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The 150th Anniversary of the discovery of Cox's Cave.

A short history by Dave Irwin

This year is the 150th Anniversary of the accidental discovery of Cox’s Cave at cheddar.  It was the first of the three show caves to be fully commercialised, though Gough’s Old Cave may have been open to paying visitors at this time.  Though it has been shown (Irwin; 1987 - BB No. 400) that Gough’s Old cave was known as Great Stalagmite Cavern as early as 1869 a recently located newspaper reference shows that it has been open as early as 1840. However, Cox’s Cave was the first cave at Rock End, Cheddar to be commercialised immediately after its discovery in 1837 (Irwin, 1986b, Fig. 1).  The account that follows is based on a much more detailed paper published in the UBSS Proceedings.


The cave was accidentally discovered by a workman, named Cooper, in 1837, during the building of a coach-house or outhouse for the lease-holder of the now Cliff Hotel - George Cox.  After a considerable amount of effort on the part of George Cox and his workmen, the Cave was opened to the public in 1838.  The original entrance was some 20-30 feet up the steeply sloping cliff face and today is known as Daylight Hole.  This entrance, with a few steps remaining, can be seen from the cliff or just inside the cave entrance.   The earliest recorded description of the cave was published in 1842.  The book was published by the Cheddar Vicar, Richard A'Court Beadon but the description was supplied by George Cox.  A year later, in a letter to Buckland, the Dean of Llandaff Cathedral at Cardiff, the Right Reverend W.D. Conybeare, visited the cave and gave the earliest independent view of the site (Jamieson, 1858)

Stalactite Cavern, Cheddar. 1st July, 1843

Dear Buckland,

... it is the only grateful cave fit for ladies we have; the only thing I ever saw that at all realises my idea of Antiparos.  It has one main porch and three or four lateral branches, narrow fissures, about ten or twelve feet broad, and some thirty or forty feet high, vested and draped with the most fantastic and beautiful marble stalactite one can conceive.  The floor, when discovered, was a mass of stalagmite, covering rounded gravel of the mountain limestone, filling up about ten feet of the bottom.

The owner has cut galleries through this stalagmite, and he is one of the best showmen of a cave I ever saw, lighting the whole with a group of candles on a tin plate, which he raises to the roof, or thrusts through the narrow fissures, so as to exhibit to whole to perfection.  Make this known as the prettiest thing in the island, and come and see it,"

                        W.D. Conybeare,

The present-day entrance, at road level, was cut sometime between 1838 and 1842.

In Hunt (1850) we have an intriguing note in the description of the cave passages, “….the principal of which is easy of access, extending in a zig-zag direction about 200 feet into the solid rock, and is covered by beautiful incrustations ... transparent Stalactites, thousands of quill-like tubes ... ".  This is the only note of the existence of straw stalactites. Many of the roots may still be seen but were probably destroyed during further development in the late 19th century.

The early references to the cave were full of enthusiasm but a solitary note of discord was expressed by one visitor, Thomas Woodhouse of Otterhampton, near Bridgwater, Somerset, who said "This cavern is extremely disappointing, and strikes such a chill that it is a place to be avoided." That was in 1870.  However, the press and guide-books were of one voice that this cave "has no superior in the country" (Worth, 1894).

The initial section of cave open to the public was into the 4th Chamber just beyond the Transformation

Scene in the Third Chamber. Illustrations of famous group of stalagmites were included in Cheddar guide-bocks as early as 1860; published by John Bryne of Cheddar.  There are several editions of this book and the last. two, c.1874 and c.1879 include a different  illustration. The earlier illustration shows the guide holding candles whereas the later shows the Transformation Scene lit with gas jets. Surveys at Longleat House show that the 5th - 7th chambers were in fact known by 1884 but were not accessible to the public.  It is possible that preparations were under way about this time to open this part of the cave to the public as a flight of steps leading to the 7th Chamber are shown on the surveys.  The earliest record of the 4th - 5th chambers being shown is c. 1886. The following year the 7th Chamber was opened and was christened "The Fairies Grotto".  The opening of this ‘new’ chamber was obviously planned to coincide with Queen Victoria's Jubilee and to combat the competition from Gough's activities at Gough's Old Cave that year (Irwin, 1987a)

In 1904, The Times reported the visit of the Martel's thus (E. Cox, 1914): “ ... They were greatly pleased with the kaleidoscopic beauties of Cox's Cave, which will soon be enlarged by the addition of a newly discovered chamber…”   This new chamber was illustrated on three picture postcards published by Hartmann of London in 1905.  The remaining grotto to be developed was the ‘Lady Chapel’; this was first on public show in 1913 about the time the second entrance was blasted out to the side of the cliff.  The Lady Chapel was the last 'discovery' to be made in this cave.

During the winter of 1986/1987 a connection was made from the 7th Chamber into Pavey's Cave (Fantasy Grotto) to allow the visitors to exit through the latter cave entrance.

As the cave prospered and developed an office, stores and refreshment room was built alongside the cliffs at the cave entrance.  Later, about 1884, a photographic studio was built.  The obligatory souvenir shop was also built and no doubt stocked the much sought after collectors item of today.  A handbill (Cox, C & J., c. 1886) describing the cave as far as the 5th and 6th chambers (thus pre-dating the ‘discovery’ of the 7th chamber in 1887) states ‘Photographs of the Cliffs and the Stalactite Cavern, by the Best Artists. In great Variety’.  A later handbill (Cox, E., c.1890) fully describes the cave as far as the 7th chamber, "The Fairies Grotto" which was discovered in Jubilee Year (1887) and lists 18 Frith cave interior photographs being available.  The Frances Frith photographs had a very long life and were continuously on sale in one form or another as late as the middle 1960’s.  The initial selection of prints were available at various prices according to size (Cox, E., c.1890).  By c.1894 (Cox, E.) the number available had increased to 20, and by c.1899 (Cox, E.) a total of 25 views were on sale.  Between 1902 - 1903 all 25 Frith views were progressively published as picture postcards. Edward Cox sent Queen Alexandra a selection of picture post cards in 1910 and received the following reply which was widely advertised (Weston-super-Mare Gazette, 1911, 1st. May and Various issues until 1st July)  (Cox, 1911, p1):

Buckingham Palace,
19th July, 1910

Dear Sir,

I submitted your letter to Queen Alexandra, and I am now commanded to thank you most sincerely for the interesting photographs which you have so kindly sent for Her Majesty's acceptance.

            Yours faithfully, Charlotte Knollys.

                        Mr. Edward Cox.

                                    The Caves, Cheddar.

Certainly photographs and postcards were on sale simultaneously until 1914 and by this date 60 1d postcards were available and the photographic versions were priced at 2d. each.  A special pocket of 14 postcards was available for 1/- and known as The Royal Packet (Cox, 1911, p2;1914, p.9)

Keen to encourage visitors to Cox's Stalactite Cavern and his Pleasure Gardens, George Cox arranged a regular horse drawn carriage from Weston-Super­Mare every Monday, Thursday and Friday during the summer season.  This service commenced in 1861 but probably did not survive the arrival of the railway at Cheddar in 1869.

In addition to the cave, added attractions were arranged in the Pleasure Gardens. In 1861 George Cox organised a 'Grand Balloon Ascent' on the 18th of June, but the day ended in failure as the 10,000 cubic foot balloon could not be inflated due to leaking gas pipes. The Wells Journal (1861, 22nd June) reported "This failure called forth some expressions of angry feeling, which could not excite surprise, seeing that the promised ascent of the balloon was to a majority of those present the great attraction."

Many companies took their employees to Cheddar and in 1868, for example, the annual outing of the Bristol company, E.5. and A. Robinson employees made Cheddar the venue for their Annual Outing.  Travelling in a convoy of horse drawn brakes, one including a brass band for their entertainment during the journey. They left Bristol at 7 am. and arrived at Cheddar about midday (Weston-Super­Mare Mercury, 1868, 1st. August).  They had dinner at the Cliff Hotel and then separated to enjoy themselves according as their tastes led them.  The caves were, of course, the principal attraction and were visited by most of the excursionists"

Early visitors were accompanied by Mr. George Cox or a member of his family, and after their visit were requested to sign the visitors book; though Stevens (1869, p.33) ventured the opinion that since the railway had arrived at Cheddar the visitors book in “which several autographs of persons of note ... will probably be discontinued as the numbers increase.”  Apparently this was not so as the practice continued well into the 20th century, certainly up to 1914, though it may have been produced only for selected visitors.  It is not known whether these books have survived.

The first reported visit of an international figure appeared in the Wells Journal (1852, 28th August) which states "Large parties have lately visited the cliffs, gardens, and cavern notwithstanding the heavy rains and boisterous winds.  Among other distinguished guests who have honoured this neighbourhood with their company, we find the following entry in the visitors book under date of the 12th inst.., "President Fillimore and party, U.S."  This was reprinted in the Wells Journal from the Bridgwater Times.  Millard Fillmore (incorrectly spelt in the account) was President of the United States of America 1850 – 1853.

In the late 1850’s the cave was visited by the teenage Prince of Wales (later King George VII) and his tutor.  From about 1868 George Cox, and later, Edward Cox, regularly advertised the fact that the cave had been visited by the Prince of Wales but only the published date appears in booklets entitled ‘Souvenir of Cox’s Stalactite caves (Cox, E. c.1911, p.3; 1914, p.7) which states “His Majesty, King Edward VII, was brought to see Cox’s cavern in 1857.”

The 1905 Cox’s handbills and picture postcards reminded the public that King Edward VII had visited the cave and photographs of the Cliff village of the time also show clearly painted advertisements on the gable end of one of the building making the same statement.  During the rivalry between the two principal proprietors Gough’s had published the following statement on 1st August 1904 (Cox, c.1906, p.2)

 “Eye-opener for strangers, - His Majesty King Edward never visited Cheddar or Caves. His Royal highness the Prince of Wales never visited Cheddar or Caves.  To make a long story short, visitors should not be misled..”

Cox (c.1906) published the Gough note and added that Cox’s Cave was the cave “that you are advised to be aware of, is the Most Exquisite and Charming in the United Kingdom…”

Providing that the Cox extract is a true copy this grossly incorrect statement by the Gough’s was an appalling act of indecent trading.  It is true that King Edward VII had not visited the cave as King and neither had the then Prince of Wales who was to become King George V.

This play on words was a simply a disgrace.  However, Edward Cox wrote to Buckingham Palace and received the following reply form the King’s secretary:

H.M. Yacht Victoria and Albert,
5th August, 1904


I have had the honour of submitting your letter on the 3rd instant to the King and I am commanded to inform you in reply that His Majesty remembers when quite young having visited the Stalactite Caverns at Cheddar, Somerset.  The King thinks he must have been about fifteen or sixteen years of age at the time

            I am, Sir,

                        Your obedient servant


Though Cox’s booklets state 1857 as the year of Edward’s visit, the date must remain in doubt; on the King’s evidence, bearing in mind his vague recollection, it could be 1856 or 1857.  Jamieson, however, records in April 1858 “..Mr. Cox has laudably determined that the contents of the cave shall not be broken up nor disturbed, anticipating the probability of its being honoured with a royal visit."  This is probably the year of Edward's visit though one cannot dismiss the possibility of a visit by yet another, unrecorded, royal personage.

During 1862 Nicholas Ennor, a Cornish miner operating the Priddy Minery, some 5 miles away. visited Cox's Cave and notes

."..about 26 years since a very beautiful stalactite cave was discovered at Cheddar.  The finder (being an intelligent man) took the best possible means of preserving it not allowing the stalactites (some of them from 6 to 10 feet long) to be broken off. At one point a drop had caused the extension of the uppermost stalactite downward and the lower one upward until they had approached each other so close that there was not sufficient distance between for the drop to fall consequently it trickled off onto the one below.  This circumstance led the finder to imagine that by watching carefully this peculiar phenomenon he would be enabled to measure time.  Shortly after the Bishop (I think) of Llandaff visited the cave…(and said).. "it would be necessary for him to live a thousand years to accomplish his object  Not long since I had an opportunity of seeing both the stalactites and the owner when he freely expressed himself on the wisdom of the Bishop's remark as he could not discover the least perceptible change during the 26 years.”

Ennor concluded that the 'Bishop' is a “useful, thinking man."   The 'Bishop' was the Dean of Llandaff, W. R. Conybeare

The American traveller Elihu Burritt visited the cave about 1864 and published an account of his visit to Cox's Cave comparing it with the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky (Burritt, 1865).

Edward Cox, like Gough, encouraged the public and scientific bodies to visit his cave by widely advertising the names of famous people that had signed the visitor’s book.  In 1880 the Duke of Argyll (son-in-law of Queen Victoria) paid the cave a visit:

(Weston-Super-Mare Mercury, 1880, 28th August) COX'S CAVERN – Amongst other distinguished visitors to Stalactite Cavern on Monday were His Grace the Duke of Argyll and the ladies Victoria Evelyn Mary and Constance Campbell. The Duke and his party remained for some time at Cheddar; partaking of refreshments at the Cliff Hotel, and before leaving, expressed the pleasures afforded them by their visits to the cavern.

By the turn of the century, Edward Cox was able to produce an impressive list of important visitors to the cave (Coc, c.1899). They included H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, T.R.H. the Duke and Duchess D’Aumale, H.R.H. the Prince of Siam, The Duke of Argyll, The Ladies Campbell, the Right Hon. Sir M. Grant-Duff, Lord Avebury (Sir John Lubbock) &c.  In addition to these personages he listed “The two sons of His Majesty the King of Siam and The Lord Chief Justice of England visited Cox's Cavern, 1898.”  The visitors to Gough's Cave have already been outlined in (Irwin, 1986b)

Other visitors of note were Eduard Martel and his wife who visited Mendip in 1904.  They visited both Cox's and Gough's Coves on the 15th June 1904 with 6 strong contingent of Mendip and well travelled cavers.   The host party comprised Balch, Baker, Troup, Bamforth, Botterill and Puttrell.  Of his visit to Cox's Cave Martel wrote in the visitors book (Cox, c.1905):

“Never saw anywhere such graceful and charmingly coloured stalactites in about 600 visited caves. Quite unique.”

Martel later published an account of his Mendip visit in La Nature, 1905.

During the 1913 season Edward Cox (1914.) published a listed of satisfied visitors, probably from the Visitors Book referred to as Cox’s Book, including a certain F. J. Moore from Tasmania. “…We liked it very much better than the other cave.”  A visitor from Cape Town thought that Cox’s Cave was finer than the Janolen Caves of Australia!

The Premier of South Australia, the Hon. A. H. Peake, on a short stay in England, visited Gough's and Cox's caves during a tour of the area including a civic reception at Wells.  The Wells Journal reports (1913, 4th April) that he "signed the book, in which he wrote that he had seen some caves in Australia which were considered to be the finest in the world, but that he was forced to own that those of Cheddar far away exceed them..”  Mr.Peake was referring to the Naracoote Caves in South Australia (Gough, 1900-1918).  On the 2nd June (Cox, E., c.1914) Puttrell, the famous Derbyshire pioneer, again visited the cave and noted in Cox's Book  “The richest and most delicately tinted Cave in Britain, and, remembering its gem-like collection of stalactites, etc, might well be called the Jewel House of Cheddar.”  He had previously visited the cave with Martel in 1904.

The popularity of the cave grew rapidly and it is perhaps not surprising that a certain amount of vandalism occurred.  Two early accounts were reported in the Weston-super-Mare newspapers in 1861 and 1862.  The second case involved a businessman named Eggar in November 1862.  Accompanied by two ladies, failed to obey the admission notice at the cave entrance and entered the cave.  After their ‘private’ tour of the cave, the party left the cave to visit the Cliffs.  Shortly after George Cox noticed that one of the more important stalagmite formations was missing.  The pieces of the four foot long stalagmite were later found to be in a hand-bag carried by Eggar and was immediately arrested by the local police and committed for trial at Taunton early in 1863.  The trial was reported in both of the Weston-super-Mare newspapers (Mercury and Gazette) on the 10th January 1863.  The best account appeared in the Gazette:

MALICIOUS DAMAGE AT THE CAVE AT CHEDDAR  -  William Joseph Eggar, a respectably dressed man, was indited for maliciously damaging a Stalactite in a cave at Cheddar, the property of George Cox, exceeding the value of five pounds, on the 3rd, November last….. enquiries proved that there was no intention on the part of Mr. Eggar to maliciously injure and destroy the stalactite and some arrangement had been come to by which some small compensation had been paid to Mr, Cox and he did not wish to proceed with the case…Mr, Eggar, pleaded not guilty…A verdict of acquittal was taken and Mr. Eggar left the court declaring that he had paid dearly for the Stalactite.  We understand that the terms were £25 and costs.”

Until 1913 the cave had just the single entrance, only one photograph has been found of this taken by F. Frith & Co. Ltd of Reigate c.1901-1910. This obviously was inconvenient to the public as was noted by Stevens (1869, p.31)

..If at all practicable leans of exit should be provided distinct from the entrance so that on special occasions visitors might pass through and much confusion be thereby avoided.

Stevens was also critical of the entrance door (1869, p.31)

At the entrance to the cavern a doorway of modern construction ought to be removed and another substituted more in accordance with correct taste.

A second entrance may well have been considered for some time as the location of "The Fairies Grotto" and its proximity to the cliff face was known as early as 1884 but the actual breakthrough via an enlarged rift from the 7th Chamber did not take place until 1913 coincidently with the opening of the "Ladye Chapel".   Advertisements in the papers (Weston-super-Mare Gazette, 1914, 2nd May) claimed "The New Exit is the greatest improvement" and on the 9th May " ... The first Grand Discovery of the 20th Century, 1913.  The Ladye Chapel.  Much as Cox's Cave has been admired the new chamber (1913) surpasses in exquisite beauty and rich colouring anything yet discovered.  It is close to the new exit, through the postcard room ... "

The second entrance was closed in 1987 and a connection to Pavey's Cave, now known as Fantasy Grotto, has been made.  Visitors may now pass through to Pavey's Cave and exit through the Pavey's Cave entrance.

Before 1870 the cave was by candles but improvements were on the way in the late 1860’s.  Green (1869, p.32) stated that "Gas will be shortly be used to light the cavern." and Stevens (1869, p.31) commented ...

… that an endeavour be made to light this exquisite cavern with gas or at any rate by some more brilliant arrangement than has been hitherto adopted.  With a powerful light increased or diminished so as to produce the best effects; the result would be truly magnificent

Stevens' wish had been answered within a few months for gas lighting was installed during 1869-1870. During the 1870 season Cox's advertisements stated (Weston-super-Mare, 1870, p.101) “ ... (Now lit by Gas) ...” An advertisement appeared in Morris directory (Somerset., 1872, facing p.l72 ) confirming that the cave was illuminated with gas and the Cheddar notes inform the reader that the that the cave “….is now lit with gas…”  All subsequent advertisements and handbills announce that the cave is "BRILLIANTLY LIGHTED WITH GAS".

The method of lighting the cave was to become the subject of the continued rivalry between Cox and Gough during the 1890’s and early years of the 20th century.  Gough had installed gas in Gough’s old Cave in 1883 (Irwin, 1985b) but when the Diamond Chamber and St. Paul’s Chamber were discovered in 1898, he installed electric lighting in these chambers in 1899.  A typical claim by Gough read “Illuminated by Electric Light. Grandest in the world.”  From the same date Cox’s handbills (Cox, E., c.1899)

Superior to electricity

The type of mantle used with gas illumination was important to obtain maximum illumination and at that time the Welsbach was considered the finest available.  Later, Edward Cox re-phrased his adverts to read “lighted with Acetylene, the most brilliant light yet discovered…”  (Cox, E., c.1906).

Electric lighting of the cave had been considered as a possibility when the cave was offered for auction in 1884.  The Conditions of Sale and press advertisements suggested that “the introduction of electric light, easily practicable, would add immensely to the present attractions and income.”  Another thirty years was to pass before electric lighting was installed: this was 1913. A Cox’s Cave advertisement (Wells Journal 1913, 4th July)  “…”The Lady Chapel,” ….now revealed by the ELECTRIC LIGHT, 1913.”  Edward Cox appears to have altered his view, electricity did have some merit!  Cox’s later advertisement read: “the Cave ….is brilliantly illuminated with electric light, …”  (Cox, E., 1914, p.3).  The cave was partially illuminated by electricity in 1913, presumably only in the Lady Chapel area, and was completely wired for electric light in 1929. A contemporary Cox’s advertisement (Guy-Bray, c.1932, facing p.9) states that

Discovered in 1837
by the Installation throughout of

The cave was widely advertised in the mid-19th century the earliest being found in the Wells Journal in 1852.  Admission charges were expensive 3/- for one or two persons and 1/- each for more than that number and continued at this rate until 1874 and possibly later. Stevens (1869, p. 33) commented that "The charge for admission has hitherto been one shilling each person; probably these terms may be revised, but no one need grudge the outlay, as there is not in England a sight so unique as the Stalactite Cavern at Cheddar." Certainly by 1886 (Cox, E., c.1886) the price had been reduced to " ... One Shilling each for a party of not less than three.  One Single Visitor, 2s.  Two visitors 1s. 6d. each.

More than that number, as stated above, viz:- 1s. each.  Children under 12 half price."  Admission charges stabilised in the early years of the century at 1/- person at both Gough's and Cox's Caves up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

The cave was offered for auction in 1884 but a High Court ruling prevented this and a new lease was given to the Cox family that terminated in 1939.  Since that time the cave has been managed by the Longleat Estate. Full details of this event and that of Pavey excavating Pavey's Cave is to be found in the writer's paper published in UBSS Proceedings for 1987.


The author would like to thank Cheddar Caves management for their unstinting help; Miss Kate Harris, Librarian to the Marquess of Bath, Dr. Trevor Shaw, Dr. William Stanton, Chris Hawkes, Chris Richards and many other for additional references and archival material.

NOTE:  All references cited in this paper are to be found in Cox's Cave.  A History by D.J. Irwin, UBSS Proceedings for 1987.