This limestone plateau, around 17 km long by 8 km wide, is in places overlain by dolomitic conglomerate and red marl. Lead was mostly found in the limestone, but also in the conglomerate, which also produced considerable quantities of zinc ores, especially calamine. Very little ore was found at depths greater than 50 metres.

The Romans mined lead on Mendip from AD 49 for around 350 years, and several ingots of lead from that period have been recovered, as have traces of their activities, especially near Charterhouse. The mines were then largely ignored until the twelfth century, when the king granted the Bishop of Bath the right to mine lead. Witham Priory also had mines on Mendip from the thirteenth century.

For mining purposes, Mendip was split into four areas, called mineries. These were: Chewton, Harptree, Priddy and West. A fifth minery, called Bousland, was possibly based on Tor Hole, in the parish of Chewton Mendip. They were overseen by lead reeves who, on behalf of the mineral lord, granted permission for miners to work and also collected lot lead, a duty, from them. Large numbers of small mines were opened and whole areas were despoiled by pits and hillocks.

Lead production increased from the middle of the sixteenth century, but the industry had passed its prime by the start of the last quarter of the seventeenth. Nevertheless, mines were still worked through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. In that century, however, calamine became important for use in Bristol’s brass industry.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the lead industry concentrated on reprocessing large quantities of old smelting and dressing wastes. These were carted from various parts of the hill and treated at lead works in the mineries. This cleared much of the “gruffy” ground, most of which has now been reclaimed for agricultural use, leaving little to show the extent of Mendip’s lead mines.

The following pages refer to some of these mines in more detail:

Index of articles published by the Northern Mine Research Society, complied by Alasdair Neill

Other sites of interest:

West Somerset Mineral Railway

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