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William Smith - Geologist William Smith - Geologist Early advertisement for Fussells Iron Works products Early advertisement for Fussells Iron Works products. Sinking the first coal mine shaft at Dunkerton in 1903 Sinking the first coal mine shaft at Dunkerton in 1903. Radstock collieries vista, early 1900's Radstock collieries vista, early 1900's.


All images courtesy Radstock Museum

There is much to be learned from the history of the Colliers Way area. Much of the information here has been sourced from Radstock Museum and can be explored further in their exhibits and displays and also in the wealth of published material - books and leaflets available in their shop. Frome Tourist Information Centre also has a good selection of historical books and publications.

Fern Fossil at Radstock Museum Fossil of Fern at Radstock Museum


The underlying rock formations have played a large part in the development of settlement and industry in the North Somerset area. The presence of water on or near the surface often dictates where settlement and industry grows up. Rivers, brooks and streams provide drinking water and sites for mills, and where mineral extraction and industry occurred, water provided a means of washing the product and helping to provide steam for power, and in some cases the transport for moving the products, like the coal canal. The underlying rock here down to a depth of around 100 metres, is around 200 million years old and is Carboniferuous period, fossil-bearing rock. At these depths are the precious coal measures that have dictated much of the industrial revolution and later activity in this area. Some of the fossils found as a result of coal mining in the Radstock area are unique and have never been found elsewhere.

William Smith, known as the Father of Geology, was responsible for mapping the rock types of the west of England, his first map was based upon the map in 'The New and Improved Bath Guide' onto which he plotted the local rock types. Later he published his well-known geological map of the west of England in 1815. Smith was employed as a surveyor for the Somersetshire Coal Canal to plot its course, taking into account the topography, underlying rock types and the availability of feeder water sources, among other factors. Smith lived at various locations in the area, High Littleton - near Paulton, Bath, Dunkerton and Tucking Mill.

Mineral extraction

The geology of North Somerset gave rise to the presence of various minerals and resources, among other metals present in the area were lead, silver and iron ore. The Romans mined lead extensively in the Mendips area and a lost Roman lead 'pig' can be seen in the museum at Wells.

The presence of iron ore gave rise to industry such as the Fussells Iron Works at Mells and also Paulton Foundy, among others. The presence of coal locally to fire the furnaces, was also a considerable factor in the success of iron production in North Somerset.

collieries docket Early Collieries docket.

Coal mining

The biggest extraction industry in North Somerset at one time was coal. The Radstock and Midsomer Norton area particularly was littered with countless mines in the 18th to 20th centuries, and mining dates back to Roman times. The coal field reached over to Bishop's Sutton to the west, and Bristol and South Gloucestershire in the north. The Somerset coal field employed some 6000 people at its peak, with around 30 pits working in Midsomer Norton and Radstock alone, descending to depths of over 1800 feet.

Local coal helped fire the furnaces of the industrial revolution, but production here came to an end in 1973 when the last pit closed due to economic factors. The coal field is not exhausted however, and it is estimated that there are still millions of tons of coal still buried deep below North Somerset.

Somersetshire Coal Canal at Monkton Combe Somersetshire Coal Canal at Monkton Combe.


The first transport for mass-movement of goods across the country was the canals. The Kennet and Avon Canal running from the Thames near Reading to the River Avon at Bath and crossing the Avon at Dundas Aqueduct, was built in stages between 1723 and 1810. The aqueduct at Dundas was engineered by John Rennie who also built the aqueduct at Avoncliff and the pumping station at Claverton - which pumped water up from the Avon into the canal.

The Somersetshire Coal Canal was authorised by parliament in 1794 and promoted by coal industry magnates for shipment of Somerset coal to market. The course of this canal was from Dundas to Paulton with a branch leaving at Midford to serve Wellow and Radstock. The canal's largest hurdle was at Combe Hay where there was a large difference in height to overcome which was first served by caisson locks which were a failure and replaced by an inclined plane lift that was also later replaced by a flight of 22 conventional locks. The remains of these locks can still be found hidden away at Combe Hay.

At its height the canal was carrying around 100,000 tons of coal a year, but by the end of the 1800's it could no longer compete with the speed and capacity of the railways and thus closed.

Old Southern Railway Ticket Old Southern Railway ticket Somerset & Dorset Railway at Radstock in the 1960's The Somerset & Dorset Railway at Radstock in the 1960's


In 1904 the coal canal was bought by the Great Western Railway which laid a railway through Midford, to Dunkerton, Camerton and on to Bristol to profit from coal movement in the Somerset coal field. The Great Western also had a railway from Frome to Radstock and onwards to Bristol. From Frome to Radstock, the line was built to Brunel's broad gauge, with a change of gauge at Radstock. Due to technical problems and financial factors, the broad gauge was later changed to standard from Frome to Radstock. This part of the route is now the Colliers Way.

At Radstock, the line met the Somerset & Dorset Railway running from Evercreech Junction - south of Shepton Mallet - to Bath and they both competed to carry coal and passengers. This resulted in two level crossings within yards of each other on the Bath road close to Radstock Museum. Eventually both railway lines were usurped by roads and closed - the S&D in 1966 and the remaining part of the Great Western from Frome to Radstock in 1988. The Somerset & Dorset Railway is now being recreated at Midsomer Norton as a visitor attraction.

Other industry

Other industries in North Somerset grew as a result of geographical factors, the rolling and lush hills of the eastern Mendips near Frome for sheep grazing, along with plentiful water for the mills gave rise to a long history for over 300 years of cloth making in Frome. Water for power and processing also gave rise to the printing and binding industries in the region, notably Butler and Tanner at Frome and Purnells in Paulton - the latter started in 1839 by Charles Dando Purnell and much later was bought out by the Polestar group in 1998 and recently closed. Shoes were big business in north Somerset growing from small scale operations supplying miners and the public from factories in Midsomer Norton and Paulton.

Shoe production peaked in the 1930's and later the well-known Clarks company, based in Street near Glastonbury, had a factory at Midsomer Norton until 1996. Wagon works in Radstock were developed, supplying the local mines and railways, with works on both the Great Western Railway and the Somerset & Dorset. This business suffered as coal mining ceased and last of these companies - the Marcroft wagon works in Radstock closed in 1988. Brewing thrived in the area, not perhaps on the scale that towns such as Burton-on-Trent in the Midlands saw, but one nonetheless that was in great demand by all the thirsty miners and manual workers in the district. George Coombs brewed beer and owned pubs at Camerton, Clandown and Radstock, the business eventually being sold to the Oakhill Brewery Company in 1923. Mineral water was also once produced in the area in small quantities.