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Early broadcasts from Mendip Caves

By Dave Irwin

Activities of Mendip cavers are sometimes thought important, or sensational, enough to warrant time on the airwaves. During the past half century broadcasting of caving events has mostly concentrated on cave rescue reports and the special interest programmes including those made by leading BBC reporters including Hugh Scully and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. In more recent times broadcasting has widened to include reporting of relatively minor discoveries.  General programmes relating to the pastime have also attracted producers to make films of individual caves.  During the autumn of 2004 a series of six programmes relating to caves in the Bristol region were broadcast by HTV; some the caves featured include Otter Hole, Swildon's Hole and the Banwell caves.

Earliest recorded broadcasts

Almost from its inception in 1922 the BBC (note 1) divided the country into zones for local interest broadcasting and for the innovative outdoor broadcasts from the Mendip caves were usually limited to one or two regions. The writer is indebted to Dr. Steven Craven for information relating to broadcasts from caves in the north of England. The records shows that a broadcast related to Gaping Ghyll was relayed on the 13th October 1927. Jack Puttrell, the Peak District pioneer, was interviewed in the studio.  Another studio broadcast occurred on the 15th June 1929, again with Puttrell supplying the information. The Craven Pothole Club, Gritstone Club and the Leeds Cave Club were also involved with regional broadcasts during the 1930s.  See the appendix for Steve's list.

Wookey Hole

The earliest known broadcast from a Mendip cave took place as a 20 minute live transmission from the Third Chamber [or Witches’ Parlour]  in Wookey Hole on the 9th September 1930.  The event may be the first live broadcast from within any cave in the British Isles. Before the planned date a trial broadcast was carried out a month before on Wednesday, 5th of August.. A short report of this appeared in the Wells Journal which was published on the following Friday and was entitled ‘Radio from the depths’ and detailed the elaborate arrangements necessary for such a venture. 

... Elaborate test were carried out  ... in Wookey Hole Caves, near Wells, in preparation for the broadcast which is proposed to take place there early next month, when it will be relayed to all stations.

The Wookey Hole Male Voice Choir, which is to give a varied selection over the microphone, sang for thirty minutes, and the effect was both astonishing and tuneful.

B.B.C. Engineers present expressed great wonder at the acoustic properties of the Caves, the voices being lent a charming mellowness.

Mr. H.E. Balch, F.S.A., M.A., of Wells, and Capt. Hodgkinson, the owner of the Caves rowed to the extreme end of the river which flows through the caves and then slowly proceeded back.

The object was to record the splashing of the oars against the water while the choir sang, growing gradually in volume.

It is hoped to broadcast this novelty.  Mr. H.E. Balch then spoke into the microphone the speech he intends to broadcast.  Altogether the broadcast will occupy twenty minutes.  ...  (note 2)

Unlike today's broadcasting where much of it is 'canned' until a suitable slot can be found for its transmission, programmes were broadcast live to the growing numbers of listeners to the 'wireless.'  The only medium for ‘canning’ material was to cut a 78 rpm gramophone record on a 24” dia. disc giving some 8 minutes of recorded sound.  Clearly to take the bulky electrical paraphernalia into a cave was hardly a practical solution.  These fragile shellac discs were used in the cinemas as the sound source for the early ‘talkies.’   Later an optical sound track was added one side of the 35 mm film adjacent to the photographic images.  As with the cinema, broadcasting soon became an relatively cheap influential information-entertainment source.

The first Mendip cave broadcast took place on Tuesday, 9th September 1930, the choir, conducted by Conrad Eden and Balch’s oration went well.  ' Wookey Hole speaks to the World ... ' was the headline to the report that appeared in the Wells Journal on the 12th September 1930.  A joint coupling with the studio in Cardiff and live effects from the cave itself illustrates the complexity of external broadcasting at this time. (note 3)

... My first impression on entering the Witch's Chamber was of a voice, in cultured tones, calling on Cardiff on the telephone. Then a confused jargon of technicalities in connection with broadcasting - "How is No. 1 mike doing ?" "Fade in and out when I tell you."  "Better alter that earth, I think " - and so on.

Then a sound as of monks chanting in the distance - silence - and a well known voice - Mr. Balch unfolding the story of the Great Cave of Wookey Hole - but this was a rehearsal.

Finally the zero hour came and a dead silence.  One of the B.B.C. Men took up a conductor's position and controlled his forces with a wave of the hand.  I am told that the "Green Hills of Somerset" was played from Cardiff; then the splashing of oars from a boat in the Cave.

Mr. Balch, M.A.., F.S.A., the greatest living authority on Mendip and its caves, commenced to speak into the microphone.  He told of the construction of the Cave, of the mass of rock with the river breaking out at its base.  Then the conductor with another wave of his hand introduced the sound of the water rushing out of the Cave, picked up by a microphone near the water's edge.  Mr. Balch was "faded in" again and referred to the miles of unknown caves which the eye of man had never seen.

At this point in the proceedings the choir sang a musical arrangement of Metcalfe's poem 'The Song of Wookey Hole.'  The 'enchanting melody' was composed by the choir's conductor, Conrad Eden of Wells Cathedral. The reporter continued his romantic description of the event and was obviously overwhelmed by the magic of broadcasting.

...  [The] story resumed with the history of the finds in the Cave and the industry of the ancient Britons, in silver, iron, bronze, and in agriculture. ... The choir took up the theme by rendering an old Somerset Folk song, "A Farmer's Son so sweet." which was most tuneful, but in a lighter vein.

Mr. Balch spoke of the known existence of cannibals; of the Witch of Wookey; and the Hyaena Den, one of the earliest homes of primitive man of some thirty thousand years ago.

In conclusion he referred to the growth of man and the struggles and triumphs of our ancesters [sic].  The Choir brought the story to a fitting close by the singing of that all-inspiring "How sleep the brave," by Bantock.  That was the end, as far as Wookey Hole was concerned.

I had what was, perhaps, a unique experience in hearing the actual broadcast for half of the programme in the Cave, and then hurrying down to the village of Wookey Hole and hearing the remainder from a loud-speaker. I am afraid I dashed into a home with very little ceremony to hear how the broadcast "came over." I found the members of the family and friends grouped around the loud-speaker to hear the voices of their friends from the Cave.

It is several years since I last heard the Wookey Hole Male Voice Choir, and I want to hear it again. Will they come to Wells and give a concert ?  Mr. Eden has undoubtedly taken great pains to bring the choir up to such a pitch of perfection, and I can definitely say that it has lost none of its old skill and gunning-cunning, I should have written ! There were twenty-six members singing in the Cave, and it was a pity that the official programme led listeners to believe that a Welsh Choir would render the songs.

The whole broadcast was a great success, and the British Broadcasting Company are to be congratulated on their efforts.  Capt. G. Hodgkinson, who was present, and Mr. P. King, his manager, are to be commended on the very excellent arrangements made for the broadcast in the Cave.

We cannot say too much about Mr. Balch, whose life has been given up to the development of Wookey Hole and other Caves on Mendip, and his inspiring address through the microphone deserves the highest praise.

Abundant congratulations have been received from all quarters by letter, telegraph and telephone.

So successful was the event that the BBC planned another on the May 15th 1931.  The Wells Journal announced that (note 4)  

... west Regional listeners who heard the singing relayed from Wookey Hole Calves [sic] last September will look forward to another broadcast from the caves on Friday, May 22nd, when several songs will be contributed by the Wookey Hole Male Voice Choir during a West Country Variety programme at 9.35 p.m.

The BBC technicians and producers setup their paraphernalia in the Third Chamber and a reminder and outline of the broadcast was published in the Wells Journal on the day of the broadcast itself. (note 5) As before the choir was conducted by Conrad Eden. (note 6)

In 1933 the choir made their third broadcast programme from the same chamber. The event was considered of sufficient interest that editors of local newspapers considered it to be front page news. The prominent headline announced of the Wells Journal for the 16th June read:

Broadcast from Wookey Hole Caves
Male Voice Choir's programme to be relayed.

The report stated that the broadcast would take place on the 7th July commencing at 8.30 p.m., that the choir and its conductor would be located in Wookey Hole Cave some 500 ft below '... the earth's surface. ' Conrad Eden would again conduct the choir and (note 7)

... visitors to Wookey Hole will be reminded of the grandeur of these Caves when they listen to the singing of the Choir in extraordinary surroundings. This is the third occasion on which a programme of part songs etc., by the choir has been relayed in the cave.

On the day of the broadcast the Wells Journal, then published on Friday of each week,  reminded their readers of the transmission that evening - now given at 8 p.m. - a time change from the original announcement. (note 8)

Local News. Cave Broadcast.

Many no doubt will tune into the West Regional Station this [Friday] evening at 8 p.m. when the Wookey Hole Male Voice Choir will give a broadcast from the Wookey Hole Cave. The choir will be conducted by Mr. Conrad Eden, and a boy soloist, Leslie Stear, of Clifton, will sing with male voice choir accompaniment. ...

The thirty minute transmission went out as planned on the West Regional Station of the BBC. The Wells Journal gave a lengthy report on the broadcast for the benefit of its readers who did not yet own a wireless set. (note 9) To open and close the programme Captain (later Wing Commander) Gerald Hodgkinson opened and closed the programme by playing on the hunting horn. At the start of the programme Hodgkinson played 'Gone Away' and closed it with 'Going Home.'

In addition to the choral works, two accompanied solos were sung by the 12 year old boy treble, Leslie Stear of Clifton, Bristol.  One of the solos was his father’s own arrangement of  'Ye Banks and Braes' where the choir sang a humming accompaniment. This seemed to have pleased the reviewer who commented that it ' ... sounded well over the wireless.'

Herbert Balch broadcasts, 1933 and 1939

Early in 1933 the BBC West Regional Station broadcast a series of programmes entitled 'Unexplored England'. The third of this series, broadcast on the 8th February 1933, was entitled 'The Caves of Mendip' during which Herbert Balch gave a twenty minute lecture. The Wells Journal reported that Balch had  (note 10)

... many vivid stories of adventures to tell of the exploration of Mendip.  He has been digging in the Caves for 45 years and knows more about Mendip than any other living man.  He spoke for twenty minutes and referred to the baffling difficulties at Swildon's Hole and at Wookey Hole.

In January 1939 a regular BBC feature programme 'Western Magazine' invited Balch to take part, a report of which was featured in the Wells Journal shortly after. It seems that ' ... Mr. Balch told many stories of his explorations in the Mendip underworld. ... '   (note 11)  

Wookey Hole, 1935

Perhaps the most famous of the radio broadcasts from within British caves was that from Wookey Hole on the 17th August, 1935.  The Wells Journal announced that there will be a   (note 12)


Once again the B.B.C. has chosen Wookey Hole Cave for a novelty broadcast, and this time their relay will be one of the most thrilling and daring ever attempted.

On the night of August 17th a man in diving suit and helmet, will walk along the hidden bed of the underground river Axe for the first time in history, in an attempt to find the great subterranean cave believed to exist many feet below the level of the river. ... The search is due to commence at 10.30 p.m. and will be broadcast over the National wavelengths. ...

Following the failed attempt by Graham Balcombe to pass Sump I in Swildon’s Hole it became Jack Sheppard’s turn to think up a method of getting through this obstacle that had prevented further exploration of the cave since 1935. 

It had become apparent that the snorkeling design devised by Balcombe was never going to work and was potentially lethal so it was agreed that Sheppard should have a go at devising some sort of breathing apparatus that would enable the obstacle to be passed.

At that time Sheppard was living in London, studying for his engineering degree, where he became aware of the internationally famed manufacturer of diving and rescue apparatus, Siebe, Gorman and Co. Ltd. It was to them that he made an approach for information relating to underwater breathing.  Sir Robert Davis, the managing director of the company took an immediate interest in the young man’s ideas - not least because it might just lead to ideas that could be adopted by the company!  Having been made aware of the challenge Sir Robert promised that he would consider the plans that Sheppard had submitted which was a pump operated one piece submersible suit.  In the event Sir Robert considered the matter but he did not fully understanding the nature of the passageways through which the gear would have to be transported.  However, he offered Sheppard the use of their standard hard hat bottom walking gear used in mine and tunnel rescue. The deal included tuition by Charles Burwood, the company’s chief instructor.

It was immediately obvious to Balcombe and Sheppard that though it was not practical for use in Swildon’s Hole, the equipment would be well suited for work in the large flooded passages beyond the Third Chamber of Wookey Hole.  Balch and Frank Brown [Wookey Hole caves company secretary] were approached and they negotiated a programme of events with Gerald Hodgkinson, owner of the Wookey Hole show cave. However, though he gave his permission to allow diving activity in the cave it was conditional that their activities should not interfere with the running of the showcave business. It was agreed that the operations should take place during the closed hours. For several reasons, not least the complaints from the villagers that their domestic water supply was always cloudy on successive Sunday mornings, the series of operations was brought to a close by the 5th September.

The way was now clear for a breakthrough in caving exploration techniques.  As Balcombe noted that the idea of exploring Wookey Hole was agreed upon but (note 13)

... work elsewhere, and a certain diffidence about working in a commercially operated cavern, have all combined to defer until 1934, the decision to start an expedition. ...

The programme of dives, extending over an eight week period, located and reached the surface of Wookey Seven. 

The day of the broadcast had arrived and the Third Chamber was full of technicians setting up the equipment for the transmission which was due to be relayed at 10.30 p.m. but this was left fluid so that the broadcast would be made when Balcombe, the man of the moment, was actually progressing with the dive.  Penelope [Mossy] Powell described the scene in the chamber in the Log of the Wookey Hole Divers. (note 14)

... We arrived about 9 o’clock at our destination , the Third Chamber of the Home of the Witch; where the B.B.C. Was in attendance with coils and coils and coils of wire everywhere, myriads of microphones, wreaths of cigar smoke, a wealth of gents’ natty suitings, fortunes in cuff-links, in fact the only thing missing was adhesive tape, which Mossy provided off an Oxo tin, and a sock to put into a loudspeaker.

A public address system was installed for the

... benefit of the general mob.

Through the smoke, one caught occasional glimpses of the ample stern-piece of the B.B.C., more coils of wire pipe and rope, sometimes even a diver, and on rare occasions, the River Axe itself.

Teething troubles overcome it was time for Balcombe to enter the water.  Progress was monitored by telephone communication with the intention of relaying it through the public address system.  This failed miserably even though it had been claimed that the acoustics of the Third Chamber were perfect.

A single event that was to happen later that evening is virtually all that is remembered today by most cavers eclipsing the real achievement of the whole series of diving operations.  The back-up diver accompanying Balcombe was 'Mossy' Powell and both progressed into Chamber Six. Communication with base control was via the telephone linkup. The broadcast began at 10.30 p.m. when Balcombe and Powell entered the water at which time a background commentary was being given by the BBC announcer, Francis Worsley, sited in his own box at the side of the chamber.  A Wells Journal reporter noted that Worsley [editorial notes are given in square brackets] (note 15)

... started to speak to the many thousands who were listening to what must have been the most thrilling outside broadcast ever arranged.

To describe what took place next can best be done by using his words.

He said, " Here we are, 600 feet underground in the famous Wookey Hole caves.  The sounds you hear going on mean that the exploration party is getting ready to try out this daring feat of exploration. Where we are standing now is the third chamber. You enter the caves at the foot of a big cliff, pass along an up-and-down passage in the rocks which widens out in high chambers full of pools and stalactites and on the right is the River Axe, which is of great importance as this is the river the divers are going to follow.

"This is as far as the public can go, but the caves and river go on for a long way beyond. In one corner is a very low arch, which is either just above or below the water level according to the state of the river. When the water has been low people have been through on a raft to a fourth chamber and then on through another arch to a fifth. Beyond that on [sic] one has never been and only divers can get there.  That is the object of this exploration.

"I am not going to try to give you any details of this as I hope to get Mr. Balcombe to talk to you before he descends." continued Mr. Worsley.

"Diving is not a simple matter and a very large number of assistants are required to work the air pumps which I expect you can hear already, and to let out the lines the divers use for air, safety, telephone, etc.

"The two divers are going down and an interesting thing is that the second one is a woman, Mrs. Powell.

"In the second part of the broadcast we hope that Mr. Balcombe will speak direct to us from under the water when he reaches territory where no one has ever been before.  He has a special microphone in his helmet and will communicate with a telephonist on the shore, telling of his needs.  The telephonist can reply to him and I expect we shall hear some of the conversation.

"It is rather a strange sight, all these people working busily in the glare of the arc-lamps in this ancient cave," he said.

"One doesn't expect to see diving gear right under the earth ! A contrast is the domestic touch in one corner where a lady of the party is making coffee on a spirit stove.  Yes, it is very cold here, the temperature of the water being 52 degrees all the year round, and the mud is cold to the feet. I'll get into touch with Balcombe before he enters the water."

"Hullo, Balcombe," he calls.

"Yes," came back the voice of the leading diver.

"Tell everyone about your 'gang.'  They have been working very hard."

There was a little difficulty in hearing Mr. Balcombe, at first, but when he did come through he told of what his assistants would be doing and of the difficulty of making his way through the underwater passages.

Mr. Worsley asked why he need two divers and Mr. Balcombe replied that there might be some difficulty in getting his air pipe and lines round the corners so the second diver would come down after him and assist him through.


The fifth chamber, he told us, is floored  by a great sandbank, and seemed to be a great expanse of green water.

"We want to get to the surface through the green water. Having done that we get as far as we possibly can."

"Well good luck to you, Balcombe.  I hope you won't meet any brontosauri."

"That is hardly possible as no man has ever been here before and no animal could possibly get here."

This ended the first part of the broadcast and the second part was transmitted when Balcombe and Powell reached the sixth chamber. This was at 23.09 hrs.  Worsley commented that the two divers were still safe and that Balcombe had reached a point 168 feet [50 m. Approx] from base. The commentary continued thus:

"...Balcombe has got to the entrance to the sixth chamber and hopes to find that it is a real chamber, that is one that has air space above the water, but we shall not know anything until we hear from him. We are going to try to get through to him now and get him to tell us from the actual site what he has found. You will probably find there is a bit of bubble owing to the air pump. He can only stop the pumps for about 20 seconds. You will hear people getting instructions to change over the pumps.

Balcombe described the scene from the sixth chamber and then after a short interval put out a running commentary with the telephonist. Balcombe continued

"... We have passed through the sixth, which has a large water space but only a small water surface.  Ahead of me I can see a further air surface which looks promising. We had arranged a form of trapeze to get to the surface in the sixth chamber but we have been unable to get it tried so far. Perhaps we can make better use of it here.  Heave hard on the pumps !"

A second or two later came an S.O.S.  "Heave faster on the pumps, " we heard.  And then "May I speak to the officer in charge, please ?"

"Well you can see what sort of thing is going on, " breaks in the commentator, and the broadcast was brought to a conclusion.

This has to be the polite form of what Balcombe actually said. Legend has it, together with Mossy Powell's poem related to the Waldegrave Swallet excavation, (note 16) that Balcombe yelled 'Pump you buggers, pump !'  This was strong language for the BBC standards of the day and so the plug was pulled on the broadcast.

An hour later the two divers returned to base where Balcombe commented that they were on the borders of great things but could not add to what he had described from the limit of the dive. He then thanked the pump operators.  Herbert Balch was present during the dive and was full of praise for the operation with a particular note regarding 'Mossy' Powell.

... "Mrs. Powell's willingness to make the journey was the pluckiest adventure I have ever seen undertaken by a woman," he said to me as we watched them rise from the water. ...

Gough's Cave, 1936

The first broadcast from Gough’s Cave was made on the 2nd March 1936 and was entitled “ A Cave Tour” in which Lord Weymouth, owner of the caves, Thomas B. Gill, the cave manager and Mr. W. R. Pavey all contributed to the general broadcast.  Lord Weymouth outlined the history of the cave whilst the others described the more outstanding features. Gill made special mention of the plans to reconstruct the ‘Cheddar Man’ skeleton, a task undertaken by Professor M. Rix of Oxford University under the watchful eye of Sir Arthur Keith.

Between 1927 and 1935 the development of the amenities at Wookey Hole and a series of radio broadcasts from the cave brought the owner considerable publicity. At Gough’s Cave following the transfer of control of the cave from Arthur

G.H. Gough to the owner, Lord Weymouth, in 1933 a considerable investment was made at the cave entrance building an office, museum and restaurant complex that was opened to the public on the 23rd June 1934. 

C.H. Hayes had completed a new survey of the showcave during April 1935. On it Hayes had suggested that there appeared to be a connection between Pixie Forest and St. Paul’s Chamber. This would not have been too difficult to confirm for the passage from the St. Paul’s end would have been open and ready for a simply exploratory trip. With this knowledge, Thomas B. Gill, manager of the cave from 1935-c.1950, employed workmen to clear the sandy deposit at the foot of Pixie Forest. By the autumn, having cleared some 6,000 tons of spoil, the workmen located the lower entrance to the passage. Lord Weymouth, Gill and the head guide, Victor Painter, crawled 216 feet from the new entrance to visit the chamber at the upper end that contains a group of formations, Aladdin’s Grotto, adjacent to St. Paul’s Chamber. Gill announced that other formations in this chamber were so beautiful as to eclipse anything else to be seen in the cave.  It was the intention of the management to open this chamber to the public by Easter 1936 connecting it with St. Paul’s Chamber.

To combat the ‘free’ publicity generated by the Wookey Hole management, the authority at Gough’s Cave continued their widespread publicity campaign well into the early months of 1936. All this peaked with a radio broadcast from Gough’s Cave on the 2nd March 1936. During the run-up to the event regular news items appeared in the national daily, regional and local newspapers creating the widest publicity possible.

As the broadcast drew near a number of reports announcing when and how it was taking place were published in various newspapers. On the 22nd February, 1936, the News Chronicle, headlined its report :

Skeleton in Cave Broadcast
He lived 10,000 year ago
Cheddar Carols to be sung underground

Beside a skeleton over 10,000 years old, by an underground river in caves occupied by man from the Palaeolithic age, a broadcast is to be made here during the West Regional programme on Monday evening, March 2.

It will be a tour of Gough’s Caves, Cheddar, during which guides will talk through eight microphones installed at regular points in the cave.

The programme will be introduced by Lord Weymouth, owner of the caves, and atmosphere will be provided by a party of local singers.

From the immense chamber known as “ St. Paul’s,” where the sides are coated with beautifully coloured stalagmite, they will broadcast Cheddar carols.

Listeners will hear the history of the caves and of recent explorations from Mr. T. Gill, the manager. They will hear how the skeleton known as “The Cheddar Man,” more than 10,000 years old, was discovered in a fissure leading to the underground river.

The Western Daily Press announced  (note 17)

“Cheddar Man” may get lost on the ether

Secrets of the Earthly Home of a Ghost

The Bristol Evening World reported on the 28th February, 1936 that 

Cave Explorers Rewarded

Two new Wonder Chambers at Cheddar

... Which surpasses any of the caves the public can see at Cheddar today. ... Telling the story of the discovery of the new caverns to an “Evening World! Reporter, Mr. Thomas B. Gill, manager of Gough’s caves [sic], said : “The party consisted of Lord Weymouth, the head guide, and myself. We set out to crawl through a passage that was only two feet six inches or three feet wide.


“Instead of crawling, however, we could only wriggle, and it was with relief that we found ourselves at the end of the passage.

“Here our lamps revealed a cavern which is superior to anything the public can see at the moment.

“The most striking feature was a wonderful curtain 12 feet long .  This is one of nature’s masterpieces. It was gleaming in wonderful colours, a sight of incredible beauty.”

To open the way to these wonderful caverns 6,000 tons of silt have had to be removed. ... The subterranean river holds secrets which may never be revealed, so deep are the dark waters. Soundings have been taken, but every time the line has been dropped to 70 feet the swift underground currents have snapped it off, to disappear into the unknown. ...

The opening of the ‘two chambers,’ of course, never happened.  But the discovery of the passage and chamber was only one part of the publicity notes issued by the cave management. Late in 1935 plans were announced that the skeleton of ‘Cheddar Man’ was to be rebuilt by Professor M. Rix of Oxford University under the general direction of Sir Arthur Keith. (note 18)  It was claimed that the skeleton was now complete following a further excavation in the Skeleton Pit. The mystery of the underground stream route too was highlighted by Gill.  He stated that it was impossible to determine the depth of the water flowing under the cave in the Skeleton Pit.  It had been found that the force of the water was so great that it snapped the string and so losing the plumb-bob ! 

So, on at 7.30 p.m. On Monday, 2nd March 1936 the first broadcast from this cave took place. The News Chronicle’s report of the event commented that one of the (note 19)

... wonders of modern science was being used amid stalactites and stalagmites which had been accumulating for centuries. ... The listening public heard for the first time of the recent extensions.

The caves now extend for a distance of two miles.

The commentary was broadcast on the West and Scottish Regional wavelengths.

The Western Daily Press account was minimal but included two large photographs as did both the Bristol evening papers. (note 20,21,22)


Swildon's Hole, 1937

The issue of Radio Times, for 23rd April 1937, announced that a live twenty minute broadcast was to be made from Swildon’s Hole at 9.00 p.m. on Saturday the 1st May. (note 23)  The programme was entitled ‘Mendip Cave Crawl‘ which also served as the title of an introductory article in the same issue of the weekly paper by Herbert Balch. (note 24) The transmission was to be relayed on the airwaves to the BBC southern and western regions. The Wells Journal deemed this information to be worthy of front page headlines for their 30th April issue.  (note 25) As the weekly paper was then published on Friday it was to act as a reminder to the Wells citizens to tune in to the Wireless or news to the many nonreaders of Radio Times. Such magazines were luxuries that many people were unable to afford.

The programme was subcontracted to a local company to setup the broadcast and on Monday, 26th April, their engineers descended the cave to install electric cables, microphones and illumination to and from the Old Grotto. It would seem that the technicians were led through the cave by Jack Duck and his caving associate, Austin Wadsworth; the pair operating under the auspices of MNRC and Herbert Balch. The fact that Balch had written a preface to the broadcast clearly shows he was involved in some way with the programme. From the Gerard Platten letter reproduced in Hendy’s notes from Bill Weaver’s Logbook in WCC Journal No. 288 it would seem that he, Platten, was also associated with the broadcast in association with Duck and Wadsworth. Fortunately two photographs taken by Wadsworth of the technicians in the Old Grotto have survived and are in the author’s photographic collection.  Jack Duck is certainly in one of these pictures.  Two other photographs of the event are to be found among the Luke Devenish collection of glass lantern slides now housed in the WCC Library.  Both glass mounts have been badly damaged but the images, though out of focus, have been restored by the writer using computer enhancement techniques.

The identity of the company who arranged and produced the broadcast is unknown and no record exists except for details of various payments made by BBC. (note 26) The commentary was by one H. Gordon Bird for which he was paid the handsome sum of £15 - 15 - 0. (note 27) It is possible that this was the same man, who as a member of UBSS, assisted Balch during the exploration of Swildon’s One in 1921.

No follow-up article has been found in the local newspapers of the broadcast itself but from photographic evidence, the Radio Times and the content of Platten’s letter there is no doubt that the event went ahead.  There is a very good reason why the relay was not reported in any of the local papers that I have checked. An important national event took place during the following week and because of this the various editors of local papers took the view that  ‘there’s too much of this event to publish rather than wasting valuable space reporting the cave broadcast.’

The event, of course, was the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth [the late Queen mum] on the 6th May 1937. Coronation fever swept the country; special events and concerts, street parties and beacons were lit giving both the national and local newspapers plenty to write about.  The Wells Journal and the Weston-super-Mare Gazette and Mercury were full of reports of all the events taking place in this region.

The WCC Committee responded to the announcement of the broadcast in a short statement in the April, 1937 Circular. (note 28)

'B.B.C. Broadcast May 1st. The Committee wish it to be made quite clear that this Club has nothing whatever to do with this event.

Publicity was considered undesirable and release of information to the Press about caving activities was frowned upon for   (note 29)

...it is an understood thing amongst all decent cave men that reports of cave activities are not given to the press nor is the Club's name to be mentioned except with the Committee's approval.  Members who desire to give publicity to their activities are advised to consult the Hon. Secretary.'

This introverted view was in vogue well into the 1960s and one held by most of the major Mendip clubs. Publicity regarding caving was considered extremely poor taste. Further it was likely to increase the numbers of cavers and introduce the 'undesirable' element. It was also argued that caving required a certain quality - initiative. Thus if a person wanted to go caving it was assumed that he would find the necessary contacts himself. How things have changed!  Finally, Platten refers to the possibility of a further broadcast beyond the Forty Foot Pot, possibly recording someone [‘Bill’ Weaver] free diving the sump.  It is thought that this never took place for no evidence has been found in the local newspapers published during 1938 and 1939. The Radio Times has not been checked - any volunteers?

Overcrowding of the popular caves has resulted in major destruction of the finer details and in some cases the rock has been worn so smooth that at times the conditions are quite dangerous. At the time of writing there has to be a strenuous effort made to preserve much of what remains - and in places not much - before the desecration is total.

G.B. Cave, 1941

During the early days of exploration in G.B. Cave the cave received considerable publicity. Rodney Pearce [of Rod’s Pot fame] and Francis Goddard [the ‘G’ of G.B. Cave] spent some time preparing a manuscript accompanied by a sketch survey for publication in Illustrated London News (note 30) and, later that year, in Nature. (note 31) During this work a couple of broadcasts (note 32) were made for the BBC relating to the cave, one of which was a recording made on site.  Goddard detailed this trip in the UBSS Logbook entry for the 9th July 1941. (note 33)

... Met Jean Bussell of B.B.C. With 1 recording car at 2.45 (only 15 mins late). ... [obtained] Farmer Young’s permission to  go into field with car  I then started down cave. Made a recording at the entrance, in first grotto, in double passage and just before the entrance - where the cable ran out. Bussell was thrilled with the cave.

The 'canning' technique was the cutting of a 78 rpm shellac disc up to 24 inches in diameter though during the latter stages of the Second World War, wire tape recorders were being developed.

Trevor Shaw’s complete, but unpublished history of UBSS gives very brief details of these events which were later edited out of the published version. (note 34) BBC recorded sound effects in the cave on the 20th February 1968 - BBC copy tape in UBSS Library, included sounds of typical caving activity - laddering a pitch, stream - close, medium and far distance, water drips, group of cavers walking, climbing, tired cavers, tired caver, whistle blasts, hauling up ladder etc. 23 bands of varying sounds were made.

Wookey Hole, 1946

Not long after the formation of CDG plans were laid to broadcast part of their activity from Wookey Hole. The producer, Desmond Hawkins intending to produce a feature programme on the cave gave a provisional date of the broadcast as being 29th May 1946. CDG's contribution was to be the 'Climax' of the Programme. (note 35) However, this appears not to have been broadcast for it was announced in Radio Times that the programme was postponed because of the producers' other commitments in the Channel Islands. (note 36)

The broadcast from Wookey Hole Caves by "frogmen" some 600 feet below the ground, which should have taken place last week, had to be postponed. Mr. Desmond Hawkins, the B.B.C. producer had to go to the Channel Isles. Further technical research will be carried out before the actual broadcast

The author has not found any reference to an actual broadcast.

Axbridge Caving Group

During 1952, the group’s secretary, Major D.C. McKearn was contacted by the BBC with an idea of producing a short item on caving. This was to have been included in the popular Saturday evening radio show "In Town Tonight" that was hosted by Brian Johnston and transmitted on the Home Service [now Radio 4]. However, the programme never went further than the outline planning stage. (note 37)

Later in 1954 and 1955 ACG were again involved with the BBC for their "Under Twenties" programme. On Easter Monday, 19th April, 1954 the technicians recorded the sounds of    (note 38)

 ... blasting in the [Banwell] Stalactite Cave ... Pat Knights and Gordon Griffiths (with Bob Price giving technical advice) were 'on the air'.

The ACG crew must have impressed the BBC producers for a year later, in 1955 and again during the Easter weekend, and for the same programme, they were 'on the air'. This was a twelve minute edited version of a recording made in Axbridge Ochre Cavern some eight months before. (note 39)

Swildon's Hole - 1949-1952

Another broadcast from Swildon's Hole took place during 1949 but the date has yet to be investigated. A report is said to have appeared in the Wells Journal at the time.

An 'internal broadcast' was made by the BBC in 1952 in which BEC members were involved. A full report was given in BB No. 58.  The programme was made for the Light Programme [now Radio 2] in a slot called 'Summer Parade' and it was first announced in the Radio Times published on the 20th June 1952. The commentary was to be given by Hugh Falkus. (note 40)

The BEC Belfry Bulletin under its then editor, Harry Stanbury, received a full report from three members who had assisted in the underground activity on the 15th June. Mike Jones, Merv. Hannam and Dave England

 ... were inveigled into making a broadcast in Swildon's Hole, in company with some members of Woking Youth Club. The story of this epic event started when one Hugh [Fatso] Falkus arrived in a dilapidated Ford V8, followed by Jack [Slim] Singleton in a three ton truck with an army of Teenagers, all with a pronounced (and disturbing) London accent. (note 41)

A short note of the broadcast was published by the Wells Journal in its Local News Section. (note 42)

A further broadcast was recorded by Trevor Shaw in his unpublished history of UBSS that took place on 1st June 1955.  It is stated to have been live broadcast, programmed as 'A Hole in the Hill’ and the commentary given by Raymond Baxter. (note 43,44)

1954 - Stoke Lane Slocker

In 1954 James Kirkup joined members of UBSS on two caving trips on Mendip on the 29th and 30th May. Kirkup, a literary man, composed a lengthy poem of his experiences underground titled : The Descent into the Cave being an account of an underground journey in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. (note 45) The work was dedicated to the members of the UBSS. Trevor Shaw noted that the work, a free verse narrative poem, was based upon a visit to Stoke Lane Slocker where the author’s experience of diving a sump is given some prominence.

At that time John Morris [not the entertainer, Johnny Morris] was Controller of the BBC Third Programme [now Radio 3] and it was he that compiled an anthology which included the first publication of Kirkup’s poem. The poem was broadcast on the Third Programme on the 26th September 1954, animated with vocal contributions by well-known broadcasters, Robert Reitty, Felix Felton, Peter Cloughton and John Stockbridge. The broadcast was repeated twice more on the same channel in 1955 and 1956.

Kirkup's own anthology was published by OUP in 1957 (note 46) when the title of the caving poem was reduced to The descent into the Cave but still with the dedication to the members of UBSS.

Though not relating to Mendip caves in 1963 the Third Programme planners requested a play from Louis MacNeice.  MacNeice had considerable experience in writing radio plays and produced a script entitled Persons from Porlock in which the hero, a failed artist, ends his life in a pothole. To gain the atmosphere of the underground MacNeice joined the BBC engineer who was recording various sound-effects in a Yorkshire pothole. He caught a chill that developed into pneumonia from which he died on the 3rd September 1963 a few days after the play had been broadcast. (note 47) The Victorian melodrama still lives ! 

Another curio was the announcement by Harry Ashworth of the MNRC in the 1957 newsletter of a field event relating to dowsing being organised by Peter Stewart and at which the BBC were going to make a programme which was to be broadcast sometime during August of that year. (note 48)

Since that time innumerable broadcasts and reports of caving activities have been transmitted. The latest being the discovery of bones in Hunters' Lodge Inn Sink and a new series of six programmes that was televised during the 2004 Autumn; one being devoted to Swildon's Hole with footage taken by Gavin Newman.


The writer would like to acknowledge the assistance of the archivist at the BBC Archives, Reading ; to Dr. Steven Craven (CPC) for details of early broadcasts from the Yorkshire Dales and High Peak caves ; to Phil Hendy, WCC librarian, for use of photographs from the Devenish collection, Alan Gray (ACG), Ray Mansfield, for drawing my attention to the MacNeice play, and Tony Jarratt for proof reading the paper.

Dave Irwin, Priddy.  20 February 2005


Compiled by S. A. Craven

DATE:                        13 Oct. 1927; 1900 hours

SUBJECT:                  Gaping Gill

BROADCASTER:        James W. Puttrell

CLUB:                        Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club et al.

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              Radio Times 07 Oct. 1927.

                                 Sheffield Daily Telegraph 14 Oct. 1927.


DATE:                        15 June 1929

SUBJECT:                  Caves of Yorkshire; recent discoveries at Ingleton (i.e. probably White Scar)

BROADCASTER:        James W. Puttrell

CLUB:                        Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club et al.

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              Radio Times 31 May 1929.


DATE:                        29 March 1934

SUBJECT:                  Potholing

BROADCASTER:        Ernest Edward Roberts

CLUB:                        Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              Craven Herald 30 Mar. 1934 p. 6.


DATE:                        30 March 1935

SUBJECT:                  Potholing

BROADCASTER:        Arnold C. Waterfall

CLUB:                        Craven Pothole Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              West Yorkshire Pioneer 05 Apr. 1935 p. 4.

                                 Craven Herald 05 Apr. 1935 p. 8.               


DATE:                        18 June 1936

SUBJECT:                  Weathercote Cave and Gaping Gill

BROADCASTER:        Reg Hainsworth

CLUB:                        Gritstone Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              West Yorkshire Pioneer 19 June 1936 p. 2.


DATE:                        25 June 1936

SUBJECT:                  Caves and Waterfalls of Ingleton

BROADCASTER:        Reg Hainsworth, H. Wilson Midgley

CLUB:                        Gritstone Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Field – at Weathercote Cave

AUTHORITY:              Leeds Mercury 12 June 1936 p. 8.

                                 Lancaster Guardian 26 June 1936 p. 10.


DATE:                        02 July 1936; 0910 – 0924 hours

SUBJECT:                  Potholing – a descriptive tour of Lost John’s Cave in Yorkshire

BROADCASTER:        Robert M. Brench

CLUB:                        Leeds Cave Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              Leeds Mercury 12 June 1936 p. 8.

                                 Radio Times 26 June 1936 p. 55.

                                 Manchester Guardian 02 July 1936.

                                 Yorkshire Post 04 July 1936 p. 7.

                                 The Listener 15 July 1936 pp. 112 – 113, 182.

                                 The Listener 12 Aug. 1936 pp. 317 - 318.

                                 The Listener 19 Aug. 1936 p. 361.


DATE:                        02 April 1938; 1905 hours

SUBJECT:                  Alum Pot

BROADCASTER:        Robert M. Brench

CLUB:                        Leeds Cave Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              Radio Times 20 – 26 Mar. 1938 pp. 14, 86.

                                 Hull Mail (date not stated).


DATE:                        08 April 1938; 1400 hours (repeat of 02 April 1938)

SUBJECT:                  Alum Pot

BROADCASTER:        Robert M. Brench

CLUB:                        Leeds Cave Club

STUDIO / FIELD:        Studio

AUTHORITY:              Radio Times 01 Apr. 1938 p. 63.

                                 Daily Express 08 Apr. 1938.


ADDITIONAL NOTE : (Scott H.J.) (1940) Yorkshire Dalesman 2(1)4 tells us that:  "Mr. (Norman) Thornber is secretary of the Cave Rescue Organisation and has broadcast several times on potholing in Yorkshire."


1.                  As the privately owned British Broadcasting Company.  It received its Charter in 1927 when it became the British Broadcasting Corporation

2.                  Wells Journal, 8th August 1930, p5, c5 : Radio from the depths.

3.                  Wells Journal, 12th September 1930,  p4, c.6 : Wookey Hole Speaks to the World. 

4.                  Wells Journal, 15th May 1931, p.5, c.1, Local News. Another Wookey Hole Broadcast.

5.                  Anon, 1931, Wookey Hole Cave [broadcast reminder] Wells Journal 22nd May, p3,c3

6.                  Anon, 1931, Broadcast from Wookey Hole Caves.  Wells Journal 29th May, p4,c6

7.                  Wells Journal, 16th June 1933, p.1 : Broadcast from Wookey Hole Caves.

8.                  Wells Journal, 7th July 1933, p.5, c.5 : Local News. Cave Broadcast.

9.                  Wells Journal, 14th July 1933, p.1, c.1 :  Broadcast from Wookey Hole Cave. Clifton Boy’s Solos. 

10.              Wells Journal, 10th February 1933, p.1 c.3 :  The Caves of Mendip. Broadcast  by Mr. H.E. Balch. 

11.              Wells Journal, 20th January 1939, p.5, c.1, [Broadcast]

12.              Wells Journal, 2nd August 1935, p.1, c.1-2 :  Thrilling Broadcast from Wookey Hole Caves.

13.              Balcombe, F. Graham and Powell, Penelope M, 1935, The log of the Wookey Hole exploration expedition 1935.   Ascot : F.G. Balcombe   [p.3]

14.              Balcombe, F. Graham and Powell, Penelope M, 1935, [as above], p.76

15.              Wells Journal, 23rd August 1935, p.3 c.2-3 : Thrilling Adventure in Wookey Hole Caves.  Divers Brave The Depths of Hidden Waters.  New Caverns Discovered. Successful Broadcast by B.B.C. 

16.              Irwin, David J., 2000, Waldegrave Swallet ... a brief history.    BEC Bel Bul 51(509)25-39(Dec), illus, surveys, figs OR BCRA SHG Jnl (6)9-22(Aut), illus, surveys, figs

17.              Western Daily Press,  25th February 1936, “Cheddar Man” may get lost in the Ether.

18.              The skeleton rebuild was completed early in 1937.

19.              News Chronicle, 3rd March 1936, Broadcast from Underground Cave. [illus]

20.              Western Daily Press, 3rd March 1936, p.9, c.1-5 : Last night's broadcast from Cheddar's famous caves. [illus]

21.              Bristol Evening World, 3rd March 1936, Microphone "Tour"  [illus]

22.              Bristol Evening Post,  3rd March 1936, Wonders of the Cheddar Caves explained to visitors during the radio tour.  [illus]

23.              Radio Times, 23rd April 1937, Regional Programme. [p.75]

24.              Balch, Herbert E., 1937, Mendip Cave Crawl.  Radio Times, 23rd April, p.8, illus

25.              Wells Journal, 30th April 1937, p.1 c.5 : A Broadcast from Swildon's Hole

26.              Anon, 1937, Programme as Broadcast from the West of England Region. Saturday, 1st May, 1937. Sheet 1. [from BBC Archive, 1996]

27.              For those not familiar with the old LSD [pound, shillings and pence] system this sum equals £15.75.

28.              Anon, 1937, B.B.C. Broadcast May 1st.   WCC Circ. (23)1

29.              Anon, 1937, Publicity.  WCC Circ (27)1

30.              Goddard, F.J. and Pearce, R.A.J., 1941, Romantic Discovery ...    The Illustrated London News, 9 Aug., p.185-188, illus, survey

31.              Goddard, F.J. and Pearce, R.A.J., 1941, G.B. Cave, Charterhouse on Mendip.  Nature, 4 Oct.,  148(3753)394-396, illus

32.              Pearce, R.A.J., 1968, The Wartime Years. Some Reminiscences   MSS, typed, 4f [held in UBSS Library]

33.              UBSS Camp Log Nov. 1939 to June 1943.   MS 91 pp , surveys.  UBSS Library, Bristol University, Bristol [p.41]

34.              Shaw, T.R., 1968, History of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society.    Bristol : UBSS, Typed MS  61 + vpp [p.40]

35.               Bristol  Evening Post, 1946, 19th March, Divers' plan in Broadcast from caves. [Wookey Hole]

36.              Radio Times, 1946, (7 Jun) p.5, c.1 : Local News Caves Broadcast.

37.              Sec [pseudo : D.C.  McKeand], 1952, Group News. B.B.C.   ACG Jnl 1(2)8-9

38.              Anon, 1954, Report on Excavations in the Banwell Bone Cave   ACG Jnl 2(2)7-8(Sep)

39.               McKeand, D.C., 1955,  Group News. Caves.      ACG Jnl 2(4)3-5(Sep)

40.              Radio Times, 1952 (20th Jun);  Going Down [no other details recorded]

41.              Jones-, M., Hannam, M., and England, D., 1952, Actually Caving.  BEC Bel Bul 6(58)5-6(Jun)

42.              Wells Journal, 1952 (27 Jun), p.5, c.3 : Local News

43.              Shaw, T.R., 1968, [as above] [p.40]

44.              Wells Journal, 1955 (10 Jun), p.2, c.4-5 : BBC broadcast from Mendip - A Hole in a Hill.

45.              Morris, John [ed], From the Third Programme a ten years' anthology imagination argument   London: Nonesuch Press, x + 339pp

46.              Kirkup, James, 1957, The Descent into the Cave and other poems.  London: Oxford University Press, viii + 109pp 

47.              47 Carpenter, Humphrey, 1996, The Envy of the World.  London: Pheonix Giant, 431pp, illus [p.213]

48.              Ashworth, H.W.W., 1957, MNRC. Field Programme.  MNRC Ntr [2](May)