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The Forest of Dean by H. G. Nicholls

The actual meeting of the workmen underground


and, moreover, that 276,054 trees of various kinds had been planted out during the previous winter.

On the 27th of July, 1838, the Royal Assent was given to "an Act for regulating the opening and working of mines and quarries in the Forest of Dean, and Hundred of St. Briavel's, by the agency of a Board of Commissioners." Thomas Sopwith, Esq., of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was appointed by the Board of Woods and Forests a Commissioner for the purpose on behalf of the Crown; and John Probyn, Esq., of Longhope Manor-house, Gloucestershire, was selected by the body of free miners to act on their behalf; and the office of arbitrator between them was filled by John Buddle, Esq., of Wallsend, in the county of Northumberland; Thomas Graham, Esq., acting as their solicitor, and Mr. Henry Ebsworth as his clerk. {126}

Some idea may be formed of the necessity for such a mining Commission, and of the difficulties it had to overcome, from the following particulars, as Mr. Sopwith stated them in his valuable Paper on "Mining Plans and Records," read before the British Association at Newcastle in 1838:--"Great distrust of any interference" (he says) "existed, and some of the mine-owners refused to allow of underground surveys being made. Numerous and conflicting parties were then working mines under customs which were totally inapplicable to the present state of mining; destructive at once to the interests of the free miners of the Forest; ruinous, as sad experience had shown, to the enterprising capitalist; and subversive of the rights of the Crown. So great was the perplexity, and so numerous and conflicting were the claims of contending parties, that the law advisers of the Board of Woods deemed it almost impossible to arrive at any satisfactory adjustment of them within the period of three years, as named in the Dean Forest Mining Act. The ruinous and unsatisfactory state of the mines must appear obvious on a slight consideration. As no plans existed, it was impossible to tell to what extent or in what direction the underground works were being carried. The crossing of mattocks, that is to say, the actual meeting of the workmen underground, was often the abrupt signal for contention; the driving of narrow headings was a means by which one coal-owner might gain possession of coal which of right belonged to another; and a pit, though sunk at a cost of several thousand pounds, had no secured possession of coal beyond 12 yards round it, that is, a tract of coal 24 yards in diameter. At 40 or 50 yards from such a work another adventurer might commence a pit, and have an equal right, if right it could be called, to the coal. If a long and expensive adit was driven, another one might be commenced only a few yards deeper; and, from such a state of things, it is quite clear that great uncertainty and frequent losses inevitably ensued." Moreover, the receipts from mines and minerals, by the Crown, upon the average of the six preceding years, were only 826 pounds 2s. 10.5d.

The important Act by which these difficulties were to be removed, under the auspices of the three Commissioners above named, was framed in accordance with the suggestion thrown out in the fourth Report of the Dean Forest Commissioners, viz., that all subsisting mine-works should be released by compensation to the Crown, and the whole relet on a well-defined plan to such free miners as might make application for the same. The Act (1 and 2 Vict. cap. 43) provides that all male persons born and abiding within the hundred of St. Briavel's, being upwards of twenty-one years of age and having worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine or stone-quarry within the said hundred, should alone have the right to hold or dispose of such works, a register of all such persons being kept as "free miners." It suppressed all claims to pit timber, with all "customs," and assigned to the Commissioners under the Act the duty of fixing rents and royalties for twenty-one years, and to the gaveller power to limit and regulate as well as to enter and survey all works which might be re-awarded or galed. No engines were to be erected nearer than sixty yards to any enclosure, within which only air-shafts might be opened, and all unnecessary buildings were to be removed.


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