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The Forest of Dean by H. G. Nicholls

Thrown upon the necessity of birth from a free miner


On

the 25th of August the Dean Forest Commissioners presented their fourth and fifth Reports. In the former, which gives a minute summary of the rights and privileges claimed by the free miners (derived chiefly from the evidence taken in 1832), the origin of them is stated to be involved in obscurity, although no doubt iron was manufactured in the neighbourhood as early as the time of the Romans, and coal was obtained in the reign of Edward III. Probably before, and certainly soon after, the Norman Conquest, the soil was vested in the Crown, and all the rights of a royal forest were in force. The persons by whom the mines were then worked could not have been, in the first instance, free tenants of the Crown. It is more likely that they were in a state of servitude, and subject, in that character, to perform the labour required of them. The name of "Free Miners," by which they are and have been for centuries known, seems to refer to some right or privilege distinct from their original condition; and it does not appear unreasonable to suppose that certain persons at some distant period, either by having worked for a year and a day, or by reason of some now unknown circumstance connected with the origin of the privilege, were considered as emancipated, and thereupon became entitled or were allowed to work the mines upon their own adventure, concurrently with or subject to the right of the Crown to a certain portion of the product.

Noticing in

succession many of the historical incidents attaching to the free miners of the Forest, the Report states that the franchise of the mine was unquestionably perpetuated by birth from a free father in the hundred of St. Briavel's, and afterwards working a year and a day in one of the mines and abiding within the hundred. Doubt is, however, thrown upon the necessity of birth from a free miner, the more so as the son of a foreigner could obtain his freedom after working out an apprenticeship of seven years with a free miner; and it would be difficult, if not impossible, at the present time, to confine the title to anything beyond birth and service, to which particular class of individuals the Court of Mine Law confined all mining operations.

Entering in the next place into a consideration of the actual claims of the free miners, the Commissioners declare their opinion as to how their claims are to be settled, suggesting at once the question "whether they can be now maintained with advantage to the miners themselves, or to the community," connected as they are with a most defective system of working, productive of incessant disputes and expensive litigation, and occasioning constant disputes and never-ending jealousy; and they thus conclude--"Taking all the circumstances of the case into consideration, we are of opinion that the monopoly and customary workings are practically at an end, and that, if individual claims were bought up, the whole coal-field might then be let by the Crown as between landlord and tenant, defining the limits and regulating the working."

The fifth and final Report of the Dean Forest Commissioners bore the same date as the preceding. It contains the evidence produced before them as to "certain claims of common of pasture" made by the inhabitants of the following parishes bounding the Forest, and paying a small sum annually, called "herbage money," to the lessee of the Crown of the manor and hundred of St. Briavel's, and the manor of Newland, as annexed:--


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