Margate Caves Archeological Dig

Margate Caves are located at 1 Northdown Road not far from Trinity Square in Margate, the site of the old Holy Trinity Church that was bombed in 1943 and finally demolished in 1958 after laying semi-derelict, but not totally irreparable, for about 15 years.

The history of this man-made cave, sometimes referred to as The Cave of Vortigern, remains unclear to this day and is the subject of some surprisingly confusing on-line articles. They were first (re)-discovered in 1798 when a gardener employed by the eccentric owner, Francis Forster, of a property that was at the time recorded as Northumberland House, fell through in to them. He subsequently died from the injuries sustained. Shortly afterwards Forster had a private entrance cut in the form of a shaft. The Cave comprises a series of large rooms and is definitely artificially hewn, probably initially as a chalk mine, from originating from an original natural feature. Although lying to the North-East of the house, there is no (known) access to the sea, so it is unlikely that they were ever used by smuggler’s, although this is one of its suggested purposes. A possible link through to the Lido tunnels has even been suggested. When Forster died in 1835, the Caves were sealed up again.

Some consider the Cave/s to be originally of Saxon origin, although there is no direct evidence for this (see reference 1). They were re-opened at various times from 1863 onwards and marketed with this supposed history related as fact. They were also used as an air-raid shelter in both World Wars. Having been re-opened yet again in 1958 they were publicly accessible until 2004 when H & S concerns resulted in their closure once more. After subsequent periodic ‘infiltration’ by ‘undesirables’ as far as the structure was concerned, and in order to avoid further issues, in 2011 Thanet District Council decided to seal the entrance to the Caves at great expense to the public purse.

A large Georgian structure, Bryan House, was actually the first structure to be built on the site of the Caves, but whether this pre-dated the finding of the entrance, or whether they were found by the owner of the house and an entrance created within the house is unclear. The property at that time was owned by a Mrs. Bryan who, surprisingly, apparently ran it as a ‘school of science’ for young ladies!

At a later date the house, as stated, by then known as Northumberland House, became the Vicarage for the Holy Trinity Church. According to a recent site visitor there is a story, probably an urban myth, about the Vicar having been noted switching off the lights in the Church, followed shortly after by the lights in the House being switched on, without him ever having been seen walking between the two sites! This has given rise to the notion of some kind of additional tunnel linking the old Church site to the Vicarage via the Caves. In 1914, a new entrance was created from the cellar of the Vicarage so that the house residents could use it as an air-raid shelter. It was this entrance that was later used for public access up until the time of its closure,

Like the Church, the House was severely damaged by at least one bomb during WW2, and the site above the Caves has remained derelict ever since. From old maps it can be seen that the House was originally serviced by two gateways and a drive, but these were obliterated when Northdown Road was widened. The orientation of the House was slightly unusual since it lay at a slight angle to the road, something that a visitor mentioned during the ‘dig’. This is shown clearly on a map of the area drawn sometime in the late 19th Century – certainly pre-Margate Winter Gardens, which was built in 1903.

As with the more widely known Margate Shell Grotto (discovered in 1835) located not far away – and possibly even linked – the Caves were always popular with local people, whether when formally open, or unofficially when it wasn’t! The Friends of Margate Caves group were established to try and find a way of re-opening the Caves to the general public. After a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funding agencies, and the production of a business plan to re-open the Caves, including the design of a new Visitor/Cliftonville Community Centre and educational space, ten days of work began in early February 2018, on an archeological investigation of the site prior to building work on the Centre commencing. The need for this was partly dictated by the earlier finding of Bronze Age trenches and pits on land to the west of the site on Northdown Road which had new flats built on it a few years previously following the demolition of some 1960’s Local Government offices.

Initial site clearance took place on Monday and Tuesday, February 5th and 6th, 2018. The area had been used as a general dump for many years and a considerable amount of general surface rubbish had to be removed before the archaeologist’s digger could move in to start moving top soil in the areas where it was hoped it might be possible to pick up on the previously mapped Bronze Age trenches on the adjacent site.

I volunteered at the Margate Caves dig twice in this first week, on the Wednesday and Thursday. Both occasions were fortunately relatively sunny and benign, albeit very cold.

Confirmation of Bronze Age activity in the area was confirmed very early on at the north-eastern edge of the dig by the discovery of extensions to the trenches previously exposed by a similar investigation that had taken place prior to the construction of the flats on the adjacent site.

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A long, probably garden, wall was also quickly revealed. In addition, rough clearance of an already exposed tiled porch or veranda area took place to the left and front of the site.

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The main job on the first day was to clean up both sides of the exposed brick wall right down to its foundations, and beyond to the underlying chalk layer. Everything was then measured and plotted.

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As the wall was deemed to be ‘modern’, it was not for keeping, so a lot of hard work was obliterated on the following day by its total removal down to that base layer so that the continuing line/s of the Bronze Age pits that had been revealed at the northern end of the site and wall could be traced further.

During Day 2, additional sections of elaborate Minton-tiled flooring of Bryan House, the Georgian school house that used to occupy the site were discovered. These had been completely buried and apparently previously un-recorded, unlike the ‘porch’ area.

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In addition, an arched roof was uncovered that when later removed revealed what appeared to be part of the cellar of the bombed Northumberland House. It was largely filled with rubble, either as a result of the bomb, or subsequent in-fill with bomb-damage rubble.

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Elsewhere on the site, a piece of what was positively identified as part of Holy Trinity Church was found. this may have arrived through the air (!) or had simply been transferred here after the War.

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There were few other ‘finds’, but hopefully there will be a lot more once work on the in-fill areas begins. My personal best of the day were a large chunk of lead piping, a Burton – London drain cover and a virtually perfect ‘crenellated’ path edging tile.

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On the following day (8/2/18) all three tiled areas that had been exposed were properly cleaned up for photography. It is hoped that these can now be preserved intact and exhibited in the new Community Centre.

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The old house (garden?) wall that had only been ‘unveiled’ the previous day was totally demolished and the bulk of the brickwork removed by mechanical digger. All the ground beneath was then cleared of rubble down to the chalk base layer of the two original trenches that had been worked on the previous day.

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Using trowels to scrape back residual material revealed inconsistencies in the layers such as evidence of pits, trenches and post holes – which are all of Bronze Age origin. These show up as dark areas because they contain in-fill rather than being of solid chalk.

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There were few actual ‘finds’ during this work apart from a quantity of animal bones, since the wall removal and other heavy digging took up much of the time. However, this is where the fun should begin as the darker areas that can be seen crossing the solid white chalk in the photographs will now be excavated with much more care and hopefully reveal some interesting bits and pieces. Things should now move forward apace!

Friday (9th) I was (fortunately!) unable to work at the dig owing to a previous volunteering commitment. The weather turned, and was pretty foul all day with heavy rain showers and a bitter wind, so little ‘scraping’ could occur in those sorts of conditions.

Saturday’s work was also curtailed considerably by the weather around lunchtime after a beautiful, frosty start to the day. A metal detector arrived on site courtesy of one of the Thanet & Sandwich Coastal Finds FB group, but unfortunately very little was found.

Work continued on the Sunday when the forecast was for sunshine as well as for Monday although the rest of following week looked very mixed once again. Certainly no chance of things warming up!

I was able to assist further with the dig on the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of the second week.

Most of this time was spent digging out one particular cut. This was taken down in stages to reveal a number of features including a set of what can best be described as ‘steps’. These had the professional archaeologists rather confused as they were the first of their kind that that (at least) had ever seen. The excavation overall looked promising but actually revealed relatively little apart from one reasonable-sized piece of Bronze Age pot, and numerous small pieces of Iron Age pot. Three pieces of this were found to match up and form part of the base of a single pot. Further bone fragments and jaws complete with teeth, probably of sheep, and a large cow or ox vertebra and molar completed the tally. Elsewhere on site there were further, but modest Iron Age pot finds.

The originally planned final three days of the dig (February 16th, 17th and 18th) were spent  largely cleaning and tidying the whole site ready for a ‘media day’ on Monday, February 19th, but whether this occurred I don’t know as the weather was, once again, particularly wet and cold!

It later transpired that some additional time was allowed for the archaeologists to complete their work, which included the revelation that during the latter part of the excavations, an entire human skeleton had been revealed lying at the bottom of one of the excavated pits. This was not made public until all the necessary authority had been given to allow the skeleton to be removed for preservation.

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Skeleton of an Iron Age man (Isle of Thanet News On-Line)

Margate Map 1852 Northumberland House

1852 Map of Margate with Northumberland House/Caves site highlighted

This was my first experience of such a ‘dig’ and look forward to other opportunities once the weather improves a little!

References:

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