4,500+ YEARS OF MINING HISTORY IN AN AMAZING CAVE SYSTEM
For many thousands of years ochre and iron ore has been mined at Clearwell Caves. You can still meet Freeminers here. For over a thousand years, Freeminers have held the ancient Forest of Dean birth-right that exclusively entitles them to mine for iron ore, coal and stone.
Clearwell Caves were first opened to the public in 1968 when Ray Wright began opening the caverns to visitors. Ray remained involved with the Caves until he passed away aged 85, in 2015. Ray was a founding member of the Royal Forest of Dean Caving Club and Gloucestershire Cave Rescue Group (GCRG). He was secretary to the Royal Forest of Dean Freeminers' Association for over 30 years and became one of four Forest of Dean Verderers. Ray was chairman of the Wyedean Tourism Association for many years during the 1980's. Ray's son Jonathan was registered as a Freeminer in 1981, he joined Ray full time in 1984.
Jonathan studied for his M&Q Mine Deputy Certificate on the last mining course held at Cinderford Mining and Technical College, between 1986/7, using lecturers from Crosskeys college Gwent; examinations held at Britannia Colliery, Bargoed. Since 2004 he has been Secretary to the Royal Forest of Dean Freeminers' Association and President of the Freeminers Association from October 2021. Today Jonathan continues to produce ochre pigments and manage Clearwell Caves with his artist wife, Heather.
Clearwell Caves are a tribute to Ray and Jonathan's deep knowledge of the Forest of Dean, it's history and culture. Jonathan still mines and makes pigment from ochre mined from the deep workings of Clearwell Caves. Pigments are for sale in the mine shop and by mail order. Today you explore impressive caverns worked by generations of iron miners. Displays reveal the Cave's story from the Stone Age to the present day. Iron from the Caves has made tools, weapons and machinery through the ages, alongside the ochre pigments that have been mined here continuously for thousands of years. Although large scale working finished in 1945, Clearwell Caves remains an important part of the Forest of Dean story.
Once you have explored the nine caverns open to visitors, if your interest has been whetted, we often run trips into the Deep Levels of the mine to explore further. Clearwell Caves consists of six interconnected iron mines (Clearwell, Old Ham, Lambsquay, Old Bow, Oak Pit and New Dun) covering 230 acres, descending almost 180m (600ft).
Many species of bat have used the caves over the years. Miners considered bats a good omen (indicating fresh air flow). The number of bats using the system has increased considerably over the years, as farmers have become more aware of damage done to insects and the environment, through modern farming methods, especially spraying of pesticides.
In 1998 Clearwell Caves were designated a SSSI because of the exceptionally large population of Lesser Horseshoe bats that hibernate here through the winter. The Caves are a major part of the Wye Valley SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and are of European importance. See https://clearwellcaves.com/explore-the-caverns/
GEOLOGY AROUND CLEARWELL CAVES
The Forest of Dean sits upon a fold of Carboniferous rocks more than 350 million years old, that form a natural basin. The Carboniferous limestones form the rim of the Forest of Dean basin, creating the higher edges, often with steep cliffs and hills. The Devonian Old Red Sandstone lies beneath this layer. On top of the layers of limestone, forming the centre of the basin are Carboniferous shales and sandstones with coal seams, belonging to the Coal Measures.
During folding of the rock that formed the Forest of Dean basin, the western (or Coleford) side was tilted less steeply than the sometimes almost vertical eastern (Cinderford) side. The difference of geological structure between each side of the basin, meant East and West Dean had different approaches to mining the iron ore.
Forest of Dean iron-ore mines are part of ancient natural cave systems that began developing mainly within the bed of the Carboniferous oolitic limestone (known locally as Crease Limestone) shortly after the rock was formed, some 300 million years ago. Later, about 225 million years ago, during the Triassic period, the surface became a hot desert, totally unlike our modern landscape, in both climate and appearance. Torrential rain storms, far heavier and more prolonged than anything we experience today, dissolved iron minerals from the arid land surface and coal measures that had formed over the limestone. Massive floods of acidic, iron-rich water then entered the older cave systems, where iron-ore minerals were deposited as the water became neutralised by contact with the limestone.
Millions of years later, at about the same time the Alps were forming elsewhere in Europe, the whole of the Forest of Dean area was uplifted again. The ancestors of major rivers, the Wye in the west and the Severn in the east, and their tributaries, eroded deep valleys through the rocks either side of the basin, cutting through the old cave systems, exposing the iron-ores that most of them now contained.
The modern road running just outside Clearwell Caves entrance, follows a dry river valley, that used to be a tributary to the river Wye. Surface rivers fed underground streams, forming caves and depositing minerals until the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago.
The original source of iron mineralisation still mystifies geologists as the remaining strata above the limestone contains relatively little iron mineralisation, compared to the vast quantity of iron ore that became deposited into the cave systems, to become the iron mines.
FOREST OF DEAN FREE MINING
“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." extract from Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838.
Freemining is an ancient mining custom practised in the Forest of Dean. Local inhabitants have exclusively taken minerals from the ground since prehistoric times - for as long as people have lived in the region. There is archaeological evidence to show that iron working in the Forest began well before the Roman occupation of this country. By Norman times, Forest of Dean iron ore had become vital to England’s economy. The Forest of Dean became the most prominent iron producing district in the British Isles, and the Forest miner became privileged as their skills were used particularly for military uses. It was during this time that the exclusive and ancient Freemining customs become documented. Freeminers have the right to work the minerals in the Forest of Dean area - coal, iron ore, stone and associated minerals (even mining for gold at the turn of the 20thC). Freeminers may work anywhere throughout the Hundred of St Briavels (except under graveyards, churches, gardens and orchards). The Freeminers' claim is known as a gale. There are hundreds of gales throughout the Forest of Dean and Hundred of St Briavels, but new ones can be created, by the Deputy Gaveller. The official register of Free Miners is in an ancient leather bound book, kept by the Deputy Gaveller, the Crown officer responsible for the administration of Free Mining customs and for collection of mineral royalties. The photograph shows a previous Deputy Gaveller, Albert Howells, in his office at Coleford, inspecting a map book showing coal gales. Specific gales are granted to Freeminers at their request and each gale defines the mineral and area that can be worked.
Archaeological evidence shows that working for ochre pigments began in the Forest of Dean over 4,500 years ago and that iron and coal working here was extensive by Roman times. By the time the Roman Empire eventually reached the Forest of Dean around AD 79, the local miners were allowed to continue 'free' from direct Imperial control (perhaps as coloni or vilici) on condition they supplied the Roman Empire with their produce; this has been proposed as the origins of the Freemining system.
By Norman times, Dean iron ore was an important part of the national economy. Freeminer's skills became a great military asset that was valued by Medieval Kings, who often requested their services in England, Scotland, Wales and France, particularly during the 100 years War.
The miners were protected by the King, becoming known as the ‘King’s Miners’ and ‘King’s pyoneers’, they became a privileged group, with their own Mine Law Court. Through the court they regulated the Freemining customs, under supervision of the King's Gaveller, who in turn appointed Deputy Gavellers to do the work 'on the ground', collecting royalties and administering day to day operations of the mines and the custom.
The earliest known copy of the Dean Miners' Laws and Privileges (also known as the Book of Dennis) is from 1612 but this copy contains references that hint at a much earlier origin. The document contains 41 laws and privileges for the winning of Myne (iron ore) and Sea Cole (coal). The laws outline rights of access and the method for defining a claim, still known as a gale. The King's Gaveller collected royalties in cash or kind, and regulated the court 'that is called Myne Lawe,' allowing the Dean Miners to be largely self governing. The exact date by which these privileges were operating is not known but it is recorded in 1244 that the Dean Free Miners already had the exclusive rights to mine in the Forest of Dean.
*From August 2010, 'male' has been interpreted to mean 'male and female' by the current Gaveller of the Forest of Dean (a Crown role currently vested in the Forestry Commissioners as a body) when they made a decision to accept an application from Mrs Elaine Morman, to become the first ever female to be entered into the registration book.
There are many references to medieval Free Miners, who were instrumental amongst many things, in recapturing Berwick upon Tweed several times (1296, 1305, 1315) as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Legend tells us that it was for their indispensable services, particularly during his Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter, as he had with other mining districts such as Derbyshire and Cornwall
Dean miners were continually called to campaigns that might involve siege or earth works, especially during the Hundred Year's War (1337 to 1453). After Henry V's campaign in 1415 (which included the battle of Agincourt) the King’s brother, John Duke of Bedford (Regent of England while Henry was abroad and Gaveller of the Forest of Dean) is believed to have delivered a document to the miners on behalf of the King, re-confirming their customs in return for their services in France.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Mine Law Court records (including any charters and other ancient documents) were stolen from the Speech House and not all of them ever recovered. When some of the documents re-surfaced at an Inquiry over 50 years later in 1831, they were in the hands of Crown officers and used in evidence to a Government Inquiry into the miner’s customs. One of the documents that was recovered, The 'Miners' Lawes And Privileges' mentioned above, is thought to be a translation of a much earlier miners' charter as it contains ancient legal terms that hint at being translated from Latin or early French.
No actual charter is known to exist today.
Amongst other places, Freeminers were frequently requested to fight in France and fought for the King throughout the Hundred Years War, most famously they are documented at the famous battles at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Miners became used to being an essential part of the King's armoury. Dean miners became known as 'The King's Miners' and 'King's Pyoneers', known today as 'Sappers' they were used to undermine fortifications, collapsing them, making earthworks, trenches, building timber structures, installing stakes etc.
As well as their renowned mining skills, the Dean miners were also excellent archers and ferocious in hand to hand combat; they were hard men, used to operating in harsh conditions. By law from 1363 all English males from 7 - 60 years old were required to practise archery for at least two hours on Sundays and festival days, no other new distracting games such as football and golf were to be allowed to replace archery, on pain of death. Dean miners by their trade were strong and able to pull powerful warbows; their archery skills were an important asset during campaigns (even today archery practice areas known as 'The Butts', can be found in local mining villages of Clearwell, Blakeney and Staunton).
As late as 31st July 1522 Henry VIII demanded 300 archers from the Forest of Dean to go to Dover to fight in France; most of them, if not all, would have been Freeminers. By the beginning of the 16th century archery was in decline, the Forest of Dean was one of the last areas in England where large numbers of skilled archers could still be found.
FREE MINING SAILORS!
In 1577 a dozen Free Miners were requested to be on board ship with one of England's great sea captains - Martin Frobisher. They were to be accompany him on his ultimately unsuccessful adventures, to discover the elusive North-West Passage; a route around the North American continent. They returned unsuccessful but with mineral samples, presented to Queen Elizabeth I.
Towards the end of the 18th century conflicting mining interests arose, particularly from the increased demand for iron and coal created by the Industrial Revolution. Powerful outside interests began to look towards the largely untapped coal and iron reserves in the Forest of Dean, they saw that it was reserved solely to the Free Miners and they looked for a way in. The Freeminers' Mine Law Court that had successfully regulated Freemining for centuries, but became bogged down with disputes, embroiled in the increasing pressure to allow outside interests into the operation and ownership of mines. Towards the end in 1777 the Mine Law Court records kept at the Speech House, were stolen; without records, the Court could no longer function properly and ceased to operate, despite demands by most miners that it should continue.
The Crown had seen an opportunity and wanted to rationalise the system to suit all interests. Deep coal and iron reserves could not be mined without substantial investment from wealthy investors. Industrial interests from outside the Forest of Dean, particularly the Prothero and Crawshay families from Bristol and industrialised South Wales, wishing to exploit the district, creating larger and deeper collieries than had ever been dug in the Forest of Dean before. The existence of the Freeminers' privileges could not be denied, but they meant outside interests were excluded.
A Royal Commission was appointed in 1831 to inquire into the nature of the mineral interests and freemining customs of the Forest of Dean, five reports followed, culminating in the passing of the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838. This hybrid Act (a Public Act with a local effect) confirmed the Freeminers' exclusive right to the minerals of the Forest of Dean; the Act made very few changes to the customs, but one very important change was that a Freeminer would now be allowed to sell his gale to a non Freeminer; this effectively broke the exclusivity of the system. The Act otherwise clarified the rules of working, placing the customs with little alteration into Parliamentary statute. The Dean Forest Mines Act 1838, is the basis for Freemining today. The Schedules to the 1838 Act give strict rules for working gales within the Hundred of St Briavels; Freemining is still administered by the Deputy Gaveller, whose office is now at the Forestry Commission offices, in Bank House, Coleford. The role of Deputy Gaveller was recently held for 15 years by chartered mining engineer John Harvey MBE, who retired at the end of March 2011. The role is now filled by Daniel Howell and his assistant; Freeminer James Britton.
TO BECOME A FREEMINER
To become registered as a Freeminer the 1838 Dean Forest Mines Act stipulates that a person must be; a male born and living within the Hundred of St Briavels, over the age of 21 years and having worked for a year and a day in a mine within the Hundred of St Briavels. A 'Hundred' was an Anglo-Saxon subdivision of a County, with its own court; it has been suggested that may have been an area where the medieval king could demand the services of a hundred fighting men - in the case of the St Briavels Hundred, this would have particularly been services of skilled miners. The Hundred of St Briavels was a Royal Manor belonging to the Crown and the parts which remain publicly owned are now managed by the Forestry Commission, through DEFRA. Today the Hundred of St. Briavels consists of the statutory Forest of Dean and each parish touching the Forest boundary.
Once a Freeminer is registered by the Deputy Gaveller, they can claim up to three gales from the Crown (if not already being worked) and may make applications for any gale that may become vacant. Once the gale has been granted, the Freeminer becomes the owner in fee simple of that underground area and can work the minerals defined within it; the galee can also dispose of the gale to another person, not necessarily another Freeminer. Originally the King had the right to put in his own man to work with the Freeminer and share the profit of the mine. Since 1838, in lieu of the right to put in the King's Man (the fifth man) a share of the mineral produced from the gale is agreed at the outset and the royalty becomes payable to the Crown for each ton of mineral raised. If the gale is not worked, a token 'dead rent' or minimum composition is still payable for continued ownership. The dead rent is equivalent to an agreed minimum tonnage output. If no royalty or dead rent is paid for the gale over a 5 year period, it can be forfeited to the Crown; to be applied for and re-granted to other Freeminers. Once a mine is working again no dead rent is paid until the tonnage royalty exceeds the value of dead rent paid when the gale was idle.
During the process of coal Nationalisation begun in 1938, the Forest of Dean became exempted due to its unique form of ownership and history. The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 gave specific exemption for gales to allow this unique local privilege to continue intact. Some large colliery gales were subsequently compulsorily purchased from the galees by the National Coal Board (NCB) and held by them under the Freemining system. A royalty continued to be paid to the Freeminers by the NCB, as a share of the minerals extracted until the last of the NCB Deep Gales finally closed in 1965.
There are thought to be just over 100 Freeminers living today, although no record of Freeminer deaths is kept. There are six small collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and six small stone quarries within the statutory Forest. Freemining has a long and proud history, most Forest families can tell a mining tale or two and will proudly claim a Freemining ancestor or relative. Freemining physically shaped the Forest of Dean and created an independent people; it continues to be an important part of Forest of Dean culture and what makes the area so special. To find out more visit www.forestfreeminers.org
Clearwell Caves are amongst the earliest and last ochre mines in the British Isles. Ochre is thought to have been mined here for more than 7000 years (since the Middle Stone Age) although we have early tools on display dated to 4,500 years ago. Ochre pigment is found as a soft deposit intermingled with harder crystalline iron ore; today small amounts are still mined by Jonathan Wright, who is the last Freeminer working ochre in the Forest of Dean.
Until the 1930’s Forest of Dean mines were internationally known for good quality, rich pigments, particularly shades of red and purple. Purple ochre is an unusual natural earth pigment, similar colours are usually only available in synthetic forms. The mines at Clearwell were particularly well known for the quality and range of ochre colours. Although the main reserves of the historical colours (above water level) have been taken, Jonathan still mines the remaining yellow, brown, red and purple ochre, in small quantities. The ochre is mined using tools medieval miners would recognise; taken from between 60-90m underground, it is carried out through the cave system. Once on the surface, the ochre is milled, washed and dried, before putting in jars to be sold.
Prices: yellow, brown, red and purple ochres.
- 15ml £10.00
- 60ml £35.00
- 120ml £60.00
- 250ml £120.00
P&P is added at cost.
Due to natural variations that occur with ochre, we are unable to ensure specific colours can be produced or repeated. We therefore recommend a visit to our shop to buy sufficient to complete the work in hand, if a consistent colour is required.
Samples of ochre
Ochre colours vary from pocket to pocket, we maintain the variety and uniqueness of colour from each natural pocket where possible. This means that we cannot produce swatches for the pigments. Choose from the range available in the mine shop, or telephone to discuss your requirements. We can supply sample lumps of unprocessed ochre, at similar cost, if required.
The use of natural ochres is ecologically sound, requires no chemical processing. Ochres are harmless to living things and will eventually return to where they originated – the Earth, with no adverse effects.
Ochre can be mixed with any artist’s medium, whether oil, water based or acrylic, and is widely recognised as being one of the most light fast and permanent of pigments.