Saturday, April 21, 2012

Forest of Dean: Part 2--Coal Mining

I mentioned previously that one of the early industries in the Forest of Dean was timber. But there were others, including production of charcoal and mining of iron ore. Charcoal production was a rather large industry for many centuries. Timber was stacked in a very precise manner. Controlled burning of the stacked timber resulted in the production of charcoal (rather than ash). The charcoal was then used in the smelting of the Forest’s other strong industry—iron ore. It is well known that iron ore was mined in the Forest prior to and during the Roman occupation. Indeed, the industry remained strong, especially in the Imperial centuries; that is, until the late nineteenth century when mass production had exhausted most of the deposits. But there was still one industry that appears to have stood out from the others; especially in more recent centuries---Coal.

Effigy of 15th century Free Miner on display at Newland Church

Free Miners and Coal Mines in the Forest of Dean
Coal, like its earthy cousin, iron ore, was mined for many centuries before the Industrial Revolution that made it a principal source of heat and energy. As a Royal Forest, however, mining (whether iron ore or coal) was limited to those individuals who were born within the Forest itself. These Forest natives, who mined iron ore or coal, were known as Free Miners. Under laws of the Crown (whose administrators worked from St. Briavels Castle), Free Miners could file claims (gales) and work the land. Revenues and royalties were taxed by the Crown in return for these rights. Here is an extract from the 1838 Dean Forest Mines Act:
"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."

Portrait of iron miners in their working dress.

For centuries, the mining industry in the Forest of Dean was characterized by small gales scattered across the countryside and controlled by Free Miners. The gales were relatively shallow; just the tip of the iceberg, if you will. These small operations, which did not have the benefit of a large labor force, or access to expensive equipment, like pumps and steam engines, could only scratch the surface of the true riches that lay beneath the hills of the Forest. Even as the coal industry was booming in other parts of the country, with large and powerful companies, medieval customs were upheld in this area of Britain.
Here are a few names of gales that were active in or near Ruardean Hill in 1787. The Hopewell had been in existence as early as 1637 when it was first mentioned in the literature, patented to Edward Terrington:


At the turn of the nineteenth century, the coal mining industry was well on its way internationally. Britain was an aging world empire and an economic superpower. Wealthy conglomerates and powerful outsiders were still unable to gain access to the potential of the Forest of Dean, despite attempts to abolish the Free Mining rights. However, some did manage to establish large mines in the Forest through lax enforcement of existing law, as well as having some free miners stake claims on their behalf. As the century progressed, these large operations came into conflict with the much smaller gales of the Free Miners.
Finally, in 1838, the matter was resolved with the passage of the Dean Forest Mines Act (from which I quoted above). Free Miners rights were preserved with one very significant caveat, or loophole. While the crown still granted gales only to native born of the Forest, the Free Miners were given the option of then selling their gales to anyone, including foreigners (outsiders). The era of intensive mining had begun in the Forest, with much of the coal being shipped out to other markets. Through the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, large coal and iron mines were established in the Forest and the mining industry exploded. As I mentioned above in the introduction, this explosion in mining exhausted the iron ore industry by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Below is a summary of coal and iron ore retrieved from 1841-1965.

Coal and Iron Ore retrieved from Forest, 1841-1965*
Iron Ore**
** Measured in tons
 Mid-nineteenth century illustration of the Lightmoor Colliery

At one point in the late 1800s, there were more than 5,000 colliers throughout the Forest.
Coal production in the Forest was at its peak in the first decades of the twentieth century, but declined significantly after 1940. This increase of production was made possible through new legislation in 1904 that granted establishment of collieries to mine the deep deposits. In 1920, more than 7,000 colliers were established. Through this period of incredible growth, small gales continued to be operated by Free Miners. These gales were shallow, with limited output, the bulk of which was used for local consumption.

Undated photograph of Free Miners working a gale in the Forest of Dean.

After its peak in 1936, the industry began to decline rather quickly. A number of mines closed in this period when drainage became more costly than the output. Less than half of the colliers were operating in 1955; within ten years as the table shows, coal mining was essentially done. Today, a very few Free Miners still have claims and mine small gales, as they have done for centuries. Several of the large abandoned, mines and collieries have been preserved as museums. But the casual tourist traveling through the countryside today will see little evidence on the landscape of the Forest’s rich history of coal mining.

Recent photograph of the Cannop Drift Mine, owned by Steve and Richard Harding.

Links of interest: