The area of the Forest of Dean was inhabited in Mesolithic times and there are remains of megalithic monuments, including the Longstone near Staunton and the Broadstone at Wibdon, Stroat. The area was occupied by the Romans around 50AD who would have been attracted by the natural resources of the area such as iron ore, ochre and charcoal. The ‘Dean Road’ still visible at Soudley is believed to be a medieval rebuilding of the Roman road, and as a transport route for iron ore and finished metal products it would have been vital. The central parts of the woodlands in the Forest are believed to have been protected for hunting since Roman times.
Following the Roman occupation, the history of the area becomes more obscure during the Dark Ages, though it may have been part of the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and of Ergnyg. Over the next few centuries Vikings conducted raids up the Severn, but by the 11th century the kingdom of Wessex had established civil government in the area. The core of the forest was used by the late Anglo Saxon kings, and after 1066, by the Normans, as their personal hunting ground. The name ‘Forest of Dean’ originates from this time, perhaps derived from the ‘dene’ or valley near Mitcheldean, with areas known as Dene Magna (large) and Dene Parva (small).
During the 12th century, The Hundred of St. Briavels was established at the same time as many of the Norman laws concerning the Forest of Dean were put in place. Then, in 1296, King Edward I used miners from the area at the siege of Berwick-on-Tweed in the Scottish Wars of Independence to undermine the town’s defences and regain it from the Scots. As a result, the king granted free mining rights within the forest to them and their descendants; the rights continue to the present day.
The forest’s rich resources were then used exclusively as a royal hunting ground by the Tudor kings, and as a source of food for the Royal Court. Timber from the forest was perceived as being some of the best in the land and was used primarily to build ships.
A bizarre story regarding the forest appears in the 19th century when, on 26th April 1889, four Frenchmen and their two bears were making their way to Ruardean, having just performed in Cinderford. They were set upon and attacked by an angry mob, enraged by claims that the bears had killed a child and injured a woman. The bears were killed and the Frenchmen badly beaten. It soon came to light that the bears had not attacked anyone. Police proceedings followed and a week later 13 colliers and labourers appeared before magistrates at Littledean, all but two were convicted of one or more charges and a total of £85 was paid in fines – a vast sum in those days. The term ‘who killed the bears?’ existed for many years as an insult.
Exploitation of the Forest of Dean Coalfield developed rapidly in the early 19th century with increased demand from local ironworks, and some of the earliest tramroads in the UK were built here to help transport the coal to local ports. The area was transformed by growth of mining and the production of iron and steel.
The importance of mining to the area is shown by the fact that as late as 1945 half of the male working population of the area worked in the coal industry. However, after the Second World War increased pumping costs and other factors made the coalfield less economic. The last commercial iron mine in the district closed in 1946 and this was followed in 1965 by the closure of the last large colliery, Northern United. There are still a number of small private mines in operation, worked by freeminers, with Hopewell Colliery now open to the public.
Many of the mines have now disappeared into the forest and today the area is characterised by picturesque scenery punctuated by remnants of the industrial age and small industrial towns.