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Deep in the Forest something stirred, but not for long
publication date: Mar 23, 2015
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
From modest beginnings in the Oxford suburbs, William Morris became one of a handful of innovative entrepreneurs who put Britain on wheels in the twentieth century.
It’s a well known story, bookended by the 1913 'Bullnose' and the 1948 Morris Minor, in between his company growing from one which produced a few hundred cars in 1920 into a colossus that sold a million by 1939.
Along the way, William, later Sir William - and later still Lord Nuffield - unsurprisingly became a wealthy man. However rather than hoard his cash or spend it on personal luxuries, from around 1926 he began giving it away to charitable causes.
Yet as Morris drove his company remorselessly onwards, his sure touch in building cars wasn't so immediately apparent in the field of philanthropy.
A little known port of call for Morris with his early charitable intentions was the west-country, where he decided to support the Forest of Dean coal mining industry, then under extreme pressure in the aftermath of the Miners' and General strikes.
At 27,000 acres, the Royal Forest of Dean is one of few remaining ancient forests in Britain. Hemmed in by the Rivers Wye and Severn, south and west of Gloucester, today it’s a superbly scenic part of the Western Group area, and a tourist magnet.
The forest has a long and now largely hidden industrial history, traceable back to Roman times, with coal, iron ore and other minerals extracted here for hundreds of years.
Morris came to the Forest apparently with the mixed intention of helping to provide secure work for unemployed miners - with the ulterior motive of deriving profits from his mining activities.
Early in 1927, he purchased the Howbeach Colliery, between Lydney and Cinderford, reportedly for £20,000, having apparently decided it was a sound future investment. Motor Sport magazine covered this unusual expansion in his industrial empire in May of that year.
Some homework might have provoked second thoughts. From a high of over 300 Forest mining ventures in the mid 1800's, the number had declined ever since. The area suffered a long-recognised problem: it formed a vast natural basin, so water constantly filled deeper mine workings. Quality coal there was in abundance, but extracting it involved an eternal battle with water.
Efficiency improvements saw output rise steadily from 145,000 tons in 1841 to over a million tons by 1900, and by 1927 output was approaching the Forest's 1930's high point of 1.3 million tons.
However such numbers reveal nothing of the difficulty of extraction, with mine after mine abandoned as ever-improving pumps still could not overcome inexorably rising water levels. Howbeach was no different, and its track record revealed far more time spent idle than operational.
Coal was first lifted here in 1841, but it wasn't until 15 January 1858 that the Howbeach Coal Company was formally registered, with capital of £12,000 in £50 shares... "To lease and work two collieries, with any clay and stone therein."
Its last official returns were dated 15 February 1864. Thirteen years later, in June 1877, reports claimed "...steps are being taken by Mr. Osman Barrett, sole or part proprietor of the Howbeach Colliery, to re-open it."
By January 1889 an area mining report listed Howbeach pumping Engine "not worked for 5 years..."
On 30 March 1892 a Major Howell purchased the colliery: by January 1895 the mines report showed "No working for 5 years." That September the Dean Forest Mercury newspaper ran the headline "Howbeach Colliery, near Blakeney, is being closed down and dismantled."
The property, it said, was the subject of recent arbitration between the Metropolitan Bank and liquidator of the National Bank of Wales.
The report continued "...The Metropolitan... has decided to close Howbeach Colliery... a result that... will have a very bad effect upon the trade of Blakeney and neighbourhood. The property was developed 30 years ago, after which nothing was done until about 1890, since when there have been many fluctuations, though at one period about 100 men found work there. In 1893 about 40,000 tons of coal were raised, but the water trouble and depressed trade in steam coal had its effect, and operations have become more restricted. The men were served with notices a fortnight ago and coal getting ceased on Tuesday evening. The men are now engaged in clearing all removable plant, pumps etc. out of the shaft..."
Desperation seems to have been evident six years later, in June 1898, when the same Banks were offering Howbeach at auction - with just four items of equipment: a 28 inch horizontal pump, 18 inch winder, two boilers, and the pit frame. The auction result is unknown, but a mines report dated October 1902 indicated Howbeach had not been worked for 5 years. Then, eighteen years later, in March 1920, Howbeach Collieries Ltd was incorporated, capitalised at £80,000 in £1 shares, but the 1921 miners strike intervened, and Howbeach remained dormant until 26 April 1927, when Morris Collieries Ltd came along.
In his lengthy career, purchasing a Colliery and selling it at a near-£18,000 loss inside two years surely rates as one of William Morris's few aberrations. It seems lessons were quickly learned, for future Morris charitable ventures were altogether more cautious, and genuinely only benevolent in intention.
In total he made an estimated £30M worth of mostly trust-administered donations, bringing major benefits to the fields of medicine, social sciences, agriculture and education to name just some.
With such a legacy, its easy to forgive the learning curve associated with those earliest good-hearted - and now mostly forgotten - efforts to bring succour to hard pressed Forest of Dean miners.