The Freeminers rights have existed since "tyme out of Minde and after in tyme."* The rights had existed from very early times, practised continuously through the ages, without requiring permissions. Crown records for Freemining exist from 1244, showing that Freeminers had the exclusive right to win minerals in the Forest of Dean. The Freeminers earliest surviving Mine Law Court documents are 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 indicating older origins, possibly being copied from an earlier Latin or French document. The 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. The Mine Law Court allowed Freeminers to be mainly self governing.
There are many interesting facts associated with medieval Freeminers, they helped recapture Berwick upon Tweed several times (1296, 1305, 1315) as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Legend tells us that it was for services provided during the Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter.
Freeminers were requested to fight 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). Miners were an essential part of the King’s armoury, undermining fortifications, creating earthworks, building timber-work etc. Dean Miners were also excellent archers, expert with the long bow, renowned for their skills, hardy determination and ferocity in battle.
In 1415, 120 Freeminers were taken by Sir John Greyndour (of Newland) on the French campaign. The miners were part of the siege of Harfleur and fought at the subsequent battle of Agincourt. 63 came back. Shortly after returning 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 ultimately 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 mining interests arose, particularly concerning the nationally growing interest in coal mining as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace; entrepreneurs from Bristol and South Wales wanted a way into mining in the Forest of Dean. The Mine Law Court was a barrier to outside interests and became embroiled in disputes. It culminated with the theft of the complete Freeminers' records in 1777 and the court ceased to function. 50 years later, some documents did re-surface, in the hands of Crown officers and used as evidence during a series of Crown inquisitions in the 1830’s. Some known documents did not reappear, including the letter from Henry V and no Freeminers' charter is known to exist today. The Dean Miners’ Lawes and Privileges and Mine Law Court Orders did re-appear and became the basis for the Rules and Regulations under which Freeminers operate today.
Deeper coal and iron reserves could not be mined without substantial investment, and with increasing pressure from industrial interests outside the Forest of Dean, looking to exploit the district, industrialists 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 local effect, is termed a "Hybrid Act," it codified the Freeminers’ customs and exclusive right to minerals in the Forest of Dean, with very little alteration. The customs had become modern Parliamentary Statute and the basis for regulating Freemining today. Schedules to the Act, outline the rules for working mines within the Hundred of St Briavels, administered by the current Deputy Gaveller – Daniel Howell Esq.
Outside interests, in the 19th and 20th centuries, included the Crawshays from Cyfartha and the Protheroes from Bristol. Although they were not Freeminers, after the passing of the Dean Forest Mines Act, they could own Gales and took major interests in owning minerals and railways of the Forest of Dean.
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 and operated through the Freemining system; a small royalty was paid by the Board, to the Freeminer Trustees, who continue to have a share in any deep minerals extracted. The last deep mine worked was Northern United, which closed on Christmas Day 1965.
Freemining increased, as larger mines closed, and throughout the 1960's/70's there were over 20 collieries usually operated by just a few men at each mine. The largest Freemine in recent times was Hopewell colliery run by the Hinton brothers and employed around a dozen miners at any time. Hintons' finished in 1989.
There are currently seven small coal mines operating, one iron mine and a handful of stone quarries.
* Excerpt taken from The Miners Lawes and Priviledges - 1612, PRO