Understanding pre-industrial structures in rural and mining landscapes


United Kingdom
COST A27 cultural parks and cultural landscapes:
Forest of Dean Mines

Forest of Dean, UK
Mining landscape

A 15th century Forest of Dean iron miner in working costume is shown as a crest on a 15th century jousting helmet, from a brass on the Greyndour tomb in Newland church, Gloucestershire

Typical coal mining drift in the Forest of Dean

The Speech House, a 17th century former hunting lodge which incorporates the beamed Verderers' Court. Between 1668 and 1777 a Court of Mine Law met at intervals in the Speech House to deal with disputes amongst the miners. It was presided over by the Constable of St Briavel's Castle, with the Gaveller and Clerk of the Court attending, and verdicts were given by a jury of 12 Free Miners.

The Forest of Dean lies between the two largest rivers of the Welsh Borders, the Severn and the Wye. Although in Medieval times this upland area was almost entirely surrounded by water and quite isolated, which no doubt contributed to its especially self-contained nature, migration of population in recent times has reduced the range of the Dean Forest to the central hills lying between Newnham and Coleford, east to west, and Mitcheldean and Bream, north to south.

Many of the iron mines in the Forest are associated either with natural caves or are in the Crease Limestone. There are also coal and gold mines.

History of iron mining in the Forest of Dean

Extensive iron mining dates from Roman times, although there is some evidence to show that outcrop ores were worked in the Iron Age, e.g. iron slag was found in the Iron Age hillfort at Llanmelin near Caerwent. The depressions left by outcrop workings are referred to as scowles or scowle holes. The bulk of ore was taken during the Roman Occupation, although mines only reached a maximum depth of 30m. The Roman slag heaps, still containing up to 50% of iron ore due to the crude smelting techniques, were said to be up to 30m high and to reach as far north as the Roman settlement at Worcester.

In the period immediately following the withdrawal of the Roman legions there was little mining. However, a revival of iron mining took place after the Dark Ages, and it is recorded that there were at least 59 mines operating during the reign of Edward the First. Geraldus, describing a tour though Wales in 1188, speaks of the "noble Forest of Dean, by which Gloucester was amply supplied with iron and venison". The monks of Flaxley Abbey discovered the mineral wealth of the area. For a period of nearly five centuries the iron trade was carried on in different parts of the Forest, at almost any spot where there was a flowing stream, a dense wood and a good supply of ore. In 1220 King Henry the Third ordered all forges to be removed, except for those having a Royal Charter.

In the early 1600s iron mining became much more economical, due to improved forges, and the use of charcoal, but by 1650 Parliament had become concerned about the felling of trees by charcoal burners in the Forest, and the amount of oak needed for ship building. All but a few forges were closed and by 1674 the industry was in decay. Iron was still being mined but it had to be smelted outside the Forest, incurring crippling transport costs.

The improved blast furnaces of the 1800s made mining economical once again, although pumping was needed to reach the remaining ores at lower levels. During the nineteenth century Roman slag was recycled and mixed with a small proportion of newly-mined ore in the improved furnaces of the time. Most of the mines closed between 1890 and 1900 because of the thinning of the ore with depth, the problems involved with deep pumping, and also increasing competition from cheaper Spanish ore.

During the First World War iron mines at Wigpool, Easter, New Dunn, Old Sling Pit and others were re-opened, but most had closed again by 1926. New Dunn, however, remained open and was taken over by the Ministry of Supply during the Second World War but closed in 1946 - more iron had been put into the mine (rails, supports etc.) than was taken out!

History of coal mining in the Forest of Dean

Coal mining undoubtedly pre-dates the Roman occupation, but there is scant evidence. The Romans used Dean coal in their villas near Gloucester but charcoal was employed for their iron smelting.

In 1282 it is recorded that "the Earl of Warwick takes likewise some seacoale [=coal as distinct from coale which was charcoal] in his wood of Lidney [modern spelling Lydney]". Outcrops were exploited in the 13th century, but deeper mines were opened up in the 17th century.

The rights of the Free Miners (see below) led to a proliferation of small coal pits: in 1787 there were 121, and by 1856 there were 221. In 1904 the Gaveller was empowered to amalgamate the "gales" (see below) and 44 gales were grouped into 7 large areas for coal mining. By 1920 most colliers were employed in the 20 or so deep pits. Here water was a problem and stories of "pumping 100 tons of water per ton of coal raised" were not uncommon.

In 1948 the National Coal Board nationalised all the larger pits, but this period of modernisation was short-lived as the last NCB pit closed at Christmas 1965. Today, only the Free Miners work the small drifts and levels, whilst above ground open cast mining by outsiders has become a possibility.

General Archaeology and History of the region

The area was inhabited in Mesolithic times, and there are also remains of later Bronze Age and Neolithic megalithic monuments, including the Longstone near Staunton and the Broadstone near Stroat. Barrows have also been identified at Tidenham and Blakeney. Bronze Age field systems have been identified at Welshbury Hill near Littledean, and there are several Iron Age hill forts, including those at Symonds Yat and Lydney. There is also early archaeological evidence of trading by sea, probably through Lydney. Before Roman times the area was occupied by the British Dobunni tribe.

The area was occupied by the Romans around 50 AD. They were attracted by the natural resources of the area, which included iron ore, ochre and charcoal. The area was governed from the Roman town of Ariconium at Weston under Penyard near Ross-on-Wye, and a road was built from there to the river crossing at Newnham on Severn and the port of Lydney. The "Dean Road" still visible at Soudley is believed to be a Medieval rebuilding of the Roman road, and this would have been an important route for the transport of iron ore and finished metal products. During Roman times there were important villas at Blakeney, Woolaston and elsewhere, and towards the end of the Roman period, around the year 370, a major temple complex dedicated to the god Nodens was completed at Lydney. The central parts of the woodlands in the Forest are believed to have been protected for hunting since Roman times.

The history of the area is obscure for several centuries after the end of the Roman period, though it may have been part of the Welsh Kingdom of Gwent. Around 790 the Saxon King Offa of Mercia built his Dyke ("Offa's Dyke") high above the River Wye, to mark the boundary with the Welsh. The Forest of Dean then came under the control of the Diocese of Hereford.

Throughout the next few centuries Vikings conducted raids up the Severn, but by the 11th century the Kingdom of Wessex had established civil government in the area. The core of the Forest was used by the late Saxon kings, and then after 1066 by the Normans, as their own personal hunting ground. The area was kept stocked with deer and wild boar, but also became important for its timber, charcoal, iron ore and limestone. The name of the area originates from this time, probably being derived from a valley near Mitcheldean on the north of the area, which had areas known as Dene Magna (large) and Dene Parva (small). The manor of Dean was the Forest's administrative centre in the late 11th century.

The Hundred of St Briavel's was established in the 12th century at the same time as many of the Norman laws concerning the Forest of Dean were put in place. Verderers were appointed to act for the king and to protect his royal rights, and local people were given some common rights. Flaxley Abbey was also built and given certain rights and privileges. In 1296 miners from the Hundred of St Briavels were used by King Edward I at the siege of Berwick-upon-Tweed to undermine the town’s defences. As a result, the king granted free mining rights within the Forest to them and their descendants: the rights continue to the present day. Miners at that time were mainly involved in iron mining. Although the presence of coal deposits in the district was well known, and limited amounts of coal had been mined in Roman times, it was not practicable to use it for iron making with the methods of smelting then in use. However, later the freeminer rights were used mainly for coal mining.

The Forest later went on to be used exclusively as a royal hunting ground by the Tudor Kings, and subsequently as a source of food for the Royal Court. Its rich deposits of iron ore led to its becoming a major source of iron. Timber from the forest was particularly fine and was regarded as the best source for building ships, and it is possible that timber from the Forest was used to build the Mary Rose and Admiral Lord Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory.

During the 18th century squatters began to establish roughly-built hamlets around the fringes of the Crown forest demesne. By about 1800 these new settlements had become well established at places such as Berry Hill and Parkend. Industry in the area was transformed in the early 19th century, particularly with the growth of coal mining for the iron and steel industry. In the later 19th century and the early 20th century the Forest was a complex industrial region with deep coal mines and iron mines, iron and tinplate works, foundries, quarries and stone-dressing works, wood distillation works producing chemicals, a network of railways, and numerous minor tramroads. Cinderford was laid out as a planned town in the mid 19th century, but the characteristic form of settlement remained the sprawling hamlets of haphazardly placed cottages. The miners' characteristics and pastimes shared with other British coalfields, such as a devotion to sport, the central role of miners' clubs, and the formation of brass bands, also helped to create a distinct community identity.

The Laws of the Free Miner

Free Miners are an intriguing and important group of Forest of Dean miners. The rights and customs of the Forest are set out in the Book of Dennis and this covers both iron and coal mines. Between 1668 and 1777 a Court of Mine Law met at intervals in the Speech House to deal with disputes amongst the miners. It was presided over by the Constable of St Briavel's Castle, with the Gaveller and Clerk of the Court attending, and verdicts were given by a jury of 12 Free Miners.

The Free Mining Rights were established in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) as a reward for the part played by the Forest miners in recapturing Berwick-upon-Tweed near the England-Scotland border several times (1296, 1305, 1315) as it passed between Scottish and English hands. It is said that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter, as he had done to miners from other mining districts such as Derbyshire. All the documents from the Mine Law Court were, however, stolen at the end of the 18th century and not all of them were recovered. A record entitled "The Laws and Customs of the Miners in the Forest of Dean" became known locally as the "Book of Dennis" and this is thought to be a translation of an earlier miners' charter as it contains ancient legal terms probably translated from Latin or early French. No charter is known to exist today.

The earliest known copy of the Dean Miners' Laws and Privileges is from 1610 but the copy itself contains references to much earlier origins. The document contains 41 laws and privileges for the winning of Myne (iron ore) and Sea Cole (coal). The rights for access and the method of staking a claim, known as a "gale" are outlined. The duties of the King's representative (the Gaveller) included the collection of royalties in cash or kind, whilst the court "that is called Myne Lawe" allowed the Dean Miners to be largely self governing. The exact date by which these privileges were operating is not known but it is recorded in 1244 that Free Miners already had the exclusive right to win ore in the Dean Forest.

To become a Free Miner a man had to be born within the Hundred of St Briavel's and to have worked a year and a day in an iron or coal mine within the Hundred. The Free Miner originally had to apply to the Deputy Gaveller with a signed and witnessed document. Eventually the Court fell into disuse, disputes concerning ownership of the gales were frequent, and an Act of Parliament became necessary to clarify the position. Vict Cap 43, Dean Forest (Mines) Act, 1838, established the Dean Forest Mining Commissioners who issued a Report (1841) which re-defined the rights of the Free Miners: "All male persons born or hereafter to be born and abiding within the said Hundred of St Briavel's, 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 Briavel's, shall be deemed and taken to be Free Miners." The Dean Forest Mines Act is the basis for Free Mining today. Just as the Orders of the Mine Law Court had done, the Schedules to the 1838 Act precisely state rules for working the mines.

The official register of Free Miners is kept by the Deputy Gaveller, a Crown officer responsible for the administration of the Free Mining customs and collection of mineral royalties. Once registered as a Free Miner by the Deputy Gaveller, a Free Miner may claim up to three gales from the Crown (if they are not already being worked) and may make applications for any gale he believes may become vacant. Once these are granted to him, he becomes the owner of the underground area and can work the minerals defined in the gale and the galee may dispose of the gale as he wishes. Originally the King had the right to put in a worker to work with the Free Miners and share the profit of the mine. In lieu of the right to put in the King's Man a share of the profit from the mine was agreed and a Royalty is now paid to the Crown for each ton of mineral raised, or a "dead rent" equivalent to an agreed minimum tonnage output is paid if the gale is idle. If no dead rent is paid for the gale it can become forfeited to the Crown, to be applied for and re-granted to other Free Miners. Once a mine is working again no dead rent is paid until the tonnage royalty exceeds the value of dead rent paid when the gale was idle.

Free Mining today

The last commercial iron mine in the District closed in 1946.

During the process of coal nationalisation the Forest of Dean was exempt due to its unique form of ownership and history. The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 gave specific exemption for this unique local privilege to continue intact. Some large colliery gales were, however, subsequently compulsorily purchased from the galees by the National Coal Board and held under the Free Mining system, and a royalty continued to be paid by the Board to the Free Miners as a share of the deep minerals extracted until the last of the NCB deep mines had finally closed in 1965.

There are around 150 Free Miners alive today. There is only a handful of collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and five small stone quarries within the statutory Forest. Free Mining has a long and proud history, most Forest families can tell a mining tale or two and many proudly claim a Free Mining ancestor or relative. Free mining is an important part of what makes the Forest of Dean unique.

With the decline of the mines, the area itself suffered a decline, but this was ameliorated to some extent when a number of high technology industries established themselves in the area, attracted by grants and a willing workforce. The area is still mainly an industrial area but the decline in factories has now pushed the area to create more jobs from increasing tourism attractions. Significant numbers of residents also now work outside the area, in such places as Gloucester, Bristol and Cardiff.

In modern times the Deputy Gaveller's permission is still needed to visit abandoned mines in the Forest of Dean. The Deputy Gaveller's Office in Coleford is also the legal depository for abandoned mine plans.

Forest of Dean

Wikipedia entry for the Forest of Dean

Clearwell Caves (Iron Mine)

Clearwell Caves

Peter Claughton's mining history pages

Peter Claughton's mining history pages

Select Bibliography:

Nicholls, Rev. H.G., 1866, Iron making in the olden times: as instanced in the Ancient Mines, Forges, and Furnaces of the Forest of Dean / Historically related, on the basis of contemporary records and exact local investigation by the author, reprinted 1981 with an introduction by I.J. Standing, 82 pp., illustrations

Oldham, A. and K. Jones, 1996, The caves of the Forest of Dean, new 1996 edition, 47 pp., 22 maps / surveys

Oldham, A., 1999, The mines of the Forest of Dean and surrounding areas, 63 pp., surveys, illustrations, NGR of mines, etc.

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United Kingdom Forest of Dean page to John Wilcock

Version: 1 22 May 2008 updated by John Wilcock