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 is reasonable to believe that the sparse inhabitants of the forest could have stopped around here to trade.
One of those routes was the 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 centre of any size. In fact, in the 14th century there were more houses in the hamlet of Whitecliff than Coleford itself, and both consisted of little
more than a street. The town, if such it was, had a ‘chapel of ease’ by the 15th century to save 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 even been an informal market taking place here. Certainly, 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 idea. 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.
The town’s population increased rapidly in the first half of the 19th century due to the expansion of iron-ore and coal mining, but slowed later.
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 by 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, an indication of the town’s increasing prosperity.
Later in the 19th century, housing estates were developed to the north and south of the old town centre.
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, only to be taken over by Beechams (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) and more recently sold to the Suntory Group.
Most of Coleford’s shops are along the roads which radiate from the market square and span a wide range of independent retailers.
The closure of the railway yard presented a major opportunity to expand the retail offer and led to the development of the Pyart Court shopping precinct in 1987, the design of which was revolutionary at the time, allowing shoppers to browse shop windows under cover. Extensive car parks added to both Pyart Court and the historic centre of the town and additional services such as doctors and vets have located there.