Although man had occupied KENT'S CAVERN over the centuries, from Neolithic man to the people of Roman-Britain, it had a long and complicated geological history, involving water seepage, roof collapse and stream transport, before his arrival on the planet. It has been described as a vadose cave - a stream-eroded cavern probably fed by swallow-holes on the surface of a limestone terrace, but how the water left the cavern has never been convincingly discovered. The key to the cave formation is that limestone is soluble in water. In this case the rainwater, mixing with carbon dioxide in the air, becomes weak carbonic acid, which, after turning the calcium carbonate into a solution, carried it away and in so doing formed stalagmites, stalactites and crystal-lined pools. It is, more correctly, a series of cavities in the "Torquay limestone" of Middle to Upper Devonian Age linked to each other by narrow fissures.

The existence of Kent's Cavern had been known for centuries; the name first appears on a deed of 1659 as Kents Hole Close when the land was leased to John Black and is possibly Celtic in origin. Two inscriptions are cut in the stalagmite, "William Petre, 1571" and "Robert Hedges, 1688". The first recorded excavation was made by Thomas Northmore in 1824, to be followed by that of Father McEnery who made his systematic exploration between 1824 and 1829. McEnery maintained, and this was many years before Darwin's work became known, that he had found rude flint implements fashioned by hand below the stalagmite floor, and therefore placed the arrival of human beings in Britain in an epoch of time for which no records, Biblical or otherwise, existed. Much of what he said was ridiculed.

In September 1845 the newly-formed Torquay Natural History Society deputed two members "to wait upon Sir Lawrence Palk requesting permission to explore Kents Hole for the purpose of obtaining fossil remains" for its projected museum. As a result the second full investigation, covering the years from 1846 to 1858, was conducted by Edward Vivian and William Pengelly. In 1865 a committee was formed by the British Association to explore the Cavern even more fully; its members included Sir Charles Lyell, Professor Philips, Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), John Evans, Vivian and Pengelly. With Pengelly in charge the task took 15 years (during which time papers were read to the British Association from time to time). However, perhaps the most important discovery was Hedges inscription on a stalagmite boss. This was covered with a layer of stalagmite only one-sixteenth of an inch thick. Pengelly realised that, if this had taken 200 years to form, the 12 feet thickness must have taken 500,000 years. Remains of man's artifacts and bones of animals had been found beneath this stalagmite formation (many are still on exhibition in Torquay Museum). The story of Kent's Cavern, including the work done this century after its purchase by William Powe, is recorded elsewhere.

© copyright John Pike

Return to: [html - Prehistory & History to 1800] details