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Mendip Mines of Long Ago


Further material on mines in the Mendips was researched a while back and passed on with the editorship post.  This I am now printing as it bears relevance to Tony Jarratt's excellent article on Stocks house and many others previously published in this magazine.

Being extracts from the Agreeable Historian, or the Complete English TRAVELLER: by Samuel Simpson, GENT. from LONDON, printed by R. Walker, in Fleet Lane, 1746.

Now quitting Cheddar Rocks, again we rise
On Mendip Hills, and breathe serener skies

THEY are called in old records Moinedrop, from the many knolls or hilltops there, and the steepness of their ascents.  Leland calls them Minerary Hills.  They stretch out a great way, both in length and breadth, and are the most famous in Britain, both for lead and coals.  They were anciently a forest, till, as Bishop Godwin writes, they were disforested at a great expense, by Ralph de Shewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells. As for their lead mines, any Englishman may work in them who has not forfeited his right by stealing any of its ore.  The Grooviers (for so its miners are called, as the pits they sink are called grooves) living at some distance, leave their ore and tools; open all night upon the hills, or at least in a slight hut.  If any of them be found guilty of theft, he is shut up in a hut, which is surrounded with dry furze, fern, etc., and set on fire; when the criminal, who has his hands and feet at liberty, may therewith pull down the hut, and make his escape through the fire and begone; but he must never have more to do there.  And this they call burning the hill.

Those employed in melting the lead, if they work in the smoke, are subject to a disease that will kill them, as it does the cattle too that feed thereabouts; for which reason the owners set persons to keep them off.  And Dr. Beaumont writes that they who live near where the lead ore is washed, cannot keep either dog or cat, or any sort of fowl, but they all die in a short time; and that children some times in those houses have did suddenly.  When the miners have got the lead ore, they beat it small, wash it in a running stream, and sift it in iron rudders; then they set a hearth, or furnace, in the ground, made of clay or firestone, and on it put some young oaken Gads, which they light with charcoal, and blow with bellows that are worked by their feet.  When the fire-place is hot they throw the lead ore upon the wood, from whence it melts down into the furnace; and then, with an iron ladle they take it out and throw it upon sand where they cast it into what form they please.  The veins of some of the mines have been known to run into the roots of trees, which, neverthe¬less, look as well at the top as other trees.

The air here is moist, cold, foggy, thick, and heavy; the soil is red and stony, and the stones are either of the nature of firestones or lime¬stones with not the least of clay, marl, or chalk.  The trees near the mines have their tops burnt, and their leaves and bark dis¬colour'd and scorched, and grow to no bigness.  The stones that are washed by the brooks and springs are of a reddish colour, and ponderous.

Snow, frost, and dews stay upon Mendip longer than upon any of the neighbouring grounds, except near the mines, where snow and frost melt quickly; and thunderstorms, nocturnal lights, and fiery meteors are more frequent here than elsewhere.  Sometimes when a mine has been very near the surface, the grass has been yellow and discoloured.  Damps are seldom met with in these mines.  If in sinking, they come to a Moorish earth, they expect a jam, i.e., a black thick stone that hinders their work, and to be closed up with rocks.

Their grooves are supported by timber, a piece of which is no bigger than a man’s arm, will prop up ten tun of earth and last a long while.  For a supply of air they have air boxes exactly closed, of about six inches in the clear, by which they carry it down above twenty fathom.  They make use of leather bags of eight or nine gallons apiece to draw up by ropes to free the water, and if they finds a swallet, i.e., a quantity of water breaking in upon them, they drive an adit, or a new passage upon a level until it is dry.  When they can’t cut the rock they anneal it with a fire made of wood and coal, so contrived that they leave the mine before it begins to operate and take not to enter the groove again before it is quite clear of smoke, by which some have been killed.

Their beetles, axes, wedges, etc., unless so hardened as to make a deep impression upon the head of an anvil, are not fit for their use; and yet they sometimes break them in an hour, other last three or four days as it happens.  They work in frocks and waistcoats by light of candles of 14 to 15 to the pound that will last three or four hours if they have air enough, which if they want to keep in the candles the workmen can’t stay there.  A vein being lost, they drive two or three fathoms in the breast, as the nature of the earth directs them.  White, yellow, and mixed earth are the leaders to the country, as they term it; changeable colours always encourages their hopes.  They go sometimes 12 fathom deep before they meet with stones.  A black stone they reckon a bad sign and leads to a jam, the nearness of which they also guess at by short brittle clay.  They carry out their materials in elm buckets, which hold about a gallon and are drawn by ropes.  Their ladders are also of ropes.  The ore runs sometimes in a vein, at other times it is dispersed in banks and lies many times between rocks.  Some of it is harder and some softer.  There is spar and chalk about it and another substance they call crootes, a mealy white stone, marled with ore and soft.  The spar is white, transparent, and brittle like glass; the chalk is white and heavier than any stone.  The clearest and heaviest ore is the best, and 3,600 of such of ore may yield a tun of lead.  The hearth for melting the ore is about five foot high, set upon timber, to be turned as a windmill to avoid the inconvenience of smoak upon a shifting wind. It will hold half a bushel of ore and coal.  There’s a sink upon the sides of the hearth into which the lead runs, that holds about one hundred and half.  They have a bar to stir the fire, a shovel to throw it up and a ladle made red hot to cast out the melted metal, which, when formed into what the miners call sows and pigs, is conveyed to Bristol, and form thence exported elsewhere…… On the highest part of these hills, which is a flat of some length, there are several swamps, very troublesome and dangerous to man and horse; and in some places are grooves, into which drunken fellows sometimes fall.

As to the coal mines, of which there’s the greatest plenty with five miles of Stone-Aston, we shall make use of the words of the learned Dr. Beaumont, who was born there, lived amongst the Mendip Hills, and made such frequent visits to the dark worlds in the caverns of Mendip, that no man upon earth was better qualified to satisfy the curious with respect to these mines than he was.  About two miles to the S.E. of Stone Aston at a place nearly bordering on the Mendip Hills, begins a running of coal of several veins, which extends itself to the east for miles.  There is much working in this running, and fire damps continually happen there, so that many men of late years have been killed, many others maimed and a multitude burnt.  Some have been blown up at the mouth of the works.  The turn-beam which hangs over the shaft has been thrown off its frame by the force of the blast.  The middle and most easterly parts of this running are so very subject to these fiery damps that scarce a pit fails of them.  To prevent mischief, the colliers keep their air very quick and use no candles in their works but those of a single work, 60 or 70 to the pound, which, nevertheless give as great a light there as those of 10 or 12 to the pound do in other places; and they always put them behind them and never present them to the breast of the work.


Drawing photographed at the Charterhouse Centre – original believed to be in Weston Museum.