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The Free Miners of The Royal Forest Of Dean


Coal has been mined by the free Miners of The Forest Of Dean for seven hundred years. Like miners in the rest of Britain, their days too seem numbered, if for somewhat different reasons.The Forest Of Dean is located opposite Bristol, on the other side of the river Severn in Gloucestershire, astride the Welsh border. It is exclusively within this eight by ten mile forest that the Free Miners

The current free miners owe their rights to their fore fathers of the 14th century, who won a battle for King Edward 1st by tunnelling under castle fortifications at Berwick Upon Tweed. ( It must have been well
remembered as the Northumbrian miners did the same to Newcastle City Walls in the Civil War). By way of reward King Edward passed a new law, giving the Dean miners the right to own their own workings. Broadly, any man who was born within The Forest Of dean was 21 or over and had
worked down a local coal mine for one year and a day was entitled to mine for coal anywhere in that location "without tax or hindrance".

During the Industrial revolution the massive demand for coal created a ‘boom’ time for the steam coal produced by the Dean Free Miners . Its heyday arrived around 1849 when there were more free miners working beneath the Forest floor than men of any other professions on the surface.
Despite inevitable decay, seventeen free mines were still working full time in 1980, employing 52 miners. Even by this time, the mines were almost unchanged from their Victorian origins. The men still used picks
and shovels to win the coal and work laying on their stomachs. The coal was worked using short Longwall faces, and taken to the surface by specially designed tubs. The Forest mines still retained their own strange ways and traditions, such as the unique roadways with sloping roofs. A seam was known as a delf and the most important of these the Coleford Hi Delf which reached seven foot in places. Inclined roadways were known as dipples and the actual mines themselves gales.

1994 was the year of the privatisation elsewhere in the British coal industry and those that were not sold off went down like nine pins. The Coal Authority put to place to regulate the mining of coal as a national
asset had promised that an exception to all new mining laws being introduced for the newly privatised industry would be made for the Free Miners. However no such exception was in fact made, and the Dean men too looked like being wiped out under pain of taxes, licences, and insurance premiums. Eventually concessions were made. It was agreed that the Dean miners would not pay tax and only pay £50 per year to cover the costs of licensing and the Authorities insurance policies. However though these laws probably saved The Free Mines from total extinction, the changes were on an inclining scale. Another problem was that the men had now to meet safety standards to qualify for the licences. Some carried on regardless and refused to pay any extra money, most notably John Hine.
Two years later (1996) the industry was plodding into very uncertain futures. The two previous years had seen both the Moses Level and the Cannop pits become mothballed, and Lydbrook Gale was reverted back to the crown. Lydbrook had been working full time but closed when the last two miners took retirement. Of the full time mines Gerald Haynes a much respected local legend was working his Heyners Bailey Gale on his own.

Robin Morgan and his son Neil were at work in the Phoenix Colliery. The arithmetic was plain to see; the mines were running out of time. Mr Haynes was about 62 and Robin Morgan 60. While few doubted that Neil Morgan would tryto continue the Phoenix pit on his own there seemed to be few prospects for either mine continuing full time beyond Mr Haynes and Mr Morgans retirements. Hamblins Yorkley previous worked by Robin Morgan was bought by John Hine and was worked around twenty days per year.
The situation was little changed at the end of the 90’s. Gerald Haynes by now 65 was in his final year of working Haynes Bailey and as Mr Haynes retirement came nearer it seemed inevitable that the pit would
soon be closed, and the rights reverted to the crown, with the drift filled in and sealed, the pit top demolished and landscaped, or otherwise mothballed. The situation looked dire at the only other full
time pits with one of the two miners also in his final year before retirement. Robin Morgan 64 along with his son Neil 44 was working Phoenix Mine. Hamblings Yorkley mine was worked as a hobby on an
occasional basis by John Hine, and his three friends, who had previouslyworked at Morses Level. In addition Morses Level and Cannop Mines remained on a care and maintenance basis, although Reddings levels mine was reverted back to the crown in 1998 having not been worked since 1991.

The year 2000 saw more troubled times for the Free Mining industry. First Phoenix was closed due to difficulties under ground, and then Gerald Haynes retired in the Autumn. Hayners Bailey was then taken over by three miners who remained the pit The Monument, and it continued to work full time all year round. In Feb. 2003 Robin Morgan announced his intentions to once again work the Phoenix mine with his son Neil, during the winter months of Oct. to March. The industry was finally beginning to pick up, and a couple of miners still in their thirties and forties and another working his year and a day at Hamblins Yorkley were at work.
The closure of the last maternity hospital within the Hundred Of St Briavels means that new-born boys are no longer born within the Forest and for this reason only inheritants of the rights can in future carry on the tradition. It will also be a problem bringing new miners to work down the Dean Free Mines with their antiquated working practices and narrow 2 ½ - 3 ft coal faces.
The last three pits are featured Hamblins Yorkley , Monument and Phoenix.

Information Alex.


Ayle - Betws - Blenkinsopp - Clipstone - Daw Mill - Ellington - Gleision - Harworth - Hatfield Main - Hay Royds
Hill Top - Kellingley - Longannet - Monument - Maltby -Phoenix and Hopewell - Prince of Wales - Rossington
The Free Miners - The Selby Complex - Thoresby -Thorne - Tower - Welbeck - The Nottingham Coalfield
Mining 2000 Conclusions