Kents Cavern: open for 140 Years | 1880-2020

On 19th June 2020 the Powe family celebrate being custodians of Kents Cavern for 140 years

Nick Powe talks about his family's 140-year involvement at Kents Cavern and why the caves in Torquay are one of Europe’s most important prehistoric caves and part of the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark
[10-minute read]

His great-great-grandfather (pictured in 1870) was foreman on a 15-year exploration which finished on 19th June 1880, 140 years ago.  The artefacts discovered reveal a history of ancient human occupation in Devon that stretches back an incredible 500,000 years.

Twenty years ago I became custodian of the caves at Kents Cavern in Torquay.  The family’s involvement began in mid-Victorian Britain when my great-great-grandfather, George Smerdon, worked on an excavation.  The pioneering archaeological work began in 1865 and concluded 15 years later on Saturday 19th June 1880.  For the next 140 years my family have been responsible for the conservation and access into Britain’s oldest known dwelling.

Since 1880 Kents Cavern has developed into a major heritage attraction in England and in the last 20 years my team here have won many regional and national excellence awards.  In 2013 we set up the Kents Cavern Foundation, a charity to facilitate conservation works, scientific research and educational activities in and around the Caverns with the overriding remit to keep Kents Cavern available to the widest possible audience for years to come.

The work of the Victorian cave researchers attracted great interest at the time.  In the last 140 years ongoing exploration of the cave and examination of its artefacts has made Kents Cavern one of Europe’s most important prehistoric cave sites.  I am responsible for ensuring that in everything we do, in and around the caves, we follow the framework of statutory measures, and our own standards, to protect the caves for generations to come.    

We operate within the area’s prestigious UNESCO designation and the caves have an integral role in promoting the geological heritage and natural environment of the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark.

I am not a geologist, neither an archaeologist but making the Kents Cavern story accessible and interesting is what the team do every day. To overcome the irony of not being open to celebrate 140 years of being open, I thought I would share what I know about Kents Cavern,

The geology of Kents Cavern 

The geology here and across Torbay is interesting enough to pass the first standard of any UNESCO Global Geopark, which stipulates there must be “geological heritage of international value”.   The English Riviera certainly has that and in Kents Cavern, 380 million years of geology has provided shelter for people during the Stone Age, or more precisely the Palaeolithic, the Old Stone Age. Ancient people travelled nomadically to and from Kents Cavern from continental Europe over thousands and thousands of years.  This was well before the Neolithic, the New Stone Age, when Britain’s most iconic prehistoric monument at Stonehenge was erected about 5,000 years ago.

The geological processes that created Kents Cavern are awesome, as are the natural cave dynamics that formed a resilient seal over all that lay below, the reason over 50,000 prehistoric artefacts lay undiscovered until the 19th century.

Kents Cavern is the same rock the cliffs and headlands around the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark are made from.  I do not mean the red sandstone cliffs at Paignton, but the pinkie-grey cliffs clearly seen at Berry Head, Brixham, the platforms structures at Hope’s Nose or the stone in the walls around town.  The rock is Devonian Limestone, a sedimentary rock, formed roughly 380 million years ago, at the bottom of a warm tropical sea, 6,000 kms miles away, south of the Equator.  

The land masses either side of this warm sea began to collide into one giant supercontinent, Pangaea.  The forces involved were monumental, distorting the limestone bedrock, folding it and even inverting it.  The continental collision resulted in the creation of mountains during the Variscan Orogeny.   Spectacular limestone folds can be seen in the rocks at local beaches at Meadfoot and Anstey’s Cove, just a 15-minute walk from the Caverns. The distorted limestones can be observed inside the caves too.   

Over millions of years the rock, from which Kents Cavern will eventually emerge, moved north over the Equator.  As it did so the land was scorched by the Equatorial sun creating arid desert sands and causing the oxidation of iron deposits. The rocks turned red and this intense colour stains the soils across Devon today.  Powerful storms exploded over the mountainous terrain, releasing floods, over and over again, raging in torrents down the slopes, gathering fragments of loose limestone and sand to eventually settle in a conglomerate mass.  This is how the distinctive red coastal cliffs were formed, seen at Paignton and Maidencombe in the Geopark. 

The limestones, misshaped and overlaid by Carboniferous and Permian deposits, reach their current location about 200 million years ago.   Over time the mountains get weathered down to the hills and moorland seen on Dartmoor and Exmoor.  Scientists believe that Kents Cavern was solid limestone until about 2.5 million years ago when water began to carve out the underground cavities, very slowly to eventually create the passages we walk through today.   

The period from when the caves formed to the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,500 years ago, is known as the Quaternary.  A time when ancestral humans migrated out of Africa and began to dominate the planet.  A time of major climate change across northern Europe. During repeated climate change cycles Devon is plugged into harsh cold and then back to warmth, very warm at times, and back to cold. During cold times life seeks the constant temperatures and shelter of caves and as the climate warms life is sustainable outside.     

During warm interglacial periods freshwater, no longer frozen, seeps down into the cave through the fissures in the limestone, mixed with carbon dioxide abundant on the surface from decaying vegetation.  This triggers a chemical process that starts the growth of calcite underground creating thick and resilient floors. The calcite, or stalagmite, concealed the cave earth and river sediments, preserving a history of Ice Age life which the Victorians would later uncover in pursuit of determining the antiquity of humankind.

Each Ice Ages cycle leaves a layer of occupation in the caves perfectly protected by the stalagmite floors formed during the next warm interglacial.  The upper floor is about 12,500 years old and the second 400,000. There should be a third floor from the end of a much earlier Ice Age but this has still to be discovered. 

Humans in Kents Cavern

In Britain only four species of humans are known to have existed, Homo sapiens (us), Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Homo antecessor.  Homo antecessor (pioneer man) were the first people in Britain about 700,000 years ago. No remains have been found but stone tools from sites in the east of England are dated to then.  Of the four species only the very first has not, yet, been linked to Kents Cavern. The other three have and this gives Kents Cavern a connection to humankind going back over half a million years, consequently making it by far one of the most important prehistoric caves in Europe.

The oldest evidence of humankind in Kents Cavern is from stone tool technologies and not fossil evidence.  Some of the oldest tools in Britain were found here.  Stone handaxes shaped by Homo heidelbergensis during the Upper Palaeolithic and estimated to be around 500,000 years old, were excavated by William Pengelly’s team in the Long Arcade, under the second stalagmite floor.   The tools may have been carried into the cave by flood water, discarded by their owners in areas surrounding the cave entrance.   This would make them even older.

Some stone tools found in Kents Cavern are from an age, and have a shape, associated with Neanderthal technologies.  Fossil finds at Swanscombe in the south east of England reveal that Neanderthals were in Britain from 400,000 years ago. Between then and their demise about 40,000 years ago they returned to Britain many times, finding their way into the caves at Kents Cavern. 

We are Home sapiens and the earliest evidence of our species in Britain comes from Kents Cavern.  A human jawbone, on display in Torquay Museum, is the oldest modern human fossil ever found in the UK, and one of the oldest in Europe.  It is thought to be between 41,000 and 44,000 years old, a maxilla, the upper jaw.  Found in 1927 during an excavation led by the curator of Torquay Museum, it has been subjected to years of research and testing, and indeed debate, as questions remain over its age.  There is no doubt it is very old, at least 38,000 years old.

Pengelly’s excavation

The Victorian excavation was masterminded by William Pengelly and ran from 1865 to 19 June 1880, according to his detailed diaries. He lived in Torquay for over 40 years and his reputation in cave research attracted visits to his house in St Marychurch Road by members of the British, Russian and Dutch Royal families and even Napoleon III.    His interest in researching caves came from reading unpublished accounts by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr John MacEnery, who had ventured into Kent’s Hole in the 1820s.  This is how Kents Cavern was then known.   MacEnery had gained an interest in archaeology from the monastic ruins at Torre Abbey in Torquay, the home of the Cary family who employed him. The Carys owned much of Torquay, but not Kents Cavern, which belonged to Lord Haldon.

Digging in the cave earth MacEnery discovered carved stone tools, which he concluded had been shaped by humans.  Fossilised and trapped in the stratigraphy, at the same level, he found remains of extinct animals, bones and teeth from hyena, mammoth, sabre-toothed cats. 

MacEnery had great difficulty reconciling his discoveries with accepted Biblical chronology. Remains of prehistoric animals presented no challenge as Mary Anning had been fossil collecting along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset in the 1820s and 1830s. The Biblical account of the Deluge explained these fossils, but human handicraft from the same period, that was an altogether more controversial assertion.  

Logic, and scientific analysis, led him to conclude that the prehistoric animals in Kents Cavern may have been contemporary with humans, but that was entirely at odds with MacEnery’s beliefs and those of leading academics.   The Rev William Buckland, president of the Geological Society, whose guidance MacEnery sought, concluded the stone tools had been buried in the cave by modern visitors.

The existence of a cave in Wellswood was well-known in the local community and, unlike the cave in Brixham discovered in 1859, Kents Cavern has never been “discovered”.  For centuries people had been venturing underground here.  Roman coins later discovered indicated modern people had been venturing into the caverns for over 2,000 years. 

This presented a problem for Pengelly. Uncontrolled access to the cave for hundreds of years challenged the credibility for his theories on prehistoric human occupation.  Pengelly was convinced Kents Cavern had been used by prehistoric humans, living much earlier than was thought possible.  If he was to prove the antiquity of humankind, he had to devise a scientific method to convincingly refute claims the stones had been buried by modern visitors.  

For this he devised a three-dimensional grid mapping system, commonly used today but entirely new in 1865.  Prof. Donald McFarlane from California has published studies on Pengelly and Kents Cavern.  He says: “The exactitude of the Kents Cavern excavation would not be repeated anywhere else in the world for decades In other words, Pengelly’s excavation, and the recording method he invented, had not been previously been applied to any other dig site in the World.  The Kents Cavern archaeological dig was a truly pioneering endeavour.

The Powe family at Kents Cavern

My great-great grandfather George Smerdon worked with William Pengelly on the excavation. His daughter, Louisa, married my great-grandfather Francis Powe and Francis bought the cavern from Lord Haldon on 23rd April 1903. 

George was a farm labourer from Buckland-in-the-Moor on Dartmoor. While working in a limekiln across from Kents Cavern on the other side of the Ilsham Valley,  he became interested in William Pengelly’s exploration and was engaged to assist. He soon became foreman of works. He ceased his labours on 19th June 1880. 

Pengelly’s excavation journal entry on Wednesday 26th May 1880 reads: “Gave the workmen notice on 22 inst; that the excavation would cease on 19th June, if no additional donations were received in the meantime.” On Saturday 19th June 1880 he wrote: “To the Cavern daily since last entry, except 16th. Nothing found. The 4th parallel was like the 2nd. This closed the exploration, as, the funds being exhausted, the workmen were discharged”.

Keen to ensure access to the cave would be controlled for its future protection, Pengelly rewarded Smerdon by making him custodian and guide to the Cavern with a small pension.  With his son-in-law, Francis, they rented the cave from Lord Haldon until 1903, when the site came up for sale.  Prospective buyers included the Borough of Torbay, but the Council Committee voted against the acquisition.  Francis secured the necessary finance and on St Georges’ Day (23rd April), the caves were transferred to him. 

He acquired the cave entrances, the neighbouring quarry, now the car park, and the adjoining woodlands, now a family Stone Age trail.  The cave was most likely more of a passion for Francis while the quarry and woodlands would provide him with the immediate return on his investment.  

Francis and his son Leslie transformed the caves into what we see today. They created a cave tour route and began showing visitors around.  Electric lighting was installed in 1936.  Tickets were sold from a green hut and in 1939 the Great Hall was built, still in use today, and a refreshment area added in the 1950s. As Torquay reached its tourism heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, Leslie, in his 70s began to enjoy returns on their investment.

My father John ran the caves in his retirement from 1987 to 2000 following a career in France where I was spent my childhood.  He died that year and I took over as the fifth-generation custodian of the Caverns.

Owing to the Global Pandemic, we will not be open on the 19th June but we are working hard to reopen in early July. The Reopening Plan page on the website sets out the measure you can expect to be in place to ensure you have a safe, welcoming and memorable experience.

That is just a snapshot of the Kents Cavern story.  Over the coming weeks I will share more information about the geology, the ancient human occupants and Pengelly’s pioneering exploration.  I will also put up some video clips of my team sharing their favourite parts of the caves.  In the meantime more information is available now in Dig Deeper on the website. 

If you live miles away and travelling here is not an option right now, be assured that the caves will be here for a long time to come and we look forward to, one day, showing you around.

It might even be me guiding on the day you visit.

Nick Powe

27th May 2020