Lead poisoning on Mendip

POLLUTION is much in the news today, and is especially linked with industrial processes of modern times. It caused problems in lead mining

POLLUTION is much in the news today, and is especially linked with industrial processes of modern times. It caused problems in lead mining on Mendip centuries ago. Why did strong men sicken and waste away? Why did the same strange disease sometimes affect their families, and also the cattle that drank at streams in which the ore had been washed?In those far-off days when superstition was rife, the 'evil eye' was often suspected. Families to whom calamity came were inclined to ponder whether witches' spells were at work, especially if there were those in the community with whom they had quarrelled, and who might be suspected of working evil upon them or of paying someone reckoned to have mystic powers to do so.Such suspicions, one imagines, came easily to miners, who even had their superstitions about demons lurking in the underworld of Mendip, into whose caves the miners often penetrated. Strange knockings that they heard underground were not attributed, as they would be today, to echoes in adjacent caves of their own hammering, or that of fellow workers at nearby seams.One of the oldest and most interesting accounts of how the miners of Mendip went to work is that of Joseph Glanvill, which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1688.Commenting seriously on the presence of demons underground, he wrote: "Concerning subterraneous Daemons, they (the miners) have never seen any, but sometimes have heard knockings beyond their own Works which, when followed by them, have afforded plenty of Ore."About two years since, one King, of Wells, in his Groove found a piece of Ore, in which were fancied the shape of a Man, Eyes Armes, Legges, full Breast. The whole was about four inches in length, which followed by them, have afforded plenty of Ore."Glanvill says that the men worked in frocks and waistcoats, and use tallow candles (14 or 15 to the pound) when working below ground. They descended by means of rope ladders and conveyed the ore to the surface in elm buckets of a gallon capacity, hauled on ropes.When their workings got waterlogged, as often occurred after heavy rain, leather bags holding eight or nine gallons were used for bailing purposes.The miners, Glanvill stated, were skilled in using air shafts made of elm boxes, and they made their grooves safe with strong props. In fact, he added, some props were known to have been used 20 years earlier, yet remained in such good condition that the miners had no hesitation in using them in sinking new shafts.Of the primitive method of extracting the ore, Glanvill wrote: "They beat the Ore with and Iron flat piece; Cleanse it in Water from the dirt; Sift it through a Wire-sive, The Ore tends to the bottom, and the Refuse lies at the top. And these are the preparations they make before 'tis fit for fusion."Then they have a Hearth about five foot high, set upon timber to be turn'd as a Wind-mill, to avoid the inconvenience of smoak upon the shifting wind."The Hearth contains half a bushel of Ore and Coal with bellowes on the top. The Charcoale is put upon the Hearth, where the Ore is; Laying dry Gads upon the top, which they call White-coales. There is sink upon the side of the Hearth into which the lead runs, that holds about a hundred and a half."Then it is cast into Sand, and runs into Sowes (as they call them) which they sell. They have a barre to stir the Fire, a shovel to throw it up; and a Ladle heated red hot to cast out the metal."Once melting is enough. The good melts best, and the best first. There is sometimes half odds in the goodness. The best is distinguished by its weight."Glanvill says there were few trees near the mines, and their leaves withered sooner than elsewhere. In places the mineral vein ran up the roots of the trees, though apparently with no harmful effect.The grass was rank and good, though where a mine was very near the surface it tended to turn "yellow and discoloured". Snow and frost melted quickly at such spots.The miners had no fear of the water, provided the ore had not been washed in it. "They esteem the water healthy to drink," Glanvill commented, "and to dress meat with it."He went on to add though, that "there is a 'flight' in the smoak, which falling upon the Grass poysons those Cattel that eat of it. They find the taste of it upon their lips to be sweet when the smoak chances to fly in their Faces."Brought home and laid in their houses it kills Rats and Mice. If the 'flight' mix with the water in which the Ore wasn't, and be carried away into a stream, it hath poisoned such Cattel as have drunk of it after a current of three miles."What of this 'flight' falls upon the sand they gather up to melt in a Slagg-hearth, and make Shot and Sheet-lead of it."In the 17th century Beaumont, who is especially remembered for his early exploration of the great cave, Lamb's Lair, which was discovered by miners, wrote that if people living near the area where the ore was washed tried to keep dogs or cats, or any kind of fowls, they always found that they died within a short time.He stated that he had even known of "A little house where Lead-Ore was kept for some time, though afterwards made very clean and well bedded with fern, yet when calves were put into it they all died shortly after, and Children sometime in these Houses have died suddenly."In his Diaries of Tours Catcott writes about another danger in the Mendip mining industry. "All the grovers or miners here (Charterhouse) agree that the old men (so they call their ancestors) made use of burning or lighting fires on the rock before they proceeded to bore it," he stated. "They first used to beat off the rough outward coat of stone, and then applied the fire to what they called the fresh, naked stone, and by this means I suppose they evaporated the moisture of the stone so as to cause it to crack and open, and by this means be easily divisible."This was the method before gunpowder was in use, and at the bottom of several pits are now many pieces of burned wood to be found. "When they first set fire to the fuel, they generally let it burn for two or three days, by which time the fire had done much of its work, and the pit was fit to enter."And when once they had lighted it, and the whole did not catch, they never entered under 24 hours, and this sometimes proved too soon, for the stagnated smoak would lodge in a corner of a cavity, and when it was broken or touched it would immediately break out and disperse itself either to the great danger if not the death of the person who broke through; and it was common in ancient times when persons were thus affected, to turn up the vegetable mould and put their head under it, as is commonly done with fighting cocks when they grow faint and weak, and it used to have the desired effect."There are still one or two small areas where people have been told it is inadvisable to grow produce - not because of danger to man or beast, but because the crops will not grow on account of the zinc content of the soil.The Romans occupied the lead mines, and were especially active in the industry around Charterhouse. It is probable that they also directed mining at other areas of Mendip. In a chapter on the industry by E J Mason in The Mendips, which he wrote jointly with A W Coysh and V Waite, there is a reference to a large quantity of coarse and Samian ware being found scattered over a wide area during turf-cutting in 1950 near the ruins of St Cuthbert's lead works at Priddy.Roman occupation of the mining areas has been suggested by finds in or near them of hoards of Roman coins. In the absence of banks, they buried their treasure, and one ponders what dramatic events must undoubtedly have been the reasons why some of these hoards were never recovered by their owners.At Charterhouse, between Town Field and the amphitheatre, an urn was found in 1846, which contained about 900 coins of the third century AD.Another hoard found at the Sandford Hill mining area included coins ranging from Septimus Severus (AD 193-211) and Postumus (AD 259-267).In 1887 at East Harptree, fairly near the spot where the chimney of the old resmelting works stands, a William Currell, at a time of drought, was digging to find a spring. About six inches beneath the surface his spade struck a lead vessel. It contained 1,496 silver coins of nine emperors, most of them in the fourth century. There were also some cast silver ingots and a silver ring set with an uncommon gem on which was engraved the figure of the god Mars bearing a trophy and a spear.The hoard was sent to the British Museum, which retained a selection of very rare coins, now labelled the Harptree Collection. Some of the coins and the vessel that contained them were presented to East Harptree church by Lieut Col H E Kettlewell, formerly of Harptree Court.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 26, 1972


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