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A Potted History of H. E. Balch 1869 -1958

For the younger members of the BEC-

by Mike Wilson

Herbert Balch lived in or around Wells for the most of his life.  He started work as a post office messenger boy and finished up as Head Postmaster in Wells!

He was mainly an archaeologist and became Honorary Curator of Wells Museum for 62 years! His main interest under­ground was Wookey Hole, the secondary one Lamb Leer.  Balch was the first person to float upstream, with his friends, to the Fifth Chamber in Wookey.  A 60 feet fall in Lamb Leer Main Chamber rendered him unconscious and nearly ended his career in caving.

In 1901 Balch and some friends had a look at St Swithin's Stream on Mendip (Swildon's) unfortunately he did not join the group on 16th August 1901 who were the first to enter the cave. Three cavers; Roger Troup plus Harry and Frank Hiley from Wells had the honour.

Balch made contact with a Dr Baker after reading an article in the climbers' journal by Baker.     They subsequently did some Mendip exploration including Eastwater Swallet.  In 1907 Balch and Baker published 'The Netherworld of Mendip', the majority being written by Baker the padding by Balch.

Balch subsequently made a few trips in Swildon's to the Forty Foot Pot.  But in a dry spell in 1921, while his friend Baker was in the Alps, Balch and 14 others managed to reach Sump 1.  This became the natural barrier for the next 15 years.

On a personal note, Balch was lucky in having a base on Mendip near Rookham.  His friend Mr Powell, the headmaster of the Blue School in Wells, had some railway carriages moved by teams of horses to a field near Rookham - a pretty spot.  The carriages were 26 feet long and had been moved from the Somerset and Dorset line at Binegar.  Balch bought one of these carriages from Mr Powell, called it his Summer Palace, and used it as a base for digging and caving on Mendip.

The coach formed a section of a bunga low with a corrugated iron roof and porch. The family carried on using the coach every summer, even after his death in 1958. It was eventually bought by a local vet who used it as his home.

He has now offered the carriage to the Somerset and Avon Railway Company because he is building a new bungalow on the original site.   The Balch carriage is now at The Forge Exhibition Centre, Marcroft Wagon Works, Rad­stock.  SARC transported the carriage from Rookham.  Their intention is to restore it and keep it as a historic piece.

 

Unfortunately I cannot find any relevant information regarding the second carriage which was rented out to cavers and. walkers.  I believe it will be possible to view the Balch coach in the future by applying to SARC in writing.  Anyone who wishes to take a stroll and discover the original site, now a bungalow at Rookham, the map reference is 550448 sheet ST44/55 Wells and Wedmore.

The only other coach of this type in the South West is somewhere in Cornwall.  Let's hope that this piece of caving history remains in good safe hands, it is in amazingly good con­dition for its age.

 

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