The story of Mendip's vanished industry

Mendip is slow to wake from its winter's sleep. Its uplands look cold and grey long after warmth and springtime's colouring have come

Mendip is slow to wake from its winter's sleep. Its uplands look cold and grey long after warmth and springtime's colouring have come to the countryside below. But life is stirring there now.A popular playground before March was out, Mendip top was attracting its lines of cars at Priddy Pool and picnic parties among the old lead-mine workings at Charterhouse. At Charterhouse and at Priddy children love to romp along the paths that run between the humps that are a memorial to a vanished industry. It will not be long before the shining black heaps of slag at Charterhouse will be contrasted by purple banks of wild thyme and the yellow splashes of bird's foot trefoil. Except in certain areas Nature and man have blotted out the immense scares of centuries of mining.Many of the places where men once toiled for lead or calamine have been levelled off by farmers in making them ploughland, or have been built upon, as at Shipham.The story of Mendip's lead mining industry is fascinating, and stretches back over many centuries. Hundreds of years ago there was feverish activity all over Mendip in search of its mineral wealth. The seekers lacked such aids as geologists have today, and many of their discoveries were made by diviners using twigs, a skill practised successfully for hundreds of years.The extent of the mining activity on the Mendip Hills in former times was painstakingly surveyed many years ago by the Mr E T Bucknell, headmaster of Weston's former Kingsholme School, who wrote an historical and scientific account, which the Mercury published in instalments.Today we are inclined to think of Mendip mining merely in association with the Priddy and Charterhouse area, but at one time bids to discover and extract the mineral wealth of the Mendips were going on everywhere,The Mendip country's coal mining industry survives in a small way, but once it was quite extensive. Weston's water supply spring at Banwell on the site of the old village pond has been known to throw up lumps of coal, and Mr Bucknell refers to a coal shaft having been sunk at Knightcott.In sinking this shaft oil shale was found, and commenting on this Mr Bucknell referred to the recent discovery attempted development of oil shale beds along the Somerset coast at Kilve: "It is interesting to know we have our own oil shale beds, situated nearly under the shadow of the Mendips. "Very little of real value seems to be known about the scientific side of the English oil shale beds, but there seems to be no reason why a vast industry should not spring there from at some future period."Such industry would give employment to large numbers, which would be especially beneficial at the present time, but an extended research in oil shale is needed, and until that is accomplished and certain valuable information obtained, I am afraid the oil shale industry in this country will not be commenced."He was thinking ahead of his time, and at the time of writing we have only just reached the era of oil exploitation he visualised so many years ago.All British lead contains an element of silver, but it is very low, and particularly so in Mendip lead.Mendip has also yielded iron ore, and Mr Bucknell stated that many shafts, principally in search of iron were sunk on Sidcot Hill and around the Hale Valley. He also mentioned that one pit had recently been opened on the hill above Axbridge, and some fairly good iron oxide obtained.Unsuccessful borings for coal were also made near Shute Shelve, but a vein of manganese had been worked successfully in that locality.Winscombe was concerned with the lead industry, and during the construction of the road near the railway tunnel at Shute Shelve, the remains of a furnace that had been used for smelting was found."The field, known as Old Down, behind the Avenue, just outside Winscombe, is practically broken up by old mine workings," Mr Bucknell wrote. "Hollows mark the mouths of shafts now filled in or covered over by heaps of stones. "Rocky trenches and grassy mounds are the only evidences which now remain of mining activities in the past."Many years have passed since any of these mines were worked, but Knight records that the grandfather of the village blacksmith took out £5 worth of lead ore one night by candlelight."Near the east end of the Avenue is a filled in shaft of a mine that was opened in 1869 in a short-lived attempt to restart the Mendip mining industry."Mr Bucknell, referring to other mining areas in the district said that at Sandford Hill, over 400 feet above sea level, spaces between trees were honeycombed with old mine workings sunk in search of lead and calamine. Caves had also been discovered in the hill containing the skulls of and other remains of cave bear, cave lion and hyena. In 1770 miners found the skeleton of a mammoth 24 feet below the surface. The origin of some of Sandford's caves was undoubtedly the work of the miners.Of 'the Gulf', the largest of these Sandford caves, Rutter recorded in 1829 that a man had been let down 240 feet without being able to 'discover top, sides, or bottom'.Shipham in olden times was the heart of the Mendip mining country, and the broken ground and hillocks to be seen round about the parish still testify to this, although much of the former mining area now has residential development on it. Comparatively recently some potholers opened up one of the old Shipham shafts.A coal-pit was sunk in the village at Longbottom in 1813, and for some time villagers burned fuel mined locally.Rowberrow was also an important mining parish. Calamine and lead were found there, but the industry ceased in 1853. Much of the ore was treated on the spot in Rowberrow Bottom, and Collinson, writing in 1791, stated most of the trees round about had been killed by the fumes given off by the furnaces.The miners even got to work high up on Dolbury, where shafts were sunk in search of iron ore, lead, manganese ore, and calamine.For centuries mining was the chief occupation of the menfolk of Burrington, there being numerous shafts and workings on the high ground above the Combe's Aveline's Hole.There was also evidence of mining at Christon and Loxton, and at the latter place about a mile to the south-east of Hutton, in the west flank of the gorge that separates Loxton Hill from Crook Peak, a cave discovered about 1749 had three chambers "abundantly adorned with stalactites of various colours, which denoted the presence of copper iron, etc., in the surrounding rocks".Considerable quantities of lead were dug out at Hutton about 1650, and miners, having opened an ochre pit, came on a fissure behind which lay an immense cave, strewn with the bones of animals, many of prehistoric date.Banwell Hill once yielded ochre, calamine, and lead in good quantities, and it was mining on the hill that led to the discovery of its various bone caves.Incidentally, on the origins of Banwell's spring, which for some time was Weston's main water supply and is still so in part, it has been claimed that Shipham Hill is the watershed that feeds it. To substantiate this it has been suggested that the occasional small pieces of coal thrown up we swept all the way from Shipham's known coal seam at Longbottom!Grooves and refuse heaps were evidence of mining in olden days on the hill north of Axbridge, whilst East Harptree is a mining village of considerable antiquity. Furnaces with the necessary tunnels for the condensation of lead fumes were erected there about 1864 at the same time as there was building at Charterhouse and Priddy in connection with attempts to extract more lead from the previously melted deposits of debris heaped up over the centuries.Lead was being mined at Charterhouse before the Romans came, and when they conquered the country they were quick to make use of the area's mineral wealth. Evidence of extensive Roman occupation of the area has been unearthed.So far as Weston-super-Mare is concerned Worlebury Hill did not escape the attention of the miners. The eastern end of the hill was much mined for lead and calamine. High quality calamine mined at Worle played a significant part in the early development of the country's brass making industry.From this introduction it will be apparent that a vast, now vanished industry must once have been involved the toil of many hundreds of men in these parts. Its history is grim, since the miners included many violent types. Their families lived in squalor, and at one time Mendip's reputation was such that travellers were advised not to go through the mining areas. Ale houses became so linked with drunkenness and violence, that action was taken to restrict their number.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on April 21, 1972


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