Beer Quarry Caves are an underground quarry near Beer in Devon. It is the oldest continuously worked industrial site in Britain started by the Romans in 50 AD. It ceased full scale working only in 1920 after a geological fault was discovered. With 75 acres underground caverns, parts of which are open to the public. An unknown number of caves still to be excavated.
Beer Stone is a seam of creamy-white chalk limestone deposited during the Upper Cretaceous period as a combination of crushed shell, clay, and sand. The rock seam is only 4m thick and is roughly made of two beds, resting on Cenomanian limestone. The stone at Beer is true 'freestone' that can be sawn or squared in any direction due to the uniform structure of the rock Freshly quarried it is easy to carve but hardens on exposure to the air, turning a beautiful creamy white colour. The stone from Beer has been used in Church construction as well as halls and castles. In Roman times it was used for villa’s, temples and fortifications. The stone has been found in Saxon and Norman churches, and buildings like Westminster Hall and Abbey, the Tower of London, Winchester Cathedral and Exeter Cathedral.
The Roman occupation of Devon established two main settlements at Dorchester and Exeter. Seaton, midway between these two Roman towns became a Roman setlement and Axmouth Harbour became a major port for the area. Quarrying of the stone needed to take place inland, and an outcrop a mile from the coast was discovered on the northern slopes of Beer Head and became the site of the stone workings as the Roman quarry men started to work the seam of stone downwards far under the chalk. The traces of Roman workings can still be seen today, the rounded arches of the first chambers are characteristic of the Roman method of working and traces of the hand tools used can still be seen on the walls of the rock chambers. To do so they cut into the side of a hill, whose upper surface bears traces of flint tools and artefacts made by Devon’s earliest inhabitants, Neolithic people who lived on the coast around 3000 BC. There are two open entrances to the caves in the hill now, one Roman and the other Norman. There are also 18 covered and unexplored entrances into the hill. Roman tools, artefacts and coins have been found around the open Roman entrance. Many tools from other ages of British industrial history have been found at Beer Quarry Caves.
After the departure of the Romans in the 5th century, the Saxons continued to work the quarry in a square cut style, which contrasts obviously from the rounded Roman style. It was the Normans with their building of Churches, Cathedrals, Castles and Manor houses who next quarried Beer stone in some quantity. The Norman and later workings are in side passages off the long straight Saxon passage. These large chambers can give visitors the impression of being in an underground cathedral, the roofs of the chambers are supported by massive un-quarried pillars of stone, each crowned with Norman capitals and with side chambers leading off in all directions. The quarry men who worked, or slaved, in Beer Quarry Caves have always came from the small coastal settlement. There are written records which take us back to the 10th and 11th century, when the limestone was being used in Saxon churches and palaces. Following the Norman conquest in 1066, the caves came into huge demand, with the stone from the Quarry being used in at least 24 of the 44 great Cathedrals of the Norman period. By the 1300’s the stone was being shipped around the coast to London, where it was used in the Tower of London, Hampton Court and the old Palace of Westminster. Between the parish records in Beer and the Cathedral of Exeter, whose Bishop leased the Quarry for centuries, there are detailed written accounts of the money paid and the work done by the workers at the Quarry. The caverns resemble the great buildings created from the stone that was quarried there. Quite literally, they are like underground cathedrals. The cavern roofs are supported by pillars which lend an extraordinary and dramatic aspect to the huge empty spaces below the hill.
In these workings, the stone has always been cut by hand. Each cut stone would be generally a 4ft cube and would weigh approximately 4 tons. The technique of cutting the stone blocks hardly varied since Roman times. Working in gangs of 4 to 5 men, one of the gang, a Picker would cut a ‘breach’ or space at the top of the stone with a pick-axe, giving room for the rest of the gang to work on the stone. The gang used pick-axes to cut down the sides of the stone. Steel wedges would be driven into the bottom of the block to break it free of its surroundings. Horses and oxen hauled the cut stone out of the workings.
Black powder was first used in the stone cutting process in the 16th century. The blast from a small amount of the powder made the initial cut, at the top of the stone. The roughness of the roof in later workings shows where the quarrymen used black powder in this way. Many of the supporting roof pillars near to the entrance look reduced in width. This is a technique known as ‘pillar robbing'. Pillar robbing is common in mines where pillars support the roof. As the mine runs out of stone that miners can remove without problems, the miners find it easier to take the better quality material from the pillars rather than work fresh material deeper in the mine.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the quarrymen, working by the light of tallow candles, 5 of which they had to buy from the owner each morning, worked in an unchanging atmosphere of 53 Farenheit, suffused in a dense and stinking cloud of smoke coming from the candles. To stop work that went on for 15 hours a day, 6 days a week, meant to chill to the marrow. To get paid meant being able to show a 4 ton block of limestone to the tapper, the man who tested the block at the end of each day. If the rock rang untrue the quarryman went home unpaid, and his family went hungry. Around the quarry a significant but now vanished industry developed. Over 400 horses lived in the fields around the caves. Dozens of farriers kept the horses shod and a huge collection of carpenters built and renovated the great carts that took the stone around the country. In 1758 a piece of the quarry roof, which can still be seen, collapsed following an explosion on the surface and 48 men and one boy were killed. When told of this the Quarry owners only reply the following morning was to ask “Have we lost any horses ?”. Human life was cheap in the caves and few quarrymen lived beyond their thirties, having started work in the caverns at the age of eight or nine.