River Axe's main source discovered through mining

14:36 02 November 2007

Another glimpse of the ruins of resmelting works at Charterhouse.

Another glimpse of the ruins of resmelting works at Charterhouse.

The main source of the river Axe, which flows out of the Mendips through Wookey Hole's beautiful cave, was discovered because of a lawsuit linked with Mendip lead-mining

A close up of one of the ruins of the tunnels at resmelting works built at Charterhouse in the last century.

The main source of the river Axe, which flows out of the Mendips through Wookey Hole's beautiful cave, was discovered because of a lawsuit linked with Mendip lead-mining that arose in the last century.Although the Axe collects substantial contributions from other tributaries on its subterranean route before it emerges at Wookey, it is generally accepted that it is chiefly fed by the sink hole known as Plantation Swallet near the ruins of the St Cuthbert's lead works in the Hunter's Lodge and Priddy Pool locality.For over 300 years Wookey Hole has been noted not only for its cave, but also for its mill, which has produced high quality paper, including Scottish bank notepaper, and currency all over the world. The water of the River Axe flowing past the mill was vital to the processing. The first record of a mill at Wookey is in a document dated 1040. In 1531 it was owned by the almshouse trustees, and about 70 years later it was sold to Bartholomew Cox for £100.He introduced the making of handmade paper, and the industry has continued ever since. Later the mill - and the cave - was in the ownership of Hodgkinson family for many years. They sold the mill to the Inveresk Paper Co. in 1951, but the company now plans to close it down and transfer production to St Cuthbert's paper works on the village outskirts.In the middle of the last century there were complaints by Cheddar people that their stream, usually clear, was made to run in a semi-muddy, objectionable state when lead mining was taking place at Charterhouse.Similarly, Mr W G Hodgkinson, operating Wookey Hole paper mill in the 1860s found that when the St Cuthbert's lead works at Priddy were re-opened the Axe water from Wookey Hole Cave had a quantity of lead in it, and was not so good for use in making certain grades of paper.Like the miners of earlier centuries the lead-workers at Priddy puddled the ore with the water of streams flowing through the minery, which disappeared down swallets.Mr Hodgkinson brought an action against the mine owners for polluting the water. It opened at Wells Assizes in 1861. No verdict was given, but an inquiry was ordered to investigate the facts.During this inquiry Venetian Red was tipped into the swallet at Priddy, and the coloured water emerged at Wookey Hole 36 hours later. One can let the imagination dwell on the possibility of the subterranean Axe travelling through inaccessible caves of great beauty in its course from Priddy to Wookey Hole.We have come to know more of the extent and beauty of the subterranean Axe in recent years through the skill and courage of divers who have explored the river's course through 20 chambers.Their efforts resulted in the discovery of the remains of 18 people of the Romano-British period, and also pottery. These finds were made mostly in the third and fourth chambers, which might easily have been accessible in Romano-British times, and it is thought the bodies must have been buried in the caves. There were no signs of violence on the bones, but they were impregnated with lead!The Venetian Red experiment proved Mr Hodgkinson's point about the pollution of the river, but it was not until the case came before the Queen's Bench and the lead mine owners were directed to ensure that none of the water they used went down the Priddy swallets.It was obvious that on its way under the Mendips the Axe must take in some powerful tributaries, because tests showed that while the flow of the spring at Priddy minery was only 16 gallons a minute, the average flow at Wookey Hole was 16,000 gallons.Deprivation of the water supply source at Priddy was one of the main reasons why efforts to revive the lead extraction industry there were eventually abandoned.The ruins to be seen at Blackmore Bottom, Charterhouse, and around the Priddy Pool area do not date back to Roman times - they are all that remain of resmelting works built in the last century.True, the heaps of shiny black slag at Charterhouse may include material that was first worked in Roman times, and possibly resmelted several times since.In his interesting scientific account of the Mendips, Westonian Mr E T Bucknell commented on these old slag heaps: "Hundreds of tons of black, shining, vitrified lumps of slag, somewhat resembling lumps of black glass, have been left at Charterhouse, St Cuthbert's, Waldegrave and East Harptree. These lumps of slag, which are extremely hard, are the remains resulting from the last smelting for the recovery of lead. Although apparently refuse, I conceive that some use might be made of this slag."I find, after experiments with a very delicate mirror galvanometer, that this waste material is a non-conductor of electricity, and might serve as an excellent insulating material There would be one objection to working it, and that is its high melting point - over 1,000 degrees C. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of tons of this slag waiting to be utilised for some purpose."He added that he had analysed samples from each working and considered that 1.5 per cent of lead oxide would be a fair average. The slag was apparently a combined silicate of iron, calcium and aluminium.The long brick and stone tunnels near the workings were used in connection with resmelting the old slag. Since much of the old lead was volatile and would go up in smoke, to save as much of it as possible the smoke was directed along the tunnels before it reached the chimney. In so doing lead deposited on the tunnel roof could be recovered.Mining for lead ore in the locality ended about 1850, but earlier and later some people were engaged in resmelting the old slag that had accumulated.When the resmelters first got to work on the slag, they found that in some places the miners of earlier years had not extracted more than a half or two-thirds of the lead content of the ore, so it could profitably be resmelted. Much of the slag that remains today has undoubtedly been resmelted several times down the centuries. Skilled Cornish miners had helped this revival of the Mendip lead industry, and the works they erected are typical of those that survive in some parts of Cornwall. Many Shipham and Rowberrow men were employed at the Charterhouse resmelting works, and the old path they used to take, which was known as 'slaggers' path', can be traced from Shipham across Blackdown and by the lane past the police wireless station, the amphitheatre and Town Field to Blackmoor Bottom where the works were built.The Charterhouse lead-works even included up-to-date plans for the extraction of silver, and for several years this proved a profitable feature of the enterprise.Smelting of lead at Charterhouse ended in 1878, but for some time afterwards loads of dressed material were sent to be smelted at Bristol. The decline of the industry was in part due to the falling price of lead, which from fetching over £20 a ton in the 1870s dropped to £11 a ton in 1885. Investors lost a lot of money in the closing years of the Mendip lead industry. The prospectus of one concern, the St Cuthbert's Lead Smelting Company, painted the rosy picture of a report that there was ... "worth for lead as it stands £1 per ton - all exposed to view, giving money value of £500,000 worth of lead in sight."Slags left by the old miners had been found to contain 20 per cent of lead, but this was not a consistent level. It was only five per cent in places.The problem of water supply, brought about by Mr Hodgkinson's lawsuit imposed big difficulties. For a time water was obtained by pumping it and using it over and over again.Then came the experiment of dispensing with dressing operations and putting in plant which included five furnaces various gadgets to deal with the slag in bulk. These included a blowing apparatus driven by a new and more powerful steam engine. The company's fortunes were very fluctuating, as were those of other concerns who had hopes of striking new, rich veins of ore.There was the enterprise that in 1869-70 obtained authority to start new mines in search of iron ore, calamine, and lead ore on the Waldegrave estates. For a time it did well and its output in 1876 was just over 1,000 tons, but eventually the company went into liquidation.From 1910 the lead industry of Mendip had effectively ended, and it is unlikely that it will ever be revived. Much of the mining area at Charterhouse is now owned by the Bristol Water Works Company, which bought it to protect its catchment area. For obvious reasons no resumption of the industry will be permitted there.As for the Priddy minery, in a hard winter its pool is a popular venue for skaters. In the summer the area where miners toiled, furnaces blazed, and steam engines panted away to fan them is one of the most popular picnic spots on Mendip.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 26, 1972

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