Struggles of the poor in Mendip's lead mining villages

No planning permission was needed to build homes in the years when Mendip villages including Shipham, Rowberrow, Blagdon and East Harptree, were poverty-stricken

No planning permission was needed to build homes in the years when Mendip villages including Shipham, Rowberrow, Blagdon and East Harptree, were poverty-stricken places where most of the bread-winners earned what they could from the lead mining industry, either trying their luck as prospectors, or working for companies.In addition to the straggling, often ill-maintained cottages there were what were known as 'night houses'. They appeared overnight and disappeared in the morning!A vivid picture of the old days at East Harptree is to be found in a little book of but 70 pages entitled 'Trinkum Trinkums' of Fifty Years. The memoirs are those of the Mrs Florence Kettlewell, who died in 1935 at the age of 78. She went to Harptree Court as a young bride after her marriage in 1875, and later lived at Harptree House. Her husband died in 1916, and they are both buried in East Harptree churchyard.For her book Mrs Kettlewell drew not only on her own memories, but also on those of some of the older villagers.In telling the story of the Mendip lead miners I have mentioned that they were a hard-drinking lot, and that there were many alehouses. Mrs Kettlewell records that there were at one time six in East Harptree parish - the Waldegrave Arms, The Lilacs, Live and Let Live, Castle of Comfort and others in Middle Street and Proud Street.There were no roads in Mendip villages of old, only well-worn tracks, and Mrs Kettlewell refers to Middle Street at East Harptree as once merely being a stony, rugged, pack-horse track, leading up to the poor houses. There were large boulders across it here and there, and coal and other necessities were carried up it by packhorses and donkeys.Lead mining was one of the chief occupations of the male population, and it also attracted miners from elsewhere, who arrived to go prospecting. With the consent of the lord of the manor they could dig much where they pleased, provided a due proportion was handed over to the lord of the manor's agent. Many of these prospectors, who included very rough types, could not afford lodgings, even if they were to be had. They 'squatted' where they could.Sometimes they roughed it in the holes they had dug in their search for ore, and they introduced the 'night houses' to be seen around Harptree in those days.Some of these houses eventually became permanent ones, and Mrs Kettlewell, referring to their erection says:"The men dug up the turf at night, generally on pieces of land cribbed from the roadside, piled them up as walls, stuck posts in the four corners, covered over the top with thatch, and made a fireplace inside."If they could get a pot on and boiling before daylight all was well. They had made good their claim to the house, and could then build proper walls and complete it afterwards."In one instance a farmer from West Harptree came up about 3am, and the men feared he would stop their work, instead of which he gave them five shillings and said: 'Well done, boys'."One of these night houses stood near the 'Stirrup Cup' and was known as a 'bunker' beer house. The beer was sold at a penny a pint to the 'gruffy' men on Mendip, and also to the various beer-houses in the parish."This was sometimes called 'slap' beer and was very frothy, but with quite a good palate. It came from the brewery at Shepton Mallet, and the road near the Stirrup Cup was often blocked with carts and barrels."Lead mining and farm work were about the only employment open to the men of East Harptree in those days, and in exceptionally severe winters the plight of some families was very serious.The women slaved at supplementary employment in the home. Some made shirts for a Cheddar factory. At a given date the manager used to call at a Blagdon centre to give out the shirts and receive those completed.If the work had been done badly he would reject it and the offender would be fined. They had to put in the sleeves and tail gussets, fit the collars and work the buttonholes. The best worker at Harptree reckoned to do 140 buttonholes a day. Payment was 2s 6d to 2s 9d a dozen garments.Mrs Kettlewell states that finding local people were much in debt to local shopkeepers, her family started a branch of the Co-operative society at East Harptree in 1899. The premises were afterwards bought from her son and became the property of members.The society survived until recently, when its shareholders by 59 votes to 35 decided to hand over its assets, including its two shops, one at East Harptree and the other at Blagdon, to the Co-operative Retail Services.Knitting was one of the ways by which East Harptree women used to supplement the home income. They even knitted when they were out walking."All the women knitted," wrote Mrs Kettlewell. "I can see them now, walking along the road, their hands well down by their left side, the needles going at express rate. When a needle was not in use it would be stuck into a tight roll of stuff pinned to the side of the dress."With some families, no matter how hard the parents tried, they had to obtain poor relief. "Mr Salmon, the relieving officer, would drive from the Union with his cart full of bread, and give each person six shillings and a loaf or so as the case required," wrote Mrs Kettlewell. "I instituted a cup of tea at these gatherings, as the people often had to wait a good while on account of the state of the roads, and the number to be paid, and in this way I got to know them very well."This foreshadowed the establishment of Women's Institutes in Somerset. In 1917 an up-to-date Institute was started to take in all the women, and ours was probably the first in the country to sign National Federation rules."Harptree village was honeycombed with lead mine workings, and when new stables were built at Harptree Farm, a tunnel was discovered through which a man could walk under Rectory Lane towards the church.In 1884 the village doctor told Mr Kettlewell that he saw lead poisoning in the faces of the people, and Mr Kettlewell determined to lay on a supply of pure water to the village. This was done, a spring being found by a dowser who determined the best place to dig by use of his hazel twig.The Smitham chimney above East Harptree is one of the few structural survivals of the lead mining industry on Mendip. When in the latter half of the last century there was a revival of interest in the lead mining areas by way of resmelting old slag, there were those who thought the East Harptree's mass of old slag might be worth treating.In 1865 a Mr Hornblower obtained a lease of the mineral area, and two years later the East Harptree Lead Works company was formed. A reservoir was made, and buddles, furnace, flues and a chimney stack constructed. For a time the works achieved a good output, but it soon declined, and the East Harptree enterprise says Gough in his The Mines of Mendip, was "the most short-lived of all these ventures".One would not associate Blagdon of today with the drab village with its miserable hovels and general squalor of the mining era pictured by Miss M E Board in an interesting booklet she wrote about Blagdon of former times.The village had more than some other places of the drunkenness, violence, and squalor that lead mining brought to Mendip because one of the Blagdon public houses was the original 'Mindry Pay House'.It is not difficult to imagine the sort of scene at Blagdon when the miners came swarming down over the hill on payday.Outside the Pay-House waiting for them were undoubtedly the ill-clad and half-starved wives and children. Some wives must have known that their only chance of getting anything for housekeeping was to be at the Pay House when their husbands got their money.And so they came from their hovels on Mendip, many of them with babies strapped to their backs, and toddlers clinging to their skirts.The miners averaged 10s a week, furnace men and skilled workers getting about 15s. Even little boys were employed at the mining, getting about 6d a day for fetching and carrying.There was a scheme by which a Blagdon shopkeeper gave the miners a month's credit, and some of the men came from all over Mendip to take advantage of this. On payday they had to settle last month's debt before being allowed to make any more purchases.One would like to think that there was a happier side to the story of lead mining on Mendip. What are so often referred to as the good old days were, I am afraid, in many places bad old days. The best that can be said is that at least the industry from time to time provided much needed employment in an area in time when agriculture was going through a period of depression, and there was little other work to be obtained.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 23, 1972


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