In the eighteenth century the extraction of lead by mining in Britain went into decline and ceased around 1850. The history of Mendip lead did not die out, however, as considerable quantities were being extracted from the volumes of slag left by previous mining enterprises, which had used primitive forms of extraction. In the 1850’s, the rights to Priddy Minery belonged to a prospector by the name of Ennor. Water was of the utmost importance in order to ‘dress’ (wash) the lead, and a system of reservoirs and leats were constructed to deflect surface water to the settling ponds. Battles erupted with adjoining Chewton Minery who were diverting the water to their own reservoir, leaving Priddy Minery dry and valueless. After prolonged court hearings over the flow of surface water, a dispirited Ennor promptly sold his rights.
In 1862 the St Cuthbert’s Lead Smelting Company was formed under the management of Mr Horatio Nelson Hornblower, born to a family of well known Cornish mining engineers. Initially, the company was very successful and as a result, the decision to erect five new furnaces to process the tons of waste material was made. The company was excessively optimistic over the yield the waste could produce, and closed in 1869. St Cuthbert’s Leadworks lay dormant for ten years but was restored to partial working order in 1979. It became the sole surviving minery under the management of Mr Thomas Willcox. He was successful in partially ‘dressing’ the lead, and selling it on to lead-smelters in Bristol. The leadworks were eventually bought by a syndicate, and again lead returns were grossly exaggerated. They installed modern machinery, mainly for the dressing of the waste. Settling ponds were constructed to reduce wastage from the washing process, the installation of electricity and the extravagant and unremunerative exploitation of the surrounding land, meant they could not capitalize on their investments. In 1908 the price of lead tumbled and the struggle had to be abandoned, the work was not paying its way and the capital had run out. The machinery was sold and the minery fell into disrepair.
Now in a state of ruin, the minery became a playground to the local children, for many years. Sadly the chimney stacks were taken down in the 1950s for safety reasons. Heaps of vitrified black slag, leats and remnants of settling ponds, punctuated with the ruins of pits, flues and furnaces are all that remain. Rather than a barren wasteland, St Cuthbert’s Leadworks, now known as Priddy Minery, has evolved into a landscape that bears witness to the men who shaped it, and is a testament to its history and memories.
Historical Reference: ‘The Mines of Mendip’, J.W. Gough – David and Charles 1967