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Freeeminers of the Forest of Dean
For 700 years the Free Miners of the Royal Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, have mined coal but now their future is in doubt. It was the skill of their forefathers in tunnelling under castle fortifications that earned them the right, by Royal decree, to mine anywhere in the forest without hindrance.
Robin Morgan, aged 62, works one of only two full-time mines remaining. Robin has been a miner since the age of 15 and was down a mine helping his father at 14. Robin is now helped by his son Neil, aged 40, who became a free miner after losing his factory job. Six days a week they travel underground, at the Phoenix Mine, which dates back to 1821, to cut out coal for the domestic market. They still use pick and shovel to tunnel to the coal face and the mine is little changed from its Victorian origins.
The coal face is narrow and the miners must work lying on their stomachs. Clay above the coal becomes waterlogged from the forest above and covers the miners in a grey film. The sheer weight of the clay is supported on pit props cut from the forest timber. Coal is loaded into the carts by shovel and each cart, weighing half a ton, is winched from the coal face and then pushed out of the mine by hand. In the past pit ponies and even children were used to pull the carts to the surface.
Like all free miners Robin and Neil were born in the Hundred of St Briavels and worked a year and a day underground to claim thier birthright. However the future of the free mining tradition looks set to die out with the closure of the nearby hospital, meaning newborn boys are born outside the forest, and with the high cost of insurance for miners it is no longer possible for a mine to employ men. In its heyday in 1849 there were more men underground than above in the forest.Today there are around a few hundred free miners surviving, only a handful now cut coal and while there are large seams of coal under the forest few men would want to work such a hard way of life unchanged by time and technology.
Robin says that the working day is not measured by time but by distance and weight. Free miners are proud of their birthright and it would be a sad day if the centuries old tradition was not carried on by future generations.
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