Ancient rights vs modern red tape

For over 800 years the free miners of the Forest of Dean have dug under royal charter. Why must they now pay for the privilege?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You are in perfect darkness, up to your ankles in mud. Ahead, lit by the sporadic bobbing of the lamp on Gerald Haynes's helmet, you see winding rail tracks disappearing into an ever-shrinking tunnel. You slip and grasp one of the wooden supports that hold up the roof; it crumbles in your hand and suddenly you become aware of the sound of a stream running along the floor, fed by water seeping from the walls.

You are in perfect darkness, up to your ankles in mud. Ahead, lit by the sporadic bobbing of the lamp on Gerald Haynes's helmet, you see winding rail tracks disappearing into an ever-shrinking tunnel. You slip and grasp one of the wooden supports that hold up the roof; it crumbles in your hand and suddenly you become aware of the sound of a stream running along the floor, fed by water seeping from the walls.

"This is the good bit," shouts Haynes. And you wonder what the bad bit is like.

This is Hayner's Bailey, the last full-time coal drift-mine in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, and Gerald Haynes is probably the last miner in the forest to make his living this way. Each day, he drives his battered Nissan truck along a gravel road between high, whispering conifers to his ramshackle mine in a coal-strewn hollow outside the village of Parkend.

He opens the welded door of the cut, switches on his torch and trudges more than 300 yards at an incline of about 15 degrees to work the 30-inch high coal face, alone in the damp and the silence. Haynes, a grizzled 52-year-old, is a "free miner", one of a dwindling band of men allowed to dig in the Forest of Dean for coal, iron, ochre and stone under a royal charter dating back some 800 years. Their history has its roots in battle, tradition and servitude; but now this way of life is under threat, because of government bureaucracy and red tape.

The traditions of free miners are rooted in times when kings would summon men to battle from the "hundreds" of the kingdom - areas of land from which 100 fighting men could be mustered. In the case of the sparsely-populated Forest of Dean, a hundred comprised just about the whole of the forest. It was named the Hundred of St Briavels and it spawned some of the best bowmen in the land because of their expertise at hunting deer.

Successive monarchs were impressed by the men of St Briavels and, by way of thanks, bestowed upon them certain rights and privileges pertaining to the mining of minerals in the royal forest. A manuscript dated 1244 makes the first references to the free miners' rights, saying they were allowed to dig for coal and iron ore subject to payments to the Constable of St Briavels on behalf of the king. A fuller account, the Book of Dennis, is dated 1610. It deals with the miners' rights, which by then were described as having been granted "Tyme out of Minde".

Other documents stored at the Public Record Office in Parkend, near Hayner's Bailey, lay down more rights and rules. One, dated 1673, says: "The Gavellor [the king's representative] shall visit the mine every Tuesday to receive the King's due. Any miner may sell or bequeath his gale [the area mined]. The miner has the right to take timber for his mine. Strangers are not allowed to pry into the mine. The miner shall have as much space to work and store his materials as he can throw a stone."

In order to qualify as a free miner, with the right to your own gale, you had to be born within the Hundred of St Briavels and must have worked on a mine for a year and a day. The system worked well for hundreds of years, but it never reckoned on the polarised dogmas of nationalisation and privatisation. First, when Labour nationalised coal in 1947, the special rights of the free miners were recognised, but a provision was made for the issue of a token licence. It was so simple - comprising just two pages and with no fee - that it was generally ignored by the free miners.

When privatisation came along, in 1994, provision was made for another system of licensing the free mines, imposed by the new Coal Authority - but this was many complicated pages long and it came with a fee: £2,000. The free miners were furious and, supported by the modern-day Gavellor, the Forestry Commission, they succeeded in having the amount reduced to £50. That was in 1997, but they still remain desperately unhappy.

"It isn't the money that's at stake, it's the principle," says Eric Morris, president of the Free Miners' Association. "We do not need a licence from the Coal Authority; we are free miners. It may only be £50 now, but in 50 years it could be £10,000 and that would see off the free mines. Besides, if you accept that someone has the right to give you a licence, you accept that they have the right to take it away."

Today, there are fewer than 10 coal mines in the forest, with names like Quidchurch, Cannop Drift and Hamblin's Yorkley, but only three or four produce on a commercial scale, mostly on a part-time basis. And fewer than 15 men now work down them.

The Queen's Gavellor these days is the Forestry Commission, while the Deputy Gavellor, who carries out its work, is John Harvey. He mined a gale in the Forest of Dean between 1980 and 1983 before reserves ran out. It is his job now to grant new gales to the free miners and to see that the legislation in its current form - incorporating the new licenses - is complied with. But he clearly sympathises with the free miners.

"The row goes back to an Act of Parliament, the Dean Forest (amendment) Act passed in 1861," he recalls. "That said that the granting of a gale, which is the Gavellor's job, amounted to the granting of a licence to work a mine. Well, we grant the gales, so why should there be another tier of licensing?

"The free miners see it as the thin end of the wedge, but the Coal Authority is saying there have been licences since 1947 in a simple form and they should have complained back then. The problem now is that since privatisation, the Coal Authority has to turn a profit, so the miners are concerned that if they accept licensing now, they may face bigger fees in the future."

It all sounds very complicated, but to the free miners it isn't; they simply refer back to ancient times when kings gave them the freedom to dig and mine. The Coal Authority, for its part, denies trying to rein in the free miners. Ian MacPherson, one of its solicitors, says: "No one wants to strip them of their rights, but legislation says you need a licence if you are to mine. In their case, a compromise was reached to charge them just £50 a year. We don't think that's unreasonable."

At present, that doesn't matter to Gerald Haynes. As a free miner, he would be affected by the legislation if he were to apply to work a new gale, but for now he works a Coal Authority pit and pays rent to it. But he still feels angry.

"It isn't right," he says, puffing on his pipe (there are no explosive gases below the Forest of Dean). "You can't simply take away a man's ancient rights and replace them with a piece of paper. And they're wrong if they think the free men of the forest will take it lying down."

For the moment, there is stalemate, but the impasse might be academic. As Deputy Gavellor Harvey points out, the handful of men who still work the mines - in most cases doing nothing more than maintaining them - are middle-aged and older, and there are no young people following in their footsteps, selling good coal for £5.50 a sack and power-station coal dust for as little as £18 a tonne.

"It's hard work and I'm getting too old for it," says Haynes, peeling off his muddy knee-pads. He goes down Hayner's Bailey five or six days a week, working a 30ft face with a 1947 coal cutter and an old pneumatic drill. "It's difficult working on your own - I tend to talk to myself quite a lot. And it's getting harder to make ends meet. There seem to be so many more bills to pay these days."

He grins when asked why he still does it and he seems consciously to avoid romanticising what is obviously a very tough way of life. "It's what I do," he says. "But that doesn't mean I would recommend it. Put it this way; I have a 15-year-old lad, and there's no way I'd let him do it."

And he hauls up three trucks - or drams - of coal on his small motor, grades the lumps and then locks up the mine. In the flatbed of his battered Nissan are 13 sacks of household coal which he must deliver before the day's end, and, as he trudges over in blackened overalls, rivulets of coal dust and sweat lining his face, he looks exhausted.