Last weekend I had occasion to travel to the Forest of Dean, which is about 30 miles out of Cheltenham, in the direction of South Wales. It’s an area I’ve never been to before, but it also happens to be where many of my supposedly ‘Welsh’ ancestors actually originated, before their move to Tredegar, South Wales, in the late nineteenth century. It was a somewhat impromptu visit, to meet my boyfriend’s mum, (who happened to be working there) and pick up some exciting post (on which more very soon, hopefully...!)
Anyhow, as it wasn’t organised, I hadn’t had the time to gather together what I needed in order to make it a research expedition, though I am planning to go back there for this purpose at some point – it’s almost inexcusable that I haven’t done so already, given how close it is! However, it did give me a chance to scope out the area, and I came away with some interesting impressions.
The Forest of Dean is a Crown forest of about 42 square miles and today attracts a lot of tourists, for the stunning woodland and outdoor pursuits such as walking and cycling. However, while it may sound like a rural idyll, in fact the area has a long history of mining, both for coal and iron. While there I also discovered that there was a gold mine in the north of the forest.
The forest has an interesting tradition of free miners – men who have have earned the right to mine for coal or iron on personal plots, known as Gales. The practice is regulated through a unique system of rules, and some free miners continue to operate today. Here is the eligibility rule:
"All male persons born or hereafter to be born and abiding within the said Hundred of St 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 St Briavels, shall be deemed and taken to be Free Miners."
We arrived at a place called New Fancy View (a viewing point that was formerly a mine called New Fancy). Here there is a large ‘map’ set into the ground, showing the locations of all the mines in the Forest, numbered with a key giving their names. I found this really interesting, and of course it made me resolve to find out, if I can, where my ancestors worked, or where they may have worked. I don’t have any reason to believe that they were operating as Free Miners, from the censuses, though of course, it may not have been stated.
They did seem to move around the forest a lot, however, so I may be able to map this against the opening and closing of mines to see if I can see any pattern. And of course, they eventually began to drift off into South Wales. Interestingly, they did all seem to move to Wales, but not all at the same time – perhaps it became apparent that their family members were prospering there, and so one by one they began to follow them?
I was also struck by the names of the gales, many of which, like New Fancy view, were obviously locally named. Here are a few of my favourites: All Profit, Brazilly, Breadless, Mystery, Oddfellows Delight, Potlid, Strip And At It, Trafalgar, Tormentor, True Blue, Uncertainty.
While some of them are named optimistically, such as ‘All Profit’, or ‘True Blue’, others give a hint of the Free Miner’s life of hard work – ‘Strip and At It’ – and instability– ‘Mystery’, ‘Uncertainty’, ‘Breadless’ or ‘Tormentor’. Others are affectionate – ‘Oddfellows Delight’; patriotic – ‘Trafalgar’; or just plain incomprehensible – ‘Brazilly’ and ‘Potlid’!
I found this useful site, which allows you to browse known information about these gales. I’ve read a few, and some of this history is quite interesting, with what seems to be some personal testimony about the mines, such as this one, from the page about the gale ‘Uncertainty’:
“Colliery such a serious loss to me and other members of family. My father involved us in difficulties in spending so much money to get coal out but found hardly any to be seen. “
However, there’s no sign of any of my ancestors at first glance, which probably means I was right that they weren’t working as Free Miners.
The towns and villages of the Forest are not particularly picturesque, having been mostly pit villages, and today they are areas or relative poverty. My boyfriend commented that they reminded him of the towns and villages of the Welsh Valleys, like Tredegar, where my grandfather was born. I agree, they do have the same feel to them, and after all, it was an area with the same mining heritage, and just over the border. In the Dark Ages, parts of the Forest of Dean might have been within the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and Ergyng, and the boundary remained uncertain until Offa’s Dyke was built in around AD 790. I can imagine that movement between the two areas was frequent and family ties numerous.
This is really just a starting point for further research, but it definitely gave me a feel for the area I’m dealing with.