“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 Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.
The Forest of Dean, rich in iron and coal, is located in Gloucestershire, England. Within the Forest still lies the tradition of Free Mining. Free miner is the ancient title given to a Forest of Dean miner who has earned the right to work personal plots.
‘Hands off our Forest’. An organisation keen to keep the forest out of private hands, and to preserve the area’s rich heritage.
Free Mining itself isn’t any different to conventional mining; it is the traditions of eligibility and the modernisation of the coal industry that make Free Mining so remarkable. To qualify, free miners have to have been born within the Hundred of St Briavels and to have worked underground for more than a year and a day. Several hundred Forest of Dean men used to work in small mining operations although in recent times their numbers have declined.
Robin Morgan, Free miner for over 50 years, at the Hopewell Colliery.
There are around 150 Free Miners living today. And There are a handful of small collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and eight small stone quarries within the Forest. Free Mining has a long and proud history. 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’ after an application was accepted from Mrs Elaine Morman, who became the first ever female Free Miner to be registered; other female applications are now being considered.
The future of Free Mining however is an uncertain one. The decline in the coal industry and the pace of the modern world threatens the practice. The Free Miners that remain however do believe in the continuation of the tradition, and are striving for it, with the redevelopment of the Hopewell colliery particularly important.
The Free Miners are currently attempting to regenerate both the visiting and working mines in an attempt to further the tradition of Free Mining in the area.
Free Miner Richard Daniels encountering waterlogged conditions which are present throughout the visitor’s mine in particular. Restoring the mines within the forest seems a huge task, especially as the number of Free Miners has decreased as both the tradition of Free Mining and the coal industry face an uncertain future.
However, following the closure of the only maternity ward within the Hundred st. Briavels, Free Mining will now rely on home births as well as a desire from future generations to pursue the tradition.
Richard Daniels inside the Hopewell Colliery before entering the mine.
Free Miners on their way toward the visitors mine at Hopewell Colliery in the Forest of Dean.
Visitor’s Mine, Hopwell Colliery, Forest of Dean.
Hopewell Colliery, the miners discussing the conditions of the visitor’s mine
Dirt and mud is transported out of the mine at Hopewell Colliery as part of the efforts to restore it as a working one.