Mendip's lead mining laws meted out rough justice

THERE was a time when the lawlessness of Mendip's lead miners became so rife that a code of mining laws was drawn up which meted out rough justice

THERE was a time when the lawlessness of Mendip's lead miners became so rife that a code of mining laws was drawn up which meted out rough justice.For thieves there was the punishment that became known as the Burning of the Hill. It stated: "If any man of that occupation doth pick or steal any lead or ore to the value of thirteen-pence-halfpenny, the lord or his officer may arrest all his lead works, house and earth, with all his groofs and works, and keep them as safely as to his own use ... and shall take that person that hath so offended, and bring him where his house is, or his work, and all his tools or instruments which to the occupation he useth, and put them into the same house, and set fire on all together about him, and banish him from that occupation before the miners for ever."It has been suggested that any miner who so offended was tied hand and foot and placed in his hut. Bracken and brambles were then piled around it and lit. If he escaped he was allowed to go free, but must leave the Mendips.Another version of the interpretation of this law is that the hut was locked, but the man was given an axe or pick, and the chance to get out. A sixteenth century manuscript at Wells recording the names of "Those who have been burned" hints that only the property was burned or that escape was easy.The laws also provided that if a man was accidentally killed in his mine, "the workmen of this occupation are bound to fetch the body out of the earth and bring him to Christian burial at their own proper cost and chargers, although he be three-score fathom under the earth, as heretofore hath been seen."After the Romans had left there is a gap of several hundred years in the history of Mendip lead mining. Nothing is known about whether the mines were worked in Saxon times, a period in the country's history which G M Trevelyan has termed 'a blank page'."The historian has two points of light, and even those are dim," he wrote. "He sees an orderly Romano-Celtic world late in the Fourth Century beginning to fall into chaos."Two hundred years later he sees a Saxon-Celtic barbarism beginning to emerge confusedly into the renewed twilight of history, and he hears the marching chaunt of St Augustine and his monks bringing back with them the Latin alphabet and the custom of written record."Between these two points stretch a great darkness. The most important page in our national annals is blank."Coming on to William the Conqueror's time there is no mention of the yield of Mendip's lead mines in Domesday book, the first documentary reference to them being a charter granted by Richard I to Reginald, Bishop of Bath, and his successors under which the bishops were allowed "the right of mining lead wherever they could find it on their own land in Somerset, freely, quietly, and honourably and without any contradiction or impediment".By this same charter the bishop was allowed "to make a borough in his land of Radeclive, to have and to hold for his successors for ever, with a market and other free customs and liberties which any borough has in our land of all England".Radeclive survives today as Rackley a hamlet below Crook Peak. It is on the banks of the Cheddar Yeo which joins the Axe nearby, and is mentioned in a number of documents down the centuries.When he wrote his Heart of Mendip in 1915, F A Knight said that the primitive little quay at which the barges used to discharge their cargoes could still be seen by the bank of the stream, together with the old rambling sheds in which were stored the slate and coal that in former days were brought up the river from Uphill.In his Mines of Mendip, J W Gough said: "It would seem from the charter that the bishop was anxious to develop a borough and port at Rackley in connection with his lead mines on Mendip, and an old track, now seldom used can still be traced down to Tackley from the mining area by way of Callow hill and Shute Shelve."Mendip lead must have been a good source of income to the bishops, and was, of course, much used in the roofing of churches.The miners were not above thieving from the bishop boss as the following quotation of a letter sent to a bishop indicates:"Know, my lord, that your workmen have found a very good mine on Mendip to the east of Priddy and one that can be opened up with no trouble, being only five or six feet below the ground. And since the workmen are so often thieves, craftily separating the silver from the lead, stealthily taking it away, and when they have collected a quantity fleeing like thieves and deserting their work, as has frequently happened in times past, therefore your bailiffs are causing the ore to be carried down to your court at Wookey, where there is a furnace built under, at which the workmen smelt the ore under the supervision of certain persons appointed by your steward."Mendip miners of the middle ages were not free. They could be 'press-ganged' into working elsewhere. In 1295 the sheriff of Somerset was sent a writ stating the that King's messenger was coming to seek miners whom he would take in the King's name to the King's mine in Devonshire. Again in 1319 the Somerset sheriff was ordered to send 12 lead miners to Glamorgan.There came the time when the four miners of Mendip each had its Lord Royal to whom the miner had to pay one tenth of the value of the ore. The Lords Royal were the Bishops of Bath and Wells, the Abbot of Glastonbury, Lord Bonville (Earl of Chewton) and Lord Richmond.In the time of Edward IV a great dispute arose. In Long Ashton church lies a tomb in which is represented a robed figure with a dagger in his belt. It is that of a former chief Justice of England, Sir Richard Choke, lord of the manor of Ashton and Stanton Drew, and it was he the King commanded to go down to the Mendips to settle the dispute.The Lords Royal of the mineries and the commoners were ordered to attend on a stated day in 1470 "at a place of my Lord of Bath's called the Forge upon Meyndeepe".A record states that the crowd had "all ye appearance to ye number of Ten Thousand People".In addition to the mining laws I have mentioned there was the provision that in the first instance any intending miner must get a licence from the 'Lord of the Soyle'. Having done this he was at leave to mine wherever he chose.A man having dug a pit or groove of sufficient depth as to be able to stand in it waist-high, could then throw his hack in both directions along the vein of lead "and then no man shall or may work within the compass of his said hack's throw."The miner could dispose of his ore as he chose, provided that every tenth pound was handed over to the Lord of the Soyle. This tenth portion was known as the lot-lead.In their quest for lead prospectors were not adverse to mining under highways - so much that at County Quarter sessions in 1608 an order was passed stating: "Whereas the Court hath been thus informed that by means of digging lead ore upon the forest of Mendip the King's highway there in divers places id become very founderous and exceeding dangerous for His Majesty's liege people in passing that way, it is therefore at this Sessions ordered that none shall henceforth dig to make any mines in the said highway upon pain that may ensue...."Many of the Mendip miners lived in incredible sordid conditions in shacks, and even in fissures opened up by their mining.It was a tough life, giving rise to much lawlessness and drunkennesses. Alehouses became so numerous that in the reign of James I an order was made prohibiting the opening of more.A court at Wells found "that divers' notorious misdemeanours and abuses have been committed by such as ... have kept Tippling or Alehouses upon the hill of Mendip, as well as in receiving and harbouring thieves and other lewd, vagrant and wandering persons, as also in respect that they standing remote from the eye and view of such officers as have the charge of government are reputed to be places of receipt of common drunkards and of labourers and menservants, suffering them to spend their time and waste their goods in the most lewd and vicious manner, as well as in tippling and bowsing there upon the Sabbath and holy days at the time of divine service, and on other days and times when they should be at their work."But with it all the miners of Mendip were not without their virtues. In Macaulay's poem about the loyalty with which Englishmen roused themselves to meet the Armada threat there are the lines: The fisher left his skiff to rockOn Tamar's glittering waves,The rugged miners poured to warFrom Mendip's sunless caves.In his Mines of Mendip, Mr Gough comments: "With their physical strength often went a sturdiness of spirit. Many a Mendip miner fought valiantly to the last in the hopeless struggle at Sedgemoor, and more than a century later at the time of the French invasion at Fishguard, 1797, the entire able-bodied male population of Shipham marched in military order up to Bristol in case their services might be required ...."* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 2, 1972


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