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, having become 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 and 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.