Digging the freeminers

During the industrial revolution landowners throughout Britain became rich on the proceeds of mineral deposits found deep beneath their estates. Coal was the ‘black diamond’, yielding a carbon-crusted fortune to families such as the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth or the Pembertons of Trumpington Hall.

The primacy of the land-owning families was nearly universal. The only major exception to aristocratic domination was found in the thoroughly egalitarian freeminers of the Forest of Dean.

Any male born within the Hundred of St Briavels (roughly the area of the Forest of Dean and some of its surrounding parishes), who is over 21 years old and who has worked for a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the Hundred is considered a Freeminer. This was an ancient privilege given legislative certainty in the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838.

Freeminers are entitled to mine personal plots called ‘gales’, with a register of their entitlements kept by the Deputy Gaveller, a Crown officer responsible for administering free mining customs.

Why were Freeminers given such valuable rights in perpetuity? Legend recalls that the area’s miners were instrumental in constructing the earthworks and tunnels needed to capture the key town of Berwick-upon-Tweed under Edward I (see my earlier post on this vital border position) and were rewarded by a grateful king.

Other stories suggest it was their services in the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in Henry V granting the privileges. Or was did this later service merely result in the king reconfirming existing privileges?

The historical truth has been lost, along with the original deeds and charters. What remains is a patchwork of stories, copied texts and legend stitched together in statute. Michael Portillo visited one of the last surviving mines in the latest series of BBC 2’s Great British Railway Journeys (Oxford to Milford Haven).

According to the Forest of Dean’s Iron Mining Museum, there are approximately 150 Free Miners living today and only a handful of small collieries still operate. In addition, an iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and five small stone quarries still operate within the Hundred of St Briavels.