450 year old inscription rediscovered

Mentioned in Pengelly's diaries in the 1800s, the inscription was largely forgotten about until Education Officer Elliot Ling set out to locate it.

The man paused for a break in the welcome space of a natural chamber in the caves to catch his breath, aching from the exertion of crawling through narrow, boulder strewn tunnels. By the light of a candle he scratched a name and date in the rock: ‘William Petre, 1571’.

Fast forward 450 years and this remains one of the earliest known inscriptions found at Kents Cavern. Was this a reference to Sir William Petre from Torbryan near Ipplepen, Secretary of State to King Henry VIII, Edward VI and Queen Mary 1? And if so, why was it made, when and by whom? Sir William Petre was, by this date, 66 years old, and died just a year later on his estate in Essex.

The inscription was mentioned in William Pengelly’s diaries of the excavation of the caverns in the late 1800s, and was largely forgotten about until recently rediscovered by Education Officer Elliot Ling, who upon re-reading Pengelly’s diaries set out to locate it. It was found high up in the Bears Den chamber where subsequent floor excavations rendered it largely out of sight and out of reach to modern visitors.

Although this is the oldest inscription found in the caves, it is not the only inscription. There are many more bearing witness to previous early explorers of the caves.

Not far from William Petre’s markings, you’ll find large engraved letters spelling: ‘F DAVY’. Legend has it that this refers to a group of sailors who ventured into the caverns looking for adventure. The next day, they were declared missing and a search was called. A local farmer and his dog entered the caves and found them huddled in a far recess, lights long extinguished and lost in the darkness. In the true spirit of romance, one sailor decided to marry the farmer’s daughter, and as a tribute, they all wrote their initials in the cavern – to be remembered hundreds of years later.

Another noticeable inscription is high up on the cave wall and reads: ‘Susan Mallock’. The Mallock family lived at Cockington Court from the 15th-19th century. As a highly influential family in Torquay, they were friendly with Agatha Christie and her father, Frederick Miller. In fact, they were so friendly that one of Agatha’s novels is dedicated to Christopher Mallock. Agatha’s father, Frederick, helped finance William Pengelly’s excavations, and as such it is likely that the Mallock family visited Kents Cavern during the Victorian era.

There are plenty more inscriptions around the caves: ‘A.T. 1662’; ‘I.Bertie. 1706’; ‘A.Chard 1817’; ‘R.D. 1822’ to name but a few.

All these markings allude to fascinating stories of our intrepid and adventurous forebearers. Would you be brave enough to crawl into an unknown dark cave by candlelight alone, not knowing what is there and where it leads? Thankfully, you won’t have to! Kents Cavern is now a lot easier to navigate, with structured paths and electric lights, as our entertaining tour guides tell the caves’ 2 million year old history, featuring cave animals, early modern humans and a 15 year long Victorian Excavation which uncovered some of Britain's most ancient secrets.

Kents Cavern is open daily. Pre-booking is essential.  Tickets can be bought here.