Forest of Dean Freeminers

Freeminer is an ancient title given to coal or iron miners in the Forest of Dean.  The Free Mining tradition is unique to the Forest.

The Origins

There are many references to medieval Free Miners; 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 Free Miners 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

Monument Mine, a working free mine in the Forest of Dean

In addition the laws state that free miners 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.

Free Mining today

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 Free Miners living today. There are a handful of small collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and eight small stone quarries within the statutory Forest. Free Mining has a long and proud history and most Forest families can tell a mining tale or two and will proudly claim a Free Mining ancestor or relative. Free mining continues to be an important part of what makes the Forest of Dean special.

Visit a Freemine

Hopewell colliery is a working mine and museum that is open for tours.

Much of this page was compiled from the freeminers page on the Clearwell Caves web site.