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Holly Bush Shaft Shipham - Recent Explorations.

by Mark Ireland (Shipham born, depraved Cheddar resident)

Amongst the most depraved and wretched were Shipham and Rowberrow, two mining villages at the top of Mendip: the people savage and depraved even almost beyond Cheddar, brutal in their natures, and ferocious in their manners.

Martha Manners, Mendip Annals (1859)


The author’s family have lived in Shipham for many generations and were familiar with many of the mine workings.  Recent exploration and surveying has been undertaken by mainly Axbridge Caving Group, Wessex Cave Club and B.E.C.

The majority of mines were worked by individual miners, partnerships or small groups.  The work was often difficult and dangerous and the ores extracted in the simplest and quickest way possible.  More organised mining companies then began to take an interest in the area and Cornish miners worked what are currently known as Winterhead Shaft, Star Mine and the Stinking Gulf in Singing River Mine.  Following their departure from the latter site the shaft was blocked until the mid 1910’s when Messrs F.G. Clements & Co. from Easton, near Wells were contracted on behalf of Axbrige Rural District Council (ARDC) to investigate the possibility of making an underground reservoir down this shaft.  It was dug out to a platform previously installed by the Cornishmen.  Frank Clements was standing on this with George and Frank Brooks when it collapsed and Clements was left hanging by his fingertips!  He was pulled to safety by the others, who had escaped the calamity, and hoisted to the surface.  He never went down the shaft again.

Below this platform an opening led to the shaft bottom and old workings.  Clements & Co. enlarged these to form the Great Hall but not long after the project was abandoned with the arrival in Shipham of mains water.  This mine was visited in the 1940s by Sidcot School Spelaeological Society and then forgotten until revisited by ACG&AS in 1971.  Due to the efforts of Clements & Co. we cannot be sure how the workings originally looked or what artefacts were removed.  Only small pockets of the mine were left untouched and some artefacts were found.

Old miners reported that the majority of workings were 20-30 fathoms deep (120-180 feet or 36.5-55 metres). In some mines seasonal high water levels gave some problems.

The only area left unexplored by mine enthusiasts in Shipham, and probably the most important in understanding the undisturbed workings, is to the east of Singing River Mine in Jimmy Glover’s Field - also called Gruffies after the old workings or grooves.  Here there are at least three intact, infilled shafts, one of which forms the subject of this article and whose underground galleries may connect with the eastern workings of Singing River Mine.

Holly Bush Shaft.

On the 8th July 2003 my brother Shane and I investigated this 6m deep, rubbish choked shaft located at ST 4458857815 and originally reported and named by Chris Richards (ACC&AS) in 1971.  The entrance being completely overgrown with brambles, some gardening work was done to reveal a broken flagstone capping dangerously partly sunken into the shaft. Beneath this was a piece of corrugated sheeting which itself was resting on two large, loose rocks.

The flagstone - 1.2m x 0.79m x 0.1m thick - may have been originally placed by the miners.  Three drill holes on one side may have served to lift it. The other half of the broken capstone was later found in the shaft.

We lifted the flagstone, partly removed the supporting corrugated sheeting and peered down the gap into a typical 0.76m (2ft 6) Shipham shaft, at least 6m deep. Everything was put back as before and our findings were reported to the landowners who, after some discussion, agreed that the entrance should be rebuilt and that permission to dig out the shaft would be given.  We returned the next evening with a 1.5m x 0.9m steel plate, cleared the capping - replacing it with the plate - and planned a permanent, safe and secure access.

Mick Norton (ACC/B&DCC) and I descended the shaft to check its safety and need of repairs to the ginging.  Only the top section needed cementing, the depth was measured at 8m to a choke of soil and animal bones - cattle, sheep etc.  Later, over a couple of trips, Dave Holmes (ACG), stating that he wanted to provide a service to the community, helped rebuild the entrance with concrete. A new manhole cover was emplaced and the flagstone put aside.

15th September saw the writer commence removal of bones, soil and more bones!  At a depth of 8.7m a cast iron wheelbarrow wheel was discovered. On the 18th Tony Jarratt and I removed 100 skiploads of spoil.  Bones, earth and stones made this easy going.  Amongst the spoil was found an old cast iron shoemaker s last, a spade a builder s trowel and a small engine cogwheel.

The next couple of trips cleared out more spoil consisting of larger stones than previously.  A long, thick stone - first thought to be a lintel - was later revealed to be the other half of the capstone.  The surrounding spoil proved to be builder’s rubble.  On the 20th, after clearing the capstone, an old car front bumper was revealed.  On lifting this out another front spoiler was found.  I must here confess to having previously stacked the ladder and hauling rope on a ledge above in order that they did not interfere with digging.  The spoiler was half buried across the shaft and under the capstone and moving it dislodged a rock which hit the side of the shaft somewhere beneath my feet.  On hearing the noise my immediate reaction was to lunge across and wedge myself in the shaft.  At that moment, as I looked down at the floor, it collapsed, giving me a great shock - not only the sight of it going but the noise and speed of debris falling 4m further down!  I counted my lucky stars that I was not amongst it, then looked up the shaft with relief to see that none of the ginging had been dislodged.  This would have presented a serious problem.  The ladder was pulled down from the ledge but failed to reach the new floor so an exit was made and a return made later with a second 10m ladder.  A lesson had been learned - always be connected to a safety line!!

Returning with the necessary gear and a back up who waited at the entrance the writer descended to the new floor.  This was at a depth of 12m and the shaft appeared to be still going down.  More Shipham shotholes were to be seen drilled downwards into the shaft walls.  The capstone now lay on old iron car parts and building materials and the digging skips were tangled amongst this.  Whilst connected to the safety line and holding the ladder I stepped onto the capstone and rocked it to see if the choke would collapse again but for the moment it had stabilised.

On the 9th October Tony, Nick Richards, Nick Harding and I arrived at the site in the Bat Products Land Rover with the intention of using it to pull out the capstone but the plan changed when Tony produced a rope puller ratchet winch which was used instead. The capstone was successfully removed from the shaft along with two other large rocks to leave the place much enlarged at the bottom and looking more encouraging.

Nine days later the entrance was found to have been broken into and the skips and ropes thrown down the shaft.  The trusty steel plate was replaced over the hole.  A return next evening saw the plate removed and dumped nearby. Underground everything was fortunately okay so the skips etc. were recovered, the plate yet again replaced and, with great difficulty, the original capstone laid on top.

The next few trips were to make the entrance more secure.  This was achieved thanks to Ivan Sandford who gave up his time to fabricate a strong security bar.  It was so successful that now even I have difficulty gaining access!

Digging recommenced on 28th October with the angle of the shaft gradually changing from vertical to around 45 degrees, heading to the north and with the obstructing boulders becoming noticeably larger.  As I broke rocks to fit into the skips in the same way that my mining ancestors did I felt good and much encouraged. On the wall where the shaft changes angle rope rub markings were noted.  There were also many more bones appearing, some of which looked suspiciously human. After consulting Tony I reported this to the police, explaining all about the dig and the uncertainty of the identification of the bones.  (No constable would venture to arrest a Shipham man, lest he should be concealed in one of their pits and never heard of more; no uncommon case Martha Moore, Mendip Annals (1859)).  An officer arrived, looked at the bones and then down the shaft; he was most surprised at the 12m depth and after focusing his powerful torch became worried and called me over to ask what the two shining, human eye-like objects reflecting up at him were?  Was it a body down there?  I looked again and started giggling as I realised it was two small pieces of wet broken glass giving a realistic impression of eyes!  He decided to seal off the area and field footpaths while the investigation was going on, explaining that because bones were present this was a strict procedure.  The bones were removed for analysis and a later telephone call revealed them to be animal.  He gave permission for the dig to continue and thanks for reporting the find.

As the shaft deepened it became harder for me to dig on my own.  Climbing out, hauling skips, tipping spoil onto the heap then returning to the bottom to repeat the procedure became a chore.  Then Ernie White and Andy Norman, the Barnsley Boys, came down for a weekend and kindly helped out while I dug.  For four hours non-stop they hauled out 60 skips of rock, scrap iron and household rubbish and levelled it all out - all credit to them both. The shaft continued dropping at 45 degrees with more Shipham shotholes around the sides.  At 15m depth more evidence of rope marks was found on the hanging wall.

My brother later came along to stay at the entrance while I removed two large boulders.  Beneath one of these a gap appeared.  A light shone down revealed a horribly dangerous choke of clean rocks at an estimated depth of 4.5m.  By using a long bar to dislodge this choke I managed to collapse it for 1.2m until it wedged again but this time I knew what was below.  A single Cornish shotholelarger than the Shipham variety - was found driven downwards in the shaft wall.  Its diameter is 45mm and the length is 710mm as opposed to the smaller holes of 21-26mm diameter and averaging 2-300mm in length.  The presence of this much larger and probably more modem shothole may mean that an unknown prospector was investigating the older workings or could be evidence of visitation by F.G. Clements & Co.

Over the next few trips I removed the top layer of TV -sized rocks and broke them down to knuckle size. This also compacted the spoil and revealed a void below.  The larger rocks were stacked nearby and the smaller stuff was pushed into the void. On the next trip I found that half of the infill had collapsed into a horizontal gallery below.  The remainder of the choke was dislodged to leave a shaft of 20m leading into the open workings last visited over 150 years ago. The spoil from the shaft blocked off the route to the west but that to the east was wide open.

The eastern passage, which I named Branch Line (all passage names deriving from the surnames of past Shipham miners) continued over a false floor for an estimated distance of 24 m. The passage had been stoped out by the Old Men at a 70 degree angle and had many ingoing shotholes.  Marks of hand picks and a possible shovel blade in the soft wall were ample evidence of their efforts, as were black smoke marks resulting from the use of tallow candles and a sooty deposit around the shotholes resulting from the use of black powder.  A possible brand (burnt wooden torch) was also found.  On returning to Branch Line at a later date, during a wet spell, an active stream was found to be flowing from the terminal choke and running along the passage floor for some 15m to sink below the deads.

Back at the base of the entrance shaft I began to clear the infill to reveal the western gallery.  On entering the passage it enlarged with a divergence ahead.  At eye level on the left hand wall a rock was noticed purposely placed in front of an unfired shothole.  Inside this was discovered a broken flat iron scraper.  It seemed evident that the obscuring rock had been placed by a fellow miner to warn his colleagues not to load the shothole with powder lest a premature explosion occur due to sparking.

At the divergence the right hand working, Day Passage, was followed for approximately 30m over a floor of deads.  Ancient, rusted Cadbury’s Bournville Cocoa tins are evident throughout its length. Dating from the end of the nineteenth century, these have probably been dumped in the shaft and moved to their present location by flood water - possibly during the infamous deluge of 1968. More pieces of burnt wood litter the floor.  At the lowest part of the passage, on the left hand side, a mined out, curving bench is an attractive feature inspiring the name Pew Comer.  The floor is covered with large boulders.

At the end of Day Passage is another choke with a probable shaft to the surface above.  Just before the choke there is a backfilled passage having a gap of 15cm and running back to the east for c.4m to re-enter Day Passage. Halfway along Day Passage I removed a couple of rocks in the floor to reveal a drop of 1.8m with a passage beneath - actually the lower section of Day Passage but separated by a false floor of deads to make work in the higher level easier.  On a tourist trip Dave, a mining engineer, noticed two stones acting as a roof support pillar in this gallery.  Shotholes indicate that Day Passage was driven towards the east.

The passage to the left at the fork drops to a lower level with a possible choked winze on the left side at its entrance.  This passage, Wilson Way, has the appearance of being the main route but must have been worked at a later date than Day Passage as it is larger and neater.  This soon leads to a mined rift in the floor, Wilson Pit, choked in an easterly direction.  Ahead is a T-junction.  To the right a climb over a pile of deads, probably derived from mined cavities above, leads to a continuation of the level.  A possible false floor may indicate another level below.  The continuation is at present flooded but there is a high level, excavated, blind cavity above.  Shothole direction is to the west.

Back at the T-junction the 21m Lewis Level heads south-east on the left hand side.  It has an uneven floor and two mined roof cavities.  Just before the end the floor drops to a pit partly filled with deads.  A climb over this leads to the end where a small natural cavity can be seen on the left. To the right is a 20cm long window into a possible parallel passage.  Could this be an unopened connection with another company s mine?  Shothole direction in the Lewis Level is to the south-east.

As more spoil was cleared from the base of the entrance shaft another level, Tripp Gallery, appeared on the north side, running in an easterly direction.  With a similar appearance to the Wilson Way it may be a continuation of the same. The floor of deads may conceal workings below.  A slope leads to a wall of stacked deads with a short, backfilled passage above.  This was dug out to reveal the small Athay Chamber. Below the stacked wall Tripp Gallery may continue at a lower level but is flooded at present. Shotholes point to the east.

On 20th December the lower levels of the mine were flooded following heavy rain during the previous week. This is an indication of the problems that the original miners faced during wet weather.

Nick Richards examined the minerals in the workings to find cadmium-rich calamine, galena and Turkey Fat Ore or Greenockite (cadmium sulphide) amongst others.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Shane Ireland, Tony Coles and Nigel Fowler for their generosity and assistance.

Selected references.

Jack McQueen-Foord, Mining in Shipham (in) Shipham, Rowberrow & Star Down the Ages. Pp14-25

Christopher J. Schmitz, An Account of Mendip Calamine Mining in the Early I870s, Somerset Arch. And Nat. Hist. Soc. (1976). Pp81-83

J.W. Gough, The Mines of Mendip, Oxford (1930) (reprinted David and Charles 1967). Pp 206-232

Chris Richards, Singing River Mine: a Calamine Working at Shipham, Bristol Ind. Arch. Soc. In!. IV (1971). Pp7-9

Somerset Mine Research Group publications (1980-1983).

(Ed. A further report on the workings will appear in the next BB).