The Story of the Stone Mines

For information on the Mines Stablisation Project click here.

We have no specific project to study the history of the stone mines, but past mining activities, the social and cultural aspects of the industry, and the mines themselves, are inextricably tied up with the village’s heritage. The Society’s first major publication was on the History of the Byfield Mine (see below).

The Mines

The mines in Combe Down are Oolitic Limestone mines, worked mainly during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Though there is evidence that the Romans first extracted Bath stone and the archaeologists are finding signs of stone extraction in the 17th Century, underground workings became significant in the 18th Century with the rapid expansion of Bath. Bath stone was worked by the pillar and stall method which left chambers with pillars of un-mined stone between them to support the roof.

Historical Importance

Stone mining played a vital role in the rebirth of 18th century Bath and Combe Down is a part of this World Heritage Site. Ralph Allen (1693-1764) did the most to raise the profile of Bath stone and he is one of the men credited with the expansion of Bath. In 1726 he began to buy up land on Combe Down and obtained a lease granting sole rights to extract freestone from the area. He set up a stone industry capable of being marketed nationally and internationally. He operated large open cast quarries to the north and south of the village centre and extensive underground mines under the ‘Firs Field’ area and further to the east. He built Prior Park as a showcase for Bath stone and constructed a tramway linking the area being mined south of his mansion to the river in Central Bath.

The quarries continued to be worked after Ralph Allen died. Though there was an important resurgence in mining into the 19th Century, much of it based on the Byfield Mine to the west, the construction of the Box railway tunnel in the 1830s revealed the presence of new sources of oolitic freestone and this brought about the decline of underground mine workings in Combe Down. By the 19th Century the main axis of quarrying moved further west to the Byfield Mine. Research by Professor Richard Irving, President of the Society, shows that land ownership, quarrying rights, quarry masters, entrepreneurs and the transport and destination of the stone form part of a complex story. The entrepreneur behind much of this activity was Philip Nowell who built himself Rock Hall in Combe Down. He worked with leading architects of the day, John Nash, the Wyatts and Sir Jeffrey Wyattville. Nowell’s story has been recorded by Dick Irving and published by the Society in 2005 as ‘A History of the Byfield Mine at Combe Down‘.

Not only did Combe Down stone contribute to the building of Georgian Bath and numerous important buildings in Bristol, but its role in many London landmarks is often overlooked. After being used in parts of Longleat and Windsor Castle, it went into the building of the first phase of Buckingham Palace (the west front), the cladding of Apsley House (the Wellington Museum), the Duke of York’s Column and, as recently shown by David Pollard, All Souls, Langham Place.

The major underground workings ceased in the 1860s, but a few small workings continued until the early 1900s. Mining stopped in Combe Down largely due to the gradual depletion of the resource over time. The systematic reworking of these quarries in the 19th and early 20th centuries is unique. Subsequent indiscriminate ‘robbing’ of stone from underground workings has been a major factor in leading to their instability. Blocks were cut away leaving slender, weakened pillars, some of these contributing to major underground rock falls.

No records of the workings were made prior to the 1872 Mining Act. Approximately 80% of the mines have less than 6m cover and as little as two metres in some places.

World Heritage Site

The mines are an important historic and archaeological record of the development of the World Heritage Site of Bath and are of international significance. The village of Combe Down which is now part of the City of Bath, still has much evidence of its mining history.

The quarries played a part in the birth and development of geological sciences in that William Smith, “the Father of English Geology” and a figure of world significance, developed his ideas about geology and quarrying from his studies in the area. As Surveyor to the Somerset Coal Canal, he was living in Tucking Mill on the southern edge of Combe Down when he produced one of the first geological maps. Subsequent geologists, such as William Lonsdale, continued the tradition in Bath.

The Stabilisation Project

Irregular mining practices and robbing stone from supporting pillars left the mines unstable.  Surveys of the mines in the 1980s-90s showed that there were many areas of instability and that some were in danger of collapse.

From about 2004-2009, a major engineering project ran to infill the mines.  Funded by central government, it successfully propped-up the very ground on which the village of Combe Down stands, by pumping foam concrete into the voids beneath.  At the time, this was one of the largest uses of foam concrete in the world, and attracted the attention of the national press.  An extensive prior archaeological survey of the mines served to record them for posterity, and resulted in the retrieval of numerous historical artefacts.

Maps and photographs

In the accompanying pages there are several maps and a series of photographs taken above and below ground. Many of these are the property of the Stabilisation Project or the Bath and North East Somerset Council and we are indebted to them for permission to publish them here.

Further information

The following give more detailed descriptions of the mines:

David Pollard, ‘Digging Bath Stone’, 1989. Journal of the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society No 21.

Peter Addison, ‘Around Combe Down’, 1998, a rich source of information on local history, including brief descriptions of all the stone quarries.

David Pollard, ‘Historical and Archaeological Assessment of the Underground Quarries now known as Firs Mine and Byfield Mine’, 2004. Published by the Bath & North Somerset Council.

Richard Irving, ‘A History of the Byfield Mine, Combe Down’, 2005. Published by the Combe Down Heritage Society.

Our sister organisation the Museum of Bath Stone has extensive information about the mines and their history, on their website and at the museum itself on Combe Road.