|Reprinted by kind permission of the author from:
The Mines of the Forest of Dean
INTRODUCTIONThe Forest of Dean, lies, between the two famous rivers of the Welsh Borders - the Severn and the Wye. In its original extent it never passed beyond these two natural boundaries, but it can scarcely be described now as covering a breadth of territory so extensive.
As far back as the reign of Henry the Second, the Forest did actually comprise all the land that these two boundaries encompassed. Then, if you wished to perambulate the Forest boundary, you would have had to have started where the Wye empties its waters into the Severn, just below the ancient town of Chepstow, and paced along the Severn side until you reached the city of Gloucester, you would have had to turn westward from the busy city, and followed the winding course of the Leadon river to Newent, you would then have passed on through Herefordshire until the old castle at Goodrich stopped your westward progress; thence turning due south, and following closely the banks of the Wye, you would again have found yourself at Chepstow.
From this it will be seen that in olden times the Forest was almost completely surrounded by a natural water boundary; for, with the exception of the Herefordshire land, which was then included in the forest, the three rivers already named flowed round the hills and dales of ancient Dean.
But this is not the Forest I have to describe. Since the reign of Henry the Second many changes have taken place, both in the extent and condition of this district. When Edward the First came to the throne the Forest boundary, as it was known in Henry's time, had been greatly reduced. On the north side the rich lowlands of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, and on the south the fair spreading pastures that lie between Chepstow and Lydney had been gradually cut off. By Royal grant, or by private purchase, these tracts of soil had been secured for purposes of cultivation: and thus the first inroad was made upon the original extent of the Forest of Dean.
During the reign of Edward the First the encroachment which his accession to the throne had found complete, was still further repeated. For as it happened, previous to his reign, the north and south extremities of the Forest had been curtailed; in like manner it happened during his reign that the east and west sides of the Forest were similarly treated. Once more it was the land best adapted for agricultural purposes that was cut off from the Forest territory, but from that time to this the boundary has remained nearly unchanged.
This process of curtailment has reduced the range of Dean Forest to the central hills which occupy the district now lying between Newnham and Coleford, on the east and west, and Mitcheldean and Bream, on the north and south.
Many of the iron mines in the Forest are associated either with natural caves or are in the Crease Limestone. Consequently the book "The Caves of the South Eastern Outcrop and Caves and Mines in the Forest of Dean" [= COSEO] has become a little unwieldy. This present tome hopes to over come this problem by dealing solely with mines: coal, iron and even a gold mine!
HISTORY OF IRON MININGExtensive iron mining dates from Roman times, although there is some evidence to show that outcrop ores were worked in the Iron Age, e.g. iron slag was found in the Iron Age hill-fort at Llanmelin near Caerwent. Scowles or scowle holes, the depression left by outcrop workings, have taken their name from either the Welsh 'ysgil', which means recess, or the old English 'crowll' or cave. The bulk of ore was taken during the Roman Occupation, although mines only reached a maximum depth of 100 feet. Slag heaps, containing up to 50% of ore due to the crude smelting techniques, were said to be up to 100 feet high and to reach as far north as Worcester. During the nineteenth century Roman slag was re-cycled and mixed with a small proportion of newly-mined ore in the improved furnaces of the time.
A revival of iron mining took place after the Dark Ages, and it is recorded that there were at least 59 mines operating during the reign of Edward the First. Geraldus, describing a tour though Wales in 1188, speaks of the "noble Forest of Dean, by which Gloucester was amply supplied with iron and venison". In 1220 King Henry the Third ordered all forges to be removed, except for those having a Royal Charter.
Prior to this time the Monks of Flaxley Abbey suddenly discovered the mineral wealth of this area. For a period of nearly five centuries the iron trade was carried on in different parts of the Forest, at almost any spot where there was a flowing stream, a dense wood and a good supply of ore.
In the early 1600's, iron mining became much more economical, due to improved forges, and the use of charcoal, but by 1650 Parliament had become concerned about the rise of power in the Forest, and the amount of oak needed for ship building. All but a few forges were closed and by 1674 the industry was in decay. Iron was still being mined but had to be smelted outside the Forest incurring, crippling transport costs. The Laws of the Free Miner are described on pp 15 - 17. The gale or boundary of each mining concession is allotted by the King's representative - "the keeper of the gawle" or "gaveller". Even today the Gavellerís permission is needed to visit abandoned mines in the Forest of Dean. The Gavellerís Office in Coleford is also the legal depository for abandoned mine plans.
Improved blast furnaces in the 1800's made mining economical once again, although pumping was needed to reach the remaining ores at lower levels.
Most of the mines closed between 1890 and 1900 because of the thinning of the ore with depth, the problems involved with deep pumping and also increasing competition from cheaper Spanish ore.
During the First World War, Wigpool, Easter, New Dunn and Old Sling Pit amongst others were re-opened, but most had closed again by 1926. New Dunn, however, remained open and was taken over by the Ministry of Supply during the Second World War and closed in 1946 after more iron had been put in (rails, supports etc.) than was taken out!
HISTORY OF COAL MININGCoal mining undoubtedly pre-dates the Roman occupation, but there is scant evidence. The Romans used Dean coal in their villas near Gloucester but charcoal was employed for their iron smelting. In 1282 it is recorded that "the Earl of Warwick takes likewise some seacoale [=coal as distinct from coale which was charcoal] in his wood of Lidney [sic]". Outcrops were exploited in the 13th century, but deeper mines were opened up in the 17th century.
The rights and customs of the Forest are set out in the Book of Dennis and this covers both iron and coal mines. The Free Mining Rights were established in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) in a record entitled "The Laws and Customs of the Miners in the Forest of Dean" as a reward for the part played by the Forest miners in the Siege of Berwick-on-Tweed. Between 1668 and 1777 a Court of Mine Law met at intervals in the Speech House, to deal with disputes amongst the miners. It was presided over by the Constable of St Briavels Castle, with the Gaveller and Clerk of the Court attending and verdicts were given by a jury of 12 Free Miners.
To become a Free Miner a man had to be born within the Hundred of St Briavel and to have worked a year and a day in an iron or coal mine within the hundred. Even today a Free Miner has to apply to the Deputy Gavellor with a signed and witnessed document. Eventually the Court of this Society fell into disuse, disputes concerning ownership of the gales were frequent and an Act of Parliament became necessary to clarify the position. Acts 1 and 2, Vict Cap 43 established the Dean Forest Mining Commissioners who issued a Report (Sopwith 1841) which re-defined the rights of the Free Miners.
These rights lead to a proliferation of small coal pits: in 1787 there were 121, by 1856 there were 221. In 1904 the Gaveller was empowered to amalgamate the gales and 44 were grouped into 7 large areas for coal mining. By 1920 most colliers were employed in the 20 or so big or deep pits. Here water was a problem and stories of "pumping 100 tons of water per ton of coal" were not uncommon.
In 1948 the National Coal Board nationalised all the larger pits, but this period of modernisation was short lived as the last NCB pit closed at Christmas 1965. Today, only the Free Miners work the small drifts and levels, whilst above ground open cast mining by outsiders is set to raise its ugly head.
GEOLOGYFrom Chepstow, the Carboniferous limestone extends northwards through St Briavels, Clearwell, Coleford, and Symonds Yat where it veers to the east through Joyford, Westbury Brook, Buckshaft and Lydney and forms a basin, underlying the Coal Measures and Millstone Grits which lie unconformably upon them. An undulating plateau is deeply incised by the River Wye which exposes the limestone at many points. This is shown in Fig 1.
The coal measures are naturally divided, as will be seen from Fig 2, into three distinct series.
FIG 2, THE MAIN COAL SEAMS
The upper series consists of four thin seams of coal called the
Woorgreen Delfs, none of which have proved hitherto of sufficient thickness
to be worth working.