There are many fascinating original features still in evidence throughout, which help to tell the story of the buildings long and varied history, including the remains of a rifle range in the barn which was used for gunfire practice during the Second World War, and the series of bee skeps inset into the south facing walls of the building into which small woven bee hives would be placed to protect them from the elements, then smoked out from within to enable safe collection of the honey comb. Above this there is also the ‘owl hole’ – an unglazed circular window carved out of stone, which was left open so that owls could fly in and out at night and control the mouse population from when the barn was used as its proper name the Malt House implies – for storing hops.
Other points of interest are an internal Edwardian sliding casement window in the sitting room, doors and butterfly hinges which date back to the 1650’s and an old bread oven from one of the General Stores previous incarnations as the village bakers.
The parish and town of Mitcheldean is positioned on the uppermost edge of the Forest of Dean, 10 miles from the city of Gloucester and 20 miles from Bristol. Mitcheldean is a small community – however as it has a Town Hall and a fairly substantial population, it is often called a town. It is positioned on the old route of an ancient road, which stretched from the Roman road between Gloucester and South Wales, and as such has a history stretching back to the Domesday book and beyond. The road would have been used for carrying iron, made from locally mined iron ore, so it can safely be assumed that there was a settlement close by.
The earliest Lords of the Manor were responsible for the ‘woodward ship’ of the Bail wick of Mitcheldean, paying rent at St Briavel’s Castle estate. The town of Mitcheldean began to develop a community based on the products of the nearby forest, and like most small communities at the time, would have been almost entirely self sufficient. A charter granted by Henry VI in 1328 allowed Mitcheldean to hold markets, bringing in products from outside the town.
By 1430 a cross was erected, The High Cross, providing a covered market for the traders, which moved along the High St in 1431. The only properties to survive this time are the three timbered houses along Mill End St, The General Stores being one of them.
The independent church was established in Mitcheldean around the 1670s, with the earliest school being established in 1545. Most views of Mitcheldean are dominated by the church spire of St Michael’s and All Angels. Built of local stone, it is possible that an earlier church of wooden construction stood on this site.
Key employment in the Forest consisted of mining, agriculture, tanning, cloth making and nail making. Mitcheldean went into decline in the 1700s , but the expansion of the Forest of Dean coalfield meant that employment was plentiful in the 1800s. The Forest Brewery was founded in 1868, from sandstone blocks quarried from the nearby Wilderness Quarry. ‘Mitcheldean Ales – Best in the West’ was their slogan, and in the early 1900s it was taken over by The Cheltenham Original Brewery Co Ltd.
The opening of a cement works up ‘the Stenders’ in 1885 provided a short spell of employment, but it closed in 1914. In 1941, however, the original brewery site was taken over by British Acoustic Films, after national policy had dictated that key firms should move out of London during the blitz, and it was put to use producing searchlight equipment, gunfire direction tables and film projectors. In 1948, this in turn became part of the Rank Organization, which later became Rank Xerox in 1956. The first licence for a dry copier came out in the late 1940s, and the Mitcheldean site was used to build this new product. By the 1970s, the Rank Xerox workforce had reached almost 5,000, but due to fierce industrial competition, the workforce was trimmed to 1,000 by 1984. Sadly in 2001, Rank Xerox broke the devastating news for the community that it was to close, keeping a small staff of 250 on for a small repair and maintenance facility.
(with thanks to Paul Mason for his extensively researched and illustrated “A glance back at…Mitcheldean”, by Black Dwarf Publications, available on loan from Mitcheldean Library).
Also massive thanks to Les Tuffley and his invaluable photo album in the documenting of the history and family trees of Mitcheldean.
For a thorough history of the Forest of Dean please visit the carefully researched pages on the Forest Web