The Freeminers rights have existed since "tyme out of Minde and after in tyme." The rights have been practised continuously through the ages; written records exist from 1244, showing Freeminers were already exercising the right to win minerals in the Forest of Dean. The Freeminers earliest surviving Mine Law Court documents date from 1469 and 1470 (now in the Gloucestershire Archive - PRO).
In 1612 a document was published called the ‘Dean Miners’ Lawes and Privileges’ (PRO). Existing copies of the document contain references that seem to show an older origin, probably 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 his 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 services during the Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter.
Freeminers fought in France and amongst many French campaigns throughout the Hundred Years War, they famously fought at the battles of Crecy (1346), Poitier (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 were excellent archers, being experts with the long bow as well as renowned for their hardiness and ferocity in battle.
In 1415, 120 Freeminers were taken by Sir John Greyndour on Henry V's French campaign. The miners were involved with the siege of Harfleur and fought at the subsequent battle of Agincourt; only 63 of the Freeminers returned. They are thought to have renovated their guild church at Abenhall Church nr Mitcheldean, in thanksgiving for their safe return. Shortly after their return from France, Henry V sent his brother, John Duke of Bedford, 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 an unsuccessful series of adventures trying to discover the elusive North-West Passage; a route around the North American continent. 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 Freemining 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, and the Mine Law Court was seen as a barrier to outside interests. The Court became embroiled in disputes and struggled to enforce its decisions, as outside interests began to work with some miners. It culminated with the theft of the complete Freeminers' records in 1777 and the Mine Law Court stopped functioning. 50 years later, some of the Freeminer's documents re-surfaced, in the hands of Crown officers and 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 and became the basis for the Rules and Regulations under which Freeminers operate today.
Deep coal and iron reserves could not be mined without substantial investment, and with increasing pressure from industrial interests outside the Forest of Dean, it was hoped 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 having a local effect, termed a "Hybrid Act," it codifies the Freeminers’ customs and the right to minerals in the Forest of Dean, with very little alteration. The customs had now become a modern Parliamentary Statute and is now the basis for regulating Freemining. 2nd Schedules to the Award of Mines Act 1841 - Rules and Regulations for the working of Gales, outline the rules for working mines, as administered by the Deputy Gaveller.
20th century Freemining.
During 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 gave specific exemption for this unique local privilege to continue intact. 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.
Freemining increased, as large mines closed, and NCB miners began looking for work, some started their own collieries, or worked 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.
There are currently six small coal mines operating, one iron mine and a handful of stone quarries.