Freeminers' rights have existed from "tyme out of Minde and after in tyme." Freemining has been practised continuously throughout the ages; today written records exist from 1244, showing Freeminers were exercising their right to minerals in the Forest of Dean; the earliest Mine Law Court documents exist from 1469 and 1470 (now in the Gloucestershire Archive - PRO).
In 1612 a parchment document was made called the ‘Dean Miners’ Lawes and Privileges’ (PRO). Existing versions contain references and phrases that show it probably had a much older origin, possibly having been copied from an earlier Latin or French document. The existing document contains 41 laws and privileges for the winning of Myne (iron ore) and Se Cole (coal). The rights of access are outlined and the method of staking a claim, known as a ‘gale.’ The duties of the Gaveller (the King’s representative) and assistant Deputy Gavellers are outlined, these include the collection of royalties in cash or kind. It also mentions the miner's court “that is called Myne Lawe,” held at St Briavels Castle.
There are many interesting facts associated with medieval Freeminers; they helped recapture Berwick upon Tweed several times during the 13th and 14th Centuries, as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Legend suggests that it was for their services during his Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter.
Freeminers fought in France and amongst many campaigns throughout the Hundred Years War, they famously fought at the battles of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). Dean miners became an important part of the King’s armoury; they were useful in battle, known as the 'King's Pyoneers,' they created earthworks and undermined fortifications. The miners were also excellent archers, experts with the long bow as well as renowned for their hardiness and ferocity in battle.
During Henry V's French campaign of 1415, 120 Freeminers were taken by Sir John Greyndour, to fight in France. The miners were used at the siege of Harfleur and fought at the subsequent battle of Agincourt; only 63 were to return home. The miners helped renovate their guild church at Abenhall, nr Mitcheldean, to give thanks for their safe return. Today Abenhall church contains important Freemining emblems from that time, including the beautiful early 15thC font, showing coats of arms of prominent families and those of the colliers and smiths who fought at the battle. Above the now sealed up North doorway is a stone showing the iron miner's coat of arms, including a relief head of a determined miner wearing an archer's cap.
Shortly after their return from France, Henry V sent his brother, John Duke of Bedford (at the time, Constable of St Briavels and also Gaveller), to present the Freeminers with a document, thanking them for their service in France and re-confirming their customs.
In 1576 a dozen Freeminers were selected to be on board ship with one of England’s great sea captains - Martin Frobisher. They were part of a series of adventures trying to discover the elusive North-West Passage; a route around the North American continent. Although ultimately unsuccessful, they did however land on an island, off what is now the Canadian coast, bringing back mineral samples, presented to the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Towards the end of the 18th century conflicting mining interests arose, particularly with the rapid growth of the Industrial Revolution. Entrepreneurs from Bristol and South Wales began to look for ways into mining in the Forest of Dean, to allow outside interests, the Mine Law Court was a major barrier. The Court became embroiled in disputes and struggled to enforce its decisions, as outside interests began to work with some miners. Disputes culminated in 1777, with the theft of the complete Freeminers' records that had been held in a locked box at the Speech House. The Mine Law Court stopped functioning. 50 years later, the Freeminer's documents reappeared, in the hands of Crown officers and were used as evidence during a series of Crown inquisitions in the 1830’s. Some of the original documents did not reappear, including the important letter from Henry V and no Freeminers' charter is known today. The Dean Miners’ Lawes and Privileges and Mine Law Court Orders however did re-appear, becoming the basis for the Rules and Regulations in the Acts of Parliament, within which Freeminers operate today.
Deep coal and iron reserves could not be mined without substantial investment. So with increasing pressure from outside interests, more Freeminers began working with 'foreigners' who wanted to create larger, deeper collieries and iron mines, than had ever been attempted in the Forest of Dean.
A Royal Commission was set up in 1831 and its reports culminated with the ‘Dean Forest Mines Act 1838’. This Public Act with local effect, codifies the Freeminers’ customs and rights to minerals in the Forest of Dean. The Freemining custom had become modern Parliamentary Statutes. The Second Schedule to the Award of Mines Act 1841 - Rules and Regulations for the working of Gales, gives the rules for working mines, administered by the Deputy Gaveller today.
20th century Freemining.
During the two World Wars, many Forest of Dean miners became an important part of pioneer corps. In the First World war hundreds of local miners joined the 13th Battallion of the Gloucestershire Regiment also known as the 'Forest of Dean Pioneers', the 5th and 9th Battallion Glosters and the Royal Monmouthshire Regiment Royal Engineers. Miners were well used to hard physical labour, to the conditions and hardship encountered in the trenches. Miners became involved in making and repairing defences, as well as involvement in tunnelling schemes. Their work was dangerous, often working in no-mans land during the night. Although they experienced horrific losses, many miners later rejoined similar Regiments during the second World War, even though mining was a reserved occupation and the 13th Forest of Dean Pioneers had been disbanded, due to such heavy local losses.
Following the process of Coal Nationalisation in 1938, the Forest of Dean was exempted due to its unique form of ownership and history. The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 also included specific exemptions. Some large colliery gales were subsequently purchased by the National Coal Board (NCB) but a small royalty continued to be paid by the Board, to the Freeminer Deep Gale Trustees. The last deep mine closed on Christmas Day 1965.
As large mines closed and NCB miners began looking for work, some NCB miners began their own collieries, or went to work in existing Freemines. Throughout the 1960's/70's there were over 20 collieries, usually operated by just a few men at each mine. One of the largest Freemines in more recent times was Hopewell colliery, run by the Hinton brothers and employing around a dozen miners at any time. Hopewell closed for a while in 1989, it has now become a working mining museum.
More recently, Freeminers have used their skills in projects as diverse as tunneling projects under the Severn, the Channel Tunnel, Combe Down Stone Mines stabilisation.
There are currently six small coal mines operating, one iron mine and a handful of stone quarries.