Coal Mining the Old-Fashioned Way

Kari Lydersen

Free Miner Gerald Haynes at a coal mine near the Union Pit at Bixslade in 2001.

We wanted to make sure you didn't miss the announcement of our new Sustainer program. Once you've finished reading, take a moment to check out the new program, as well as all the benefits of becoming a Sustainer.

Much coal today is extracted in gaping open pit mines where gargantuan equipment — largely unmanned and automated — claws away at coal seams 24 hours a day, dumping tons of rock onto conveyors that snake for miles through these labyrinthine complexes. Processing facilities — also largely automated — separate, wash and crush the coal into the form needed for power plants, steel mills or other facilities. Such industrial mining tears apart landscapes, poisons water and pollutes the air, while employing fewer and fewer people as machines become more advanced and efficient.

But in a corner of southwest England, a community of miners is sticking to the old ways and hacking coal out of seams deep underground much as people did more than a century ago. While the mining style mirrors the Victorian age, however, the labor practices do not. Unlike the exploitative arrangements of the 19th century, when rich landowners reaped huge profits at the expense of workers’ health and lives, the Free Miners” of the Forest of Dean near Bristol are independent miners working for themselves.

Under an 1838 law that codified long-standing common law practices, miners born in the region can claim legal rights to the coal and other minerals. (Ochre and iron ore were also mined there, especially long ago.) Exercising these rights is seen as a statement of populist and collectivist power, bucking the exploitative property structures of various British eras and the concept of private property more generally. Throughout the centuries including in recent years, Free Miners in the Forest of Dean have fought to protect these historical rights and practices.

Working hard, but free”

Rich Daniels grew up in the area, had long been interested in the Free Mining tradition and got a chance to start himself about 10 years ago. So I’m a new boy,” he told Working In These Times. Some of these elders have been at it a lifetime.”

Like most of the Free Miners, Daniels sells the coal he harvests on a small scale to neighbors and uses it to heat his own home. Burning coal for cooking and heating is illegal in much of England, for environmental and health reasons, but still allowed in some rural areas. Free miners also sometimes sell coal to power plants, and Daniels said that forest coal is sought after because it has a relatively high energy content.

People aren’t likely to become wealthy mining in the Forest of Dean, but it’s a type of subsistence, DIY living that makes a statement.

It’s independent — you work when you want to work, the reward you get out of it is in direct proportion to what you put in, it’s interesting and challenging every day,” Daniels says. There are various problems to overcome, whether logistical or mechanical. It’s quite exciting. Obviously there’s a long tradition of designing, making and fixing things. Since you can’t afford to go out and buy (certain mining equipment), you learn how to make it or to cannibalize something else.”

The work is hard; miners spend many hours on their sides or knees in cramped spaces underground, just like in the old days, and cave-ins and other accidents are a constant risk. The seam Daniels works is only 30 inches high. They use tools including picks and pneumatic drills to break up rock and remove coal, hauling it out much as you would in Victorian times,” Daniels said, in coal drams from 500 pounds to half a ton.”

In the old days women would often drag containers on their hands and knees with chains around their waists. The Free Miners usually remove the drams by attaching them to a rope connected to an electric winch on the surface. One of the pits has a winch attached to an old car engine, it works quite well,” says Daniels, citing one example of the creative ad-hoc nature of the work.

Miners typically work in partnerships of two or three, so you’re not employing anybody,” Daniels notes.

Finding adequate coal in the Forest of Dean is a challenge, since it has been mined since Roman times.

The whole Forest of Dean is like a big rabbit warren underneath,” Daniels says. Miners find virgin coal or work seams that have been mined in the past, including removing gob coal” — small loose chunks that previous miners did not think worth their while — and removing walls of coal that were left in place as barriers. Since they are sometimes mining in previously worked tunnels, they have to make sure not to break through to a tunnel above or below, which could cause dangerous flooding or cave-ins.

Any male over age 21 and born within 100 miles of the nearby medieval village of St. Briavels can work toward mining rights, by working for a year and a day under the tutelage of an existing miner. Women are not allowed to get mining rights under the law, although this provision has been challenged recently. Some miners say they want to stick to the historical letter of the law, and they worry that with less upper body strength women would not be able to safely handle the work. Others say women should be allowed to mine.

A history of struggle and independence

The Free Miners trace their rights back to common law principles encoded in the Magna Carta and the Carta de Foresta (Charter of the Forest) of the 13th century, which enshrined the right of the public to use natural resources. Specific rights for Free Miners in the Forest of Dean were granted in part because of the miners’ service to royalty. Kings would employ Forest of Dean Free Miners to help take down the castles of rivals by undermining them, even bringing miners to France and other countries for conquests.

If you were a king in the 13th century, doing campaigns all over the place, these are very valuable men to have with you,” Daniels says. They got the miners to go under the castle walls, temporarily support them with timber” — like they do in a mine — and as they came out they set fire to the timber, so the castle walls came down.”

But the miners more often struggled with the Crown and other powerful interests. From the 17th to 19th centuries, landowners and businessmen continually tried to privatize and take control of the forest. They sought to harvest wood to make charcoal to run iron works or supply the Royal Navy, and later they wanted to open industrial-scale coal mines, tree plantations and livestock operations. The miners always fought back, with many riots” in the forest over the decades, part of a national movement of popular uprisings before and during the Industrial Revolution.

In a Bristol Radical History Group booklet, Bristol resident Ian Wright wrote: The ruling classes feared the Foresters, characterizing them as a savage and a lawless people. The words used to describe them by the clergy and others in authority include ignorant’, pagan’, uncivilised’, drunk’, rioters’, immoral’, depraved’, barbarous’, savage’, insolent’, rebellious’, delinquent’, etc.”

Wright continued:

It is true that the Foresters were quick to riot, hard to control and that their isolation contributed to their sense of community. However they were a principled and proud people with a strong sense of community, living in extreme poverty, struggling to defend their rights which enabled them to make a living. It was the privileged classes who were unenlightened and ignorant of the reality of the conditions in which the Foresters lived.

Wright’s pamphlet relates the story of Warren James, leader of an 1831 riot that miners ultimately lost. James was sent to Tasmania along with trade unionists and Swing rioters” — participants in an early 1800s uprising of agricultural and other rural workers. Following the 1831 defeat, Free Miners continued to work the forest and fight to preserve their rights and the woodland. And today, almost two centuries later, this tradition of resistance and resourcefulness lives on, and the miners — many of them aging — hope it will continue for generations to come.

We’re trying very hard to make sure we can pass the baton,” Daniels says. That’s one of the biggest challenges we face today, making sure we pass the knowledge and skills on to the next generation so they carry on. It’s a pretty unique way of life. From a cultural heritage point of view and from a local point of view, it’s very, very important. It’s part of who we are.”

Be a Sustainer

We surveyed thousands of readers and asked what they would like to see in a monthly giving program. Now, for the first time, we're offering three different levels of support, with rewards at each level, including a magazine subscription, books, tote bags, events and more—all starting at less than 17 cents a day. Check out the new Sustainer program.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue