More about Combe Down quarries and quarrying

Main passage in Firs quarry, Combe Down
Main passage in Firs quarry, Combe Down

I’ve added more about Combe Down quarries and quarrying.

It’s now divided into the following nine sections which are, hopefully, self explanatory:

Combe Down’s freestone is, of course, why the village exists.

Combe Down’s quarries were heavily worked between 1730 and 1840 and did not cease operations until the early years of the 20th century.

Over 40 quarries have been listed on Combe Down. In 1895 The Builder listed 10 open quarries and one mine on Combe Down. Upper Lawn Quarry, across the fields from Gladstone Road, continues to operate today, the last quarry on Combe Down.

According to The British Geological Survey: “The best freestones in the Chalfield Oolite are found in the upper part of the Combe Down Oolite Member and within the Bath Oolite Member, where the rocks are composed of fine- to coarse-grained ooid-limestone with a sparry cement and little matrix.”

P539526 Stone Firms Limited (Bath and Portland) underground workings, Old Cleft Mine, Box. Working on Bath Stone near Corsham Wiltshire. Lifiting blocks with eye bolt.
Copyright © British Geological Survey.
P539526 Stone Firms Limited (Bath and Portland) underground workings, Old Cleft Mine, Box. Working on Bath Stone near Corsham Wiltshire. Lifiting blocks with eye bolt.

When quarrying stone needs to be carefully removed and prepared for use without causing damage to or weakening of the stone and quarrying is hard work.

When the Combe Down stone mines stabilisation was taking place, lots of graffiti was found and it provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the miners, throwing light on such matters as the price of beer in 19th century pubs and the miner’s often uncomplimentary attitude to their employers.

Among the famous and beautiful buildings built with Combe Down stone are: Royal Crescent, Bath Assembly RoomsThe CircusQueen Square, St John’s HospitalPrior Park, South ParadeThe Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, Claverton Pumping Station, Gay StreetDundas Aqueduct, Lancaster House, Buckingham PalaceLongleat, Windsor Castle and Apsley House.

Two centuries of excavation of Bath stone left a huge void under the original parts of Combe Down village and so an infilling project was started. It lasted for 10 years from 1999 until 2009, covered 25.608 hectares, and affected 649 properties. The total volume of infill placed was 620,894 cubic metres, enough to cover a football pitch to a depth of nearly 90m.

A complete shaggy dog story

Shaggy dog, Brunswick Place, Combe Down - Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 11 September 1873
Shaggy dog, Brunswick Place, Combe Down – Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 11 September 1873

Things that are new on the site recently are a small section on Combe Road – something of a shaggy dog story given that it, unfortunately, has so little of consequence in it. But one can’t just make things up for a site like this.

There’s also a brief article on Mulberry Park the the 48 acre (19 hectare) Ministry of Defence site started by the Admiralty and purchased by Curo for £50 million in 2013.

It’s probably the third largest project on Combe Down since the Admiralty set up site at Foxhill for World War 2 and since Ralph Allen set up his stone quarrying operations in the 1720s and built Prior Park in the 1730s.

There’s also a great YouTube video on the Combe Down quarries page that is an animation of a quarry crane produced by Mark and Ben Jenkinson to illustrate the Corsham Institute’s Bath Stone exhibition in autumn 2016 at Cranes at Work

Cranes were an essential part of the quarrying process. They were used to lift the blocks of stone cut from the working face onto carts, which were then pulled to the surface by horse or donkey; or later, by small locomotives.

The main structure of the cranes was wooden, with metal gearing and fixings. They could lift blocks of around 5 tonnes.

A crane would be erected in a new working area until all the stone within its reach had been quarried. Then it would be dismantled, moved along to a new area, and re-erected to continue working.

How to help save our stone heritage

Help Save Our Stone Heritage appeal leaflet
Help Save Our Stone Heritage appeal leaflet

The ‘message’ this month is a little different from normal.

The Museum of Bath Stone, the Combe Down Heritage Society and The Friends of Firs Field charities are running an appeal for funds called “Help Save Our Stone Heritage”.

They want to restore the remains of a shaft wall where Combe Down freestone was hauled out and create a curved seat for all to enjoy.

It’s a memorial to Ralph Allen’s role in the building of Georgian Bath with Combe Down stone. It will also commemorate the stabilisation project that, by 2009, restored the village to safety.

With the approval and support of B&NES, local councillors Bob Goodman and Cherry Beath, the UNESCO World Heritage Enhancement Fund, conservation professionals and local community groups, they now have seed money pledged.

However, they need to raise a further £6,000 to get this project underway. If you would like to donate just text DONATE STONED to 88802 to give £5.00.

It all started last year. A group of Duke of Edinburgh’s Award students helped with an archeology project to detail and record the conservation of the last surviving mine shaft on public land in Combe Down. 

The students feel it is important “to have a site visitors and locals can visit to see how mining for stone shaped our village and also shaped the world famous architecture in Bath and the surrounding area”.

They detailed their work in a great blog ‘Firs Field Mine Shaft‘ where there’s information about how they surveyed the site, made a map and planned and executed their dig.

The students had help from The Museum of Bath Stone, the Combe Down Heritage Society and experts from Cliveden Conservation and Odgers Conservation. The blog has many images of them hard at work and is well worth a visit.

The project got some great publicity from Bath Newseum who also created a video with Val Lyon who directed the Firs Field Project telling the story in more detail.

Monumental, timeless stone mines and quarries

The Firs mine at Combe Down
The Firs mine at Combe Down

In my site intro I say “You’ll notice that I don’t say a great deal about the Combe Down quarries. These have been covered, far more expertly than I ever could, by others.”

However, recently, I became a trustee of the Combe Down Stone Legacy Trust that operates what is, presently, called Ralph Allen Cornerstone but will soon be changing to The Museum of Bath Stone.

It seemed appropriate to touch on what started the village of Combe Down – the stone mines and quarries.

A small point first.

Despite some people’s insistence, and my own preference, that stone is quarried, in the UK a ‘mine’ is defined, legally, as an underground working and a ‘quarry’ as a site of mineral extraction without a roof. In other parts of the world, the world, ‘mining’ is used interchangeably with ‘quarrying’.

Brief history of quarrying Combe Down stone

Bath stone was used by the Romans, who were probably the first to quarry on Combe Down from the 1st to 5th centuries, but, with hundreds of years of quarrying at the same sites, all evidence of earlier workings has been lost and there are no written accounts.

The Anglo-Saxons built mostly in wood though in the 7th century Osric founded the first Abbey in Bath.

The Saxons had a ready supply of material left from the Roman era and even today some Roman stone is still visible in Bath Abbey.

A later Abbey was built and used for the coronation of Edgar in 973, but this was demolished in 1088. Whether any of these buildings used Combe Down stone is unknown.

It was, of course, Ralph Allen who transformed the landscape of Combe Down and started the village with his quarrying activities. 

He had begun to purchase land on Combe Down in 1726 and by 1731, he held a monopoly over the quarries.

By 1744 he owned the entire area and, with architect John Wood, had planned and put into effect a complete rebuilding of Bath using Bath stone, the best source of which was on Combe Down.

Together they were responsible for Prior Park, Queen Square, The Circus and the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases.

Ralph Allen died in 1764 and his estate eventually passed to the Viscount Hawarden who took no active interest in the stone mines and quarries, but was happy to rent them out. 

The first Viscount Hawarden died indebted in 1803 and his son began to sell of the estate to pay his debts. Individual quarry masters were now able to purchase land to quarry. 

There was a steady influx of skilled migrants from the Corsham / Melksham area as stone production expanded and thus began probably the most productive period of quarrying on Combe Down. 

Philip Nowell was one of the best known quarry masters. By the time he died in 1853, his legacy included the building of major extensions to Longleat, seat of the Marquess of Bath, Windsor Castle then home to King William IV and Apsley House, the official residence in London to the Duke of Wellington.

The ‘boom’ was relatively short lived. Underground evidence suggests that by 1840 most of the stone had been quarried.

The coming of the railways led to newly discovered workings at Box and Corsham to provide an alternative source of supply. But, though less was quarried, Combe Down stone was still recognised as of superior quality.

According to Horace Bolingbroke Woodward in 1876: “In regard to the qualities of the Great Oolite, the best stone for weathering is considered to be that at Combe Down;…”

Upper Lawn quarry
Upper Lawn quarry

Although quarrying fell into decline after 1840, it continued in some parts of Combe Down, particularly on the north side of Bradford Road, until well into the 20th century. Combe Down has had both quarries and mines though only one, Upper Lawn Quarry continues to operate today, the last quarry on Combe Down.

All this activity in the the stone mines and quarries left a legacy – underground workings. 

By the 1980s, roof collapses at Firs Quarry led to housing subsidence and an underground survey of the Firs and Byfield quarries was carried out in 1994. It found that approximately 80% of the underground quarries had less than 6m cover and as little as 2m in some places. Irregular quarrying and robbing stone from supporting pillars had left the quarries unstable.

A stabilisation program was started. By 2009 the project was complete. The result was that 649 properties were stabilised, most domestic homes.

The total volume of infill placed was 620,894 cubic metres, enough to cover a football pitch to a depth of nearly 90m. 590,894 cubic metres of foamed concrete, plus 30,000 cubic metres of stone were placed into the quarries.

Part of the legacy from all this activity over nearly 300 years in the stone mines and quarries  is The Museum of Bath Stone. It has a number of missions, namely to:

  • present the rich heritage of Combe Down and the significance of its stone in the building of Bath
  • provide a modern educational resource that uses the information available to enhance learning at all levels
  • be a resource available to the community for leisure activities

I hope to see you there sometime.