, some written in local dialect, that reflects the landscape, people and places of the Forest of Dean.

Specialists from the University are working with the Dean Heritage Centre and local volunteers to research and catalogue the more than 400 unique items making up the new collection, while a series of events and exhibitions will showcase the fascinating new material.

Project Manager, Dr Jason Griffiths, from the University’s School of Creative Arts, said: “There are no known images of Catherine, so these poems written in her own hand, and her cap, give us a tangible and evocative link to Catherine as a person.

“The poems give us a new insight to the elderly Catherine, focused as they are on contemplating mortality and religion, but also the joys of the natural world of the Forest.”

The handwritten poems themselves arrived in the United States decades after her descendants had emigrated.

Dr Roger Deeks, co-director of Reading the Forest, who has been researching how the poems ended up in the United States, said: “It was through a letter in the Dean Forest Mercury that in 1927, William Gardiner of Cinderford sent the hand-written poems to Alice. William had known Catherine and had been given the poems by her son-in-law.”    

A specially invited group of Catherine Drew enthusiasts were given a preview of the items. The group included four ‘history ambassador’ pupils from St White’s School in Cinderford – one of the schools the team has been working with as part of the project.

The pupils met ‘Catherine Drew’ herself played by the Centre’s historical re-enactor Mary Dutson, who told them about growing up in the Forest of Dean and the dramatic changes Catherine witnessed during the industrial revolution.

The Centre’s head of engagement, Joanne Clarke, said: “We hope that hearing about Catherine and seeing these incredible artefacts, will inspire local children to be creative themselves.”

A selection of the newly discovered Catherine Drew artefacts will be included in the first outreach exhibition of the new project at Cinderford Library, from 1-15 May.

Main image: Four ‘history ambassador’ pupils meeting ‘Catherine Drew’ played by historical re-enactor Mary Dutson