Timsbury is situated on a watershed on the southern margin of a plateau bounded by two streams. The Conygre Brook rises just west of Farmborough, passes through Priston, Englishcombe and Newton St. Loe to join the River Avon just west of Bath. The Cam Brook rises near Hinton Blewett and passes Cameley and Temple Cloud to run between Paulton and High Littleton, through Radford just below Timsbury, Camerton and Dunkerton, to join the Wellow Brook at Midford, and flowing as the Midford Brook into the Avon at Limpley Stoke.
Three miles south and running more or less east – west lies the northern margin of the Mendip Hills, while the Cotswold escarpment finishes in the neighbourhood of Bath. These two ranges help to define the geology of the Timsbury district. The Mendips are of Carboniferous age, dating from approximately three hundred million years ago, while the Cotswolds are Jurassic, about a hundred and fifty million years. The surface rocks of Timsbury fall between these ages, in the Triassic at about two hundred and twenty-five million years old.
The creamy white, easily weathered limestone of which the majority of houses in the older parts of the village are built, is from the White Lias, a sub-division of the Triassic (= three divisions, though only two of these are in Britain ), and the name supposedly derived from a corruption used by the quarrymen, of “Layers”.
The Carboniferous rocks of the Mendips pass down deep below the district and give rise to the North Somerset Coalfield ( Carboniferous = coal-bearing ). Coal has been worked in the district for many centuries. Wedlake in his “Excavations at Camerton” mentions a third-century Roman writer, Caius Julius Solinus, whose writings suggest it was used in the Roman temple complex in Bath, but the earliest more recent historical mention is in the thirteen hundreds. In the early days it was worked from near-surface deposits by means of “Bell-pits”, where a vertical shaft was sunk down to the coal seam, which was then excavated as far as possible by radial workings with the spoil being deposited round the mouth of the shaft.
Some of the chief complications of the North Somerset Coalfield, and part of the reason why it never achieved full potential as a coal producer, with only 5% of the total national production, were that the seams are very thin, some as little as a foot or so, and hence the necessity for the use of the notorious “Guss and Crook”, even after its use had been made illegal in the other coalfields. There is also much faulting, so that seams would suddenly run out and have to be relocated either upwards or downwards. Some of the strata are at very steep slopes, further south in the Nettlebridge valley they are vertical or overturned.
Another major problem in distribution of the coal was the poor state of the roads in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, necessitating the use of packhorses able to carry only about two and a half hundredweight. It was not until the introduction of the turnpikes in the early eighteenth century that transport became more efficient with use of horse and cart able to haul half a ton. Even so some local miners at Coleford objected violently to the payment of tolls, and destroyed the Frome tollgate. However it was not until the development of the canals in the later eighteenth century, first the Kennet and Avon, and then its branch the Somerset Coal Canal running up the Cam Valley to Paulton Basin, that improved transport by canal boat, with one horse hauling fifty tons, enabled the Timsbury districts coal mines to develop fully.
William Smith was initially deputy to John Rennie, and later succeeded him, as Surveyor to the Somerset Coal Canal, and it was his observations on the rocks along the course of the canal during its construction that led to his becoming known as the Father of English Geology, with his eventual publication of the first geological map, of the Bath district. Most local people will be familiar with the plaque at the entrance to Rugbourne Farm between High Littleton and Timsbury. He also resided at The Swan, Dunkerton, Tucking Mill, Midford, and Cottage Crescent, Bath, in the course of his work.
The Coal Canal was highly successful for thirty years or so, then in 1840, the Great Western Railway was constructed from London to Bristol, passing through Bath, and the Kennet and Avon, and consequently the Somerset Coal, Canals, immediately lost their precedence in transport. Eventually in 1882 the Somerset Coal Canal was overlaid by the Camerton branch railway from the Bristol to Frome line at Hallatrow and ultimately joining the Somerset and Dorset line at Midford.
Coal mining in the Timsbury district goes back at least to the earliest seventeenth century (Five Arches, issue No. 17, p.5 ). However it was not until the late eighteenth – early nineteenth century with the advent of the canal, that many of the local pits were developed, some with tramways linking the mine to the canal, or later, railway. For example Upper Conygre pit, now the site of Wheeler’s concrete works, was commenced in 1791, with various camouflage devices to avoid spoiling the view from the nearby Timsbury Manor, such as a castellated chimney.
Lower Conygre pit, off the Timsbury – Radford lane, was built later, in the 1850’s, and eventually its workings were connected to those of Upper Conygre . Although by the latter half of the nineteenth century the Timsbury pits were the biggest single suppliers to the consumers of Bath (C G Down & A J Warrington, History of the Somerset Coalfield), they had an unfortunate later life, with a disastrous explosion in 1895 when seven men and four horses were killed. Later, just prior to the First World War, during an attempt to extend the workings of Lower Conygre, flooded and abandoned workings of the former Withy Mills pit were broached, with consequent flooding of both Conygre pits, which led to their abandonment in 1916, and the end of coal mining in Timsbury.
Article written by D R Boswell and is reproduced from ‘The Timsbury Book’ by kind permission of Timsbury Parish Council.