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West Mendip Worthies

By Marie Clarke

It was an advertisement in the Weston Mercury announcing the sale by auction of the property known as ‘The Caves’ Knightcott, Banwell, on July 25th 1978 which prompted the writer to narrate its absorbing history.  The residence, described by the auctioneers as a country mansion with coach house, clock tower and two caves, among other embellishments, has alas, become sadly depilated and immediately brings to mind the former glory that vanished many a summer ago.  Only a small part of this mansion has been occupied, whilst the remainder was shut off and left to fall into decay.  The surrounding grounds, once well tended shrubberies and winding paths are now a tangled wilderness hiding ruinous summer houses and a tower, whose top finally disappeared in December 1976.

It is sad to have to record the downfall of Bishop Law’s paradise, and as late as the 1840’s he intended to make further ‘splendid alteration’ and envisaged many house parties yet to come.  It was here that numerous horse drawn carriages shed their fashionable occupants and elite of the day.  All this has faded away – houses live and die.

But beneath the mansion lie the two caves and it is here that the story begins, indeed, if it we’re not for the Stalactite and Bone Caves, this house would never have come into being at all.  Having followed the history of the house and caves, for they are inseparable, its distinguished occupant, George Henry Law, Bishop of Bath and Wells for whom this house was built, we now turn our attention to three other gentlemen, all of considerable importance and all playing a major part in this story.  Dr. Francis Randolph, Canon of Bristol and Vicar of Banwell, the Rev. David Williams, of Bleadon and Kingston Seymour, also a fellow of the Geological society, Mr. William Beard, one time farmer and guide to the caves, each now laid in his narrow cell, but all notable personages in the 19th century.

It was in 1808 that Dr. Randolph became vicar of Banwell, he had his connections with the Hanoverian Court, being chaplain to the Duke of York, son of George III.  At about this time he resided in Germany, apparently teaching English to the Princess Royal of Prussia, who later became the Duchess of York.  It was due to the influence of the Duke of York that Dr. Randolph was appointed Canon of Bristol, he then became Vicar of Banwell.  His association with the court lasted for forty years; however, this relationship was not altogether a cordial affair.

In April 1795, the Prince of Wales, who later became George IV, married Caroline of Brunswick, and in August of that year Canon Randolph was given some letters by the Princess to deliver to Brunswick. Unable to undertake the journey, the letters were returned by coach to Brighton, where the Princess was in residence.  Unfortunately, these letters were mislaid on the way and their contents revealed with undesirable results.  At the time it was rumoured that Dr. Randolph parted with the letters having been promised a Bishopric, but if that were so he never became a bishop.  It is possible that this occurrence was the outcome of a sermon which roused eager interest in its day.

It will be seen that Canon Randolph was much more than an inspiring speaker being concerned as he was with the controversial matters of the period.  He published a pamphlet urging the abolition of the slave trade; Bristol being one of the main centres he has ample opportunity to investigate this.  Another pamphlet he published advocated the redemption of the National Debt which has risen alarmingly during the French Wars.

When he became vicar of Banwell, the church was in desperate need of repair – to make it even safe; and decorations to give it a more pleasing appearance.  The semi-circular railing round the altar from the formidable spikes running round the top would have been more suitable for the fence of a garden or courtyard.

Rev. Francis Randolph, in 1812, “gave £100 towards the repair of the church, and was at great expense in removing the painted glass from the windows of the church, and placing it (with a large quantity of other painted glass purchased at his own expense) in the arches of the altar screen.”  It was from 1812 onwards that £2,000 was spent in effecting repairs to the church.  It is considered that the present church was built by Bishop Thomas de Beckington (1443-1465) from his Arms, appearing in a painted glass window that existed in the north aisle before the renovation work started in 1812.  The Bishop’s Place, too, at Banwell is thought to have been built for that Prelate, for occasional residence and was situated to the east of the church.  George Bennett, an early 19th century solicitor and antiquarian of Banwell, onetime churchwarden, remembered seeing in the east window of the north aisle, a pained glass, the Arms of Bishop Beckington.  Mr Bennett wrote (c.1825) “I well recollect the last mentioned glass in the East Window of the North Aisle, but sorry I am to say that in all probability it is now lost, as I do not find it among the glass preserved in the Scree.”

The village school was founded by Dr. Randolph with the generous support of Dr. Beadon, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who died on April 21st 1824 before its completion, and it was left to his successor, Dr. George Henry law to open the school on August 1st 1824 and so became its first patron.

The funds for this school were raised as follows: - Dr. Beadon (the late Bishop) gave the ground on which the building stands, also timber to the value of £50; the National society in London for Promoting Education amongst the Poor, £100; the Rev. Dr. Randolph, Vicar of the Parish, £150; The Rev. C. Whatley, Curate, £20; George Emery Esq., Churchwarden, £20; Charles Emery Esq., £10; George Bennett Esq., £5 – in all £355.  The care and management of this institution was for the present placed with the Vicar, Curate and Churchwardens, together with other inhabitants of the parish and to be maintained by voluntary subscriptions.  Funds were urgently needed, and Dr. Randolph conceived the idea that if the legendary cave under Banwell Hill could be rediscovered, it could be re-opened as a show place.  Weston-super-Mare was rapidly expanding from a fishing village to a fashionable resort; the cave would be a profitable attraction for visitor, whose donations could be expended on the charity school.

It was Dr. Randolph who contacted two miners to clear out an old shaft that led to the lost cave beneath Banwell Hill.  Thus it was that the Deep or Stalactite Cave was rediscovered in April 1824.

Dr. Randolph and Bishop Law decided that if access to the Stalactite Cave was improved this would further encourage visitors.  It with this in mind and the assistance of two miners, Coleman and Webb that their labours were amply rewarded by the accidental discovery of yet another cavern.  This cave, although of smaller dimensions was bar far the more important, containing as it did, immense quantities of bones distributed throughout the ochreous rubble almost to the roof of the chamber.  This event occurred in September 1824 and the cave was given the descriptive title of the Bone House.  This cave, with similar later discoveries was destined to become famous.

It is not known exactly how and when William Beard, farmer of Wint Hill, Banwell, became involved in the activities of the miners, Coleman and Webb.  But by now he had taken more than a casual interest in the undertaking by securing all the bones as soon as they saw the light of day.  He yclept house, Bone Cottage, which no doubt accurately described it.  Geological specimens and cave formations decorated the garden wall, while others peered through the undergrowth like gnomes in hiding.  Trophies were seized and large collections of antiquities were the order of the day.  Below ground Beard's activities appear to have been confined to that of guide to the Bone and Stalactite Caves, there is no proof that he set foot underground in any other capacity.  He was responsible for the visitor’s book and donations on behalf of the bishop. “Gentlemen and Ladies, I have to inform you that I rec’d a  letter bearing date 22nd of June 1826 – from Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells wherein he request that all money that I have and receive of visitors who see the caves and to be expended in exploring and improving the same.”

The land on which Banwell Caves were discovered belonged to the See of Bath and Wells. Bishop Law soon obtained this land where the caves were situated and in May 1827 work began on the Bishop’s Cottage, which, though at first was intended for visitors became in the course of time, with lavish embellishments, his own residence.  The age of folly and grotto had arrived with Druidical Circle, trilithon erected upon tumulus, ornamental arch and summer house.  While the grounds were ‘tastefully laid out’ with lawns, walks and terraces; the woods were mainly planted in 1825 and the tower soared towards heaven between 1835-40.  The Bishop resided intermittently at the cottage from 1832 onwards.

The Bishop’s Circle was at times yclept “The Caves”, where there is a window lighting the staircase: “Argent, on a fess azure between in chief three buck’s heads caboshed gulea and in base as many pheons sable a mitre with labels expaned or, for Thomas Beckington, Bishop of bath and wells, 1443-65.  The buck’s heads have been done in yellow stain.  The shield is supported by angels.  Fifteen century.  The glass was brought to the house by George Henry Law, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 1824-25.” This explains the disappearance of the glass form the church where George Bennett searched for it in vain. In 1825, Dr. Randolph had erected a summer house within Banwell Camp, but this was removed and re-erected on Banwell Hill on the estate of the Bishop.  An appropriate inscription, in Latin, being placed above the doorway in memory of Dr, Randolph who had died in 1831.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Weston was a fishing village where the cottages were constructed of timber from shipwrecks.  There were few track ways, but the coach road was at Cross.  The postman rode a donkey and put in a weekly appearance to deliver and collect letters; while the watercress grew in a ditch in the main street. Smuggling was rife and the local witch lived in a cottage with tree branches growing through the roof; Worley Hill was then treeless.  The route across the sand tots was the only way of reaching Weston from the south, when the tide was out and the traveller was directed by a signpost almost buried in accumulated sand.  When the tide was in, travellers waited at the Half Way House where the Royal Hospital now stands.  For the benefit of strangers, a finger post was erected amidst the sandy regions of Weston to direct the traveller.   This was useful information when not submerged!

It was about this time that the first batch of invalids arrived in Weston, having being sent by a Bath medical man.  This event launches Weston as a health resort and fashionable watering place.

Upon this scene rode the Rev. David Williams who was Rector of Bleadon and Kingston Seymour and from his abode in the Mendip Hills his scientific researches began.  Williams explored the caves of Uphill and Hutton (where his initials are just inside the entrance) and investigated many fissures in the Bleadon and Hutton areas.  He also took an interest in Sandford Hill and Goatchurch Cavern and was one of the earliest visitors to the Banwell Caves.  It was Williams who surveyed the Bone and Stalactite Caves and those at Hutton and Uphill, and there is a reference, years later, to his ‘old brown handkerchief’.  These surveys were later engraved by William Barnes, the Dorset poet, for inclusion in Rutter’s Delineations of N.W. Somerset. Williams referred to these surveys as his cave ‘sketches’.  Of the pre-historic relics he un-earthed together with his geological investigations he wrote many important scientific papers and was elected Fellow of the Geological Society in 1828.  He collected material for a comprehensive work over a number of years which consisted of the geology of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.  These manuscripts were later purchased by the S.A.N.H. Society for publication, unfortunately this never materialised.

Davis Williams frequently travelled to Weston, on horseback, meeting friends at a curious greengrocers in the High Street, perhaps then known as The Street, for it is uncertain when it became ‘High’.  These premises were known by the fanciful name of ‘Gentleman’s Club’, being the haunt of the local intellectuals.

In a London magazine an absorbing account of a visit to the geologist is described:  “We remember to have made a pilgrimage to Bleadon with a distinguished member of the British association.  We found the retreat of science encumbered within and without, with the imperishable exuviae of the ransacked hills.  Not a table, a chair or a sofa without its antediluvian occupant.  The very lawn and the approaches to the house strewn with fossil remains such as few museums can boast.  In the midst of a large room so densely tenanted sat the geologist, as on a narrow isthmus between the labours of the past and the triumphs of the future; like Marius amidst the ruins of Carthage, or (if you will) like a half-tide rock in a mountain sea.  He told us that we saw only his inferior specimens that the best were already in London in the engraver’s hands.  He was actually engaged in transcribing ‘fair’ the last sheets of the work to which we have alluded.  It was in gazing wistfully on the sharp grey outline of the Mendips, that he had first yearned to pierce the hidden secrets of the hills.  On parting from him, our friend exclaimed that is was good to talk with so clear a spirit, so un-hackneyed a nature.  There is a science in earnest!  With all the simplicity inseparable form the sincere and strong!  What an honour to the country!  But the world knows nothing of its greatest men!”

After 1829, Williams and Beard seemed, to have pursued different courses, but before this event Beard must have gained considerable knowledge from Williams.

Being a geologist, Williams horizons widened, which resulted in a geological study of the southwest counties.  These manuscript notebooks are in Taunton Castle Library but some of his notebooks are missing.  These most likely contained the earlier years of his explorations on Mendip.  His son, who in later years, was to become the Rev. Wadham Pigott Williams, found fossil bones at Bleadon Quarry.

From Beard's disordered manuscript book, with its confused dates, we learn that he began work on Bleadon Hill in January 1883, which resulted in the discovery of Bleadon Cavern.

“15th January 1883.  Paid JnO Heal of Shipham for Dialing the second cavern at Hutton….5/-“

and later that year, Williams explored this same cavern.  Beard’s latest discovery was on Sandford Hill in 1838.

In 1829, John Rutter of Shaftsbury, published the Delineations of N.W. Somerset.  This work undoubtedly involved many visits and considerable correspondence, and so here is included a copy of a letter written by David Williams to John Rutter.

Bleadon January 4th 1829

Sir

As our progress on Hutton Hill daily increases in interest, from the abundance and variety of the organic remains we discover, I shall be happy to forward to you a paper on these figures to the topographical work you are about to publish.  I have been required to do it by some very influential men in the neighbourhood but I wish to know from you first whether it will suit your wishes – if it should I shall defer publishing my account of them ‘til you come out.  Be kind enough to let me know when you require the Paper(s).  We have specimens of all sizes and varieties from the Elephant to the mouse.  I hope you will give the “quantum merit” of the discovery of Banwell Caves where it is due.  I regret to say, tho’ he assumes the merit, Professor Beard had nothing to do with it.  Dr. Randolph, wishing to ascertain the truth of a rumour that such a cave existed, offered two men a pound to clear out the shaft that led to it.  The men worked a week or ten days without success - it was abandoned - subsequently Coleman (who now works on Hutton Hill) and another, thinking the minerals might repay them, continued clearing out the chimney and ultimately came to the large Cavern, or the “ Deep Cave” as it is called.  This is the simple truth – I am sure our Professor has too much respect for his really high reputation to wish to sully by purloining what belongs to another.  I have lately obtained other evidence from Uphill Cave authenticating its history.  I hope before you publish, I shall be able to give you some account of an immense Cave on Sandford Hill, which has never been explored, near which an Elephant was found in 1770.  The mouth of it is said by the miners to be 80 fathoms below the plane of the Hill, and they have let down a man upwards of 300ft from its verge, without coming to the floor, nor could he see any sides or termination to it - they call it the Gulph.  They deal in the marvellous, I know, and I am determined to find out this mare's egg.  When you see Mr. Patterson, I will thank you to give him my best assurances.

                                                            I am Sir

Doctor Williams

Attention is immediately drawn to the fact that it was Mr. Randolph who paid £1 to two miners (Coleman and Webb (?)) to dig out the shaft to the Stalactite Cave.  Beard had nothing to do with it.  It should also be borne in mind that Dr. Randolph’s sole intentions on opening this cave were to admit the public, and in doing so raise funds for the charity school. The ultimate finding of the Bone Cave was accidental and profitable, and hence forth it appears that Beard and the Bishop took charge.  When George Bennett visited the Stalactite Cave in February 1825 he understood that “money is intended to be applied for the purpose of purchasing cloathing for the use of the second poor of the Parish and I know not a better purpose to which it could be appropriated.” However. Beard was instructed otherwise, and it is not known whether any money was contributed to the charity school. Also from this letter we have the first intimation of the finding of the Gulph on Sandford Hill.

This enlightening letter of Williams must have caused Rutter much consternation, as he and already committed the dedication of his book to Bishop Law, having placed the Bishop beyond any shadow, if only on account of his exalted position.  It could be argued that more credit should have been given to Dr. Randolph.  So it was Dr.Randolph was deprived of a notable place in the history of the discovery of Banwell Caves, while Beard was congratulated and dubbed ‘Professor’.  Law’s letter regarding the channelling of funds speaks for itself; he at least did not seem perturbed by the temperature of hell!

Dr.' Randolph's disappointment must have been great; and it is remarkable that Williams' letter should, have, survived for 150 years, containing the true           facts.

References:

Baker, E. E. History of Weston-super-Mare (various publications):

Beard, W. MSS

Bennett, G. MSS

Brown's New Guide, Sed. Ed. 1854.

Robbins & Scotney's New Handbook to W.s.M. & the Neighbourhood.1865

Rutter, J. Delineations of N.W. Somerset.  1829

Taylor, C.S. Banwell Parish Magazines.   Oct & Nov.  1970

Williams, D. Typescript copy of letter in Woodspring Museum

Woodforde, C. Stained Glass in Somerset.  1946

Marie Clarke,

Banwell, Feb. 1979

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Will members and guests staying at the Belfry please make sure that the Belfry is locked and all lights switched off before leaving at the end of their stay.

Members will realise that it is impossible to lock the Belfry during the weekend and so they will make sure that any valuables left lying around is done at their own risk.  The hut warden has requested that members lock any valuable item in their cars or better still, don’t bring them.  The building cannot be ‘policed’ and so to prevent ‘undesirables’ entering when everyone is out at the pub or underground.

Sue Tucker is currently clearing up the backlog of subscription receipts and should be in the post in the next few weeks.  There is a shortage of membership cards and a new supply will be available as soon as Tony Corrigan gets them printed.

The editor apologises for the late publication of the April B.B. – his greenhouse has taken priority and so members have had their April B.B. combined with the may issue.