Free Miners are an intriguing and important group of Forest of Dean miners.
"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." extract from Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838.
The official register of Free Miners is kept by the Deputy Gaveller, the Crown officer responsible for the administration of Free Mining customs and the collection of mineral royalties. The photograph above shows past Deputy Gaveller, Albert Howells, in his office at Coleford, inspecting a map book showing coal gales. Specific gales are granted to Free Miners at their request and each gale clearly defines the mineral and area that can be worked. A Free Miner can work a gale anywhere in the Hundred of St Briavels for Iron Ore, Stone and Coal and any associated minerals. The only restriction being that they must not work under church yards, gardens or orchards.
Archaeological evidence has revealed that working for ochre pigments began in the Forest of Dean area before 4,500 years ago and that iron and coal working here was already extensive by Roman times. When the Roman Empire eventual extended into f the Forest of Dean after AD 79, the local miners may have remained free from direct Imperial control (perhaps as coloni or vilici) on condition they supply their new masters with their produce; this has been suggested as the origin of the Free Mining system.
By Norman times, Dean iron ore was an important part of the national economy; the Forest of Dean had become one of the most prominent iron producing districts in the British Isles. The Free Miner's skills were also identified as a great military asset by Medieval Kings, who required their services in England, Scotland Wales and France. The miners were protected and became a privileged group; through their Mine Law Court, they formalised their Free Mining customs, under supervision of the King's Gaveller, who in turn appointed Deputy Gavellers, to collect royalties and administer the day to day operation of the mining customs.
The earliest known copy of the Dean Miners' Laws and Privileges (also known as the Book of Dennis) is from 1612 but this copy itself contains references that hint at much earlier origins. The document contains 41 laws and privileges for the winning of Myne (iron ore) and Sea Cole (coal). The laws outline rights of access and the method for defining a claim, known as a gale. The King's Gaveller collected royalties in cash or kind, and regulated the court 'that is called Myne Lawe,' allowing 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 Dean Free Miners already had the exclusive right to mine in the Forest of Dean.
There are many references to medieval Free Miners, they were instrumental in recapturing Berwick upon Tweed several times (1296, 1305, 1315) as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Legend tells us that it was for their indispensable services, particularly during his Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter, as he had with other mining districts such as Derbyshire. The miners were continually called to campaigns that might involve seige or earth works, especially during the Hundred Year's War (1337 to 1453). After Henry V's campaign in 1415, that included the battle of Agincourt, John Duke of Bedford (brother of Henry V, Regent of England while Henry was abroad and also Gaveller of the Forest of Dean) is said to have delivered a document to the miners, from the King, re-confirming their customs in return for their services in France. At the end of the 18th century, all Mine Law Court records (including charters and other ancient documents) were stolen and not all of them were recovered, when some of them came to light once more in the hands of Crown officers over 50 years later in 1831, during evidence to a Government Inquiry into the miners customs. The ‘Miners’ Lawes And Privileges’ mentioned above, known locally as the ‘Book of Dennis’, is thought to be a translation of a much earlier miners’ charter as it contains ancient legal terms that hint at it having been translated from Latin or early French. No actual charter is known to exist today
Amongst other places, Free Miners were frequently requested to fight in France and fought throughout the Hundred Years War, most famously at the famous battles at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Miners became used to being an essential part of the King's armoury, Dean miners were sometimes called 'The King's Miners' and 'King's Pyoneers', known generally as 'Sappers' they undermined fortifications, created earthworks, trenches, building timber structures, installing stakes etc. As well as their renowned mining skills, the miners were also excellent archers and ferocious in hand to hand combat; they were hard men, used to operating in harsh conditions. By law from 1363 all English males from 7 - 60 years old were required to practise archery for at least two hours on Sundays and festival days, no other new distracting games such as football and golf were to be allowed to replace archery, on pain of death. Dean miners by their trade were strong and able to pull powerful warbows; their archery skills were an important asset during campaigns (even today archery practice areas known as 'The Butts', can still be found in local mining villages of Clearwell and Staunton). As late as 31st July 1522 Henry VIII demanded 300 archers from the Forest of Dean to go to Dover to fight in France; most of them, if not all, would have been Free Miners. The Free Miners were hardy, of a practical nature, having good problem solving skills, gritty determination and great ferocity in battle; after all, they were well accustomed to hazardous, physically demanding, grim and muddy conditions.
Free Mining Sailors!
In 1577 a dozen Free Miners were requested to be on board ship with one of England's great sea captains - Martin Frobisher. They were to be accompany him on an ultimately unsuccessful adventure, to discover the elusive North-West Passage; a route around the North American continent.
Towards the end of the 18th century conflicting mining interests arose, particularly from the increased demand for iron and coal created by the Industrial Revolution. Powerful outside interests began to look towards the large untapped coal and iron reserves in the Forest of Dean, they saw that it was reserved solely to the Free Miners and they looked for a way in. The Free Miner's Mine Law Court that had successfully regulated Free Mining for centuries, became bogged down with disputes, also embroiled in the increasing pressure to allow outside interests into the operation and ownership of mines. Towards the end of the 18th century the Mine Law Court records were stolen by Crown Officials, without records, the Court could no longer operate, despite demands by most miners that it should continue.
The Crown had seen an opportunity and decided to rationalise the system to suit all interests. Deep coal and iron reserves could not be mined without substantial investment, from wealthy investors and industrial interests, from outside the Forest of Dean; particularly the Prothero and Crawshay families from industrialised South Wales, were hoping to exploit the district, creating larger and deeper collieries than had ever been dug here before. The existence of the Free Miners' priviledges could not be denied and they were excluded.
A Royal Commission was appointed in 1831 to inquire into the nature of the mineral interests and freemining customs of the Forest of Dean, five reports followed that culminated in the passing of the Dean Forest Mines Act 1838. This hybrid Act (a Public Act with only local effect) confirmed the Free Miners' exclusive right to the minerals of the Forest of Dean; the Act made very few changes to the customs, but one very important change was that a Free Miner would now be allowed to sell his gale to a non Free Miner; this had broken the exclusivity of the system. The Act otherwise clarified the rules of working, placing the customs with little alteration into Parliamentary statute. The Dean Forest Mines Act is the basis for Free Mining today. The Schedules to the 1838 Act give strict rules for working gales within the Hundred of St Briavels; Free Mining is still administered by the Deputy Gaveller, whose offices are at Bank House, Coleford. The role of Deputy Gaveller was recently held for 15 years by chartered mining engineer John Harvey MBE, who retired at the end of March 2011. The role is now filled by Daniel Howell and his assistant; Free Miner James Britton.
John Harvey MBE Deputy Gaveller (in 2010) in the Gaveller's Office, with some of the rolled mine maps behind him.
Daniel Howell Deputy Gaveller (2011)
Daniel is the Grandson of a previous highly regarded Deputy Gaveller Albert Howell MBE.
To become a Free Miner
To become registered, a person must be born and living within the Hundred of St Briavels, be over the age of 21 years and to have worked for a year and a day in a mine within the Hundred. (Although its origins are obscure, a Hundred was an Anglo Saxon subdivision of a County and held its own court; it has been suggested that it was an area where the medieval king could demand the services of a hundred fighting men - in the case of the St Briavels Hundred, this was often the services of skilled miners). Today the area covered by the Hundred of St. Briavels consists of the statutory Forest of Dean and each parish touching the Forest boundary.
Once a Free Miner is registered by the Deputy Gaveller, they can claim up to three gales from the Crown (if they are not already being worked) and may make applications for any gale that may become vacant. Once granted the gale, the Free Miner becomes the owner in fee simple of that underground area and can work the minerals defined within it; the galee can also dispose of the gale to another person, not necessarily another Free Miner. Originally the King had the right to put in his own man to work with the Free Miner and share the profit of the mine. Since 1838, in lieu of the right to put in the King's Man (the fifth man) a share of the mineral produced from the gale is agreed at the outset and the royalty becomes payable to the Crown for each ton of mineral raised. If the gale is not worked, a token 'dead rent' or minimum composition is still payable for continued ownership. The dead rent is equivalent to an agreed minimum tonnage output. If no royalty or 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
During the process of coal Nationalisation the Forest of Dean became exempted due to its unique form of ownership and history. The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 gave specific exemption for gales to allow this unique local privilege to continue intact. Some large colliery gales were subsequently compulsorily purchased from the galees by the National Coal Board (NCB) held by them under the Free Mining system; a royalty continued to be paid to the Free Miners by the NCB, as a share of the minerals extracted until the last of the NCB Deep Gales finally closed in 1965.
There are thought to be around 150 Free Miners living today. There are a handful of small collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and eight 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 will proudly claim a Free Mining ancestor or relative. Free mining continues to be an important part of what makes the Forest of Dean special.
*From August 2010, 'male' has been interpreted to mean 'male and female' by the current Gaveller of the Forest of Dean (a Crown appointment currently vested in the Forestry Commissioners as a body) when they made a decision to accept an application from Mrs Elaine Morman, who became the first ever female Free Miner to be registered; other female applications are now being considered.