History Of Coleford

Coleford emerged as a settlement out of the shrinking Royal Forest of Dean as its landlords realised the land would be worth more to them lived on and worked than as a home to game.

At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, this area was part of the large royal manor of Newland which lay within the ancient administrative hundred of St Briavels, and would still have been thickly forested.

Nevertheless, the location of the modern day town centre was even then at the crossing of important routes and it seems likely that the sparse inhabitants of the forest would have stopped at this point to trade goods.

One of those routes was the so called Coal Way (the original meaning of coal is charcoal) which ran through modern day Coalway and down Lord’s Hill. The route running north-south up modern day Cinder Hill was known as the Ore Way. The routes met in a basin into which streams ran and joined to form Thurstans Brook which flowed down the little valley towards Whitecliff (these streams were mostly culverted by the 19th century) and it is here that the town grew and modern day Coleford town centre still stands.

In the early 13th century, the King permitted Hugh of Kinnersley to clear some land within the forest on the edge of the manor of Newland and use five oaks to build himself a house. The site of this house was north of Pingry Lane and was one of a number of estates that were carved out of the forest as Coleford gradually took shape. The name ‘Coleford’ first appears in records in the late 13th century and suggests that here was a settlement by a ford across which charcoal was carried.

Nevertheless, it was some time before Coleford became a settlement of any size. In fact, in the 14th century there were more houses in the hamlet of Whitecliff than Coleford, and both consisted of little more than a street. The town, if such it was, had a chapel of ease by the 15th century saving its inhabitants the long trek to the parish church in Newland on Sundays.

By the early 17th century, its fortunes had changed and Coleford had become the main settlement on the west side of the Forest; there may have been an informal market taking place here. During the Civil Wars, the commander of a parliamentary garrison in the town ordered that a formal market should be held on Wednesdays and Fridays because the nearest chartered market was in Monmouth which was under royalist control. Inevitably, there was opposition from Monmouth to this. A market house was built, only to be burnt down in 1643 by Royalist forces marching on Gloucester from South Wales. Nevertheless, in 1661 the town finally received a royal charter to hold a market on Fridays as well as two annual fairs. The fair in June came to concentrate on wool in competition with Monmouth’s wool fair. The fair in November (later December) was mainly for cheese.

Coleford was growing and a new larger octagonal chapel similar to the existing church of St Paul in Parkend was buit on the site of the old in 1821. This was pulled down (apart from the tower) in 1882 because it was again too small for the growing congregation and a new imposing church was built on Boxbush Road overlooking the town centre (this one without a tower – it seems one tower was considered enough for Coleford).

Many manors that existed under the feudal system were for administrative purposes simply replaced by civil parishes which is why, despite its growing economic muscle, Coleford remained a part of Newland civil parish until 1894, when it was finally made a parish in its own right and became an urban district for administrative purposes.

It had always been part of Newland ecclesiastical parish, too, becoming an ecclesiastical parish in its own right only in 1872 (although after it was damaged in the Civil Wars and repaired by local people, the church had been largely ministering to its flock independently of Newland). The church, consequently, had the status of merely a chapel of ease’ and it is to the size and prestige of Newland parish that we owe the magnificence of the church in that village dating from the 13th century, dubbed appropriately the Cathedral of the Forest.

As with many chapels of ease, Coleford’s did not have its own cemetery and for centuries, Coleford men and women were buried at Newland until the churchyard was closed to burials of Coleford residents in 1867 and a cemetery was opened on Victoria Road. The path to Newland is still known as the “Burial Path”.

Mining has taken place in the Forest of Dean since ancient times. Originally it was for ochres used in pigments, then iron and building stone were extracted. There were numerous small works in the area, including even an iron furnace next to St Johhn’s chapel in the 16th century. Coalmining was probably taking place by the end of the 16th century and there were six miners listed in Coleford in 1608. The Scowles area is covered in old mines and quarries (‘scowles’ is the local word for old iron mines).

Because mining rights were restricted to individuals under the freeminer system and because of the relatively modest amounts of coal available, the Forest never reached the levels of exploitation that affected the South Wales coalfield further west and Coleford remained a predominantly agricultural area. Iron-ore mining declined in the 17th century, to be taken up again in the 19th in order to feed Whitecliff Ironworks. The town’s population was increasing rapidly in the first half of the 19th century, but slowed later.

Coal mining declined in Coleford after 1850, although mining continued in the Poolway area as late as the 1960s. In the 1940s, the main colliery there employed 45 men. A tramroad to link coalmines in the Forest with Monmouth was built in 1812 and this ran north of the centre of town and down past Whitecliff (the street called ‘The Tram Road’ runs along part of its course). It was also used to transport limestone from Whitecliff Quarry. This fell out of use, however, by the middle of the century after Monmouth gained a rail connection to the South Wales coalfield. Meanwhile, the Severn & Wye railway reached the south side of the town from Parkend in 1875 and a goods and passenger station was built in the area of modern-day Railway Drive (the railway ran along the course of the cycle way from Milkwall).

Then a new railway from Monmouth was opened in 1883 along parts of the former tramroad route, cutting across to a new station next to the Severn & Wye station by a bridge over Newland Road. A junction was created between the two railways in 1884 making Coleford a major link in the network. Its rail heyday was shortlived, however. The line west of Whitecliff was taken up during the 1st World War (and the rails lost at sea whilst being transported to France).

Passenger services had come to an end on the Severn & Wye line by 1929. Whitecliff Quarry continued to use the remaining line through Parkend until the 1960s when it was decided to transport stone by lorry as far as Parkend station. The line was completely abandoned in 1967. The sole survivor of what was once an extensive railway complex at Coleford is a goods shed which was incorporated into the GWR museum opened by local rail enthusiast Mike Rees in 1986. Unlike its current open aspect, the marketplace at the centre of town had become built up by the 19th century, and in 1866 a new Tudor-style market house was built at the northeast end to replace one which had stood there following the granting of a market charter in the 17th century. This was sadly pulled down in 1968 to ease traffic congestion and is now commemorated in a mural which can be viewed from the Gloucester Road junction. A sign that Coleford was the chief settlement in Newland parish was that the Newland parish workhouse was sited in the town (on the corner of St John and Bank streets).

There were several inns in the market place by the 19th century, a sign of the town’s increasing prosperity.

Nonconformism was also on the rise. There were nine protestant dissenters recorded in Newland parish in 1676, all of whom may have been from Coleford. In 1739, George Whitefield preached in the town, and John Wesley visited in 1756 and 1763. The grand Baptist Church on Newland Street was built in 1858. Later in the 19th century, housing estates were developed to the north and south of the old town centre. Coleford was made an urban district in 1884 in final recognition of its status, only to be subsumed in West Dean Rural District in 1935 which itself became part of the Forest of Dean District in 1974.

The traditional industries had declined substantially by the middle of the 20th century, and after the 2nd World War there was a factory building programme south of the town centre to encourage new industries. The company of H W Carter, manufacturer of Ribena, relocated from Bristol to a large factory on Rock Lane, subsequently to be taken over by Beechams, now part of GlaxoSmithKline.