The Caves have been welcoming visitors since 1863. Originally dug as a chalk mine in the 18th century it went largely forgotten for over 100 years before being rediscovered and restored for personal recreation and then, eventually, as a tourist attraction. Despite its huge popularity during the Victorian period and on into the 20th Century, the Caves were closed in 2004.
In 2011 the Friends of Margate Caves and The Margate Caves Community Education Trust (TMCCET) began a campaign to save the Caves and reopen them to to public.
Thanks to various fundraising initiatives, and major funding from the Big Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Community Fund) and Heritage Lottery Fund, TMCCET were able to contract geotechnical engineers and conservation specialists to restore the Caves and Cave paintings for the next generation of visitors to enjoy.
A New Beginning
The Margate Caves finally reopened in September 2019 with a new Community Building, Café, Shop and Exhibition and Interpretation spaces that share the rich history of the Caves and explain how the landscape, ecology and geology of the area have become entwined in the town’s rich social and cultural history.
We are very proud of our award-winning building, designed by Kent-based architects Kaner Olette. But we like to think that the Caves are more than just a physical presence nestled on the border between Margate and Cliftonville: we are a community.
Our Caves team are dedicated to providing a friendly welcome to all visitors and to supporting our local community. As a non-profit organisation we invest a lot into our outreach programmes for schools and local groups and are committed to providing opportunities and training for local residents. None of this would be possible without your continued support and we’d like to thank you for that.
We've curated a timeline of some of the key points in the Caves' history.
An ancient coast
Long before the Caves, a coastline was forming.
Around 7,000 years ago, sea levels rose across Europe forming the English Channel. Water levels continued to rise along the Kent coastline, and a small island of chalk detached from the mainland. The Isle of Thanet is born.
The island spanned 10 miles at its widest point and was separated from the mainland by a single stretch of water - the Wantsum Channel.
The Channel was two miles wide and proved an important shipping route for the Roman Empire.
Iron Age Margate
What was here before the Caves were excavated?
A flourishing Iron Age community lived on our site in a large group, based in a walled hill fort to protect themselves against violent attack from rival tribes.
Life was difficult. Successful crops and healthy animals were vital for food and materials. Tools and weapons were made from iron and steel.
In 2018, an archaeological dig uncovered many treasures from this era. Our final find was the most remarkable; an Iron Age skeleton in the bottom of a bell-shaped chalk pit.
As a town developed, building materials were needed.
In the early 1700s, chalk mining began on the site. Chalk was an important mineral used in the production of quicklime and brick-making.
The process of mining chalk was relatively simple. A shaft was sunk through the overlaying material until the chalk is reached. After penetrating the chalk, tunnels were dug from the base of the shaft.
After a while, side tunnels were cut at right angles to the main tunnels, which eventually joined up to form large pillars of unworked chalk to support the ground above. This type of mining is known as ‘pillar and stall’.
The workforce underground was quite small - one person cut the chalk while another wheelbarrowed it to the shaft. At the end of a mine’s working life, the haulage shaft was sealed and all traces of mine disappears.
A visionary schoolmistress
The Caves are forgotten but the history of 1 Northdown Road continues.
Margate was expanding and a building was constructed on our site. It was owned by Margaret Bryan who ran a boarding school for young ladies.
Mrs Bryan was an enlightened teacher who introduced her female pupils to the principles of scientific enquiry and natural philosophy. These were both considered to be the domain of men in the 18th century.
In 1797, while living in Margate, Bryan published a Compendious System of Astronomy, earning her a degree of fame.
Image – Mrs Bryan and Her Daughters – Frontispiece to A Compendious System of Astronomy, the whole engraved by William Nutter from a miniature by Samuel Shelley, 1797, 1799 and 1805.
The Caves are rediscovered
Rumours of rabbits and gardeners spread...
Bryan House was put up for auction in 1807 and Francis Forster, heir to a substantial estate in Northumberland, purchased it as his new family home. He set about making alterations, changing the name to Northumberland House.
Exactly how the Caves are discovered is open for debate. Forster’s great granddaughter, speaking a century later, suggested that the gardener came upon a hole that led down into the Caves. Another story includes Forster who, keen to solve the mystery of his disappearing rabbits, discovers a small hole at the foot of a pear tree which revealed the Caves. In 1863, the story is reported in newspapers across the UK - the same year a certain Lewis Carroll wrote about another disappearing rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland...
With the addition of a new stairway, Forster utilised the Caves as an ice well and wine cellar and used it to impress influential friends.
The making of Vortigern legend
The birth of a tourist attraction.
In 1854, Northumberland House was sold at auction to John Norwood, a local postman, who also kept a grocery and hardware store. Norwood was a character and natural salesman.
He opened the Caves as a show place, employing his best marketing style to give them the fanciful name of ‘The Vortigern Caves’ and claiming they dated to 454AD – all for threepence admission! An account of the opening makes the first reference to the Caves’ wall paintings, describing the elephant, the crocodile, the lion and two works which haven’t survived of a tiger and some Chinese prisoners in chains.
Changing times change the Cave's story.
This advert appeared in Keble’s Gazette in 1885 and was the first mention of smugglers being associated with the Caves. It is a romantic notion that persisted for another century.
This isn’t just a period of change for the Caves. In 1893, part of Northumberland House is converted into a vicarage for Holy Trinity Church.
The enterprising vicar
The Caves get a new lease of life.
Canon Michael Pryor was appointed to Holy Trinity and paid considerable attention to the Caves. He began revitalising them as a tourist attraction, introducing ‘improvements’ such as convenient new stairways and cutting a new entrance from the vicarage cellar. He was also responsible for the first photographs of the Caves, produced in 1908.
World War II
The Caves in wartime
The world's at war.
World War II forced the Caves to close. In 1941, the Vicarage above was hit by a German bomb and, in 1943, neighbouring Holy Trinity Church was also severely damaged during a hit and run raid.
The roof of the church collapsed, part of the north wall was demolished and the gallery on the north side crashed down. The tower remained standing, but the beautiful stained glass east window, installed about 1883, was shattered.
The decision was made not to rebuild the church.
From the ashes of WWII
A new era dawns and a new owner reopens the Caves.
In 1958, the Caves re-opened again! James Geary Gardner, owner of the Chislehurst Caves and President of the Speleological Society, took the lease and re-entered the Caves using Forster’s old entrance. He built a marquee, tea garden and ticket office.
Gardner also cleared the blocked Pryor entrance, erected two huts on the surface and re-touched some of the wall paintings. The Thanet Giant was added, rendered in ultra-violet paint.
Image: James Geary Gardner, second from left. Image courtesy of Chislehurst Caves Archive.
2000s - Present
The Caves close,
A time of uncertainty.
The future looks bleak. After the site had been compulsorily purchased by Margate Council in 1962, Gardner handed back the lease in the early 1990s, and the site was leased on shorter-term lets. A lack of significant investment over decades led to poor maintenance of the visitor infrastructure.
As a result, the Caves are closed in 2004 after a Prohibition Notice was issued by the Health & Safety Executive.
The Friends of Margate Caves
Save our Caves!
The Caves were at risk of being lost forever. In 2008, the Friends of Margate Caves was formed and public consultation and fundraising began the quest to 'Save the Caves'.
The Margate Caves Community Education Trust established
There are big plans afoot!
The Friends commissioned an Options Appraisal for the site, working 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 major project and ensure the public benefit objectives of the group were properly delivered.
In November, The Margate Caves Community Education Trust (TMCCET) was formed and registered with the Charity Commission.
The Trust continued the Friends’ work to secure a long lease on the site from Thanet District Council, developed plans for the site and raised the funds needed to re-open the Caves.
Plans for a new visitor centre revealed!
The future looks bright.
Work behind the scenes continued. TMCCET prepared full plans to make the Caves safe again and build a new visitor centre with community rooms. Lease negotiations with Thanet District Council continued and thousands of pounds were raised to ensure each phase of the project plans were successfully implemented.
The Caves meet the 21st century
Here's to the future!
The Margate Caves re-opened its doors in August 2019. Over 5,000 people came to visit the Caves during the first two weeks, many from the local community.
By the end of the year, the Margate Caves had already hosted its first art exhibition, scout meetings, recovery group meetings, book-binding classes and toddlers’ movement classes. The Caves Learning and Outreach Manager was out in the local community delivering workshops on graffiti, light, geology and painting conservation.
The Community Café established regular customers from the neighbouring area and a team of local volunteers were on hand to help visitors enjoy their time at the Caves. After 15 years, the Margate Caves have awoken.