The first zinc to be worked in the Mendip region was at Worle in 1566, but it wasn’t until the end of the sixteenth century that the brass trade had become established in Britain. Calamine was being worked in the Shipham and Rowberrow area by 1665. By the start of the eighteenth century, the demand for brass had picked up and Mendip calamine was in great demand for the brass foundries in Bristol. The calamine from Mendip was deemed to be the best in England.
However, it was not until quite some time after calamine had been used in making brass that it was realised it could be smelted to produce zinc. The first zinc smelters were set up in 1746 in Bristol. At around the same time, it was realised that the mineral sphalerite (zinc sulphide) could also be used for the same purposes, and new techniques for making brass directly from zinc were patented.
By 1779, Bristol brass was in great demand, and Shipham and Rowberrrow became the centre of the zinc mining industry. At this time it was reported that the entire population of the two villages (around 700 people) were engaged in mining, with over a hundred mines in Shipham alone, many of them ‘in the street, in the yards and some in the very houses’.
The conditions for the Shipham miner must have been very harsh, and the two villages were described as being some of the most wretched and depraved villages in the region. However, the middle of the eighteenth century saw the peak of the calamine industry on Mendip, and by the start of the nineteenth century, the industry was in decline. In 1839 it was reported that only one or two mines were working, and that by 1853, all operations had ceased. In the 1860s and 1870s some of the Shipham miners were employed in the leadworks at Charterhouse.
Calamine was also being worked near Harptree, and in 1797, mines in the area produced 78 tons of lead, 254 tons of calamine and 31 tons of ochre. But the height of the calamine industry at Harptree was short lived in comparison to Shipham, and by 1809, very little mining was taking place.
Several factors combined to cause the demise of the zinc industry. Cheap competition from ores overseas, the exhaustion of the near-surface ores, problems draining the mines, the decline of the calamine-brass industry in Bristol, and the removal of protective duties against imported zinc all combined to make mining an unprofitable business.