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About Combe Down stone

Firs mine before infillCombe Down stone is a Bath Stone and an oolitic (from the Greek òoion meaning egg and líthos meaning stone) limestone. It is formed from grains of calcium carbonate laid down during the Jurassic Period (195 to 135 million years ago) when the region was under a shallow sea. It is classified as part of the Great Oolite Group of the Chalfield Oolite Formation of which the Bath Oolite and the Combe Down Oolite are members,

It was formed when layers of marine sediment (rock and soil particles, remains of marine organisms, products of submarine volcanism, chemical precipitates from seawater) were deposited. The tiny individual spherical grains, or ooliths, were coated with lime as they rolled around the sea bed and, later, formed sedimentary rocks.

These are the Bathonian Series of rocks. Bathonian is a stage of the Middle Jurassic. It lasted from approximately 168 to around 166 million years ago. Under the microscope, the ooliths are formed from ooids, with a diameter 0.25 – 2 mm, in concentric layers, that look like fish eggs.

The stratigraphic unit (or layer) below the Twinhoe Beds of the Great Oolite which form the uppermost part of the Combe Down plateau is the Combe Down Oolite which contained the mined stone.

The top 1.5 to 2m of the Combe Down Oolite consists of a buff, thinly to medium bedded, fine grained, slightly oolitic limestone with abundant shell debris. This stone is stronger, more thinly bedded and has a different fracture pattern than the worked freestone. It is probably for these reasons that the old miners referred to it as the ‘Bastard Stone’ and it was left by them to form the roof beds over much of the quarries.

The worked stone of the Combe Down Oolite is up to 9m in thickness and consists of a buff, medium or thickly bedded oolitic limestone. Although some cross bedding is known to exist in Springfield Quarry, the medium to thickly bedded strata in the Firs and Byfield Mines do not show this phenomenon. Beneath the worked stone of the Combe Down Oolite is 2 to 3m of pale buff/grey, thinly bedded, crystalline, shelly, oolitic limestone of the Lower Ragstone (the lowest unit of the Great Oolite). Due to the greater strength and variable character of this limestone it was not extracted by the old miners.

Two prominent fracture sets in the Jurassic rocks in the Bath area could be clearly seen in the roof of the underground quarries at Combe Down. When the alignment of these fractures was parallel to the longest part of a mined ‘room’ a large amount of unsupported stone would be left along the fracture, leading to a higher risk of mine roof collapse.

History of quarrying Combe Down stone

Bath Abbey - Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsBath 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.

The second Abbey was replaced by a Norman Abbey, which, in turn, was replaced by the present Abbey around 1499 – although building work continued for another 200 years.

Leland visited the area in 1542 and tells us that, after crossing the Midford Brook by a bridge at Monkton Combe, he went: “to Bath 2. good miles al by mountayne ground and quarre” which seems to refer to opencast quarrying.

In July 1663 the Danish scholar Oluf Borch visited Bath and Wookey Hole. His book of 1680 includes the passage:

“In Anglia ergo ad Balhoniutn oppidum thermis Bladudianis celebre, in monte vicino spelunea se aperit, ab incolis loci ad saxa aedifitiorum escauata, in qua aqua pedetentim defluetus in marmor subilaulultn cernitur.”

which may be translated:

“In England, therefore, near the town of Bath, famous for Bladud’s hot springs, a cave opens on a nearby hill, hollowed by those who live in the place for stone for buildings, in Which the Water, drop by drop, is to solidify into a yellowish marble.”

The next reference to mining is by John Wood the Elder who writes of the “Antient Free Stone Quarries” and that “Those Quarries were subterraneous caverns from time to time dug in the Brow or the Mountain” and that “Accidents frequently happening in the Old Subterraneous Quarries, Mr. Allen began to dig for Stone in a new Quarry, open from the Top”. This was where Quarry Vale cottages now stand and was worked out by about 1800.

Ralph Allen

Ralph Allen (1693 - 1764) - by kind permission of Bath and North East Somerset CouncilMr Allen was, of course, Ralph Allen who had begun to purchase land on Combe Down in 1726. Ralph Allen had moved to Bath in 1710, and after making profits working as postmaster, began to acquire land in Combe Down. By 1731, he held a monopoly over the quarries and set to increase the output of Bath stone. 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. His legacy has had a tremendous impact on the character of Combe Down as well as contributing to the development of Bath and the use of Bath stone for building all over England.

Ralph Allen transformed the landscape with his quarrying activities, building a tramway to transport the stone from Combe Down to the River Avon along what is now Ralph Allen Drive.

Dr Richard Pococke, on his trip to Bath, visited “the quarries to the south-east” in 1750. These are likely to have been the Combe Down quarries and he notes that there were several of them. He appears to be referring to opencast quarries and makes no mention or mines. He gives a geological section showing that about 12 feet of freestone was worked beneath 18 feet of overburden.

“…Another day I made an excursion to the quarries to the south-east, there are several of them at the top of the hill; examining the strata, there is first about a foot of earth, then a stratum of lime stone about 4 feet deep which seemed to be full of very small shells, the exact form of which are not discernible to the naked eye, but with a microscope some curious observations might be made on this and the other strata. The second stratum, two feet deep, is what they call strigery, it seems beside the other stone a mixture of spar. The third is pitching stone with which they pitch the streets, it is a composition of spar and of small nodules like the small pea of a fish. The fourth they call rag-stone is of the same kind but has more spar in it, and they saw it for paving, this is four feet thick. The fifth is picking bed five feet thick, of the same appearance only has less of spar; it is softer than the free-stone they work and will not stand the weather. Then follow the several beds which they work from two feet to four feet thick; they say there is good stone 30 feet deeper than they work, and I suppose they at present work 12 feet below the picking bed in all about 30 feet, and lately in digging a well here they came to gravel, after digging about 70 feet…”

Ralph Allen died in 1764 and the tramway was broken up and sold off for scrap in the same year. Quarrymen now had to lease the mining rights for the relatively small plots of land that they worked. The stone was transported by horse and cart, a slow process, until 1773 when The Turnpike Act encouraged the building of new, surfaced roads. Tollgates were installed at both ends of Combe Down: at the top of Brassknocker Hill, and at the Bradford Road junction with Combe Road when the Bradford Road was improved, at which time all users were required to pay a fee towards the cost of construction and maintenance, often based on weight of load. Unlike the shepherds who circumvented the toll-gates by leading their flocks along Shepherds Walk to the south of the village, the quarry-masters had no choice but to pay to transport their stone along the Turnpike.

Viscount Hawarden

Ralph Allen’s estate eventually passed to the Viscount Hawarden who took no active interest in the quarries, but was happy to rent them out. By the end of the 18th century the south facing slopes of Combe Down were seen as an ideal spot for convalescing after taking the waters in Bath. The Viscount Hawarden converted Ralph Allen’s former quarrymen’s cottages into lodgings for this purpose.

The first Viscount Hawarden died indebted in 1803 and his son began to sell of the estate to pay his debts.

This can be shown by several deeds that still exist:

Memorandum of Agreement.  15 May 1804. 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Edward Layton Esq. Samuel Pearce. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  15 May 1804. 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Edward Layton Esq. Richard Lankesheer. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  22 Nov. 1804. 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Edward Layton Esq. John Greenway. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  24 Sept. 1808. 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Nathaniel Hadley Esq. John Greenway. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  24 Sept. 1808. 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Nathaniel Hadley Esq. Isaac Sumsion. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  29 March 1811, 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Nathaniel Hadley Esq. Abraham Sumsion. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  21 Nov. 1816, 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Nathaniel Hadley Esq. Job Salter. Consideration: £3 13s 6d per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  7 March 1827, 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Nathaniel Hadley Esq. John Davidge. Consideration: £8 16s per perch p.1/2 a.

Memorandum of Agreement.  17 Dec. 1856, 1 acre on Coombe Down to be used a quarry. Samuel Hadley Esq. Richard Lankesheer. Consideration: £10 p.a.

The quarry masters

Philip NowellIndividual quarry masters were at last able to purchase the land which had been continuously quarried since Ralph Allen’s time. 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. A new phase of construction began in the village resulting in many of the older cottages that we see today. The earliest buildings in Combe Road were built between 1810 and 1820; many such as Brunswick Place were the homes of the quarry-masters.

The Nowell family were perhaps one of the best known quarry masters. They took their stone from a surface quarry into the rock outcrop itself, following the line above Shepherds Walk. Their fame and fortune became assured not by quarrying as such, but by one of the younger sons, Philip, who became a master mason.

By the time he died, in 1853, his legacy included the building of not only the older part of Rock Hall we see today, but also 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.

He became one of the best known and possibly most trusted builders in the land. Being responsible for purchasing the Bath stone required for these and many other projects, he naturally turned to his family quarry and those of his neighbours for supply. Meanwhile transportation of the stone had been made easier by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810.

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.

The decline

After c 1840 the people of Combe Down could no longer depend on quarrying and had to look for alternative livelihoods. The practice of coming to Combe Down to convalesce after illness was revived as the quarrying declined and a small construction boom began for large detached villas for the upper middle classes along Church Road and Belmont.

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; that of a finer quality and best adapted for interior work is dug at Farley Down. Box Hill yields a stone of a very superior quality, as to fineness of texture, called ‘Scallet.'”

Woodward also says that: “According to E. Owen, who wrote in 1754, and whose remarks I may quote, ‘there is no stone that differs so much in its bed, and after it has been wrought and exposed to the air, as the Bath freestone. While it is in the ground, it is soft, moist, yellowish, and almost crumbly; and it seems very little more than congealed sand, and that not well concreted together. But when it has been some time exposed to the air, and is thoroughly dry’d, it becomes white, hard, firm, and an excellent stone’”.

Bath Stone Firms

With the coming of the railways, opening of the larger mines near Box and the fact that many Combe Down quarries had been worked out of commercially viable stone, things became harder. So, on 1st January 1888, seven 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).

In 1889 the Bath Stone Firms took over Portland Quarries. On 27th December 1897 the Bath Stone Firms Ltd. became the Bath and Portland Stone Firms Ltd. In 1908 Bath and Portland Stone was formed from the Bath Stone Firms.

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. 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.


When a utilities contractor accidentally broke through into the mines in 1989 no one could have foreseen the train of events that would be put in place.

Bath City Council appointed a team, led by Dr Brian Hawkins, to investigate and map the mines following repeated accidents by utilities contractors and the increasing traffic over the mines area.

The condition of the supporting pillars was examined. A total of 3,737 pillars were surveyed with over 20% of pillars graded 3 to 5 which meant that they were deemed unstable with the remaining pillars considered unstable in the long-term. Nevertheless, given the potential domino effect which was likely to take place if one pillar collapsed, transferring the weight onto nearby pillars, even short-term stability of the mine could not be guaranteed for those pillars classified as 1 and 2. The conclusion was that the stability of the mines could not be guaranteed and a widespread progressive collapse could occur over a short time with extensive impact on life and property.

In 1999 Bath & North East Somerset Council submitted an outline application to English Partnerships under the Land Stabilisation Programme. The outline application was accepted in August 1999 and a detailed bid for Phase One investigations (Investigatory and Feasibility Studies) was approved in February 2000.

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