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A Brief History Of Gough’s Caves, Cheddar

by Dave Irwin

The history of Gough's Old and New Caves is a story of two caves that were destined to become among the best known public show-caves in the country; the earlier of which is now closed to the public.  The caving world has long appreciated that these are part of the same cave system in geomorphological sense, but to the public the two separate sites in print, at least, was assumed to be the same cave that has been progressively extended leading to confused reports in the past.  This has been based on contemporary information, full details of which have bee given in separate papers by the author published in the U.B.S. Proceedings (Irwin, 1986a, 1986b).

The caves at the lower end of Cheddar Gorge lie in a region that was known to 19th century inhabitants of Cheddar as Rock-End.  Another interesting name that has emerged is the point we know today as Black Rock was known in 1805 as Stag’s Cross.  Rock-End is the area from what is now the car parks in the Cooper’s Hole area to the bottom of the Gorge by Birch’s Bridge.  There were several paper and grist mills in the area utilising the water from the resurgence; contemporary maps show that there were about 10 limekilns in the Cliff Road area. The remains of one of the limekilns still exist below Lion Rock.  The people living in the area were housed in no more than single roomed cottages, some built against the walls of the cliffs.  In these hovels they eat, bred and slept.  A hole in the roof acted as a ‘chimney’ which appears to have rarely worked and must have filled the premises with smoke when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.  To scrape a living the men worked as agricultural labourers or in the quarries and mines.  The women made a few extra pennies by acting as guides to the caves and by selling spar to the visitor.  There are numerous accounts of the trouble caused by these unfortunate inhabitants, many of which would not take ‘No’ for an answer greatly irritating the visitors. Guide books of the 1840’s warned visitors of the problems likely to be met when they visited Cheddar Caves and some even wrote to the local newspapers complaining that no one could visit the Cliffs in peace.

The earliest reference to cave guides appears in the 1780’s and the commonly visited site was Long Hole.  Remember at this time and up to 1933 the scree slope from the Slitter which lies to the west of the cave entrances, spilled out to the modern road edge thus making the ascent to Long Hole a relatively easy climb.  In the early 19th century steps were cut into the soil near the top of the slope to further ease the climb.  An interesting sketch (1816) by the Reverend John Skinner, of Camerton, of the Slitter clearly shows the entrance to the Long Hole and Gough's Old Cave (Irwin. 1986b).

The less fortunate individuals and families were forced to inhabit the caves.  They boarded up the entrances to protect themselves from the weather and were able to eek out an existence by selling spar and potatoe stone. One such site was Gough’s Old Cave.  There are several documented references to a woman and her son who lived in the cave between c.1810 and c.1839.  In 1839 the son is reported to have married and moved into a cottage built against the cliff wall outside the cave entrance.  A newspaper reports says that he died in January 1877.  The identity of this man has yetv to be investigated but when this is done it should clarify the Jack and Nancy legend.  Was the son Jack Beauchamp (possible Beecham) or, as we shall se later, John Weeks?

Phelps (1836) describes the caves that were known at the time.  Briefly these are long Hole, Saye’s Hole, Gough’s Old and New Caves.  In addition Cooper’s Hole (said to be named after a family by that name who once lived in the cave) was referenced on maps that are stored at Longleat House.  Both Cooper’s Hole and Gough’s New Cave entrances were closed by wooden frames and used for long periods as cart sheds (c.1872).  It is most unlikely that either were long used for habitation as both were, and still are, subject to regular winter flooding.  During the 19th century Gough’s New Cave was known as Sand Hole, Saye’s hole was called ‘The Hall’ or ‘Cheddar Hall’; the earliest record of this name was noted by John Strachey of Ston Easton c.1736.

To make matters clear the names of Gough's Caves shall be used as we know them today.  Gough’s Old Cave needs no explanation but Gough’s Cave (that which is now open to the public) was originally known as Gough’s New Cave between the date of discovery and about 1910; by then the Old Cave appears to have been closed for public viewing.

Visitors to Cheddar had the opportunity to view several caves in the neighbourhood from as early as the 17th century.  This situation continued until George Cox (1800-1868) discovered Cox’s Cave in 1837. For the next year he developed the inside of the cave and opened it to the public in 1838.  At the same time George developed the Pleasure Gardens associated with what is now known as the Cliff Hotel.  This grist mill was bought by James Cox (George's father) in 1823 as lease-hold property, then known Harris' Mill changing its name to Cox's Mill when the ownership changed.  Most of the land at Cheddar at this time was owned by the Longleat Estates and thus most properties were 1easehold.  The tithes (or rates) were paid annually to the Marquis of Bath.  However, following the discovery and development of Cox's Cave, George Cox created the pleasure gardens making the site an attractive place for the mid-19th century visitors.  The impact of the expansion of the railways had yet to make its mark felt but suffice to say by this time that Cheddar was a well known and popular place to visit.

Back to the Gough's Old Cave.  A photograph of Jack and Nancy Beauchamp exists on picture postcard (Page 8).  It is a copy photograph of an original taken in 1860 and was probably placed on sale by Charles Collard of Cheddar about 1905. From this photograph we can clearly see the entrance to Gough's Old Cave and above the entrance is a board that could be a signboard.  The photograph has been closely inspected by Chris Howes but he cannot determine what is written on it.  The photograph also suggests that the cave informally operated as a show cave at least by 1860.  Though the contemporary guide-books mention Cox’s cave (then known as Stalactite Cavern) none mention the existence of a second show cave until 1869.  For example, Stevens in his A Guide to Cheddar and Neighbourhood (1869) makes no mention of a show cave other than Cox's Cave; remember his material probably would have been collected during the previous year. However, in 1869 a book The Tourist’s guide to Cheddar Cliffs published by E. Green of Wells confirms that a second cave was open for public viewing.  The cave was called The Great Stalactite Cavern.  The fact that a second cave was open to the public is independently confirmed by Eric Hensler's paternal grandfather, a certain Robert Russell Green.  Green visited Cheddar in 1869 and recorded in his diary “…There are tow chief ones, one kept by one Weekes certainly the larger of the two but not so beautiful as those by Mr. Cox…” (Hensler, 1968).  So we have definite proof that Gough's Old Cave was open to the public by 1869.  The existence of John Weeks (as spelt in the tithe records) has been confirmed by the tithe records at Longleat House.  He is recorded as a leaseholder of the land in front of the cliff where the modern cave offices and restaurant have been built.  The land contained a hut, garden and cavern.  Now assuming Jack and Nancy existed thy could have lived in the hut on Weeks’ land and ‘managed’ the cave for Weeks.  Weeks could also have taken control of the land from Jack and Nancy and operated the cave for himself.  The man who was born in Gough’s Old Cave is reported to have died in January 1877.  Who was he?  Weeks could have also been the son of the woman who lived in the cave.  Research continues into this fascinating subject. Some conclusions have been drawn but it is too soon to carry the subject sny further until some more checks have been made.

Anther early record of the Great Stalactite Cavern is an entry in the diary of the Reverend KiIvert, the great 19th century traveller.  He visited Gough's Old Cave in 1873 but was not impressed.  He describes the place as being wet and damp, full of slippery rocks ready to hurl one into the Bottomless Pit.  The man who guided them through the cave was white haired, deaf and had a bandaged jaw - obviously suffering from toothache!


 Richard Cox Gough, born in Bristol in 1827, moved to Cheddar about 1866; this is two years earlier than previously thought.  It is said that to make ends meet he worked in the mines and quarries higher up the gorge.  His mother, Lydia, lived near Lion Rock and was the sister of George Cox.  She had married James Gough and presumably after the death of her husband moved back to Cheddar in her retirement.  Richard Gough, and his family 1ived with his mother and eventually came into possession of the house after her death in 1871. What was Gough’s occupation between 1871 and 1877?  What is certain is that he was in control of Gough’s Old Cave by the summer of 1877.  When he took over the cave and from whom is still unknown.  By this time he was a man of moderate means for he entertained the villagers to a sumptuous meal in June 1877 and during the following month he entertained the Good Templars of Westbury and Cheddar to a picnic and in the evening showed them round “ …the Great stalactite Cavern.”  He now operated a show cave that was constantly being, and poorly, compared with Cox’s cave, now operated by his cousins after the death of their father in 1868.  Gough realised that he needed to do something pretty damn quick to combat the competition of he was to make a successful commercial venture from the cave.  Gough’s Old Cave at this time terminated at the top of the rift passage beyond the entrance chamber.  At the top of the rift he noticed that water pouring from the boulder and stalagmite choke in wet weather and so he employed men to remove the debris and in November 1877 he was rewarded by the discovery of a large chamber which he eventually called “The Convert Chamber.”   His advertising handbills of 1879 stated that he had re-named the cave as “The New Great Stalactite Cavern.”  The new chamber was quickly made ready for public viewing and admission to the cave was now 1 shilling and 6 pence, or for more than one person 1 shilling each. Cox's Cave was even more expensive at 3 shillings a visitor.


Photograph of Jack and Nancy Beauchamp said to be taken in 1860.
Notice Gough’s old Cave entrance (upper centre)
(from an old postcard c.1905)

The railway came to Cheddar in 1869, and with cheap excursion tickets during the summer months, the many visitors making Cheddar a popular tourist spot.  Works outings particularly from Bristol were common occurrences and the caves were among the highlights in addition to Pleasue Gardens and Church.

In addition to the showing of the cave, Gough organised several events in the cave during the off-peak season.  In September 1877 the Welford Family gave a hand-bell concert in the cave and in 1881 E.R. Sleator, a photographer an exhibition of his work on local views in the Concert Chamber.  For this occasion the cave was decorated with Chinese Lanterns and additional lighting was provided by oxy-hydrogen lights.  The photographs were described as being very realistic.

Gough installed gas lighting in the cave in April 1883.  The gas was obtained from petroleum by the use of a special apparatus.  The conversion apparatus was installed in the entrance chamber and for this action Gough was hauled before the Axbridge Magistrates because he did not possess the necessary licence to store petroleum and because the apparatus was a potential danger to the public.  Gough claimed that he had been advised that a licence was not necessary for the quantity that he was storing but he was nevertheless fined 10 shillings and the petroleum confiscated.  He was warned that if he did not place the apparatus in a safe location he would not be granted a further licence.  Gough asked that if he complied the Police requirements would he get his petroleum back?  Gough said “I have committed no crime.  It is like taking the bread out of a man’s mouth to take the petroleum away.” Colonel Luttrell (chairman of the Magistrates Bench) replied “You would have been fined much more heavily if the petroleum was not forfeited and the Bench will therefore reckon that your fine your petroleum is forfeited.”  The newspaper report continued " ... The defendant said he would like the Magistrates to visit the cave, and Col. Luttrell replied that he should be afraid to do so under the present circumstances.”  (Weston-super-Mare Gazette, 1883, 2nd May).

Gough’s next breakthrough came in 1887 when he discovered the Cathedral Chamber and the Queen’s Jewel Chamber at the end of the cave.  The route to these chambers was already open and only required crawling through to find them.  The original route is still there to see.  To make assess easy for the public, Gough excavated at the top of the Concert Chamber and cleared a passage below the two chambers.  He opened them to the public in 1888 hence they became known in the advertisements of the day, as the 1888 Chambers.  The first newspaper account of the new chambers appeared in the Weston-super-Mare Mercury (26th May 1888) which said

"Through this passage (the excavated one) the members were now conducted and emerged in what might be termed two grottoes of stalactites…..these were well illuminated and the beauty of the effect difficult to describe.  In one place a small natural fountain played in the centre of stalactites and stalagmites."

Gough employed his sons to act as guides and William Gough recalls in a letter to Thorneycroft (1949) “…before I was 12 [c.1883] I was able to conduct parties through the caves as well as the next.,"  It is reported that augment the formations in the cave Gough purchased cart-loads of stalagmite from Loxton Cave which had been open to the public for a short time to the public in the 1860s.  In addition to the added formations Gough used various devices to enhance the cave such as fountains in the chamber and reflected pools in the entrance chamber.

The last discovery was St. Valentine's Chamber - a side grotto at the entrance to the Concert Chamber (February, 1869).  The existence of the chamber was probably not unknown to Gough but to add to the 'latest important discovery' the grotto was opened up sufficiently to enable the public to peer into it.  This grotto seems to have been enhanced with foreign stalagmites!

Competition between the Cox's and Gough rose to unprecedented levels.  The cave proprietors made exaggerated claims about the merits of their respective caves for by now Gough's Cave was obviously biting into the takings at Cox’s Cave, the proprietors of which had a monopoly until 1877. Even then Gough probably made little impact on Cox’s Cave but by the mid 1880’s the situation was changing. Between 1877 and 1887 Gough had 20,000 visitors to the cave.  Edward Cox tried desperately to play down the importance of the discovery of the Concert Chamber in Gough's Cave typified by the following advertisement:

Cox's Stalactite Cavern.


NOTICE - There is no truth in the announcement of the discovery of a new great cave in 1877.  It is one of the original Cheddar Caves shown to the public before Cox’s Stalactite Cavern was accidentally discovered 1837-38.  Both caverns were described in 1868 by Mr. Nicholls in "Pleasant Trips out of Bristol."

Edward Cox, the then proprietor, was not being wholly truthful as Nicholls' book only mentions Cox's Cave and Long Hole!  The outburst from Richard Gough is not unexpected:


Visitors Read this before Seeing Caves.

GOUGH'S CAVES of 1877-1888-1889,

are the most wonderful .. ,

Visited by H,R.H. the Prince of Siam and the Colonials

..CAUTION: Station Drivers and others who are interested in other Caves are not my Colleagues.  I employ no "Touts."  I received a letter from the EARL OF KIMBERLEY, dated June 9th, 1888, contradictory of a Statement posted at another Cave.  H.R,H. the Prince of Wales has not visited Cheddar since a youth, with his tutor ..

Gough’s Entrance (c.1927 showing scree slope from slitter. (Courtesy of Cheddar Caves).

Neither of the proprietors were being honest with the public.  Touts were employed and the drivers received a ‘back-hander’ from the respective proprietors.  This technique continued well into the 20th century.  In fact fighting between the drivers was a regular event if local memories are to be believed!

To develop the site still further Gough and his wife, Frances, opened a formal tea garden outside their house and so were now in competition with the Pleaure Gardens at the Cliff Hotel.

Gough made no further discoveries at the Old Cave.  By about 1830 his attention had turned to Sand Hole, the large choked entrance some 40 metres east of the Old Cave entrance.  Why he had not attempted to excavate the site before is unknown but it has been suggested that a woman living in the adjacent cottage had prevented him doing so.  The site had long been a cart shed and according to Balch had been used as a gambling den.  Early 19th century initia1s and dates have been recorded scratched in tufaceous stalagmite close to the entrance.  The cave was partially choked but sufficiently clear so that the curious could penetrate at least 150ft. into the cave.  In January 1892 Gough had excavated at the end choke and broke into what is now known as The Fonts.  Gough cleared the passage and installed gas lighting by November 1892.  This section of the cave he opened to the public as Gough’s Rockwork Caves, because of the beautiful scalloping that exists there particularly in the two large rifts.  In fact he had removed so much material (much of it if archaeological importance) that he organised a concert on the 21st, November to which over 600 people attended.  The cave had by now been re-named and called Gough's New Cave. The newspapers were enthusiastic in their reports after the concert.  The Weston-super-Mare Mercury, for example wrote:

NOVEL CONCERT… The numerous audience was delighted with the cave and its decorations, which were profuse and tasteful and the geni of the cavern came in for numerous and well-deserved compliments for the manner in which the novel concert hall was illuminated consisting of fairy lamps, Chinese lanterns, gas and candles, the whole interlaced with hundreds of bannerettes. The devices were few but good, meeting the eye on coming up the cliffs was the 'Setting Sun" at an elevation of 100 or 200 feet over the entrance.  In the cave, at a height of about 60 feet over the placid water, was the "New Moon" and at the cave entrance to the left was the device "Praise God" illuminated in blue, red and pink ... "

Gough was to make two further major discoveries.  In April 1893 he discovered the passage up to and just beyond Swiss Village and in 1898 he broke through to the then terminal chambers. Gough cleared the passage Swiss Village in a very short space of time and on 29th July 1893 an advertisement in the Weston-super-Mare Gazette read:

NEW DISCOVERY- The extensive and beautiful cave, several hundred yards long was discovered by Mr. Gough on April 12th 1893 and now shown to the public at a moderate charge.

But Gough's crowning glory came in November 1898 when he and his sons; after sporadic digging; broke up through the end choke into St. Paul's and the Diamond Chambers with their beautiful formations. At the time there was nothing in the country that could compare with the Cheddar discoveries.  Gough obviously knew this.  The cave was ready for public viewing in May 1899 and, novel for the time, this section was illuminated by electricity.  The old gas lighting was gradually replaced with electricity over the next few years and for many years, certainly up to the outbreak of the 1st. World War the cave was frequently advertised as being illuminated by this means. In fact the method of lighting brough about another advertising slant by the cave proprietors.   Cox claimed that his carbide lighting was more brilliant than electricity!  But this did little for Cox's Cave. The press was ecstatic with the newly discovered cave and went over the top in their descriptions of it.  A correspondent in a Clevedon paper wrote (1899)

 “When I visited the scenes, some five years ago, this particular cave was esteemed of no importance, another cave, Cox's Cave, so called, was the popular one. Now all is changed, it is simply a case of transformation.”

Among the important visitors to Gough's New Cave included Balch, Martel, Bamforth, Puttrell, in 1904, and Winston Churchill in 1911!

Following the discovery of the new cave, Gough commenced re-organising the approach to the caves. The old cave notices were removed and an arched gateway built by the edge of the road.  Inside the perimeter of the ground he erected several rustic buildings housing the offices and museum.  Entrance to the cave was by a downward flight of steps to the left of the entrance archway.  Winter flooding of the cave, which still plagues the modern cave management, was hoped to be overcome by excavating further into the infilled sand and gravels in the Vestibule.  In 1903 during this clearing operation the Gough brothers accidentally discovered the skeleton of Cheddar Man in the area now known as Skeleton Pit into which the water was hoped to drain.  This discovery made Gough’s cave a household name.  Handbills, picture postcards (which had now become exceedingly popular with the public) all mentioned or showed photographs of the skull and bones. Eminent archaeologists studied the skeleton and estimated its age between 40,000 and 80,000 years.  Today, researchers have suggested, after radio carbon dating, that it is about 91,000 years old.


Approach to Gough’s caves c.1927.  (Note change of cave name).  (Courtesy of Cheddar Caves),

Minor ‘discoveries’ were made in 1908 when Aladdin's Grotto was opened and in 1935, after an archaeological dig at Pixie Forest a couple of hundred feet of low passage was discovered. This was claimed to be a major discovery by the then manager, Thomas gill, and he announced that a circular route to St. Paul’s Chamber was being considered; this idea not was not to materialise for another thirty odd years.

Richard Gough died in February 1902 at the age of 75 years.  The well known photograph of him was taken some eight years earlier by Stanley Chapman of Dawlish.  Chapman had long been a friend of the family and produced the earliest interior photographs of Gough’s Old Cave about 1890.  At this time the interior photographs of the caves were becoming available to the public.   The humble picture postcard did not come into use until about 1902.  The cave proprietors soon realised the importance of the picture postcard as they formed a very cheap form of advertising quite apart from the increased revenue the sales would bring to their pockets.  Both national and local publishers were employed to produce the cards but it is to the local photographers we look for the more interesting speleological photographs.

The major part of the collection at the Cheddar Caves Museum was discovered in March 1911 when the Gough brothers were excavating gravel to surface a car-park between the cave entrance and the river rising.   In doing so they unearthed many human bones and pieces of pottery half-way up the Slitter, just below Long Hole.  In addition they found some 200 coins including 1 gold example.  The archaeological papers merely record that bones and coins were found at Gough’s Cave in 1911.  But the newspapers and the local photographer, Charles Henry Collard come to the historians rescue.  So far 5 different photographs have been discovered and recorded.  Some are general scenes of the dig showing Herbert Balch, William and Arthur Gough inspecting the site, and another being a photograph of the finds layed out for display.

The Gough lease ran out c.1927 and the property returned to the Longleat Estates who have been operating the site ever since.  The first change enacted by the new management was to re-name the cave Cheddar Cave but this was unsuccessful – Gough’s Cave had stuck in the public memory.  Several marked changes were made in 1934 when the new office and restaurant complex was built.  Largely of novel design at the time the designer J.A. Gellicoe came in for much praise. The restaurant was opened on the 23rd. June 1934 with a V.I.P, dinner and it was said that there were more Rolls-Royce cars present than any other make!

Sympathetic management at Cheddar Caves for the last few years has enabled cavers virtually free access to the caves for further study and this has resulted in the discovery of the magnificent River Cave including two large chambers.  At long last Gough's Cave is breaking out into a major cave system.  What the future will bring is a matter for speculation - but no doubt it will not be disappointing.

Selected reading matter:

Balch., H.E.      1927 The Caves of Mendip.  London: Folk Press [The Somerset Folk Series No.26]

[Green, E.]        1935 Mendip - Cheddar, its gorge and caves. Wells: Clare, 1st. Ed.

Hensler, E.        1869 The tourist's guide to Cheddar Cliffs. Wells: Green

Irwin, D.J.          1968 "Ninety-nine years ago", WCC Jnl 10(118)102

                        1986a The exploration of Gough's Cave and its development as a show cave.

                        Proc. Univ. Bristol Spelaeol. Society 17(2) for 1985, 95-104

                        1986b Gough's Old Cave - its history. 17(3)250-266.  Proto Univ. Bristol Spelaeol.  Society

North, C.           1968 Cheddar Caves - some early impressions. Society Newsletter, Aug. 1968.  Axbridge Caving Group & Archaeol.

Phelps, w.         1836 The History and antiques of Somersetshire, Vol.1, part 2.

Stevens, N.E.    1869 A Guide to Cheddar and the neighbourhood.  Cheddar: Bryne

Thorneycroft, L.R.          1949 The story of Cheddar its gorge, caves and ancient history.  Taunton: Barnicotts.