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Mendip Lead Mining (Chewton and Priddy)

By R.A. Setterington

Lead net weights were recorded from the Iron Age sites at Mere and Glastonbury.  Although technology at that time, early 20th Century, was not sufficiently advanced to prove that the source of the ore was the Mendips it is a reasonable assumption.

Until recently Charterhouse was usually thought of as the centre for Roman lead mining on Mendip, however in the field centred on ST547503 during the early 1950s, a Roman 'villa' with quantities of lead and lead ore was excavated and more recently the area of Roman occupation and mining has been shown to extend at least from Swildons to the top of Stockhill.  It is possible that other sites, both Roman and Preroman, remain to be discovered.

In 1461 Sir Richard Choke, the Lord Chief Justice, was sent by the king to sort out disputes amongst the miners and smelting sites on Mendip.  Reading between the lines of his report it is clear that there had been a code of rules for a very long time and it was only necessary to add a formal recognition of this code.  It is clear that Mendip miners were an independent group, which was able to enforce its own laws, and resented outside intervention.

The earliest dated history of the Chewton Minery is at least as early as 1550.  These early smelting sites under the four 'Lords Royal' peaked in output between 1600-1670 when in 1608 Chewton produced 30 tons and the rest 34 tons between them.  The earliest reported 'incomer' was Sir Beavis Bulmer who, in 1580, had an agreement with the miners to drain Rowpits (Chewton Warren) for a half of the ore raised. By 1586 the miners realised that this was a bad bargain and Sir Bulmer was complaining of "Divers disorders in Mendipp mynes especially at Brode Rake".  Later his agent was accused of selling off Bulmers pits and, not too surprisingly, he was working elsewhere.

In 1658 Thomas Bushell obtained an order 'For carrying ye Water in Row pitts.  He planned to dig a drift 16 fathoms deep as a Common Shore (sow or collecting drain) from the concaves of a natural swallow 20 fathoms deep.  His main object was to reopen the Broad Rake" for there are men yet alive who will justifie that the forebreast of Sir Beavis Bulmars work was nine foot wide and three fathoms high in oar."  The rule that half the ore raised by the local miners to be paid for the draining was again agreed and again not obeyed and the works were eventually abandoned.

Although blasting powder came into the West Country about 1689 this did little to help the miners who had worked out most of the shallow ore and were still troubled by water. During the first eight years of the eighteenth century the output from the Chewton Minery varied from four to ten tons, small figures when compared with the 34 tons in 1608.

The smelting of lead from ore continued to decrease until by 1850 it was virtually extinct, however the possibility of re-smelting the old slags and reworking the old slimes and tailings revived the Mineries, the scale of capital required involving the use of venture capital by floating companies.  A doctor of medicine, named Benjamin Somers was working at Charterhouse from 1824 until he died in 1848.  In the 'thirties and 'forties he turned his attention to the vast heaps of refuse at the Chewton and Priddy Mineries.  In 1850 Barwell was working at Charterhouse but turned his attentions to Chewton in 1854 when he entered into partnership with T.S. Wright.  Their efforts were slow to develop until they attracted some Cornish mining engineers.  More modem buildings were erected with modem machinery, including reverberatory furnaces and round buddles.

In 1857 Nicholas Ennor obtained the mineral rights for the Priddy Minery to the annoyance of Barwell and Wright who built a dam at the downstream end of the Chewton site thus stopping the flow of surface water to the Priddy Minery.  Ennor protested and his men entered Barwell's land and cut holes in the dam.  Not surprisingly this lead to free fights which continued, on and off, for two years until, in 1860, the case came up for trial, eventually ending in Ennor's favour. Meanwhile Ennor was joined by Humby and proceeded to construct six buddles in 1858 and two more in 1859.  He was almost immediately in trouble for water pollution in a case brought by Hodgkinson of Wookey Hole.  Ennor gave up and in 1862 a new company, The St. Cuthbert's Lead Smelting Company was formed, under the management of Horatio Nelson Hornblower of Gwennap, to buy Ennor's interests.  Because of the water problems Hornblower experimented to smelt the debris without dressing and in a small scale trial obtained 13 tons of pig lead from an input of 200 tons, thereby making a profit of just over 100%.  Five new furnaces were installed in 1864 with a proposal for more efficient blowing and a condenser working by spraying water but they eventually adopted longer flues.  In 1849 there were 40 men employed but the works were soon abandoned, eventually to be bought by Julian Bernard.  There was no output recorded for ten years, even after much of the existing plant was pulled down and new machinery installed it was not worked. Bernard soon disappeared leaving debts, the plant was to be sold to a Mr. George Ball but in 1881 he died before the purchase could be completed and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Meanwhile, at the Waldegrave works, Barwell and Wright obtained a new licence in 1864 but in 1881 smelting was abandoned although two out of the three sets of buddles were kept working until 1883. Between 1881 and 1890 St. Cuthbert's was run on a small scale by Watts as owner with Willcox as a working manager. The plant was again sold, to a Mr. James Theobald MP but the fluctuating price of lead fmally stopped production in 1908 and the plant was dismantled in 1910.

Williams, R.G.J., The St. Cuthbert's Roman Mining Settlement, Priddy, Somerset: Aerial Photographic Recognition. In Proc. UBSS, 1998,21(2)

Gough, J.W., The Mines of Men dip. (Newton Abbot 1967)