Underground Greenwich (3) Jack Cade’s Cavern

(Theoretically) 77, Maidenstone Hill, SE10

I say “theoretically,” because, frankly, there is bugger-all to see if you go there. Believe me – I’ve scouted around a few times, not quite believing that there really is nothing there. I’ve poked around garages, peered over back gardens and squinted down alleyways and I have come to the conclusion that this great Greenwich curio is well and truly sealed up and hidden.

Which is a big shame. There are tunnels and caves all over Blackheath and Greenwich Park, created differently and for different reasons, and none of them are to be marvelled at today. We’ve already discussed the tunnels in Greenwich Park, but Jack Cade’s (or Blackheath) Cavern to the west deserves a special mention.

No one really knows how old any of these caves are. Some say they’re Roman, others talk about the usual Druid tosh, but to be honest, in Jack Cade’s case at least, it is far more likely to be 17th Century chalk miners that created a massive cave underneath Point Hill. According to the splendid website http://www.shadyoldlady.com/ a character known as William Steers was fined in 1677 for mining too greedily. He undermined the King’s Highway, causing carriages to overturn. In fact the repercussions of this mining are still a hazard today – I’m sure everyone remembers the chaos in 2002 when the A2 suddenly disappeared into a black hole.

About a hundred years later, in 1780, a builder hit on the great idea of opening up the cave again, carving 40 steps into the chalk and fleecing visitors for 6d a gawp. It became THE place for fashionable tourists – until the inevitable accident. Nineteen year-old Lucy Talbot fainted in the fetid air below and died soon after she was carried up to the overworld.

Not to be put off by a small matter of Health and Safety, the owners sunk a well for ventilation and paid a lackey to pump bellows-fuls of fresh(ish) air into the cavern below. It didn’t take too long for people to forget Lucy and start to party again. A chandelier was suspended from the ceiling, a bar installed and it was reopened for business as a naughty nightclub. There’s a line drawing somewhere of a party in progress, but when I came to write this I had temporarily misplaced it. Rumours began of saucy nights with naked ladies and binge-drinking, something which the Victorian Prudes could not stand. They closed the bar down in 1854. Three years later they banned tumbling in the Royal Park too, (see “Weird Greenwich”) the miserable sods.

Everything went quiet until the sound of the Luftwaffe rumbled overhead in 1939. The authorities sank a shaft down into the creepy murk of the dead nightclub, with the intention of siting a massive air raid shelter inside. They decided against it, but apparently found relics of the last party still down there. I don’t know whether they left them there or whether they were removed, and if so, where they are now. If anyone else knows, do tell.

I have seen a photo on the internet of “the horned god” which is implied is in the Cave. I don’t know – perhaps there is one down there, perhaps the photo really is of it (though how it was taken remains a mystery.) But that photo looks remarkably similar (to me) to a carving over a gate in the wall to the Dwarf Orchard in Greenwich Park. I can’t help feeling that it is more likely to be that. If you want to see it, it’s in Park Row.

Why Jack Cade’s Cavern? “It has been suggested” (according to the BBC who are never wrong) that Cade (see “Mostly-Accurate History”) “carried out pagan rituals there” before descending on the City of London to wreak death, destruction and mutilation. Somehow this seems unlikely if it was a 17th Century cave, but what do I know? To be honest, it sounds like an 18th century advertising slogan to me. Perhaps they had a nice Southend Pier-style entrance with a plaster model of Jack Cade and his Merry Men in druid outfits to welcome punters in in some kind of Revolting Peasants Theme Park…(yes, yes, I know it was Wat Tyler who led it, but Cade, a century or so later, was pretty revolting too.)

When I am a Dotcom Billionaire after you’ve all clicked like mad on the GoogleAds here (only squillion still to go) I shall invest the money wisely. I shall buy Number 77 Maidenstone Hill (sadly no longer “Cave Cottage” – just a Victorian rebuild) and re-open Jack Cade’s Cavern. Of course due to inflation, prices would have to go up. I reckon a shilling would just about do it.

2 Comments to “Underground Greenwich (3) Jack Cade’s Cavern”

  1. Dave Boden says:

    I live directly opposite 75 and 79 Maidenstone hill (my side of the road is Dutton Street due to a bit of quirkiness). There’s no number 77, just a narrow alley between 75 and 79. My septuagenarian neighbours tell me that a house was damaged in 2002 but weren’t specific; perhaps number 77 fell? Or perhaps it’s tucked away through the alley? The neighbours also mentioned the caverns, but it’s only after reading about them today on Wikipedia that I have done a bit more digging (of a different sort than the chalk miners).

    Needless to say, I’d be facinated to hear more about this bit of history that’s right on my doorstep.

  2. Dave Boden says:

    Oh, ignore me! What looks like a single house at 79 is actually a couple of flats or maisonettes. There are two doors side by side, one of which is indeed marked 77.