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The Case of the Corduroy Trouser

by Dave Irwin

Investigation Into the history of cave exploration can lead the speleological researcher into many unexpected dele avenues.  None more so than the 'Case of the Corduroy Trouser.' To lay the least this is the most unusual the writer has yet come across to establish the date of cave

The standard references to this cave all imply that interest in Lamb Leer Cavern waned after Beaumont's initial exploration.  Though 18th century county historians knew of the site none had visited it and the information they gave came from Lowthorpe's, 1705 edition of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and Collections, 1700. 1 By 1823 both Conybeare and Buckland commented that the cave was no longer open and by 1868, Woodward wrote that the location of the entrance had been lost and even the local inhabitants of the Harptree villages did not know of the cave's existence. 2 3 The train of events that followed the original exploration and mining activity in the cave, during the period 1675 - 1680, is one of great interest.  If the cave was not accessible in the 1820s when was it last visited?  A chance remark by the mining 'Captain' during the visit to the cave in July 1880 gives a clue to the answer.

The twenty-five year old John Beaumont of Ston Easton, near Chewton Mendip, first explored the cave about 1675 and fortunately he wrote of his experiences in the publications of the Royal Society 4 leaving detailed accounts of the cave including his study of the stalactite formations and the crinoid fossils that abound at the site. In addition to his descriptions he outlined his activities during his search for galena in the Main Chamber. He excavated a high rift passage. Beamnont's Drive. leading to what is now known today as the Cave of the Falling Waters.  The clay deposits also interested him as the red ochre mud was of use to him in his medical practice.

1                    Lowthorpe, J., 1705. Philosophical Transactions & Collections. To the End of ... 1100. Abridg'd, Vo1.2, 369-370. [Other editions published 1716, 1722 and 1731]

2                    Woodward, Horace B., 1876, Geology of East Somerset and the Bristol Coal-fields.  Memoirs of the Geological Survey. London. x + 271pp, maps :

p. 187-189- descriptive summary of caves at Westbury [ Bristol]. Durdham Down: Clifton ­Ghyston's or Giant's cave; Lamb Cavern, near East Harptree

 ... The lamb Cavern was a very lofty and spacious vault containing stalactites. The descent to it was by a shaft 70 fathoms deep.

No knowledge of it was possessed by any inhabitants of whom I inquired in 1868.  Messrs Buckland and Conybeare write in 1823, “1t is not now open, but appears from the description of it given in MATON'S WESTERN TOUR (see vol. ii p. 132) to be rather an old mine than a natural cave. 8 ... '

3                    Maton, William G., 1797, Observations relative chiefly to the Natural History ... of the Western Counties of England ... Salisbury: J. Sutton. 2 Volumes.

4                    The references and transcripts of the Beaumont papers are fuRly discussed in Shaw, T.R., 1962, Lamb Leer in the 17th Century.  UBSS Proceedings, Volume 9, No.3, pp.183-187

The limited value to the miners caused the site to be abandoned - hence its name - a Leer - an open cavity that was empty of ore.  During the next century the cave was often referred to by topographical writers, though most appeared not to have visited the site but simply plagiarised material from earlier writers.  At least one thought it to be an old mine.  Benjamin Martin, in his book.  The Natural History of Somerset, 5 included an erroneous transcript of Beaumont's account based on the abridged reprint of the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions and Collections, published various editions between 1705 and 1731.  Martin was not alone.  Collinson 6 and Woodward both state that the entrance shaft is 70 fathoms deep - a typographical error - the actual depth of the shaft was 70 feet. 7

At the time Woodward was preparing his book on the coalfields of East Somerset and Bristol, published in 1876 the mining company Bolton and Partners 8 took a lease from the Waldegrave Estates.  Between 1873 and c. 1886, extending from Compton Martin to Chewton Mendip in the hope that they might revive the flagging Mendip industry.  On Lamb Hill they set their operations in the search for iron ore, miners were employed under the experience of, Captain' Nicholls and his team.  During this time Bolton became aware of Beaumont's account of a great cavern in the vicinity and after careful research they unearthed his 17th accounts of the cave.  The detail they had available to them was vague and as Woodward had stated, local information would be of little help.  In 1879 the company decided that it would repay them to concentrate on the relocation of the cave and excavations began.  However by the autumn little progress had been made and hopes of finding the cave were wilting.  A shareholder in the Bolton Company, one Charles Algernon Moreing visited the workings becoming interested in the lost cavern.  Winter was now upon them but Moreing swotted the subject but gained nothing new that was not already known about the cave.  In the spring and early summer months Nicholls and his men continued searching encouraged by the reward of £2 and 3 shillings a day for the man who re-entered the cave - not as Balch claims in his well-known books that it was Waldegrave Estates who had offered £100 as a reward for the caves re-discovery.  Drilling and excavating continued apace hut again to no avail.  However, according to one of the miners working at the site, Andrew Lyon, one of the miners working at the site had had a grandfather who had told him of the location of the cave entrance.  Whether this is true or mere fabrication we shall never know but during June, 1879, a shaft had been sunk and at the depth of about 60ft found a hole that led them into a parallel shaft- known today as the Beaumont Shaft.  They had found the entrance passages to the cave. The Wells Journal and other local newspapers published an account of the re-discovery alerting the mining expert James McMurtrie to their discovery.  In addition to his responsibilities to the coal mines of the Radstock area, McMurtrie was also Agent for the Waldegrave Estates and one of his responsibilities was to ensure that the mining activity did not interfere with the other interests of the landowner, Earl Waldegrave.

This note has been re-printed from the latest newsletter of the BCRA Special Interest Group's Newsletter No.6 (with permission).

Many readers of the BB may not have heard of these specialist groups that cater for cavers interested in Communications, surveying, hydrology, explosives and Speleo-history.  Membership of the groups is open to all cavers including non-BCRA members.  There is a subscription differential of about 30% for non-members.  Further information can be obtained from Bryan Ellis, 20 Woodland Ave., Westonzoyland, Bridgwater, Somerset. TA7 0LQ Tel.: (0278) 691539

5                    Martin, Benjamin, 1759.  The Natural History of Somersetshire. Pub: W. Owen, London.  (The section given is from a collection of county descriptions published under the collective title of The Natural History of England: or, a description of each particular county. in regard to the curious productions of nature and art. For fun details refer to tv1endip Cave Bibliography. Part II, Books, Pamphlets. Manuscripts and Maps. 3rd Century to December 1968 by T.R. Shaw.  Pub.: Transactions of Cave Research Group of Great Britain, Vol. 14 No.3, July 1972 ~tem number 495]

Re-exploration of the cave took place.  A winch was installed at the entrance together with a wooden ladder.  At the top of the pitch into the Main Chamber, a pulley system was installed enabling a team of about five men to control to paying out of the rope at the top lowering the visitor down the 70ft pitch.  One has only to reflect on their difficulties; indeed not only these men but the achievement on the young John Beaumont. None of these men had the advantage of approaching the top of the pitch into the Main Chamber by creeping under the aragonite floor.  The approach was over the top through the awkward hole that would cause problems for today's SRT or laddering experts.

The Bath Field Club 9 heard or read of the re-discovery and applied to be able to visit the cave. So, within a month of the caves' rediscovery, they paid a visit on July 13th. 1880.  It was also to be James McMurtie’s first visit to the cave. Prior to the descent of the cave Nicholls outlined the work involved in the relocating of the cave - in fact some 37 borings had been made - indicating the considerable effort afforded by him and his men.  Nicholls stated that one of the first points of interest he noted was the mark of a corduroy trouser in the mud.  This then was the all important clue to when the cave was last visited.  When did men begin wearing trousers made of the corduroy weave.  Some searching took place and eventually with the help of individuals associated with the Wells Museum, it transpired that the weave had been invented in 1789 and was patented in 1795.  Here was the all important answer.  For it meant that the entrance to the cave was accessible in the post-1795 period.  For manufacture and marketing of trousers made of this material would have taken some time to become readily available in the clothing outlets and implies that the cave was still open, probably as late as 1800.  Thus the comment that the entrance was no longer open in 1873 meant that the site was sealed within the first two decades of the 19th century.  The lack of interest in the cave from the date actually coincides with the down-turn in mining activity on Mendip during the early 19th century and this may well have been the cause of the entrance slumping and eventually becoming blocked.  The Speleo-historian has to question every little statement and leave nothing to chance. Such is life!

6                    Colinson, John, 1791, The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset, ... Bath: R. Cruttwell, 3 volumes. [Lamb Leer reference Vol 3, page 587]

7                    Balch also used this erroneous transcript, refer to

Balch, H.E., 1937, Mendip. Its Swallet Caves ... , Wells, Clare, Son & Co., ltd. p.74-75. [19.(8 2nd edition, London: Simpkin, Marshall, (1941) Ltd. p.38-39]

8                    The company underwent several name changes during its activities on Mendip.

9                    Anon, 1881, Secretaries Notes and Excursion Report. Proceedings of the Bath Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, Vol. 4, p. 363-365 and 316-382