OVER AND UNDER MAIDENSTONE HILL
by Diana Kennedy
This article was originally published in the April 2010 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Family history, as we know, is much more than a collection of names, we come across places occupations, periods of history, and people to add to our interest.
This article is about a street and what lies below that street. Maidenstone Hill is in Greenwich, once in the county of Kent but now part of the conglomeration that now makes up South London. It rises up from the main road, Blackheath Hill. Housing on Maidenstone Hill consists of narrow Georgian townhouses and smaller Victorian terraced houses, the land having been owned by Morden College. For many years it was home to a mixture of mainly trades people, blacksmiths, cabmen, carpenters, clerks etc. The 1999 BBC’s production of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ by Charles Dickens, with Anna Friel in the cast was filmed largely around the Maidenstone Hill area.
I first came across Maidenstone Hill many years ago when I received my grandparent’s marriage certificate. On the 25th December 1909 Thomas Edward Sewell married Alice Mary Putnam, at Holy Trinity Church in Greenwich, South London. Their marriage certificate states that they were both living at 65 Maidenstone Hill, Greenwich. This was actually the home of Alice and her parents, William and Mary Ann Putnam who had moved to 65 Maidenstone Hill sometime between 1901 and 1909.
However more recently I found another link with Maidenstone Hill and my ancestors who eventually became linked to me through the Putnam’s. According to the Protestant Dissenters Register, my great-great grandparents George and Martha Carpenter also lived at Maidenstone Hill. George and Martha’s daughter Sarah was born there in 1823. Sarah Carpenter married a Richard Short in 1849. It was one of Richard and Sarah Short’s daughters Mary Ann Short who was to marry William Putnam in 1887 and finally their daughter Alice Mary Putnam married Thomas Edward Sewell, my grandparents.
It was this coincidence, more than eighty years apart that set me thinking about the strange name of Maidenstone Hill and its history. Under Maidenstone Hill and the surrounding area are caverns. The name however suggests an early ritual site; there is evidence of an old stone circle at the top of Maidenstone Hill at the area today known as The Point. This may have been used as part of the celebration of the Horned God at fertility festivals. The caverns are said to be of great antiquity, carved out of the chalk by tools made from antlers, with four large and three smaller chambers together with a well. At its entrance are said to be carvings of the Horned God. They were also known as Jack Cade’s Caverns. John Aylmer known as Jack Cade led an uprising against King Henry V1 in 1450. It is said that he gathered together peasants and small landowners from Kent on nearby Blackheath.
According to Tony Lord writing in The Mercury in 1991 the caverns were used in the 17th century by limeburners who dug out the chalk to make mortar or to use as a fertiliser to improve the soil. The limeburners would dig a shaft and then dig out the chalk from three chambers on either side in a trefoil pattern. There was often a well dug in the caverns. Once the limeburners had removed as much as possible of the chalk they moved onto the next shaft, throwing the loose soil they had dug out into the disused shaft. In 1677 a William Steers was fined £40 for undermining the Kings Highway at Blackheath Hill and causing wagons to overturn. Eventually the limeburners moved on and the caverns remained unused, until in 1780 a builder uncovered the vertical entrance. He built himself a cottage at the entrance and cut 40steps into the side of the cave. It soon became a fashionable curiosity and a money earner for the builder at sixpence for admission. This was only halted when a nineteen year old girl, Lucy Talbot, was overcome by noxious fumes and fainted in the well chamber. Despite being carried out into the fresh air she died shortly afterwards. Because of this a ventilation shaft was cut and bellows were installed to circulate fresh air.
Later a chandelier was hung from the roof and a bar built in the largest cavern to be used for drinking parties. Stories circulated that there were ‘unclothed lady dancers’ and things rapidly got out of hand. The authorities moved in and filled in the entrance in 1854. The caverns were to remain shut and forgotten until 1939 with the start of the Second World War, when a clerk at the Civil Defence HQ at the Town Hall remembered the caverns and unearthed old plans. It was decided to assess the caverns for their suitability as air raid shelters.
Workmen sunk a timbered shaft down 32feet at the rear of 77 Maidenstone Hill and discovered a short length of passage. Carrying a lighted candle in a jar one of the labourers, Robert Budd volunteered to enter. He crawled into the dark recess and by the light of the candle saw names and dates carved on the walls. The floor was covered with broken bottles. Moving further into the darkness his light revealed a large red picture of the devil on the wall of the innermost cavern. More initials and carvings were found on the walls but the 21ft well was dry. It was said that coins had been thrown into the well for luck. Ropes were fetched and Mr Budd was lowered down, but no coins were found.
In the following weeks the Council cleared the debris, installed wooden beams to support the roof and sank a new ventilation system into the main chamber. There is however no record of the caves being used during the Blitz the following year and in 1946 it was closed and sealed again. The last person to leave the main chamber wrote the names of the party on the wall and left candles for the next explorer to find. The site of the entrance shaft is now overgrown and hidden.
In April 2002 a mysterious crater appeared in the road in Blackheath Hill at the junction with Maidenstone Hill, causing traffic chaos to the morning rush hour. The crater was nine meters in diameter and nearly 100 residents had to be evacuated from their homes. Members of Underground Kent and Chelsea Speliological Society visited the site and were reported as saying it was one of the most spectacular collapses ever seen. Borehole scans found at least two more cavities under the hill which had to be filled in. Diamond drillings found evidence of additional chalk workings 15 and 30 metres below the surface of the road at two locations. Surveyors stated that most openings were either filled with quarrying spoil or loose sand several centuries ago as a result of earlier chalk tunnel roof failures.
Finally having repaired the crater, life on Maidenstone Hill can get back to normal but I do wonder what my ancestors would have made of the strange goings on. Were the Protestant Carpenters shocked by the rumours of drinking and dancing, did the Putnam’s know what lay beneath there house?
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