Today, Bianca and I went undergound to experience at first hand the conditions coal miners encountered as they dug out the ‘black gold’ that powered the British Empire during the Industrial Revolution and beyond. In the company of 77-year-old Robin Morgan, a free miner, who owns and still (single-handedly) extracts coal from Hopewell Colliery in the Forest of Dean, we donned helmets and head torches and gradually made our way 200 feet below the beautiful woodland near Coleford.
Robin’s right to own a mine is assured by a centuries-old tradition. Free miners like Robin were born in the Hundred of St Briavels and worked a year and a day underground to claim their birthright. This privilege dates back to 1296 when miners from the Hundred of St Briavels were employed by King Edward I at the siege of Berwick-on-Tweed in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Their expertise was used to undermine the town’s defences and regain it from the Scots. The grateful king granted them (and their descendants) free mining rights within the forest as a reward.
At the age of just thirteen, Robin was lowered down the mine shaft in a tin drum like the one in the picture. All his life, below the sandstone rock, he has been hacking away at the seams of coal created by glacial action during the last ice age. “At this time in my life, perhaps I should stay at home,” he said. “But I’d just get bored. I couldn’t do anything else. I never went to school, so I’m thick as two short planks!” Technology is minimal. Wooden props are used to support the roof (although a lorry container has been used to reinforce the mine entrance). The coal is extracted by means of picks and shovels.
As we dodged the bats and made our way down the shaft, Robin explained that in the mining heyday of Victorian times, we would have used candles to light our way. As we would have needed both hands to use the pick, we would have had a candle holder called a Nellie held between our teeth! At one point, Robin showed us some horse shoes that had been found in the mine and explained that when legislation was introduced prohibiting women from hauling coal in the pits, ponies were used for the task. Some of the ponies that worked in the deep mines lived underground permanently, but at Hopewell there were outdoor stables and the ponies were raised and lowered by means of a cage.
In those days, the colliery belonged to Robert Forester Mushet (1811–1891), a British metallurgist and businessman, who died in relative poverty despite revolutionising steel manufacture by making a significant enhancement to the Bessemer Process patented by engineer, inventor, and businessman, Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898).
Mushet’s enhancement involved burning off all the impurities and carbon, then reintroducing carbon and manganese by adding an exact amount of spiegeleisen. The malleable quality of the finished product increased its ability to withstand forging at high temperatures and made it more suitable for a vast array of uses.
Bessemer and others profited greatly from these discoveries but by 1866 Mushet was destitute and his health declined. In that year, his 16-year-old daughter, Mary, travelled to London alone, to confront Bessemer at his offices, insisting on remuneration for her father’s contribution to the steel industry. Bessemer knew his process was not viable without Mushet’s method for improving quality. Up until then, steel had been far too expensive for projects such as bridge construction. After the introduction of the improved Bessemer process, however, steel and wrought iron became similarly priced, and most manufacturers turned to steel, enabling the construction of bridges, railroads, skyscrapers and ships. Bessemer decided to pay Mushet an annual pension of £300, possibly to avoid legal action.