The ancient title of ‘free miner’ has long been attached to the Forest of Dean area and has had a complicated history that has seen off industrial revolutions, invasions and royal interferences. A free miner is a title given to those who eligible to mine their own gales (portion of land), paying royalty to the crown for each tonne of material raised. Dean Miners Laws and Privileges, a document known locally as the Book of Dennis dating from the early 1600’s, references much earlier originsinsinuating there was an original free mining charter.
The Dean Forest Mines Act of 1838 states the eligibility of a free miner must be:
“All male persons born or hereafter to be born and abiding within the said Hundred of St Briavels, of the age of twenty one years and upwards, who shall have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the said Hundred of St Briavels, shall be deemed and taken to be Free Miners.”
This was stated after the Industrial Revolution shook the traditions of the free miners to the core. The Industrial Revolution ensured that coal and iron were much sought-after materials, making the untapped reserves in the Forest of Dean enticing. Though the parliamentary act changed little in terms of eligibility, it did allow the free miners to sell their gales (personal plots of land) to non-free miners and thus open the area to outside investors.
During the 18th century, The Free Mining Law Court – the system that had regulated free mining for centuries – was put under enormous pressure as other coal mining families wanted access to the Forest of Dean. The court became inundated with disputes as well as constant stress to allow outside interest. This all culminated with the theft of the Mine Law Court records. Without these, the Free Mining Law Court was unable to continue. The records were later recovered in the possession of Crown Officials.
Since the tumultuous times of the 18th century, the Forest of Dean free miners have continued to this day. There have been recent pushes forward as the first female free miner was accepted in 2010 and since other applications for female free miners have been considered.
A great day trip while staying in a holiday cottage in the forest of dean is to Clearwell Caves where you can discover more about the area’s history of free mining. The working iron ore mine is open to the public and is a great educational experience for children, who can wander the museum and discover the industry of the Forest of Dean.
Image Credit: Ben Coulson (Flickr)