Smugglers tunnels, underground shelters, military hideouts and deep caverns in and around Gravesend from pre-Roman times
Riverside and smugglers tunnels.
In the past the Thames estuary comprised of numerous small mud banks, winding channels and windy, reed covered sticky mud flats. Over the years industry and wharfage requirements has changed the waterside outline to a high sea wall with many piers. In the 1700s, before this development, navigating the river was fraught with dangers and tides and currents would often leave vessels aground in the mud. Sometimes this was simply due to bad navigation but quite often the overnight wait for the tide was simply an excuse to unload part of the cargo into small boats that appeared out of the gloom from the reeds as soon as the ship ran aground. Often light cargo such as tea could be simply thrown from the ship either onto the mud flats for collection later or into a convenient rowing boat. If spotted by the Revenue men the captain could always claim he was trying to lighten the load to get off the mud bank. Once the cargo was ashore in the hands of the smugglers, the Revenue men had little chance of recovery as the smugglers knew every twist and turn of the channels and would be on dry land and away before anyone could catch them. Local legend has it that smugglers dug a huge network of tunnels in the Gravesend area, with one claimed to emerge at Cobham Hall which is three miles south of Gravesend Quay. Often these tunnels were a work of art being brick lined and wide and tall enough for a standing man carrying the smuggled goods. There were many instances of later groundwork where labourers accidentally broke through into these hidden tunnels and even today there are many areas suspected of having as yet undiscovered passageways.
The London port system was that when a ship managed to negotiate the navigation hazards and moor up at Gravesend, she would be boarded by H M Customs and an officer would remain aboard until the ship reached its destination at an official wharf in London. Even before the golden days of smuggling this system was routinely abused and two such examples are recorded. In 1410 a monk was found to be carrying a large gold ring and a substantial sum of money. In the same year, a woman from Flanders (Petite Gerderoic) was caught with 21 gold rings, an ingot of gold, jewellery and rare books encrusted with coral.
There were two public houses in Gravesend, that still exist today, notorious for their involvement in smuggling.
The Three Daws
The pub was situated in the centre of town on the riverside, at the bottom of the bustling High Street next to the pier which was used for ferries to and from Essex. Gravesend High Street was full of shops, slaughter houses and rag and bone merchants and was notorious for having a total of 13 public houses in the same road. The Three Daws is reputed to be Kent’s oldest tavern and was well known to be frequented by smugglers throughout the 18th and 19th century. Before later alterations the Three Daws and the pilot house attached, had no fewer than seven staircases and three underground tunnels to ensure that the local smugglers always had a handy escape route from raids by the Revenue men or the Press Gangs. Legend has it that the three tunnels lead from the cellars of the pub to different escape routes around the town. The Three Daws was originally known as the Cornish Choughs and latterly the Three Cornish Choughs (1488 – 1667) due to its links with the pilgrim’s en-route to the shrine of St Thomas in Canterbury (the three Cornish Choughs appear in the Canterbury coat of arms). However the birds were mistaken as Jackdaws (same genetic family) and the name became the Three Daws instead. The pub has now been renovated, but still retains much of its old-world charm and atmosphere.
The Ship and Lobster
Along with the Three Daws the reputation of the Ship and Lobster as a smugglers pub is without doubt. The first pub was built in 1813 on the sea wall to the east of Gravesend and was rebuilt in 1890. The pub is now surrounded by container depots and modern jetties, but it always was in a commercial area. Going back to the 18th century, it was sited in an industrial area, next to a windmill and a sulphur mill. The sulphur mill probably never processed anything and was almost certainly a cover for the smuggling operations. Contraband was alleged to have been unloaded from vessels at Folkestone and then carried by cart or pack-horse, with an armed escort, to Denton (an eastern suburb of Gravesend), to be hidden in tunnels under the mill. This allegation was given some credibility when a group of navvies building the Strood canal fell into one of the smugglers tunnels. Charles Dickens, used the Ship and Lobster pub as the basis for the inn he described in Great Expectations, which he called “The Ship”.
In nearly every smuggling story of the area, hidden tunnels are mentioned and tales suggest many of the local landmarks are linked. Though many of the tales are apocryphal, it is nevertheless interesting, because the fictional reports of smuggling become distorted and exaggerated with time and many of the smugglers themselves have become folk heroes.
However, there is little doubt that some fantastic feats of illegal engineering were carried out to transport contraband either from the waterside or hidden storage. There is known to be an extensive system of underground passageways or roads in the Gravesend area and some of the distances covered are quite astonishing. Many of these are reliably supported by accidental breakthroughs or excavations over the intervening years. There were certainly tunnels cut in the chalk from Cobham Hall, in the south-east, to Wombell Hall then onwards to an exit at Clapperknappers Hole in Swanscombe Wood in the far southwest. (An amazing distance of some 6.5 miles). Also another from Parrock Manor in Parrock Street to the river bank site of the old sulphur mill near the Ship and Lobster pub. (A distance of some 1.5 miles). Finally from an unknown start point via Perry Street, Old Road and Pelham Road to an unknown destination. (Distance unknown but at least 1.5 miles).
Egypt Bay on the Hoo peninsula was a typical Thames estuary landing spot for smugglers. A cottage named Shade House was built with the specific purpose of handling smuggled contraband. It is peculiar insofar that all windows face inland giving a view of at least a mile of any approaching customs men. It is in an extremely isolated position now but would have been even more remote back in the 18th century. Normally no one would build in such a dwelling in this marsh area as malaria was rife and most people lived on much higher ground. Local tales tell of vaulted brick tunnels leading from Shade House towards the river but no verifiable evidence exists today to prove they were there, although they almost certainly were. However, one fact we are sure of is that the North Kent gang used Shade House as part of their smuggling activities, cleverly using the marsh sheep to erase their tell-tale footprints and tracks. A number of farm buildings at nearby Allhallows were also used for storage and on the Isle of Grain the Hogarth Inn was favoured by smugglers, both organised and small family concerns. One of these families was the Roots family of Chatham and brothers Edward and Richard Roots ran ten cargoes a year, from Europe, using their ship The Mermaid. They landed most of their contraband on the Cliffe Marshes, but they also used Chalk Marshes (near east Gravesend).
The type of contraband stored near St. Mary the Virgin Church at Chalk was mostly tea and silks brought in on “shopping trips” from Ostend often on the ship “Sloweley” owned by two local men. This trade was operated by the Roots brothers and it is known that they had several customs men in their pay to avoid detection and capture.
Dene holes (or Dane Holes)
For those of you who may never have heard of Dene Holes before, perhaps a few words of explanation are in order. A Dene hole is an underground structure which consists of a number of small chalk caves excavated at the bottom of a deep vertical shaft. Some date from pre-Roman times and probably considerably older as digging tools made from animal horn and flint have been found. There were at one time hundreds, possibly thousands spread across the chalk uplands of Kent and Essex.
Their uses have been the subject of much conjecture, but it seems the primary purposes were as follows:
Chalk mines (also known as draw wells)
Neolithic Grain storage
Storage of smuggled contraband goods
Ancient hiding places
The accepted primary purpose of Dene Holes was the extraction of high quality unpolluted chalk which is not available at the surface, for use as a fertiliser. With the exception of a small amount of flint mining the other uses mentioned were as a consequence of having a sheltered or hidden underground cavern with reasonably stable temperature. To remove chalk in this way had much to commend it as, unlike open cast mining, it did not use valuable arable land, just a small opening which could be easily sealed. This method of mining chalk was used in Kent well before the Roman occupation and continued up until the end of the 19th century. It is extremely unlikely any were used as habitation although they may well have been used as hiding places possibly from Viking invaders hence the name Dane Holes. Confirmation of the age and existence of these holes is given by documents from the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) who mentions “pits sunk to a depth of a hundred feet where they branched out like the veins of mines”. They were also mentioned as dene holes in the 12th century by Chretien de Troyes a French poet and writer.
Depending on the use and strata Dene Holes can be between 35ft and 120ft deep and 3ft in diameter, although the majority were around 60ft with hand and foot holds cut into the walls to avoid the use of ladders. At the bottom chambers would be excavated in a double or treble cloverleaf pattern.
Chalk well or Draw Well is another type dug in areas where the chalk was overlaid by clay or heavy soil. Generally they were much shallower and wider, usually some 35/40ft deep and 4/6ft diameter. At the base there is usually 2 or 4 roughly excavated caves radiating out from the central shaft. The chalk would have been loaded into baskets and using a windlass hauled to the surface.
Although most dene holes are found singly some are found in groups of up to 70+ separate shafts. To ensure one shafts chambers did not break into an adjoining one and destabilise the chalk, great care was taken by the miners in these groups. Locally to Gravesend the two largest groups were 35 near Bexley and 50 at Stankey Wood.
Towards the Isle of Thanet, the land was occupied by the Danes who terrorised the Saxon inhabitants, who cut deep wells to conceal people and their goods, with many of the holes surviving to this day.
There is a surviving chalk well that you can visit in safety and this is situated at Kent County Nurseries at Challock. It is rather commercial and they call it “The Exotic Grotto” and claim it is a Neolithic flint mine. It is in fact a three-chambered chalk well with a spiral staircase down the shaft. It will, however, give you a feel how it was excavated. A word of warning, to the inexperienced, dene holes are dangerous places to explore since after many centuries they are now in an unstable condition and can be very deep. In addition, beware of hollows found in the woods which should be avoided since they could be dene hole sites.
Thames Tunnel - Gravesend to Tilbury
In 1798 a tunnel was proposed linking Gravesend to Tilbury Fort under the river Thames, which would facilitate quick movement of troops from Gravesend barracks. The tunnel was started approximately 800 yards to the east of Tilbury Fort under the control of the engineer Ralf Dodd. It was proposed to be of cylindrical construction with key stones for superior strength. Diameter was 16ft to allow for foot, horse and carriage transport and was illuminated with lamps and had its own steam engine driving a pump to remove any drainage water. It was problems from the start and suffered from continued flooding until eventually the whole project was abandoned. It was a disaster for the shareholders and the sum of £ 15,242.10s.4d was wasted. In 1881 LT&SR railway renewed the prospect of a tunnel under the Thames to provide a direct rail link between Fenchurch Street and Gravesend. These plans were later abandoned, as the railway was engaged in a financial battle with their rival Great Eastern Railways. Rumours do circulate that sometime after this date a small diameter bore was completed and is used for pipes and communication cables. A temporary crossing between Gravesend and Tilbury was put into place during the Great War when a pontoon bridge was created using Thames barges. To allow River traffic to pass a centre section of barges would swing to the side. This allowed troop movements from Gravesend Barracks to Tilbury Docks for sea transfer to the battle grounds.
Subterranean air raid shelters
Northfleet High Street
Several disused railway tunnels that run deep under the High Street were used as air raid shelters during the Second World War. At the beginning they used sand bags to form the blast walls at the entrances of the tunnels but later proper brick blast walls and electric lighting were provided. The shelters were 80 feet below ground level and in consequence were virtually bomb and soundproof. Families arrived with their bedding every night during the Blitz and unlike many were assured of a safe and good night's sleep. Community spirit abounded and people made their own entertainment during the evenings playing bingo, women had their knitting and children their toys.
W T Henley air raid shelters - Northfleet
With the onset of war the site was refurbished in 1939 to include a complex of air raid shelters cut deep into the chalk cliffs. The company was a prime target for German bombers due to its capability in power cable and switchgear manufacture and mine countermeasures. The complex had 6 entrances which were lined with reinforced concrete and a roadway system with clear signposting. In addition to shelter accommodation the tunnels had several first aid areas and numerous chemical toilets. Even today the tunnels are well preserved and have had numerous uses in the post war period; however there is no public access and the tunnels are sealed with large steel doors.
Zero Station – Hollingbourne Kent
Just after Dunkirk in the 2nd World War Britain was in danger of invasion by the Nazi forces of Germany at a time when much of our armour and weaponry was lost in the evacuation from France. In anticipation of a possible early invasion the Army formed a unit known as “The Special Duties Organisation” which was to go into deep cover and carry out spying, sabotage, assassination and other forms of resistance. Many such individual sub-units, known as zero stations, were formed none of which was known to any other or their location. In addition to the above tasks the Special Duties Organisation's role involved radio communications and spying. The headquarters for all of this was located at Hannington Hall, Hannington, Wiltshire. The section's personnel consisted of spies, cut-outs, out-station radio operators and the people who would operate the control and zero stations. In addition to the sabotage-minded patrols both men and women could be chosen to carry out the task of spying. The best people for this role were those whose normal occupation involved plenty of free movement such as doctors, midwives, postmen, vicars and farm workers. Once recruited these people learned how to make intelligence reports and In the event of a German invasion they would carry on as normal whilst making reports of any German troop movements, or anything else of interest. When the report was prepared it needed to be passed to a radio operator using a secret “letter box”. This could be under a stone, an old tin can or a hole in a tree. This system ensured that the spy did not know the identity of the radio operator and vice versa. A radio operator along with his/her equipment was classified as an “out-station”. The radio's location had to be kept totally secret and this was mostly achieved by siting the equipment underground. The Special Duties Organisation used a simple small radio set some 15 inches long, 6 inches high and 5 inches wide working on a rarely used frequency of between 60 and 65 megacycles that was probably not even monitored by the Germans. A 6v car battery was the power source and a 40ft aerial was required to transmit. These messages were only relatively short range transmissions to a local control station which then relayed messages to Hannington Hall.
The construction of a zero station would appear little more than a hole in the ground with a steel cover which could be easily camouflaged. Underground it could comprise of two or more rooms with radio, bed, toilet and an emergency escape tunnel. Because of the secrecy surrounding these zero stations many have remained undiscovered even until today. They can be very dangerous places as they are likely to contain weapons and home-made explosives and chemical agents.
Gravesend Civil Defence Bunker – Region 6
Just to the right hand side of the main gates of Woodlands Park in Gravesend down a small flight of stairs is a discreet doorway. This is the entrance to a previously secret, rare, intact, cold war bunker built in 1954 as a command centre for all of the areas emergency services. Previously, on this site, there was an air raid shelter but it was considerably expanded and fitted out for its new purpose in the event of nuclear war. The public are allowed to visit by arrangement and all 13 rooms remains as they were when operational. There are power and ventilation plants together with a fallout room, dormitories and complex communication equipment. There are two displays showing a genuine Government film on public protection against a nuclear attack and surprisingly a real WE177 air dropped nuclear bomb (less warhead !) which was in service until the 1990s.
There is a totally uncorroborated rumour that there is an access door from this bunker to a massive vehicle garage underneath Woodlands Park with lines of trucks, mobile generators, ambulances and other emergency vehicles. If they do exist they are not going anywhere as the vehicle entrances and exits have been covered up some years ago, although would be easy to clear.
Abandoned underground fort
- Childhood adventures - Exploring the underground Abandoned Fort
Story from my childhood of exploring a disused military fort and its tunnels.Were there hidden secrets which even now are denied. There are several contradictory stories about this fort, but I know for sure because I've been there.
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© 2012 Peter Geekie
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