THE EARLY EXCAVATIONS.

Despite the great age of the caves and their fairly easy accessibility, formal explorations did not take place until the 1800's. Many visitors had come to the caves in the past, a few leaving their mark in the form of graffitti, scratched into the rocks. The oldest carving so far found dates to 1571.

The first person to record his discoveries in the caves was an Irishman called John MacEnery. He was a young Roman Catholic priest who came to Torquay in 1820 to become chaplain to the Carey family who lived at Torre Abbey. His duties took only a little of his time and he was soon looking for other activities to occupy him. He first entered the caves in March 1822.

He quickly uncovered some fossil teeth and this encouraged him to continue his explorations. Over the next four years he made many more exciting discoveries including the skulls of large cave bears, the remains of hyenas, wolves and many other animals. Perhaps even more importantly he found flint tools made by prehistoric man.

For the early cave explorers Kents Cavern could be a dangerous place. Once MacEnery narrowly escaped being crushed by a huge boulder which toppled over as he dug away in front of it. At another time the floor collapsed beneath him and he fell through into another passage and was lucky to escape unhurt. Perhaps because of the harsh conditions during his work in the caves he became unwell. Over the next ten years he never fully recovered and he died at quite a young age in 1842.

MacEnery had always intended to publish an account of the findings he made in the caves, but due to either ill health or lack of money, or possibly even opposition to his work he never achieved this. Luckily most of his notes have survived and serve as an excellent reminder of the caves' first "time detective". Perhaps a more fitting memorial to him is the fact that most parts of the caves are still known by the names he gave them so long ago.

The opposition to MacEnerys' work was a religious one, The teachings of the church were that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago and that there must be another explanation for the buried remains found in the caves. It was not until men like Charles Darwin first put forward ideas that man had slowly evolved over millions of years, that other people took an interest in the secrets of the caves.

William Pengelly was the next explorer to record important discoveries in the caves. He came to Torquay in 1830 from his home town of Looe, in Cornwall. He made a living by setting himself up as a private tutor, especially of natural history, though he was interested in everything and it was not long before he visited the caves. He first excavated at Kents Cavern in 1846, but it was not until 1865 that he started the work that has led to our great knowledge of the caves today. The excavations started on March 27th, 1865 and ended on June 19th, 1880.

Through past experience Pengelly had worked out a very precise method of excavating, and of recording his work. This means that today, over 90 years after his death, scientists and researchers can still use his notes to reconstruct his work and find out almost exactly where each and every bone and flint was first found in the chambers and passages. It was not just the way that Pengelly carried out the work that makes Kents Cavern so important, but also what he found. In the upper layers he uncovered Roman coins, pieces of highly decorated Iron Age pottery, combs made from bone which are thought to be connected with weaving, tools made of bronze, fragments of Bronze Age pots which had been buried with, or containing the ashes of, their dead owners, and many other things.

Breaking through the first thick stalagmite floor into the layers below he came across the bones of animals that lived long ago, during the last Ice Age. Animals such as Horse, Reindeer, Woolly Rhinoceros, Woolly Mammoth, Bears, Lions, Hyena and Wolf. Among these bones Pengelly also found evidence of man, ranging from the time when bone harpoons were commonly used, back to the age when chipped pieces of flint were made into spearpoints.

Going deeper and breaking through another stalagmite floor into even older layers he found vast numbers of bones from Cave Bears and, most importantly, flint tools of such a remote time that he could only vaguely guess their age.

Pengelly of course did not do all of the work himself. In fact he did little of the actual digging, but employed a long list of workmen to carry out the heavy work. Normally at any one time there would only be two workmen in the caves, but as the work was very strenuous and the conditions were very difficult, (wet, cramped and poorly lit) few stayed at the job for very long. Remarkably though one man, George Smerdon, continued to work at the caves for the full fifteen years of the excavations.

The men worked a six-day week, having only Sundays off. Their only official holidays were Good Friday and Christmas Day. For this they were paid 12 shillings (60 pence) a week. This may not seem a great deal in todays terms, but the workers could just about survive and feed their family, though their main diet would be bread and jam.

Wages were much lower in the 1800's than they are today. A farm labourer earned only 40p a week in 1826. This rose to 60p in 1872, and by 1900 he might take home 92 1/2p each week. A young girl working in a drapers shop would have wages of between £10 and £40 a year, for working between 56 and 67 hours every week, although she probably lived rent-free in accomodation above the shop. About this time a headteacher could expect to earn between £600 and £800 a year.

In the 1850's an income of about £500 per annum was sufficient to maintain a large house, two servants, two months holidays abroad and still leave over £200 savings in the bank.

Foreign travel was relatively cheap in the Victorian period. An 'all-in' holiday to Italy or Switzerland would cost only £10 per person. A pocket camera with 12 exposures was £1.05, whilst you could buy a bicycle for between £4 and £5. A haircut would
cost you 1p, as would a pint of beer. The price of food did not change very much throughout Victorian times.

Here is a typical shopping basket of groceries from the 1880's:

Bread ( 4 Ib loaf ) 3p
Butter ( 1 Ib ) 8 1/2p
Meat ( 1lb ) 4p
Fish ( 10 pilchards ) 1/2p
Milk ( 1 pint ) 3/4p
Eggs ( 1 dozen ) 5p
Potatoes ( 14 lbs ) 3p
Sugar ( 1 lb ) 2p
Tea ( 1/4 Ib ) 15p
Cheese ( 1 lb ) 4 1/2p
[ all prices expressed in 'New Pence'.]


When Pengelly retired in 1880 George Smerdon remained at the caves as the guide/caretaker for the owner at the time, Lord Haldon. When he was no longer able to continue his duties in the caves due to old age and ill health, Smerdon recommended his son-in-law, Francis Powe for the job, and he duly took up the position in 1890. Sadly, George Smerdon died very soon after his retirement from the caves.

When His Lordship came to sell the caves in 1903 it was Francis Powe, who purchased them. Francis Powe followed his trade as a carpenter, using the caves as a workshop and store. With his son Leslie at his side, he frequently guided visitors around the caves.

In 1925 a human skull was found in a cleft in the rock, outside the caves. At the time it was thought to be over 10,000 years old and caused a great increase in interest in the caves. Francis Powe and his son were happy to allow further excavations of the caves, so that in 1926 new diggings began.

The excavations were mainly confined to the winter months and lasted until 1941. It was during this period, on March 14th, 1927, that the jawbone of Modern Man was discovered. Today this is probably the most important single find to have been made in all the excavations. Unfortunately the rest of the Edwardian work did not come up to the high standards established by William Pengelly. The excavations carried out during this time are of far less value than the earlier Victorian ones, although they did make many important discoveries, adding to our present knowledge of the caves.

Today the caves are still owned by the Powe family, and managed by John Powe, Francis' grandson, who is promoting the latest research. No one yet knows what fascinating new information this may reveal.



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