A BRIEF HISTORY

 

Bathford stone wharf circa 1920.


The history of Bath Stone quarrying spans 2000 years from the start of the Roman era to the present day. The Romans as far as we know were the first to use Bath Stone; there is no evidence of earlier use so we start around 70-84AD., when they started to construct their great Baths. The Romans preferred Corngrit, which is harder and more durable than Bath Stone but would have been found in the same locale as the Bath Stone. Due to successive quarrying at the same sites all evidence of earlier workings has been lost, so where the Romans actually quarried is still a mystery. It is known that they did get stone from locations close to their buildings and villas at Box, Bathford and Lansdown all used local stone. For the buildings in Aquae Sulis they probably quarried close to one of their roads. To the south and north there was the Fosse Way running over Odd Down and Bannerdown, and to the east ran the Via Julia over Farleigh Down; all these hills show signs of ancient workings. Another source of stone was in outcrops along the Avon valley upstream of Bath, and at Warleigh, four miles from Bath, Roman coins have been found at the base of an outcrop of Quarried stone. The working methods employed by the Romans are again uncertain; they could have worked at the outcrops but there is no reason why they did not go underground, as they were renowned tunnelers.

After the Romans, came the Saxons, who renamed Aquae Sulis "Aquaemann/Akemancaester", and as far as we know did little quarrying. For their buildings they had a ready supply of material left from the Roman era and even today some Roman stone is still visible in Bath Abbey. St. Aldhelm (645-709) is reputed to have thrown down his glove at Hazelbury near Box and said "dig and you will find great treasure", - meaning the stone beds. Stone from this quarry is said to have been used in the building of Malmsbury Abbey, which St. Aldhelm founded and records for a quarry at Hazelbury exist from 1189. Bath Stone used for repairs earlier this century does not match the original stone, which is now believed to come from the Gloucester area. St. Aldhelm also founded St. Lawrence's church at Bradford on Avon, the oldest surviving Saxon church in the country. At about this time in the 7th century Osric founded the first Abbey in Bath. Later a Cathedral was built in its place and was used for the coronation of Edgar in 973, but this Cathedral was demolished in an uprising in 1088. The next building was a Norman Cathedral Priory, and was replaced by the present Abbey around 1500, although building-work continued for 200 years.

During the medieval period Bath Stone was used for many large houses such as Lacock Abbey, Chalfield manor and Longleat; it is reputed that most of this stone came from Hazelbury. Hazelbury probably refers to the whole estate that includes Box Hill, rather than one quarry. Records of quarrying at this time are scarce but during the 16th century travellers to the area recorded quarrying at Box, Combe Down, Farleigh and Kingsdown, other quarries would have existed but these were most likely small open workings for walling rubble and stone tiles.

Beau Nash arrived in Bath in 1705 and found that the city already had grand schemes ahead, and by 1708 the Pump Rooms and the Assembly Rooms had been built. Ralph Allen arrived in 1712 to become Assistant Postmaster, and in 1727 he purchased the quarries at Combe Down, and was also involved in making the River Avon navigable to Bristol. The great architect John Wood arrived in 1725, With great plans for Bath, which he wanted to become the new Rome, and with Allen's stone, Bath became the place to be. Allen purchased more quarries on Combe Down and either purchased or opened quarries on Hampton Down. In 1731 Allen built a tramway from Combe Down to the Avon at Dolemeads, also the course of another tramway from around the same period can be traced from Hampton Down to Widcombe. At this time Allen built Prior Park to demonstrate to potential customers the fine qualities of Bath Stone. In 1810 the Kennet and Avon canal was opened making the transportation of stone far easier and cheaper, thus opening markets further afield. Other quarries along the valley took advantage and constructed tramways linking them to the canal. There were such quarry tramways at Bathampton, Conkwell, Muirhill and Avoncliffe, and there was also a tramway on the south side of Combe Down linking with the Somerset Coal Canal.

ALLEN'S TRAMWAY.

As demand for stone was increasing, quarries around the area were expanding, and new ones opening up. A further source of stone was discovered at Corsham when the Box Tunnel on the new Great Western Railway was dug. The opening of the Great Western Railway meant transportation costs again fell and most stone was transported this way, with the canal becoming gradually obsolete. From 1841, with the opening of the railway, stone production increased dramatically, - more quarries were opening and existing ones increased greatly in size. Most people assume that many of the quarries opened because of Allen's influence, but it's more likely that the ones already existing got a major boost because of him. Quarrying on Farleigh Down for instance would of been going on in the early 1700's as a vast extent of the workings there show signs of the jadding method of extraction, that ceased around 1840. Quarrying also took place here in the 1400's to provide stone for the priory at Monkton Farleigh. Evidence in the Box quarries also suggests early working, with vast amounts of stone quarried by the jadding method. In 1830 a vertical shaft quarry known as the Cathedral was dug because the owners of the surrounding workings would not allow them access through their quarries, suggesting that vast amounts of stone had already been removed. By 1880 tramways had been opened at Farleigh, Bathford and Box, and a network of tramways linked most of the quarries in the Corsham and Gastard areas with Corsham station.

Up until 1887 most of the quarries were independently owned; seven of these firms joined together to become the Bath Stone Firms Ltd., ( The Corsham Bath Stone Company Limited, R. J. Marsh and Company Limited, Samuel Rowe Noble, Pictor and Sons, Stone Brothers Limited, Isaac Sumsion and Randell Saunders and Company Limited ) and under their control production increased from 1,000,000 cubic feet in 1887 to 3,000,000 cubic feet in 1900. In 1908-11 the Bath Stone Firms Ltd. became the Bath and Portland Stone Firms Ltd. The quarries had expanded enormously in size, with Spring Quarry covering some 200 acres and in Tunnel quarry there was a direct connection with the main line at Corsham station, by way of an underground-loading platform. During the First World War some of the quarries were used as storage, and at the time little was known the effect this would have in the future. Production started to decline during the depression and by the mid'thirties quarrying had suffered greatly, but around the corner a new use was just about to start for the underground galleries. The War Department, remembering the First War, took over some of the quarries to convert into ammunition storage and factory space; Tunnel, Farleigh and Eastley's became the largest underground ammunition depots in the world and held around 300,000 tons of explosives, whilst Spring Quarry became the largest underground factory. Most of the other quarries stored items ranging from bank notes to exhibits from the British Museum. After the war some quarrying did continue but the demand for the stone was not there and by 1970 all but three had closed. The only other quarries still open were the underground store depots, and by 1995 these had also closed. At the present time Bath Stone has become popular again and four quarries are currently producing stone, and others might open soon. Some of the store depots have been sold and are now used for commercial storage whilst the MOD. still use and look after a large area near Corsham. So as to the future: buildings will need restoration and new ones will be built, so the outlook for Bath Stone looks good into the new millennium.


GEOLOGY

HISTORY

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