Shipham once had 100 lead and calamine mines

As the Mendip lead mining industry declined, the mining of calamine came into prominence. Calamine mined on the hillside at Worle played an important part in the start of the country's brass industry

As the Mendip lead mining industry declined, the mining of calamine came into prominence. Calamine mined on the hillside at Worle played an important part in the start of the country's brass industry. In Norden's description of Middlesex published in 1593 there is mention of a copper and brass mill, the ore for which "is brought out of Somersetshire from the Mendip hills, the most from Worley Hill..."Moves to develop the use of calamine were not made in this country until the reign of Elizabeth I and until then there was no brass industry. During the 18th century mining of calamine became the most important industry on Mendip. Writing about Shipham in 1791, historian Collinson stated: "The number of houses which comprise this parish is seventy-three, the habitants are about 380, and almost all of the miners. There are upwards of one hundred of these mines now working, many of which are in the street, in the yards, and some in the very homes. The usual depth of these shafts is from six to twelve fathoms."Collinson described how the Shipham miners washed or buddled the calamine to take away the waste: "This calamine stone is a kind of softly bituminous earth, principally used for converting copper into brass," he wrote. "It lies in a strata near perpendicular, and mostly in a direction from east to west. "When the ore is first raised it has the appearance of brownish yellow gravel, and is often intermixed with eyes of small veins of lead."When dug it is washed, or buddled (as the miners call it) in running water, which carries off the earthy parts, leaving the calamine, lead, and sparry concretions at the bottom. They then put it into a sieve and shake it in water, by which means the lead sinks lowest, the sparry parts rise on the top, and the calamine remains in the middle.""Thus prepared they bake it in an oven four or five times, the flame being directed so as to pass over it, by which means it is calcined. It is then picked up and sifted and sent in bags to Bristol, where it is ground as fine as flour, and mixed with powdered charcoal and water into a mass of paste."Seven pounds of this calamine is put into a gallon melting pot, and on the top five pounds of copper. It is then let down into a wind surface and remains there about eleven or twelve hours, in which time the whole is converted into brass. "After melting it, it is cast into plates or lumps."Forty-five pounds of calamine produce thirty when calcined, and sixty pounds of copper make with calamine one hundred pounds of brass. So very lucrative is this subterraneous occupation of the inhabitants of Shipham, that a miner with a proper assiduity may earn a guinea a day."John Billingsley, writing in 1795, said: "In the parishes of Rowberrow, Shipham and Winscombe, there are valuable calamine mines. Then mineral is found within a yard of the surface, and seldom works deeper than thirty fathoms."Between four and five hundred miners are constantly employed in this business, and the average price is about £5 per ton."Collinson, I think, painted too colourful a picture of the prosperity of Shipham in its mining era. In the summer of 1790, only eight years after Collinson's History of Somerset was written, a chaise pulled up on Shipham village green, and out stepped two ladies. They were Hannah and Martha Moore.Hannah and Martha were horrified at what they saw in the village: half-naked children, wild men, course, foul mouthed women; their homes evil smelling hovels. They decided something must be done about Shipham.They struggled, often against much opposition, to bring better living conditions, religion, and education to the poor of the Mendip country villages. Writing about their work, Martha Moore stated: "Among the most depraved and wretched were Shipham and Rowberrow, two mining villages at the top of Mendip; the people savage and depraved almost beyond Cheddar, brutal in their natures, and ferocious in their manners."They began by suspecting we should make our fortunes by selling their children as slaves. No constable would venture to arrest a Shipham man lest he should be concealed in one of their pits, and never heard of more; no uncommon case."Gough, in his The Mines of Mendip, declared: "The life of the Shipham miner must have been hard, poor, and squalid, and he had an unpleasant notoriety among Somerset peasantry."F. A. Knight, who has written with great charm and detail about the history of this district, and who lived at Wintrath, the house he himself built down the valley from Shipham, wrote of the characteristics of Shipham folk as he knew them:"They come of a race of miners, whether they are in quest of coal, or lead, or gold or diamonds, are said to have a reputation for being rude and turbulent, and defiant of authority."The miners of Mendip were no exception to the rule, and down to a time well within the recollection of persons still living, the inhabitants of Shipham were notorious for their rough manners and lawless lives."Knight wrote this just over sixty years ago. He also said he had seen the bedroom of a house near the Star Inn "all shattered and riddled with shot which had been fired into it the night before by a Shipham man who bore a grudge against the policeman who lived in it. Fortunately the policeman was unhurt."Knight added: "Nor have the Shipham men been dead so many years who took part in midnight raids among the orchards and potato plots of Woodborough and Sidcot School, and who, stripped to the waist, fought pitched battles with hostile villagers in the streets of Banwell."The Shipham vandals of former years ranged even further afield, for Rutter, in his Delineations of North Somerset published in 1829, wrote: "Three miles from Weston is the curiously situated village of Worle, sheltered from the sea blasts by its remarkable hill, crowned with an elevated windmill, and rich in lapis caliminaris, and other ores, which are occasionally dug clandestinely on moon-light nights by parties of miners from the rather distant village of Shipham."But Shipham men of old, for all their faults, were loyal to their country, and the musters roll of men in the Winterstoke hundred who were armed and trained to meet the Spanish Armada threat included well-known Shipham names in "pykemen" Holbrooke, Trypp, Clerke, and Day; and among the "Shotte" Lewes, Edgell, and Roe.At the time of the French invasion of Fishguard in 1797, the entire able-bodied male population of Shipham marched to Bristol to offer their services in defence.F. A. Knight records that except for a brief and unsuccessful effort by a Welsh firm to restart mines at Shipham in 1869 when two shafts were sunk in the rough ground west of Shipham church, and from which a small amount of lead and calamine was obtained, there had been no mining in the village for either metal since 1853. Ochre pits had, however, been worked more recently. The mine workings were abandoned when they became too deep for the simple appliances normally employed, or when they were flooded.Normally only a windlass and bucket were used. Writing in 1915 Knight stated: "Small engines were, however, employed in some cases; and near the Court House may still be seen the remains for a primitive engine-house such as are to be found here and all over Mendip."In some instances in the later days of the mining, an old locomotive arranged as a stationary engine was used to turn the winding-drum at a specially deep shaft, as was the case at two mines in Rowberrow."The Shipham one was in the middle of the village; and two old men are still living there who sixty years ago, worked in this, the deepest as it was the last, of all the innumerable Shipham mines."Mr. E. T. Bucknell, former headmaster of Weston's former Kingsholme School, who wrote an historical and scientific account of the Mendips, stated that there were four roasting places or calamine ovens in Shipham, the sites of which were well-known.He added "The tools used in one of them are said to be preserved, but unfortunately although I made the most searching enquiries in the village for them, I found it impossible to trace them."Fortunately, I was able to take a photograph of the ruins of the last remaining chimney of a calamine oven, but a year or two will probably see the end of this ancient landmark of a once flourishing Mendip industry, which as now completely passed." I have made enquiries as to whether Mr. Bucknell's photo of this old Shipham chimney survives, but have been unable to establish that it does.In the old days the hard drinking miners of Mendip did not want for public houses. Shipham once had three. The oldest is believed to have been the Shipham Inn, which is now the Penscot Guest House. Another was the Miner's Arms, which still survives in building of obviously fairly modern construction, and the third was the Seymour arms, which later became the post office.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 9th, 1972.


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