Mr 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.
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
Individual 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.
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.