Iron and Coal Mining in the Forest of Dean by John Belcher

A History of Iron and Coal Mining in the Forest of Dean

John Belcher

Meeting of 9th October 2014

Forest iron has been exploited since the Iron Age. Puzzlewood’s scowles are partly the result of Roman period mining; here we can see the cracked limestone, down these cracks water penetrates and erodes, creating more holes. Whilst the medieval kings took control of the Forest to the extent that the locals became poachers, Freeminers were kept on as the iron was so important. Coal was being dug by the 13th Century (we know as there are records of the King taxing it) but not to the extent of iron.

Iron was extracted using the bloomery process, using lots of charcoal which created the Forest charcoal industry. Coke-fuelled furnaces were later developed which were much more effective. This was a dangerous process with many blow outs; Whitecliff Furnace (1798) survives so well because it went bankrupt before it was damaged.

Iron mines were much more civilised than coal, the temperature is a constant 55 degrees and they are unlikely to collapse. Forest coal measures went down to 2000 feet which means huge temperature differences and flooding danger. The Forest has no methane (so lots of miners smoked) but black damp (no oxygen). There is still spontaneous combustion of old Forest spoil tips.

The famous 15th Century brass of a miner in Newland Church shows him with a nelly (candle on a stick) in his mouth and a billy (hod) on his back. John showed us a 19th Century image of miners – their equipment and clothing had not changed at all. He suggested the brass may originate from the Freeminers’ church at Abenhall where smith’s tools decorate the font.

The first railway in the Forest was James Teague’s 1795 horse-drawn tram road; he had no permissions for it and it led to rioting. This drew the government’s attention to the industry and a whole series of regulations and enclosures followed.

Not until 1842 were women and children under 10 banned from working underground (apparently the women stripping to the waist to work alongside the men was not appreciated).

Until the 1930s the men would go home filthy for their wives to clean them and their clothes, then mine baths started to be built.

New Dunn Iron Mine, Sling was the last productive iron mine, closing in 1946. The last deep pit, Northern United, closed in 1965.

John has counted 300 shafts in the Berry Hill and Coleford area. Pit ponies were used near Berry Hill. CS