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  • Writer's pictureMargate Caves

Tales from the past

On 25 August 1917 Charles Feret wrote further on his discoveries about the Caves. A local historian with a keen interest in local history, his articles survive from his Bygone Thanet articles from the Isle of Thanet Gazette.

His article gives us a real insight into the many stories being told about the Caves at this time. In this article we are given a date of discovery for the Caves- 1798, by Francis Forsters gardener- whether this is the actual year of discovery or not we do not know, but it does work within the known timeline of Northumberland House, which once stood above the Caves. The article also tells us about a chalk ammonite in the Caves, now sadly lost, as well as mentions of numerous paintings, existing and lost, in the Caves.


Since writing my last notes on “Bygone Thanet,” several readers have asked me if I can throw some further light on the mystery of the Vortigern Caves. The history of these curious subterranean passages is so shrouded in mystery that it is not possible to give many concrete facts. I will, however, put before my readers the result of my own examination of the Caves and some of the opinions and conclusions of previous investigators.

The Vortigern Caves are, without question, the most wonderful underground excavations in this part of the country. Hitherto, the people of Margate, have ill understood them and have given them scant attention. They are situated at the north end of Holy Trinity Church, and penetrate a considerable distance under the garden of Holy Trinity Vicarage. They were discovered, like the Grotto, by accident. Somewhere near the close of the eighteenth century a man of eccentric habits, named Francis Forster, came to live in Margate, building a large red brick house, which he named, after the county of his birth, Northumberland House. In about the year 1798 his gardener, in digging behind the house, made the discovery of the Caves.

At the present time there are two entrances to the Caves – a private one from the grounds of Holy Trinity Vicarage, and a public one, which is situated up a short turning between Holy Trinity Schools and the Verger’s House (52, Trinity-square). Here the visitor enters a small cottage, in which there is a lovely old iron grate, which would rejoice the heart of the antiquary, but a deal seat in front of it hides it from view, and so it stands neglected and forgotten. Above it hangs a mildewed portrait of Richard Ovenden – “Lucky Dick” – about whom I have recorded many reminiscences in “Bygone Thanet.” “Lucky Dick” was unquestionably the last of the Margate Smugglers, but I have failed to connect him to the Caves which I am about to describe. This entrance to the Caves is believed to have been formed by Francis Forster, but the present stairs, which we are about to descend, leading to the Caves, were constructed by Canon Pryor in 1907. The Vicar, bye the bye, has done a very great deal to improve the Caves and elucidate the tantalizing mystery which they contain, but much, very much, still remains to be done in the way of clearances of accumulations of rubbish. When all that can be done is done, I am certain that many discoveries will be made which may throw very valuable light on the story of the Caves.

Descending the staircase that I have just mentioned, we find ourselves in a quaint chamber cut in the chalk, rendered all the more uncanny by a couple of mural paintings, now somewhat faded, representing a couple of soldiers, in costumes of the time of George III., guarding – one on each side – entrance to a narrow and darksome passage. This is the first example of the work which Mr. Forster, following the bent of his eccentric imagination, saw fit to have carved out in sundry places on the walls of the Caves. According to tradition, the pictures were painted by a local artist, named Brazier, who has, unfortunately, destroyed many interesting and valuable tool marks on the great chalk walls in order to obtain a smooth surface on which to execute his handiwork.

Passing between the two guardsmen, we enter, under an arch about 5ft. 6in. high, a short and narrow passage which bends to the right. At its end is a well, which was discovered in 1910. It is 46ft. deep, below which is an accumulation of rubbish. The water, which is brackish, comes in at certain tides. Passing under a similar arch, we next enter and somewhat smaller chamber. At the apex of the arch, under which we have just passed appears to be the remains of a small figure, but so worn away as to be hardly recognizable. At the far end is a modern cutting in the chalk communicating with an upper chamber.

Descending yet another flight of steps, we reach another cavern about 12ft. lower in the earth than the one we have just quitted. This Cave, the roof of which towers high above us, runs due east and west. It contains features which already suggest that it was designed as a place of worship. As we face its eastern end, we notice, right and left, two cuttings at right angles, forming a sort of rude transept. At the foot of the lower staircase may be discerned the top of what is apparently a pillar, concealed by accumulations of rubbish. At the west end of the chamber is a gallery, approached by steps.

Hid in the right hand wall is an entrance to a dungeon or oubliette, as the French would call it, which lies below at a depth of 20ft. 6ins.....

At the altar-like end of the great chamber is at the height of about 6ft. from the ground, an arched recess, penetrating into the chalk some six feet. At the end is a small object, now almost devoid of shape, but intended, very possibly, for the Holy Virgin. In the wall on the right, as we face the supposed altar, some seven feet from the ground, are the remains of an Ammonite, the diameter of which is about two feet. My friend, Dr. Arthur Rowe, who is a distinguished geologist, has examined this specimen of an Ammonite, which is an extinct creature belonging to the same family as the Nautilus. He states, that the Ammonites, apart from their great variety of ornamentation, vary in size from the fraction of an inch to as much as nine or ten feet in diameter.

The remains of the Ammonite in the Margate Caves are, as I have said, faulty. Dr. Rowe writes: - “In the chalk formation none of the Ammonites have their shell preserved, and this is due to the fact that the shell was formed of a special variety of carbonate of lime known as Arayonite, which is readily dissolved by the carbonic acid held in solution by the rain water percolating through the chalk.” Dr. Rowe further states that these huge molluscs are by no means rare in our Margate cliffs, and that he himself once counted no fewer than 116 in situ in a walk from Birchington to Kingsgate. The scientific name for this creature is Ammonites leptophyllus, but it is generally known as the “Margate Ammonite,” from the fact that, as Dr. Rowe explains, Judge Bedwell, in 1874, wrote an interesting paper on the position which it occupies in the Margate cliffs. No remains of an Ammonite have been found in any other part of the Caves.

Looking around us, we can discern, on the walls of this great Cave, the marks of various tools used in its excavation. A little to the right of where the Ammonite forms a kind of projecting ledge, Mr. Forster’s artist has depicted a lion. Passing through the transept-like opening of which I have spoken, we reach a smaller chamber, where the mural artist has again demonstrated his powers in the depiction of natural history. Here, to our left, is an elephant, to our right, a dog, and, hard by, a couple of monkeys. The smaller chamber somewhat resembles the larger one, having, at its eastern extremity, a cutting similar to the other. It has, however, no remains of a figure in it. At the west end is a gallery and the entrance to a second dungeon or oubliette, which lies below the spectator at a depth of 15ft. 4ins. To the right is a huge pillar of chalk, on the wall of which is the representation of a donkey. Years ago, this donkey, was represented, ridiculously enough, as standing with its four feet in a blue box, but the box has now vanished. Mr. Forster had an old joke about this donkey and in a milliner’s box, which he used to expound to his friends when he took them down to inspect his picture gallery and taste his wines in the cellars.

We are now under the garden of the Holy Trinity Vicarage, some forty feet below the earth. The chamber here runs north and south, and is about 100 feet in length. Here may be seen a representation of a fox hunt, but the work is cruder than that of the preceding tableaux. A modern cutting has been made here, destroying a portion of one of the horses in the hunt. In the dome of the smaller chamber is a grating through which light penetrates. In all probability this marks the spot where Mr. Forester’s gardener made the discovery of the Caves in 1798.

At the bottom of this chamber, Canon Pryor has had an entrance cut, leading into the smaller dungeon. The two dungeons, which were discovered in 1908, are very much alike. Until Canon Pryor had the entrances cut on the ground level, the only access to them was from the top. The opening at the top of the smaller dungeon is round and about a yard in diameter: the opening to the larger one is rectangular. Mr. H. W. Heath, B.Sc., who spent two or three days making a critical examination of the Caves, remarks : - “The general impression given by the Caves is a cruciform excavation, a gallery at the western end, a well, and two pits or oubliettes. The floor levels descend from the gallery to the nave, thence to the side cutting on the northern side. The pits or dungeons are external to the cruciform plan, and look to be additions to the main work. It is difficult to fix the date when the Caves were formed, but it is likely that they were started in Saxon times at the gallery mentioned above, although no entrance is visible there now. An examination of the original wall surface shows narrow pick-marks made in trueing-in after hewing or quarrying. The dungeons are faced with more care, and have been finished with an axe wielded by a right-handed worker. They are sinister-looking pits with smooth convex circular floors sloping to a central pit and with domed-shaped walls, and carry one’s mind back to the evil doings recorded in the chronicles of the Middle Ages.”

The two dungeons, which lie about 15ft. apart, deep below the ground at the rear of the houses on the east side of Trinity-square, are indeed, as Mr. Heath observes, sinister-looking places. There cannot be the least doubt that they were originally designed as prisons or torture houses, and Mr. Davey, the late verger of Holy Trinity, who has for fourteen years past taken a keen interest in the Caves, suggested that the circular wells at the bottom of the dungeons may have once been studded with spikes or knives for the punishment of the poor wretches who were consigned to them. As we survey these two old dungeons of death, or of secret and perpetual imprisonment, the mind reverts to the grim story told by Dumas in “The Count of Monte Christo,” of the terrible sufferings of Edmond Dante’s in his oubliette in the Chateau d’If.

We now enter the second cutting made by Canon Pryor connecting up the two dungeons. The second oubliette is, as I have said, similar in design to the first, but has a rectangular opening at the top, while the gradient of the sloping bank, at the bottom, surrounding the central pit, is greater than the other. The pit is about 6ft. deep. The markings on the wall of this dungeon are, as Mr. Heath observes, distinctly those of a right-handed worker.

Mounting a flight of chalk stairs at the west side, we reach a small circular chamber in the floor of which will be found the original entrance to the larger dungeon. Leaving this apartment, we come upon another of Mr. Forster’s frescoes, representing a dog and its kennel. Passing through a small arched passage, we reach the entrance to the small dungeon. On a wall hard by, cut somewhat deeply into the chalk, are the letters C.F.F. and the date 1808, probably the initials of a member of the Forster family. Mr. Forster’s name was Francis Forster. The letters and the date are twice repeated, and in smaller and less distinct form, are the characters F R S T R. On another wall close by is a date, which may be 1849 or 1649, probably the former.

We have now completed our tour of these curious and mysterious underground cuttings. Until Mr. Forster’s discovery, the existence of these Caves, in modern times, was unknown. We can only guess at what must have been their original entrance. Was it from the sea, or was it, as Mr. Heath suggests, at the gallery, where naturally, is the nearest point to the earth? Mr. Heath found what he believed to be a partially obliterated mark, resembling a Maltese Cross, which he describes as a sign of dedication of buildings by early Christians. Then, again, he argues, that vaulting the roof of an excavation so near the surface is an indication that the Caves were to serve a purpose other than as quarries. But what was their actual purpose? This question is, apparently, incapable of solution. I think the most likely theory is that they were originally designed for the performance of sacred rites. In later times they may, of course, have served the purpose of refuge or of storage. I regret to see that, under the authority of Canon Pryor, they are still described as “Smugglers’ Caves.” There is not an atom of evidence to show that these old chambers were ever used by smugglers, or, as I have said, that their existence was known in modern times previous to their discovery in 1798, a date, which may be 1849 or 1649, probably the former."

Image- Historic postcard dating from 1907-1908 entitled "The Vortigern Smugglers' Caves, Trinity Square, Margate,"

A black and whie postcard of the caves showing the chalk arches. There are 4 shadowed men in the image wearing clothing appropriate to the early 1900s, one man is at the front to the left of the image, 2 men stand opposite each other in the missle of the image and a man with his back to the camera wearing a hat is at the back of the image on a different level of the Caves ot the rest of the men.


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