The Margate Caves site is thought to have originally been excavated as a chalk mine in the late 17th/early 18th century. Chalk was used in the production of quicklime and in brickmaking, where it contributed to the distinctive yellow tone of local older bricks. At some point the site was abandoned.
In the late 18th century, a man called Francis Forster bought the site and built Northumberland House. Local stories say that in the last years of the century, his gardener fell down a hole, rediscovering the Caves. Forster commissioned a local artist (possibly named Brazier) to paint some images on the walls, such as George III, various animals and a hunting scene. He also dug certain pits and used the Caves as a grotto, ice well and wine store. When Forster died in 1835, the Caves were sealed up once again.
In 1863, an enterprising local man opened them briefly and marketed them to the recent tourists as “Vortigern’s Cavern”. Vortigern was a local king who reportedly invited the Jutes, Hengist and Horsa to invade Thanet. While Hengist may have done quite well, Vortigern’s Caves weren’t successful and they were closed.
By the latter years of the 19th century, Northumberland House had become the vicarage for Holy Trinity Church. The vicar opened the Caves briefly in 1910, but they were closed at the onset of the First World War. In 1914 a sloping passage was cut from the cellars of the Vicarage so that the residents could use them as an air raid shelter.
After the war the Caves were once again reopened to the public, before in 1938 they were closed again, with the area scheduled under a scheme called ‘The Zion Place Re-development Plan’.
Once again the Caves provided refuge during a World War and in June 1941 both Northumberland House and a large portion of Trinity Church were destroyed by enemy action. During site clearance the entrance stairs were bricked up where they entered the Caves and then backfilled with rubble. The site of the Vicarage and church were levelled and left derelict for several years. Some slight evidence of Northumberland House remains on the site today.
In the spring of 1958, James Geary Gardner, the proprietor of Chislehurst Caves, became interested in the site and sought to locate an entrance into the Caves. A concrete paving slab in the old vicarage gardens was lifted, exposing Forster’s old entrance steps. The entrance was cleared of rubble and debris and a set of steps was constructed. Two wooden huts were erected over the entrance for ticket sales.
The Caves once again opened to the public and remained so under several owners until the site was compulsory purchased by Thanet District Council as part of the scheme to widen Northdown Road.
In 2004, due to poor maintenance of the visitor infrastructure, the Caves were closed after a prohibition notice was issued by the Health & Safety Executive. Thanet District Council commissioned a structural survey in 2005 and a detailed report was produced on the condition of the caves. The report also gave recommendations for the work required in order to re-open to the public.
In 2010 TDC filed a planning application for housing on the site. Faced with strong public opposition this proposal was delayed to allow local people to pursue options for saving this historical site and the caves for public benefit.
In January 2011 the local community formed The Friends of Margate Caves (FOMC) as a formally constituted community group, recognised by the Council, to develop, pursue and implement a plan to reopen the Caves.
FOMC commissioned an Options Appraisal for the site and worked with a consultant to develop a first stage business plan. One of the recommendations was that the governance structure needed to be more robust to manage such a project and deliver the public benefit objectives of the group. Subsequently in November 2013 The Margate Caves Community Education Trust (TMCCET) was formed and registered with the Charity Commission.
All photos on this page (and the homepage image) were kindly supplied by and are Copyright of Paul Wells, Kent Underground Research Group.