Charterhouse is located north west of Priddy and was known in the middle ages as ‘West Minery’. The name comes from the French ‘Chartreuse’ which means a Carthusian monastery. As penance for the death of his friend, Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury) in 1170, Henry II established a Carthusian monastery at Witham Friary in 1182 with peripheral settlements at Charterhouse and a Grange (farming estate) at Green Ore, east of Priddy. Before long, they discovered the hills would produce lead as well as wool, and in 1283 Edward I granted the prior the right “to work all mines of lead which they might find in their own several ground, and to take and have for their own use the profits accruing from them, as might be most expedient to them, without let or hindrance.”
However, Charterhouse, previously known as Hidun or Hydon, is best known for its Roman Mining activity, during the occupation. There is evidence of an amphitheatre, fortlet and settlements. Coins, pottery and lead fragments have been found, along with a lead pig, weighing one hundred and seventy two pounds, discovered in 1876, with the inscription IMP. VESPASIAN.AVG on top, and BRIT.EX ARG.VE on its side. Vespasian was the emperor around 49AD and EX ARG could mean desilverized. The main focus of the Mendip lead and silver industry, before the medieval period, lay in and close to the Charterhouse valley and on the adjacent Ubley Warren. Trench mining, a prevalent technique practised by the Romans, are strongly in evidence. The long rakes and grooves which resulted from the pursuit of lodes from the surface are impressive features in the landscape. Two of the large rakes are over one hundred meters long and up to ten meters deep. To some, the shallow pit excavations are believed to be of Saxon origin, however there is no evidence to support this as no Saxon artefacts have been found, and there is no mention of Mendip lead mining in the Doomsday Book. It cannot be totally discounted, as Saxon lead mining was conducted in Derbyshire, and the kings of Wessex surely would have wanted to profit from Mendip lead. The Romans used it to construct pipes for conducting the thermal springs at bath, and the Normans were the first to clad church roofs with it. Fish weights made from Mendip lead have been found as far as Pompeii.
In 1849 the Mendip Hills Mining Company leased the slag-rich ground around the Ubley and Blackmoor area of the Charterhouse valley. This slag yielded up to fifty seven percent lead, so settling ponds, three dressing floors, a smelter and a large reservoir were constructed. By 1853, up to three hundred people were employed. After the slag had been washed in pits, and stirred by vertical paddle wheel, the slime was put in the flues to be fired, and the pure lead was condensed, leaving poisonous residues such as arsenic on the roof and walls, which had to be chipped off. Tragically, it was often the orphans from the Cheddar poor house, whose job it was to scrape off the lethal residues and who, as a result, suffered untimely deaths. It was of little consequence to the children that in 1865, the Charterhouse minery yielded three hundred and twenty six and a half tons of lead, and one thousand three hundred ounces of silver. It was not until 1876 that they were protected from such exploitation, when the employment of children under the age of ten was forbidden. Expenditure rose when the shareholders had to buy out a local farm poisoned by the lead rich fumes, and by 1878 lead prices fell and led to a cessation in smelting. The site was finally abandoned in 1885.
Farmers still take care to graze their animals. Contamination is to do with soil; lead cannot get into the fibres of growing grass, but it is impossible to prevent dust from blowing onto grazing land in dry weather. The saying goes that a mole hill has enough lead to kill four cows. Cattle graze the land only when the grass is long. Nature has reclaimed the landscape and grassland now covers the undulations of pits and rakes. The beauty in its transformation is such that it has mythologized the past.
Historical reference: ‘The Mines of Mendip’, J.W. Gough – David and Charles 1967. ‘The Mendip Hills, A Threatened Landscape’, Shirley Toulson – Victor Gollancz 1984, ‘Ancient mining on Mendip: A Preliminary Report on Recent Work’, Malcom Todd 1966.