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A History of Kents Cavern

Part 1: 19TH Century Visitors and Guides

By Pete Rose

Following early visits to Kent’s Cavern in the late 18th century by John Swete, Richard Polwhele and William Maton the visits by J. Feltham in 1803 and W. Hyett (1805) appeared in print (1): “Having augmented our guides we entered the chafin, with each a candle and cautiously proceeded, after a short descent it opened out into a fort of a hall.” This trip describes the rescue of a party of naval officers who had entered with portfires (slow burning fuses) and one candle which went out!

In 1812 ‘A description of Kent’s Hole’ (2) stated: “A curious cavern amongst the rock to the east of Teignmouth. It is situated at the bottom of a rock and has 2 entrances. The largest and left entrance is about 4 feet high and continuing 12 feet, terminates in a chamber, with a descent leading into other vaults, sometimes the passage being only high enough for a person to creep along, suddenly leading into an apartment spacious enough to contain a hundred persons.There are 5 of these, but the largest is at the end of an entrance two hundred feet along, which barely admits a person going through. This is called the Oven, and here we meet with a lake of water which prevents further progress……. It is necessary that everyone who visits should take a light to prevent accidents by foul air etc. Attempts have been made to work the bones and spars, but they do not prove ornamental!”

In 1818 E. Croydon published ‘A Guide to the watering places on the coast between the Exe and the Dart’ (3). The land under which Kent’s is situated was owned by Sir Lawrence Palk (The Haldon Estate): “The approach to this awful retreat is by a path which winds through a thicket. The entrance, which is situated to the south, is through a narrow passage, in some parts not 5 feet in height. The passage gradually widens as you proceed, and takes a north easterly direction till you are introduced into a spacious hall.” Torches were used to light this trip, but there is no mention of a guide.

The first name connected with Kent’s Cavern in modern times is that of Thomas Northmore (4) of Cleve, near Exeter, who sought to establish that Mithras had been worshipped in early times in British caverns.

He entered the cave on Sept 21st 1824, with the dual objective of verifying his own theory and of discovering organic remains. With two assistants, Ferris and Rossiter, together with a draughtsman Gendall (sketches for the engravings) entered the cavern. “There were no bars, locks or bolts on the cave”. He declared that he was ‘‘successful in both objects’’ (5) but his theory was disproved quickly His interest caused him to write to Dean Buckland, who had been exploring caverns in Yorkshire. The latter urged him to proceed with his investigations, which he carried out with Sir W.C. Trevelyan.

Northmore was accompanied in his researches by Dr Greville, Capt. Sartorius, Mr Scudamore, Mr Barker, Mr Henderson, Dr Matthews, Rev Mr Daniel and Mr Edward Cary, Prof. of Oxford.

In 1825 he was accompanied by a party including John MacEnery, a priest. He had archaeological tastes and resolved to commence researches which would shed light on man’s early history. He was inspired by Dr. Buckland’s book ’Reliquaie Diluvianae’(6) which had appeared in 1823 with .the current theory of the deluge or a great flood, depositing bones into caves.

“Captain Welby , the coast guard , with Mr Northmore, and MacEnery entered in files , each bearing a light in one hand and a pick-axe in the other headed by a guide carrying a lantern before the chief of the party. Assembling in the vestibule Mr Northmore ascended a rock from which he issued instructions. He then distributed the guard through the chambers. The party were consoled by the discovery in the black mould of oak pieces and finally some teeth. 5 species on Mr Trevelyan’s plate were supplemented by deer, hare, rabbit, cat, birds, and an upper jaw of a hyena!’’ (24),Buckland visited in 1825 and was struck with the discoveries.

MacEnery found, below the recent deposits and a thick sheet of stalagmite, the bones and teeth of extinct animals and non native ones, together with flint implements of early man. This proved an antiquity of deposition over long periods of time, rather than just in a flood. When John MacEnery submitted his report to the British Association he was greeted with disbelief and ridicule, for few scientists then believed these flints to be genuine products of primitive man.

In 1829 in searching the surface mould(23) MacEnery turned over a stone and discovered pieces of pottery, charcoal ,human teeth ,flint relics, spear heads, copper, tin mouldings etc., and, near the entrance, human bones. Near the same spot a few days later a cranium and bones of another body were found plus mammoth, rhino, horse, ox, deer, wolf, fox, hyena, and reindeer remains. Further excavations were carried out over a period of about 15 years, but the results were meagre and misunderstood.

The ‘Panorama of Torquay’(1832) by Octavian Blewitt was quite controversial “The labours of the Rev .J.M. MacEnery have enabled him to form a cabinet of great value, and to enrich with the fossil treasures of Torquay the institutions of Plymouth , Bristol and other provincial towns and the splendid Museum of the Geological Society. But while hundreds have engaged in these investigation it is curious that few Geological works have condescended to notice the Torquay cave, although much space has been given to others, both foreign and British of far inferior interest.We have great pleasure in introducing two letters by Thos. Northmore.’’ (Pp110-138) (7)

He states that: “the guides were J.Heggery, mineralist on the quay, and Geo. Pearce at Tor to whom the keys are entrusted. Permission to dig is from Sir L.V. Palk”. The entrance is shown in an engraving.

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South entrance 1848
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North Entrance 1841

This north entrance was in general use from 1824 to 1865. There were 5 entrances the triangular entrance (north),the arched entrance(south),the first low level entrance, the second low level entrance and the oven entrance . Only the above two are now open,and 50 feet apart in the face of the same cliff. The other entrances were blocked to keep out stray animals. MacEnery used the north entrance which opened into the vestibule.

In 1840 Godwin Austen read a paper on ‘The bone caves of Devonshire’ before the Geological Society describing his own investigations.

Croydon’s Guide (henceforth referred to as Croydon) 1841(25) noted that George Pearce of Tor, Torquay dealt with applications for visits.

In 1841 ‘The Guide to Torquay’ by Cockrem and Elliott (9) has a new engraving of the North Entrance. “The entrance is now closed in order to prevent persons from carrying off the bones for sale, or incautiously losing themselves in the cave. It is more than probable that the skeleton which was found there had taken refuge in the cave and had been unable to retrace her steps!”

“When the fleet was stationed in Torbay during the late war, two midshipmen ventured to explore the cavern without a guide, and having extinguished their lights were so completely lost in its intricate windings that it was not until they had been missed and search made for them that they were discovered on the following day, by the tenant of Ilsam Farm .They were seated in the far recesses, without hope of making their escape. Determined to show his gratitude, and to terminate their adventure in the true spirit of romance, one of them resolved upon marrying the daughter of their deliverer and actually maintained a correspondence with her family for nearly 10 years, when all tidings of him suddenly ceased”

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Tor Churchyard

“The only guide who is now trusted with the key is George Pearce, of Tor, who will provide lights and everything necessary for visiting the interior.

Permission to dig for bones can only be obtained from Sir L.V. Palk, who is naturally averse to giving leave, except for scientific purposes. The extent of the cavern is estimated at three quarters of a mile. The effect on the stalagmites by lighting with blue lights is very striking. The other entrance, higher in the wood, which appears larger, is now nearly filled with earth.’’
MacEnery died in 1841.His gravestone is in the Tor Churchyard (poorly maintained). His work resulted in the foundation of the Torquay Natural History Society in 1844, and this Society, in 1846, appointed a committee to obtain specimens for their new museum.

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Rev. J. MacEnery

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Cavern Researches 1859
Vivian, W. Pengelly, Dr. Battersby and others undertook exploration of the cavern. Their results were embodied in a paper read to the Geological Society. These new ideas of ‘antiquity of man and beast’ were contra to the idea of a great deluge or flood, bringing into caves all those bones. This was incompatible with the story of creation as told in the Book of Genesis. In fact in the ‘Caves of South Devon’ by Howard (8), post 1879, Mr Howard was still arguing for the deluge.

In the 1848 Croydon (10) it is stated: “the entrance is closed. Apply to George Pearce of Tor for the keys, lights and a guide. Persons not allowed to dig for bones unless they have permission from Sir Lawrence Palk” (born1766).

The Palk family owned much of Torquay, and the old manor house was pulled down in 1843. Prior to 1857 Sir L.V. Palk lived abroad and returned to Haldon House .he died in 1860 and was succeeded by his son Lawrence. The 2nd Lord Haldon was L.H. born 1846 and the third was L.W, born 1869. This estate was heavily mortgaged developing Torquay and much land with the harbour sold off post 1855. The 2nd Lord Haldon died in 1903 and by 1914 the rest of Haldon property in Torquay had been sold off.

Croydon, post 1851(11) has the entrance closed by a door and: “visitors who wish to explore the interior must procure a key from John Underhay, Queen St, Pimlico, Torquay”.

By 1852 Croydon (12) has visitors procuring a key from Mr Ardley, Curator of the Museum.

The 1854 Cockrem Guide (13) states: ‘‘through the Curator of the Museum may be obtained permission to visit. It will be necessary to provide lights and a guide”, whilst in the same year Croydon (14) writes: “the entrance is closed by a door and visitors must procure a key from Mr Ardley, the Curator of the Museum in Park Lane”.

In the next Croydon, post 1854(15) visitors were procuring a key from John Underhay: “its extent throughout its windings is estimated at about ¾ of a mile. The effect, when illuminated by blue lights, is very striking”.

Meanwhile work was going on in other parts of the country, and in 1859 Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species’. Great interest was aroused, whereupon Sir L. Palk decided to revert to the larger ‘South Entrance’ (arched) which opens into the Great Chamber. Here the doorway was built, the usual entrance today now inside. John Underhay, whose name appears on the notice board, had been Sir L. Palk’s guide for many years. Philp’s Cavern was discovered in 1858 in Windmill Hill, Brixham and spurred on interest in Kent’s Cavern.

By 1864 the Cockrem Guide (16) has the cave closed. “Permission from Sir L Palk , guides and candles necessary . The cavern may be examined by applying at the Manor Office, near the Baths.”

In 1865 a committee was formed by the British Association to organise the excavations. It consisted of Sir Charles Lyell, Professor Phillips, Sir John Lubbock, John Evans, E. Vivian and William Pengelly. Nearly £2000 was spent during the next 15 years. The work was carried out under the direction of W. Pengelly. Each year a report was made and presented to the British Association (16 reports in total). Superintendents oversaw the work and kept keys. Visits to the digs by ordinary travellers were only made with workmen present.

MacEnery had previously found four distinctive deposits, with contents of charcoal, shells, ornaments, teeth of lion, bear etc and beneath these the fifth deposit was crystalline stalagmite,12 feet thick in one place(23) and the sixth layer of cave earth or breccia. The 5th deposit had only bear bones, the sixth- lion, bear, fox and man. “Man existed in Devonshire at a remote time uncalculated”.

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South Entrance in the 1860’s 

Charles Keeping, whose brother was a well known fossil collector, and George Smerdon, were hired in March1865. “Tuesday March 28th. The workmen had broken ground outside the cavern for the purpose of cutting a roadway through a talus of earth and stones, which almost closed the southern (arched) entrance, which for the present is to be the entrance used exclusively by the superintendents and the workmen the visitors and guide being confined to the northern entrance.”(27). This access was changed to the Southern Entrance (by Sir L Palk).

W. Pengelly spent 5 hours a day at the cavern, and the workmen employed were George Smerdon and John Farr. In the 6th Report to the Committee (1870) the workmen were excited! “A pound of candles (16 to the pound) were hung in their usual places. By 3’o clock 12 were missing, cutting marks rather than a gnawing of the wicks was noticed (rats were a problem). Before they left all the candles had disappeared!”

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William Pengelly

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South Entrance 1869t5 1925

The whole of the cavern was divided into cubic yards (3x1x1feet). To each cubic yard a box was devoted, and all the finds placed within. There were 4000 by Dec. 1866 and 7340 by 1880! Thus a scientific analysis of the cavern was carried out. (There is now a survey of these boxes, showing their location in the cavern).

“After a party had been taken through the cavern a lady said to Pengelly.’’ Do you think Mr Pengelly that this is more than 4000 years old?” “Yes madam. I think you may add another nought to that number and still another. In fact you can make it as noughty as you like”. (26).

The TNHS needed new premises and by 1873 had agreed on a site in Torwood Road , completed in 1875 and moved into by 1876.

Post 1871 Besley’s Handbook (17) indicates permission must be obtained from the agents of Sir L. Palk or of the committee of the Torquay Natural History Society.

Editions of John Murray’s Handbook for travellers in Devon and Cornwall appeared in 1872 (or earlier) (18). “Permission from No.1. Victoria Cottages, Abbey Road- a guide with a torch required. Charge 3/- and visitors who desire a good light should provide their own.” John Clinnick, a workman, discovered a chamber in 1875,and this was named after him. Nicholas Luscombe, employed at this time, became ill and William Matthews took his place. Matthew’s Passage was found 1876.
W. Pengelly gave many lectures, and one at Glasgow in 1875 described his thoughts on the antiquity of man. “I have gone to Kent’s Cavern every day of my life from the 28th March 1865, up to the present day, excepting those rare instances when I am home. I have had the pleasure of taking into Kent’s Cavern a great many distinguished men, amongst them my distinguished friend Sir William Thomson. There is a malicious story current about Torquay, to the effect that one day I was unable to go to the cavern, and my boots were met walking out of their own accord!” (28).His story continues, “We are careful not to give orders for any person to see the cavern, except with a guide, but not to where the work is in progress .The reason is we once did give an order to two young men, and they foolishly put a Roman coin into the deposits, and our workmen dug it out. I came by appointment to meet my young friends, when the foreman came aside to me and said “This is very disagreeable to us. These gentlemen must have put this coin in the deposit. It is quite bright.” I looked at it, and handing it to the gentlemen said “Will you be so good as to take your coin. It has done all the work you intended” From that time we have passed a self-denying ordinance, never again to give anyone an order to see the cavern.” I hold that scientific investigation should not be undertaken with any theological bias ,but that it must and should be undertaken with a religious regard for truth and accuracy, and hence the care we bestow and the restrictions we make”.

In 1880 the excavations were ceased by Pengelly, and George Smerdon eked out a living for the next 7 years showing around visitors. Smerdon received a small pension and was the custodian of the cavern, together with his son-inlaw Francis Powe. The South Entrance had a door, wall and bench and Topsy the donkey (seen in postcards by 1900). The North Entrance still showed as a wooden grill in paintings. When George was ill his son-in-law Francis Powe took over duties .George died in 1889, and Francis Powe then rented the cave from the Haldon Estate.

Westley 1882(19) only stated “guides and candles being absolutely necessary. It is well to ascertain, at the museum, in passing, what time anyone is in attendance”

Murray’s later edition 1887(20), indicates “A guide will be found 10 am - 5pm daily, with a charge of 3/-.” W. Pengelly died in 1894.

By 1895(21) the guide, from 10am - 5pm, was charging “1/6d for a party not exceeding 3, and the time taken is half an hour”.

Between these dates (1887 and 1895) Beatrix Potter visited and had indicated there were excellent booklets (none known).

1897 saw the Ward Lock guides(22) describing “There is an attendant,who shows the cave, and provides candles for visitors at a charge of 1/6d for 3 persons or less, larger parties 6d each.” About this time the cave was used as a carpenter’s workshop, making wooden bathing huts for the local beaches.

The Haldon Estate was still in financial difficulties and in June 1902 the Town Clerk reported to the committee a letter from Messrs Walker and Son, dated the 5th instant, offering to sell lot 121 (Kent’s Cavern) containing 8 acres for 800 pounds, and part lot 129 adjoining Lincombe Drive, containing 16 acres for 1600 pounds. The committee could not see their way to entertain the purchase of either lot. On the 1st Sept. the Roads Committee considered the question of purchase again, but no offer was made. The offer was modified and sent to Francis Powe, who negotiated a very good deal and signed for the purchase on 23rd April 1903. For the purchase the letter in Feb. indicated part of the lot had been sold and the reduced lot was offered. A 30 pound deposit was paid, and the remainder, totalling 300 pounds, in April. From now on the Powe family were in control. The first adverts for visits were placed in the Torquay Times on Friday 10th July 1903.


There had been 80 plus years of continuous discovery in Kent’s Cavern .The early years were marked by a free for all. Bones were sold to collections. There was digging and exploration. Sir L. V. Palk had good sense to control access and let the TNHS complete the early discoveries by Northmore and MacEnery through the very able W. Pengelly. The religious establishments took a long time to be convinced of’ ‘The antiquity of Man’; it was not in their interests.This history is in 4 parts as listed below and will be continued in future BB’s:

Pt 1. Visitors and Guides. Pt 2. J. MacEnery.
Pt 3. W.Pengelly.

Pt 4. The Show Cave years


1. Hyett .W. 1805. Exeter. ‘A description of the watering places on the South East coast of Devon, from the river Exe to the Dart inclusive’ . Pp 90-93

2. Encyclopedia Londonensis. 1812. ’ Kent’s Hole’.vol. x1. P. 674.

3. Croydon. E. Teignmouth 1818. ‘A Guide to the watering places on the coast between the Exe and the Dart etc’. Pp . 23-31.

4. Ellis. A. 1930. Torquay. An Historical survey of Torquay. Chapter 1.

5. Baring-Gould. Book of the West .Vol 1 .Chapt xv1

6. Rev. Buckland W. Reliquiae Diluvianae .1823.John Murray. London. Kent’s Cavern mentioned p 69.

7.Blewitt.Octavian.1832. pub. E.Cockrem, Torquay. Pp107-138

8. Howard J. post 1879. Torquay. ‘The Caves of South Devon and their teachings’

9. Cockrem. E. and Elliot. W. 1841. Torquay. ‘A Guide to Torquay’ .Pp 13-15 plus engraving

10. Croydon E. 1848.Teignmouth. Handbook for Torquay and its Neighbourhood Pp29

11. Croydon. 1851 Torquay. p 55

12. Croydon. 1852.Torquay.

13. Croydon. 1854. p 202

14. Croydon post 54. p 55 (mentions this present summer of 54)

15. Croydon post 55.p 56

16. Cockrem .1864.Torquay. p6

17. Besley and son. post 1871. Handbook of South Devon and Dartmoor. p72

18. John Murray.1872. Handbook for travellers in Devon and Cornwall. Pp169-171

19. A Westley.1882. Tourist guide to Torquay . Pp74

20. John Murray 1887.Pp159-160

21. John Murray.1895.Pp156-158

22. Ward, Lock.1897. ‘A new pictorial and descriptive guide to Torquay’, Paignton Dartmouth, Totnes . p41

23. J.T. White .1878 Torquay. .History of Torquay Pp 361-368

24. J. MacEnery. Cavern Researches 1859.Torquay. Pub. E. Cockrem. Dedicated by E. Vivian. P6

25. Croydon. 1841.

26. Ellis. A. An Historical Survey of Torquay .1930.Torquay. p10

27. H. Pengelly .A Memoir of William Pengelly. 1897 London. p 161. ‘from the Journal of William Pengelly.’ Pub. J. Murray. Entrance to Kent’s Hole p162

28. W. Pengelly. ‘Kent’s Cavern’. Its Testimony to the Antiquity of Man. A lecture Dec 1875 Pp16, 17.

General references

These include letters and papers read to societies and published by W.Pengelly. The Literature of Kents Cavern prior to 1859 (part1), Parts 2&3 .

The whole of the Rev. J. MacEnery ‘s manuscript (1869)

16 reports of The Committees for Exploring Kent’s Cavern (British Association from 1865) can be accessed at Torquay Library and the T.N.H.S.