Forest of Dean Freeminers
Freeminer is an ancient title given to coal or iron miners in the Forest of Dean. The freemining tradition is unique to the Forest.
There are many references to medieval Freeminers; they were instrumental in recapturing Berwick upon Tweed several times (1296, 1305, 1315) as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Legend tells us that it was for their indispensable services, particularly during his Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean miners a Royal Charter in recognition of their services.
The earliest known copy of the Dean Miners' Laws and Privileges is from 1612 but this copy itself contains references that hint at much earlier origins. The document contains 41 laws and privileges and outlines rights of access and the method for defining a claim, known as a gale. The exact date by which these privileges were operating is not known but it is recorded in 1244 that Dean freeminers already had the exclusive right to mine in the Forest of Dean.
To Become a Freeminer
To become registered as a Freeminer:
- A person must be born and live within the Hundred of St Briavels
- Be over the age of 21 years
- Have worked for a year and a day in a mine within the Hundred
In addition the laws state that freeminers must be male but since 2010 "male" has been interpreted to mean '"male and female" by the Gaveller of the Forest of Dean (a Crown appointment currently vested in the Forestry Commissioners as a body) when they made a decision to accept an application from Mrs Elaine Morman, who became the first ever female freeminer to be registered.
Although its origins are obscure, a Hundred was an Anglo Saxon subdivision of a County and held its own court; it has been suggested that it was an area where the medieval king could demand the services of a hundred fighting men - in the case of the St Briavels' Hundred, this was often the services of skilled miners. Today the area covered by the Hundred of St Briavels consists of the statutory Forest of Dean and each parish touching the Forest boundary.
During the nationalisation of the coal industry, the Forest of Dean was exempt due to its unique form of ownership and history and the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 gave specific exemption for gales to allow this unique local privilege to continue intact.
There are thought to be around 150 freeminers living today. There are a handful of small collieries still operating including Hopewell which can be visited, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and eight small stone quarries within the statutory Forest. Freemining has a long and proud history and most Forest families can tell a mining tale or two and will proudly claim a freemining ancestor or relative. Freemining continues to be an important part of what makes the Forest of Dean special.
Foresters’ Forest, a National Lottery Heritage funded local programme, is ensuring with its Future for Freemining project that this unique tradition will continue in the Forest for future generations.
Visit a Freemine
Hopewell Colliery is a working mine and museum that is open for tours.
Find Out More
There are various videos about freemining including 'In the Shadow of the Hills' made in 1986 which can be found here.
Much of this page was compiled from the freeminers page on the Clearwell Caves website.