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Merstham’s Underground Stone Quarriers

The firestone and hearthstone mines along Surrey's North Downs have, for a long time, been used as a training ground by the south east caving clubs. But it is only recently that the historical significance of the mines, or quarries as they are rightly called, has been appreciated.  The workings occur all along the base of the downs, where the narrow strip of upper greensand joins the chalk.  But it is at Kerstham where the most important in terms of industrial archaeology occur.

Most study of the industry has centred on an area known as Quarry Dean to the east of the A3. Quarry Dean lies in the small valley formed by the Downs to the north and the Rockshaw Ridge, lower down to the south.  The valley contains a series of depressions up to 30' in depth and as much as 100 yards long, lying in a fairly straight line running west to east.  These depressions are of course, the remains of old mine entrances, which have been back filled or blasted shut, and over the years have become overgrown and wooded.  Locals have little ideas of what lies below and that the south ridge is virtually hollow.

It was from those mines that much of the stone used for building London in medieval times was quarried, and for building such things as canal basins and bridges during the industrial revolution. The stone itself is a calcarcous sandstone which is found in a layer up to 40' thick at Quarry Dean.  The stone is found in varying qualities and it was known as 'Firestone', that was principally sought by the quarrymen.  The stone was largely used as a building stone, but some was used for lining furnaces and it is from this use that it gets its name of 'Firestone'.  The stone is nearest to the surface in the valley floor, and it dips away north and south under the chalk and greensand ridges.

The mines were dug along the valley at its lowest point, by sinking a sloping trench until the stone was struck.  The trench was then continued until there was a sufficient depth to enable tunnelling in the stone itself, similar to adit mining, where horizontal tunnels are driven into the hillside.

The stone was extracted on a 'broad face' and one contemporary reference of 1819 describes passages of 30' wide, though today’s explorers see little of this.  As the quarry men worked forward on their broad face they trimmed the blocks to size so that only usable stone needed to be moved.  This was known as 'scappling'.  The rubbish or 'deeds' were then stacked neatly along the walls leaving only a narrow access for hauling stone to the surface along the un-stacked wall.  In some mines, there is evidence of part finished blocks, and splitting wedges and spike hammers of varying length have been recovered.  These hammers or picks were called Maddocks or Jads or sometimes Jadders.

As the quarrymen advanced, they left pillars of rock to support the roof - a technique known as 'pillar and stall'.  In some places, deads can be found neatly stacked around these pillars giving the impression of pillars composed only of rubbish stone.  During the nineteenth century, continental miners were employed, and they insisted on using wooden props.  These had little strengthening effect and were often called 'wind ups' by local quarrymen.

The collapse of piles of deads into the passages in places gives the quarries the appearance of natural cave and this has been encouraged by low routes forced over deads by explorers. In addition to this stal formations abound in the oldest mines.  Many unspoilt areas still remain however, and there are passages which bear the foot prints of the old Quarrymen as yet untouched and it is hoped that they will continue to be preserved.  In one passage a pair of boots, left behind by a quarrier around 1750 still lie untouched, where they have collapsed but are still undisturbed.  A credit to the local cavers and historians who regularly visit the area.

The quarry's were all named and many of the original names are evocative of days gone by.  Names such as Quarry Banfield, Bedlam's Bank, and Stonefield bring pictures flooding into the imagination.  The entrances forced by today’s explorers have nothing of this magic in their names which help only to put them into order – i.e. No 3, plastic pipe or football field.

Quarry Dean is believed to date from Roman times and indeed a section of ‘Roman Arches' bears Roman characteristics in its stone brick lining.  This particular mine lies beneath 50' of tipped flyash and is now entered by concrete pipes which have an interesting deformation half way down. The bricks are in fact beautifully cut stone blocks fitting with hardly any mortar. The mine was entered by Mr Harrison who farmed at Quarry Dean.  He dug his way into the mine in 1960 and it was he who gave its contemporary name when he found the arched section.

The earliest mention so far found is a reference dated 1522 to Quarrepitden the farm house.  Since it has been known as Quarryhouse, Quarryclale, Quarrydene and Quarrydene Farm.   Merstham Manor was owned by the monks of Canterbury in 1018 but was reclaimed by Henry VIII in 1540 when he gave it to Robert Southwell.  This early church and state connection throws light on the fact that Merstham stone is to be found in Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle.  It can also be found in the Guildhall and was used in the construction of the medieval London Bridge.  Merstham stone was used again in the new London Bridge, as infilling which was then faced with Granite.

This stone came, in all probability from Lower Quarry which was sealed in 1911 and it has so far been impossible to find a way in again.  It is thought that stone used for the rebuilding of London after the great fire, came from the massive workings known as Bedlam's Bank and from here it is possible to get into much older workings known as Quarry Ockley.  It has been suggested that stone here may have been worked for the first 500 years of the Norman Conquest.  This old section has peculiar grooves in the floor, similar to those in Roman Mineral Mines on the continent and it has been suggested that Ponies or Oxen may have been used to haul stone from here.  In more modern times flat barrows (Circa 1750) and railways (Circa 19th Cent) were used.  In many places flagged plate rails may be found inside and hidden by undergrowth outside.

Much work has been done, in sorting out the history of the Merstham Stone Quarries and much still remains to be done.  Their full extent, for instance, is still not known.  Legend abound to tantalise the explorers.  The legend that I like best concerns an underground lake with a boat that was left by the Jollifes when they surveyed the workings prior to purchase in 1788.  It might be there:

It is hoped that a weekend trip can be arranged sometime in the summer for anyone interested when it should be possible to see a great proportion of the workings and their important remains.  Anyone interested should contact Mac or myself.

Ref:  Various papers produced by Unit 2, Croyden CC and Croyden Natural History and Archaeological Society.

P.S. The Fremlins Ale is superb!

Robin Gray
January 1984