The Forest of Dean Free Miners

by Mike Breakspear

It is only in recent years that cavers, apart from locals, have taken an interest in the Forest. This is of course because of the discovery of Slaughter Stream Cave and also to the page in Descent devoted to Forest of Dean Caving and Mining news. Many of the visiting cavers know little of the ancient traditions and Forest laws that still govern mining and other Forest occupations. Hopefully this outline history will put that right. The subject is a complex one and there are many books written on it. One of the best is Cyril Hart's 'The Free Miners' published in 1953 which has nearly six hundred pages of small print.

As at many mining sites the true origins are lost. Iron working spread to Britain in about 500BC when a tribe known as the Silures were living in the area and it is probable that with both the ore and the materials to smelt it at hand that they were the first miners. In Roman times we have more to go on. In the 3rd century AD a Romano British people lived in a small fortified village at Lydney. When the floor of one of their huts was being excavated and cleared in 1932, the inclined shaft of an iron ore mine was exposed. Finds in the debris included 38 Roman coins. Proof that the Romans exploited both iron ore and coal has also been found at other sites near Lydney.

Little more is known for many centuries but in medieval times mining methods would have been primitive and limited to pits dug where the ore bearing limestone outcropped. These old workings are known locally as scowles and may be seen at Puzzle Wood a few miles south of Coleford where paths and steps have been laid amongst the moss and fern covered gullies and pits. The site is open to the public. Devil's Chapel is another such working in Lydney Park.

The earliest manuscript concerning the mining of coal and iron dates from about 1244 and it confirms that by this time the Forest miners were allowed to dig for coal and iron ore subject to payments to the Constable of St Briavels on behalf of the king.

Thus by the 13th century the miners were a privileged class. Similar privileges were given to miners elsewhere in Europe but the Forest of Dean is the only area in Britain where coal and iron ore miners were so privileged.

There is no complete record of the miners laws and privileges until 1610 when we have a transcript containing the code of customary law concerning the miner's rights. These had obviously existed for a long time as they are described as being granted "Tyme out of Minde and after in Tyme of the Excellent Prince King Edward unto ye miners of the Fforest of Deane". Since the 19th century the document has been known by the curious name 'The Book of Dennis'. Dennis may be a corruption of the Celtic word 'denu' meaning an area of wooded valleys.

During the 11th to 13th centuries the shire counties were split into hundreds. Tradition has it that a hundred was the area that could supply a hundred fighting men when called upon by the King and that is where the name originates. The largest hundred in the Forest of Dean is St. Briavels hundred and its boundaries approximate to the Forest boundaries.

The miners of the hundred of St. Briavels were expert bowman from hunting deer for the King as well as being good engineers and when they were called upon by King Edward (it is not clear whether this is Edward the 1st, 2nd or 3rd) to fight they gave exceptionally good and loyal service. Tradition has it that as a reward the King set down in writing the rights and laws of the free miners in a document which has come down to us as The Book of Dennis.

The earliest copy of this document (1610), which is a transcript of the original, is kept in the Public Record Office and the next oldest (1673) is now at Whitemead Park at Parkend in the Forest. It consists of ten pages 121/4 by 151/4. It is too long to include it in full in this article but here follows a summary of the main points.

The document ended with the names of approximately 48 miners who took part.

The Gavellor, mentioned above is the Crown's representative whose main duty is to collect from the Free Miners the King's dues in respect of coal, iron ore and stone and to ensure that the mining customs are adhered to. The first mention of a Gavellor was in 1435. The Forestry Commission now holds the post of Gavellor while his work is carried out by the Deputy Gavellor who has his office at Coleford. The present man, newly appointed, is Mr Piggott.

In Medieval times it was found necessary to set up Mine Law Courts in various parts of the Country to deal with the specialized and technical nature of the disputes arising between miners. The Stannaries of Cornwall and Devon had their Parliaments of Tinners and courts were held twice yearly on Mendip. The Forest of Dean however was the only coal and iron mining district to hold such courts.

Originally the Courts were held in any open space in the Forest but in the middle of the seventeenth century they came to be held in The Speech House, now a hotel and a wellknown landmark in the Forest.

The Court dealt with disputes between miner and miner, miner and Gavellor, miner and Lord of the Soil and miner and carriers of iron ore and coal. The officers of the Court were the Constable of St.Briavels, the Castle Clerk and the Deputy Gavellor. There was also a jury of Free Miners.

The earliest session of a court for which we have the proceedings took place in 1656 and includes cases such as unpaid debts and theft of coal from pits etc. The courts lapsed in 1777 and over the next 25 years the foresters and miners grew very unsettled and unsure of their rights.

It is about this time that mining companies from outside the Forest began to take an interest in the Forest coal and iron and to try and circumnavigate the mining laws which forbade them access.

A resolution of 1775 said that any Free Miner who sells his mine to a 'foreigner' shall be liable to a fine of 20. In 1752 The Governor and Company of Copper Mines in England had entered the Forest and enclosed land for mining and had tried to exclude Free Miners from it. The miners could only retaliate by cutting underneath to cause the work to fall in. The ensuing court case found in favour of the Free Miners but eventual inroads by outsiders was inevitable and by the end of the 1830s the old order had gone and most of the Free Miners were waged labourers for larger companies. In 1841 37% of the mines were owned exclusively by 'foreigners' who produced 78% of the coal. This was because they could afford the machinery to work the mines more efficiently and at greater depths. The iron mines were in a similar position.

Apart from mining, the open nature of the Forest had changed, about half the area of 22,000 acres being fenced of and used by the Crown for timber nurseries.

Central Government were intent on civilizing the Forest which was notorious for lawlessness and controlling the Free Miners by eroding their rights was, and still is, thought to be desirable. But the Free Miners are a stubborn crowd and even to this day they hang onto their rights in a reduced form.

Worked by larger companies the coal mines continued to grow in size and depth and to become more mechanized. In 1880 at least twentyfive pumping engines were at work in coal and iron mines and the output of coal was 720,000 tons.

Winning the coal, however, was not without its problems. There were few faults in the seams but they were thin and full of water and there was always the risk of inrushes of water from the shallow 'old mens' workings above. In 1902 four men lost their lives in the Union Pit disaster when water broke through.

From the 1920's the industry gradually declined. There was unrest, strikes and lockouts and mines began to close. Nationalization came and the Ministry of Fuel and Power in 1946 cast doubt on the future of the coalfield. The last of the large, deep collieries, Northern United closed in 1965.

The Free Miners, however, tenacious to the last still keep their traditions alive with their small drift mines now worked mainly as a hobby. Even for these life is made harder with the closure of the last maternity hospital in the Forest (Free miners have to be born in the Hundred of St Briavels) and attempts to force them to obtain planning permission for their workings.

Mining for iron ore had ceased on a large scale many years before in the 1920's partly because of competition from imported Spanish ore and partly because of dwindling reserves. During the Second World War New Dun mine was reopened for a few years but finally closed in 1945.

References :-

The Geology of The Forest of Dean Coal and Iron-ore Field by F.M.Trotter 1942

The Free Miners by C.Hart 1953

The Industrial History of Dean by C.Hart 1971

Custom, Work and Market Capitalism by C.Fisher 1981


Cerberus Spelaeological Society 1998

Published in the Journal of the Cerberus Spelaeological Society, Volume 24, No. 3, April 1998.

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