The Last Freeminers of England

I’ll tell you a true story now.

I was just outside the house one day, I was throwing a ball up against the edge of the mill house. I’d say it could have been about the end of the war, about ’45, ’46. I might have been around five or six, I reckon. I was throwing the ball, and I looked round and there was a car coming up the old track. It pulled in by the garden wall. Two men got out of this black car and they armed our dad out of the back seat. He was on afternoons, and this would have been about teatime, about five o’clock. And them two chaps brought him home and armed him round – it was a nice day – and let him sit on the front doorstep. And they said, ‘Cheerio, Harry,’ and off they went.

Our dad was laid on our couch all night. He was paralysed. Now this is where the story starts.

He had gone to work, and as soon as he had knelt down and started to work, a big stone come down – wallop – massive stone, from near the top. And he was under that stone. One of the men he was working with said, ‘Looks like we better get some help,’ and the other man said, ‘Don’t rush, ’im’ve bloody had it.’ But he did go and get some help, and the other man sat on this big rock with a roll-up fag, and all of a sudden he heard somebody say, ‘I be’n’t bloody dead! I be still here!’

(Gordon Brooks, retired collier, Northern United Colliery, Forest of Dean)


That night I saw it softly blazing out of the darkness: nothing.

The aperture contracts: five feet by five, four feet by four, three by three, all fours, head down, iron rails under your hands. Phil is pushing a cart containing three lengths of old telegraph pole for roof supports: each is about three feet long – two posts and a ‘cap’. The eternal drip of water, like something inside your brain. A whiff of hydrocarbons – winch grease, chainsaw oil, oxidising coal. Newcomers are told not to look up, just as novice rock climbers are told don’t look down. Up you look: a roof of jumbled planks, offcuts and wedges packed between pairs of supports, above which are maybe 10,000 tonnes of sandstone, shale and clay. The forces at work upon the level do not only bear downwards. The Coleford High Delf, which is the coal seam being worked here, is prone to ‘heave’, the clay floor surging up to squash a working out of existence. Leave your mattock at the coalface and you might come back tomorrow to find it half swallowed. Nature, which it seems doesn’t want a mine to exist, is constrained only by the care of those who work here and their desire to make it home for dinner. After twenty minutes, we’ve crawled about 170 yards. Your neck goes, your back goes; you feel it, weirdly, in your flanks. You are, in a particular sense, debased. Then a spectral paleness, as if daylight is somehow percolating through the vast overburden: what the Old Men called ‘nothing’, Fibroporia vaillantii, a fungus that coats rotten timbers in cobwebby white wefts of mycelia.

Touch it and – puff – gone – nothing.

Finally real light, and you realise how hungry you have been for it – for light other than that projected by your own headlamp. Here, on his knees at the end of the tunnel, is Mike Howell. ‘He’s riddled with arthritis,’ his son had told me, ‘but put him underground and he’s a completely different person.’ Mike and his friend Phil Schwarz have been working side by side since about 1975, mostly here at Wallsend, a former colliery in a valley on the south-western edge of the Forest of Dean. They are both seventy-four and had long careers in engineering. For the past six years, they’ve been working to reopen part of a level that was originally established in the 1860s. This involves shoring up the roof and walls and clearing many tonnes of spoil. Finds in the mine: one nineteenth-century oil lamp, one clay pipe, one tallow-dip candle, ‘1898’ painted on a section of roof. Losses: one £3,000 watch, innumerable tools, various intangibles. According to the old mine surveyor’s plan, the level is likely to lead, eventually, to a large area of unmined coal. ‘We’ve brushed past some coal that was left,’ says Mike, ‘and it’s some seriously thick coal. Black from top to bottom. Black, glassy coal.’

He’s using a long crowbar to lever a half-tonne boulder of sandstone from a sloping blockage of rubble and clay. This is how far they have got after six years of on–off digging: 200 yards, equivalent to tunnelling under the length of a football pitch and most of the way back, much of it through collapsed workings, putting in a timber support, or ‘setting’, every foot where the roof is particularly bad. ‘Mining the Coleford High Delf is a game of patience. If you’re nosy and you poke your nose out, something is going to fall on it. If we can make a metre a week, we’re lucky.’

However closely you have consulted the old surveyor’s plans, however pointed your instincts, you can never be certain that a panel of coal marked as intact will be there when you break through. The Old Men were not reliable record keepers, especially when a royalty was payable to the Crown on every tonne. Mike and Phil’s objective is still 120 yards away. They’ll both be into their eighties by the time they reach it, at the present rate. But you never know. Maybe we’ll break through this fall and the level ahead will be as clear as the day it was dug.


The fields around Gloucester were flooded, field after field, but the sky was a pure, arid blue, and when I reached the Forest, steam was being driven from the roadside trees by the winter sun. It is in the nature of forest to hide the contours of the land from which it rises, even in leafless winter, but sometimes a surprise vista would open up as the road mounted the brow of a hill, and for a few seconds you were looking across a valley to a conifer-toothed ridge a mile or more away, and at those moments, the Forest of Dean – which at its widest is ten miles from edge to edge – felt as boundless as the Siberian taiga. A Forester could be forgiven for having an inflated sense of its significance.

On the car radio they were talking about COP28, the UN climate conference in Dubai. The agenda was partly devoted to coal. Accounting for about 40 per cent of fossil-fuel emissions, coal has been responsible for over a third of the average global temperature increase since the Industrial Revolution. The showpiece announcement, on what was called ‘Energy Day’, came from the United States: along with nine other new member states, it would be joining a UK–Canadian initiative called the Powering Past Coal Alliance, whose signatories commit to phasing out coal-fired power stations by 2035. Britain’s only such facility, in Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire, is set to close this year, but as of December 2023 coal mining continued commercially at six UK sites, and planning approval has been granted for a seventh in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Since 2020, revised air-quality regulations have banned the sale of coal as a household fuel in Britain.

The Forest of Dean lies cornered-in by the rivers Severn and Wye on the far western edge of Gloucestershire, not far from the Welsh border. Historically, it was forest in both senses: an unenclosed hunting ground for the ‘princely delight and pleasure’ of the king; and forest as we know it, a place dominated by trees – oak, beech, ash, birch, holly. The oaks, broad and straight and strong, were so valuable to the Royal Navy that, according to the diarist John Evelyn, the commander of the Spanish Armada was ordered to raze the Forest upon making landfall. Its residents have always enjoyed certain common rights over it: to gather timber, to graze sheep, to quarry stone, and to mine iron, ochre and coal. The Lawes and Privileges of the Freeminers were first written down in 1610, having been granted, so tradition has it, by Edward III, in gratitude to the Forest miners who’d aided him in sacking Berwick by undermining the town’s walls. Subject to a royalty payable to the king, and the approval of the Crown, a freeminer was entitled to mine whatever ground he wished, except for orchards or graveyards, within an area roughly coterminous with the Forest. Since 1838, when it was decided that the customary rights should be codified in law, freemining has been governed by the Dean Forest (Mines) Act.

Under a unique exemption from the Air Quality Regulations, about thirty miners continue to work half a dozen Forest freemines, ad hoc and mostly at weekends, selling coal to anyone who drives up. In its localism, the practice preserves something of the pattern of coal use before industrialisation, when it was a peasant fuel, considered inferior to wood, and rarely burned in hearths more than a mile or two from where it was dug. Today you might come upon a freemine, hidden in a woodland valley, while walking. The surface infrastructure has a shanty-like, squatted feel, suggesting an outlaw hideout. It wouldn’t be surprising if you returned the next day and found nothing but a scattering of coal grit and a pair of iron tracks leading down into the black mouth of the ‘dipple’, as the sloping mine entrance is known. Each freemine has its ‘bread hut’, enclosed or partly enclosed, with a kettle and a stove and hooks for drying overalls and gloves. There’s a lot of corrugated iron and tarpaulin. White plastic lawn chairs are scattered about. It is a principle of freemining that you leave nothing of value on site, nothing other than the mine itself, which is of value only to a freeminer, and not always to him. Water runs downhill, warm air rises, and anything that can be sold will be purloined. Bangernomics, another principle: never spend more than 500 quid on a car and you’ll never lose money. Everything is jerry-rigged, strapped, taped, patched, rewelded. A steel oil tank repurposed as a secure store. A radiator forming one wall of a coal bay. Chopped-up telegraph poles as pit props. A sleeve of tarp bungied round the mouth of a duct to channel the graded coal into its bay.

The freeminer, at least within living memory, has been a scavenger, rummaging about in the leftovers of the Old Men – not only earlier freeminers, but colliers in the Forest’s large nationalised mines – never going very deep, but scratching and scraping and pecking away at what was missed or not deemed worth getting. These are the words – scratching, scraping, pecking, nibbling – the freeminers themselves use with a sort of ornery pride. One of them told me that, when he was a boy, his family was so poor they had to glean potatoes from a neighbour’s field. He didn’t mean it as a metaphor, but it describes what the freeminer does. His inheritance is a chest that is empty – his forefathers were handed down the same empty chest, and it was their job to show it was not empty. A gleaned potato bakes as nicely as a harvested one. Work is work.


The modern ‘statutory’ Forest, still owned by the Crown, covers thirty-six square miles. Of more concern to freeminers is the ancient administrative district in which the Forest lies, known as the Hundred of St Briavels, which is more than twice as big. ‘The Hundred is really the Forest of Dean that people think of in their heart,’ one freeminer told me. In 2024, certain qualifications, specified in the Act of 1838, must still be met by anyone who means to register as a freeminer. He – he – must be at least twenty-one years old and born and dwelling in the Hundred; and he must have mined in the Hundred for a year and a day. For all other purposes, the Hundred of St Briavels is as redundant as a wapentake or a bailiwick. Anyone is entitled to work in a freemine, registered or not, and anyone can sell or buy a ‘gale’ – a licensed underground holding – but only a registered freeminer is entitled to claim a new or inactive gale from the Deputy Gaveller, the Forestry Commission official who regulates the practice.

In 2008, Elaine Morman, who had well over 366 days’ experience mining artists’ ochre (iron oxide) in caves on the edge of the Forest, applied to be registered as a freeminer. ‘The principal obstacle to your application is that of gender,’ the Deputy Gaveller confirmed. It was brought to Morman’s attention, however, that any act passed before 1975 was nullified by the Employment Act of 1989 if it barred a woman from membership of an organisation that could ‘facilitate’ employment in a particular profession. She reapplied, and the Forestry Commissioners directed the Deputy Gaveller to register her. The other 4,370 freeminers registered since 1838 have been male.


During the Upper Carboniferous, 327 to 299 million years ago, the whole area was swamp. Water coming and going over 60 million years. Tree ferns, seed ferns, clubmosses, horsetails, rising from the morass, dying, slumping back into the anaerobic depths. Out of this ooze, peat formed; out of that peat, under tremendous pressure over millions of years, the coal measures. Everything – its mineral wealth, its appearance, its wetness especially – begins to make sense when you know that the Forest of Dean lies in what is known by geologists as a synclinal basin, a kink in the earth’s surface. Picture a set of bowls, dozens of them nested snugly one inside the other, from largest to smallest. This is the Forest of Dean basin. Most of the bowls are made of sandstone, limestone or clay, or a mixture, but some of the larger, outer ones are iron, and some of the smaller, inner ones are coal. On the edge of the statutory Forest you find the old, long-redundant iron mines; within the perimeter, the coal mines.

The names of the Forest of Dean’s coal seams are as deeply embedded in local memory as the names of towns and villages: the Woorgreens Upper, the Woorgreens Lower, the Twenty, the Rockey, the Breadless, the Brazilly, No-Coal (No-Coal!), the Yorkley, and, most lucrative, the Coleford High Delf, which can be as much as twenty feet thick. What is unusual about the Forest’s coal seams is that they extend right to the surface (the bowls’ lips), meaning they can be drift-mined, that is, accessed via a short sloping adit, your dipple, from a valley side. This is one of the things that made small-scale mining possible here, since a dipple is cheaper and easier to dig and operate than a vertical shaft. The base of the Coleford High Delf, for example, 230 yards down, could only be reached by shaft – a hole bored through our bowls. Because it lies well below the water table, it had to be subjected to constant pumping to remain workable. But the deeper you go, the thicker the seam. In 1904, forty-one of the deeper gales were amalgamated into five commercial collieries: Waterloo, Northern United, Cannop, Eastern United and Princess Royal. Employing thousands of men, these collieries went far deeper than any solitary freemine, and in 1947 were nationalised along with every other pit in Britain – every pit, that is, except for the remaining freemines. At the time, 508 men were employed at Northern United Colliery alone, pulling out 90,000 tonnes of coal per year. Just eighteen years later, all the big collieries were economically exhausted. However much coal still lay beneath the Forest (millions of tonnes), pumping water from the deeper levels was no longer cost-effective: at Cannop, one of the largest collieries, it was said that 100 tonnes of water had to be extracted for every tonne of coal. When the last colliery closed and pumping stopped in 1965, the entire Forest basin began to refill, level by level, and many of the deeper mines were flooded forever.



Foresters have never been unworldly, even if they sometimes play at unworldliness. (‘They like to act thick,’ I was told, ‘so they have a reputation for being stupid. Because it suits them.’) There is a feeling, not unfounded, that the rest of the county – especially the Cotswolds, with its tourist honeypots and second homes – views the Forest with disgust and, yes, fear. But any place has its own beaten tracks, and anywhere that has supplied millions of tonnes of coal to industry and electricity generation is no backwater. The Severn and the Wye might serve to sever the region from England proper, but any river is a road as much as it is a moat. It was via the Severn that most of those tonnes were conveyed away to the wider world.

Few of the freeminers I met were of families whose roots in the Forest went deeper than a generation or two: someone – a grandad, a great-grandmother – had come from elsewhere. Was, in other words, a ‘foreigner’. What is true is that the practice of freemining, irrespective of the miner’s credentials, seems to go with a certain unease with authority, a certain attachment to independence, and a certain disregard for material wealth. It also, in 2024, attracts those with a reverence for the Old Men, the miners of the past, who being for the most part dead have become as mythical as satyrs.

What is freedom? Not to be bullied. This is what I was told by the man who’d gleaned potatoes as a boy. He didn’t believe freemining needed ‘publicity’; he didn’t want to see his name in print, thanks. He was a former rugby player and his mind and body appeared poised in a shaky equilibrium – it was hard to know which would strike first. There were stories of righteous violence. He was what people called a ‘real Forest character’, but he wasn’t a performer. He was, more or less, whom he seemed to be: someone who had been battered by life and had battered it back, who’d worked seven days a week for years, had made some errors, and might have ended up in a prison cell had he been less fond of being underground. As a young man he had often played against the prison side at rugby, and had observed that they did not tend to play away fixtures. He was respected and feared in equal measure and often by the same people, had many friends and some enemies, and after fifty-odd years had earned enough independence to make a going concern of freemining. He’d had two housekeepers, he said, and they both kept the house. ‘You know what happens Friday? Friday is favourite tea. Don’t want to miss my favourite tea.’ In other words, don’t get killed, install a support when one’s needed.

We’d been talking for an hour when he said, ‘It’s over.’ Not our conversation: Nature. The River Wye, for instance, where he used to fish, has been destroyed by the phosphates from chicken factories. Once, its salmon were so populous they were paupers’ food, a greyish meat sold to HMP Gloucester. What was also over was the old Forest life – the life that was ending when he was a teenager. Did you know, for example, that there was a proposal by newcomers to plant street lamps the length of the main road through the Forest? Stock fencing along either verge to keep the wild boar from bloodying your Land Cruiser!

But freemining, freemining was not over.


If some freeminers’ guardedness shades into xenophobia, it may be because they have found they have reason to distrust foreigners, a ‘foreigner’ being anyone from outside the Hundred of St Briavels. ‘No Stranger of what degree soever hee bee,’ read the Lawes and Privileges, ‘shall come within the Mine to see and knowe ye privities of our Sou’aigne Lord the King in his said Mine.’ Tradition has it that in 1777 the mine-law court, which for centuries regulated mining’s customary rights, was disbanded after its records were stolen by foreigners or their collaborators, making its work impossible. The consequence, according to a petition submitted by the freeminers to a commission of inquiry in 1832, was ‘that foreigners, who had originally no right to enter the mines, have gradually possessed themselves of property therein, and again sold the same to other foreigners, to the exclusion of the freeminers themselves’. It was not only the freeminers’ trade that the 1838 Act secured: its protections extended to outsiders who had bought gales from freeminers, ushering in a new era of deep mines. As the historian Chris Fisher has written, ‘By embodying a version of the rights in a statute, the Crown overrode their basis in custom . . . Title in coal was dislodged from the community of freeminers and made a marketable commodity.’

Freemining has continued to face sporadic attacks. After the threat of nationalisation in 1947, it seems like a legion of foreigners lined up to put an end to the practice, by design or accident: a proposal to dump nuclear waste in abandoned pits; a proposal to privatise Forestry Commission land (two proposals, in fact); most recently a proposal to frack for shale gas . . . In each case, as a result of campaigning, lobbying and litigating, freeminers emerged with their rights intact. The legacy of Nonconformism here is persistent: the Forest belongs to the Foresters, and freeminers have often been its most vigorous guardians.

For the purposes of the Air Quality Regulations 2020, coal from freemines was, uniquely, deemed ‘exempt coal’, meaning it could still be sold. It is, nevertheless, understood that the stuff is regarded as wicked by many people, and freeminers take that personally. There is a widely held fear of Extinction Rebellion. The Forest’s annual coal yield – 375 tonnes last year, according to Coal Authority returns – is not nothing, but it is barely a smut on the cheek of the new mine planned for Cumbria, which is expected to produce 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal per year for the global steel industry. The main burners of coal – India, which has almost doubled its use in the past year; and China, which is building two coal-fired power stations every week – will not be joining the Powering Past Coal Alliance. ‘It’s all relative,’ I was told. ‘What we’re doing is incalculably small. Don’t worry about us.’


Smoke rises, leaves fall, the Forest’s reigning dimension is vertical. As distinctive as the seam names are those of the mines: Go On and Prosper, Long Looked-For, Strip-and-at-it, Never Fear, Stay and Drink, Favourite, Fancy, New Fancy, Small Profit, Work or Hang . . . This freemine is called Hopewell. From a flue welded to the wall of a rusting van-body, smoke blooms into a grey sky. This is how you know someone’s in. Access to the bread shed is via an adjoining shack, the winch-house-cum-sawmill. Chalked on the side of the winch are the words queen died yesterday, denoting the date on which the cable was last changed. You grope through the oily dark towards a door. Here, in the light, is Rich Daniels, MBE, chairman of the Freeminers’ Association. Two hoodies, one on top of the other; a bobble hat pulled over his ears; a long greying beard and questioning eyes.

In one corner is a heap of logs; next to the logs is a stove overflowing with ash; next to the stove are three buckets of small coal. Drying on the wall above, on a hanger, is a set of overalls rigid with cracked dried clay. A kettle sits on the stove, tannin-blackened mugs warming next to it.

There was, he believed, what could be called a ‘Forest identity’. ‘A lot of people express a quite independent view. “Rebellious” is probably a bit strong. But if something’s going to happen to affect the Forest, you’d certainly get a reaction from most people who live here.’

Daniels wasn’t born to freemining; his grandfathers were miners, but not, as it happens, in the Forest of Dean. Twenty-odd years ago he thought he’d missed his chance, but then one of the Old Men made some phone calls and he found himself early one morning, very early, at a freemine in the Bixslade Valley. ‘I wouldn’t say they make it hard for you. But they don’t make it easy. It’s hard enough anyway.’

First things first: never stand on the lower side of the cart in case it tips and crushes you; number two: don’t go back into the gob, the area from which coal has been removed; three: don’t stand on the inside of a cart cable as it rounds a corner – ‘when the rope comes over, it’s going to catch you, and then obviously that could be very, very serious – saw a leg off, pinch you against the side of the wall’.

To describe a mine, to describe the manoeuvres of mining, is to describe a series of lines intersecting in three dimensions. A miner, in his confinement, enjoys some of the liberties of flight. The critical angle in the Forest of Dean is 15 degrees, because that’s how most of the seams lie (the sides of our nested bowls). In the case of a seam like the Yorkley, which is maybe 2.5 feet from top to bottom, you might drive your dipple from the side of the valley, then dig two parallel levels from the dipple into the seam: a lower, larger ‘roadway’, big enough for a coal cart; and a higher tunnel, thirty yards away, for ventilation and as an escape in the event of a roof collapse. Joining them, you dig a third tunnel the height of your seam, like the rung of a ladder. You have established your face: a wall thirty yards long, 2.5 feet high, on a fifteen-degree slope. Lying on your side, with your feet maybe ten inches lower than your head, you use a thirteen-kilo pneumatic pick to eke out the coal, packing the gob with spoil as you progress, to keep the roof up.

‘The Yorkley is a good coal,’ said Daniels. ‘Pretty volatile. It combusts easily, burns hot, reasonable ash content. Volatility, ash and sulphur content, those are the three important factors. The Yorkley runs to about thirty inches on average. Thirty-two is good, the lowest I’ve ever worked the Yorkley is down to about seventeen inches. It’s pretty consistent. Sometimes it wibbles about a bit, but nothing too drastic.’

Outside, a hopper was emptying Yorkley coal onto the foot of a conveyor belt that carried it up to a stack of grading screens, which shook it into its bay: small coal, which is mostly grit and dust; peas, which are as big as a fingertip; rubble; then the largest, lump, which can be anything between a thumb and a fist, depending on the seam. Small coal burns OK, but, being messy and crackly, isn’t wanted. It’s what used to go to the power stations, where it would be ground to powder and blasted into the furnace; these days it’s compressed into briquettes. What comes out of freemines like Hopewell tends to be crumbly and small. ‘Sometimes when coal has been worked in a vicinity,’ Daniels told me, ‘the weight is thrown onto the remaining coal and causes it to crush.’ A stack of a dozen spruce trunks lies by the mine entrance shorn of their branches. In pre-worked – or ‘robbed-out’ – gales a lot of time is spent trimming and installing roof supports. Any mine is in a constant state of collapse. It’s not like a cave, which may evolve but has opened up over aeons. A mine is a relatively sudden intrusion – a knife puncture, in terms of geological time. Which means the miner is constantly battling the mass on all sides waiting to reclaim the void.


Each gale is outlined on the earth’s surface by marker stones and on a map held by a person bearing the title Deputy Gaveller, who is employed by the Forestry Commission. (There is no ‘gaveller in chief’ any more, that role being invested in the Forestry Commissioners as a body.) The current Deputy Gaveller is Daniel Howell: sheriff, mediator, surveyor, regulator, museum custodian and registrar of freeminers.

‘Since I’ve taken office in October 2011, I’ve registered three.’ That’s one every four years, among them a man who wished to be registered before he died, which he did a week later. ‘He wanted his name in there – for posterity.’ We were sitting in Howell’s office in Coleford. His grandfather, Albert, was also Deputy Gaveller – Howell pointed out his neat cursive in the register of freeminers – and his father, Mike, is the owner of the gale at Wallsend. A shelf held dozens of scrolled gale plans sheaved in conservators’ muslin. He showed me the plan for Wallsend, the sprawling gridwork of levels resembling so many city blocks. (‘There’s more tunnels down there than under Gaza,’ was how Mike put it.) While Howell himself owns a gale, and has spent more than his 366 days underground, he can never call himself a freeminer. ‘I fell short, or long, depending on how you look at it. I fell outside the Hundred line. I was born in Gloucester. That was because of, simply, complications with birth.’ Mike was employed at the huge Rank Xerox plant in Mitcheldean, which was opened after the big collieries closed, before going to work in America for the firm’s parent company. ‘Basically he quit what he was doing so that they could come back to the UK to have me Forest-born. But it turned out it wasn’t to be.’

If the future of the freeminer is doubtful, it is partly because of the stipulations of the 1838 Act. ‘It’s very black and white,’ said Howell. ‘It’s going to be its undoing eventually.’ Because hardly anyone qualifies. Paragraph XIV: ‘All male persons born or hereafter to be born and abiding within the said Hundred of Saint Briavels, of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, who shall have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the said Hundred of Saint Briavels . . .’ Since the right to open a new gale can only be claimed by a registered freeminer, mining in the Forest is dependent for its perpetuation on new blood – and blood of a vanishingly rare strain.

The town of Mitcheldean and the village of Longhope, for example, separated by less than a mile, both lie within the Forest of Dean local government district, but while a man born in Mitcheldean can, if he wants, register as a freeminer, his cousin born in Longhope can’t. There is no maternity unit in the Hundred’s seventy-five square miles. Assuming a home-birth rate of 2.4 per cent, the national average, the number of male children born in the Hundred in any given year is likely to be close to nil. Of that tiny number, how many will still be ‘abiding’ in the Forest – and want to be a freeminer – by the time they are twenty-one? Who among that fraction will be committed enough to see through a year and a day of on-the-job training, assuming any gales are still open by then? Howell opened the Register of Freeminers at Elaine Morman’s entry: ‘By order of the Forestry Commissioners’ had been scratched tersely alongside her name, by his predecessor. ‘He purposely defaced the book to make the point that he didn’t register her. If you speak to the purist freeminers they will still argue she’s not a freeminer.’

The interpretation of the Act continues to divide freeminers. There are, broadly, two factions, which are increasingly unhappily opposed: those who believe in a loose interpretation of the Act, in the interests of broadening the pool of potential freeminers; and those who maintain that the word of the Act is unambiguous, that it must be honoured: that ‘born and abiding within the Hundred of Saint Briavels’ means just that, and ‘male’ means male.

‘There’s an old expression,’ Howell said: ‘ “Freeminer against freeminer, and freeminers against all other men.” ’ I’d heard it before, recited with a sort of ironic portentousness, but the more fundamental fault line went deeper than factionalism. Every level, every roadway, was dug on the same bearing: back in time. But then that had always been the way. What, after all, is the burning of coal but the recovery of ancient energies?


I met one of the surviving Old Men, Gordon Brooks, at his home on the edge of the Forest. He had worked at Northern United Colliery until it was closed in 1965. The fireplace was neatly lain, not for daily use but in case of power cuts, and lain not with lump coal from the Coleford High Delf or the Yorkley, but with Taybrite smokeless. Volatile, clean-burning, minimal ash.

‘Our dad, he was a miner, and he and all his brothers worked at Cannop Colliery. I was born and bred down here’ – he pointed down the street to the valley bottom – ‘right opposite Waterloo Pit. The pit was my playground. And that’s all I wanted to do, I suppose. It’s just one of them things, you follow the family tradition.

‘It took nine men to prise that stone up to pull him out,’ he said, going back to his father’s accident. ‘Some reckon that stone was three to four tonne. Some reckon it were more like five to six tonne. He was under that stone, but they reckon there was a slight dip in it. There was a timber trolley on the rails just by him, and that big rock flattened that thing out.

‘The ambulance come up and took him up to Gloucester City General. He had a fractured spine and pelvis. All the other men in that ward were soldiers from the war. An army officer used to visit, and he asked them soldiers what regiments they were in, and when he said goodbye, this officer would give these soldiers three quid. When he got to our dad, he said, “Well, what regiment are you in, then?” and he said, “No, I ain’t in the army, I’m a miner who’ve had an accident,” and he said, “Well, that’s all right then, you’ve earned that three pound.”

‘We didn’t see him for three months. But he did walk after. And he went back to work. He was lucky.’

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