Underground Greenwich (11)

Thought it was about time I visited another Underground Greenwich – albeit today in Greenwich borough, rather than actually in the town. So shoot me.

February 1878 was an exciting time for Mr Thomas Jackson. He lived at the Shooters Hill end of Eltham, and had quite an estate from what I can tell. Engineers, trying to find why out the local waterworks kept losing large amounts of water, discovered a 140 foot shaft 300 yards from his house.

It was about four feet in diameter and someone had obviously thought it was worth spending time and cash on it, as it was brick lined – right down to 75 feet. And the bricks were thick – nine inches at the top; fourteen at the bottom.

Below that, for another 40 feet, thick chalk blocks lined the walls before finally coming out at an unlined bit at the bottom where lay a huge chamber – 63ft by 40ft and over nine feet high, with chalk columns carved out to prevent the roof falling in – there was flint immediately above that.

The only reference I can find to this is Hasted – and he only writes about it in a footnote. He has no idea how old the shaft is, though the brickwork is much later than the tunnel itself – at some point it had been used as a cesspool (ick…) Chalk workings (often called ‘Dene Holes’ – there are all sorts of stories as to how they got there…) go back to Roman times – Pliny used British chalk to clean his silver – but it’s probably more likely this one was medieval.

What they used to do was dig down, putting footholes in at intervals so that you could descend by putting your foot in one gap, then straddle the shaft, feeling around for the next hole with the other foot. For 140 feet. Does anyone else feel queasy? At the bottom, they dug out the chalk and sent it up in buckets.

No one had known this one was there – and, since I can’t seem to find any specific modern reference to it, (save articles that were clearly using Hasted as a reference too) it seems to have been forgotten now.

One document I did find though, seems to imply that it may have been built over now – that in the 1920s and 30s authorities “had few scruples when allowing housing estate to be built over land known to contain a honeycomb of caves.” Eltham isn’t specifically mentioned – but there is a lot of 20s/30s housing in the area.

Just think – someone could be sitting on the biggest potential wine cellar/ games den/ screening room in Eltham. Of course they probably just assume they’ve been cursed with the biggest subsidence in Eltham…

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