Jason Desporte manager of the Caves, in the tin hat
Members of the History Group outside the National Archives
...And working away inside
Book your place now to see the film!
The Chislehurst Caves, a 22 mile long series of tunnels carved beneath Mill Place, are one of the best-known features of Chislehurst. They have a long history, much of it clouded in mystery. (See old images of the caves here...)
There is no evidence that they were used by the Druids, as some have suggested, but it is possible that they were first worked in Roman times, providing good quality chalk. They were worked as chalk mines right up to the end of the 19th Century, latterly owned by the Harland family (see Anthony Harland's note here...) Since the start of the 20th Century they have been converted into a privately owned tourist attraction, and have been used for concerts, parties and other social occasions.
In both World Wars, they were used as part of the war effort. In 1940 they were first used as air-raid shelters, and during the next few years they became the permanent homes of many whose houses were destroyed by the intense bombing of London.
Their use in the First World War is less well documented. They were pressed into service to store ammunition from Woolwich Arsenal during the 1914-18 war. A new bus route transported workers to the site and a narrow gauge railway was laid to access the deepest part of the caves. The men themselves were exposed to many hazards, apart from the danger of explosions they suffered burns and jaundice caused by the chemicals in the munitions.
Now, thanks to a grant of £9,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the story of ammunition workers who worked with 100,000lbs of TNT in Chislehurst Caves during the First World War will be told in the form of a documentary.
Although the caves have been open to the public for many years the usual emphasis is on the use of the caves during the Second World War as a mass air raid shelter. Using the HLF grant volunteers from the Chislehurst Society History Group have researched the First World War history gaining access to files held at the National Archives. The discoveries are being made into a documentary, some of which will be filmed in First World War sections of the caves that are currently not on the existing visitor itinerary.
Special sections of these tunnels highlight a unique series of carvings that munition workers made in the soft chalk to honour the memory of nurse Edith Cavell, who was captured and shot by the Germans in 1915. This particular incident was diarised by local resident, Ethel Bilbrough (pictured right) from Elmstead Grange, now Babington House School, in her own 'particular' style and her musings have also been recorded as part of the documentary.
Many local residents know of the Caves but have not visited for many years. We are honoured to be able to showcase the role of Chislehurst Caves as part of our commemoration of the First World War.
The documentary was first shown on Saturday October 11th, at Chislehurst Caves.
Book a place now!
Following the warm reception that the WW1 commemorative film 'Chislehurst - a Town on Top of a Tinderbox' has received, we can report the great news that every film night in 2015 will include a guided underground tour.
Each monthly showing starts at 7pm.
Our film at Chislehurst Caves, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, lasts 25 minutes, followed by an optional tour lasting approximately 20 minutes. In March and June a cold buffet will also be on offer after the tour.
All showings 7pm, Saturday nights. Free admission includes 25 minute film, refreshment and 20 minute optional underground tour
- Feb 21st
- March 14th ( includes cold buffet)
- April 18th
- May 16th
- Final Show - June 20th (includes cold buffet)
The film is fully accessible for disabled patrons but the less mobile may find the terrain underground difficult to negotiate. Wheelchairs can be accommodated but do check with the caves staff first. Free parking is available in the car park at Chislehurst Caves.
Booking is essential but there is no charge. There are 40 places available at each show and children over the age of 8 are most welcome. To book, call on 020 8467 0900, or contact us
Books and souvenirs are available at a small charge.
About the Heritage Lottery Fund
Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) aims to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities across the UK and help build a resilient heritage economy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage. HLF has supported over 36,000 projects with more than £6bn across the UK. We have already supported £52m of First World War related projects from across the United Kingdom and will continue to support as many applications as we can afford that want to commemorate the centenary. www.hlf.org.uk.
Follow us on twitter @heritagelottery #understandingWW1