Subterranea Britannica

Winchelsea Caves, Dover

Winchelsea Road, Dover, Kent
OS Grid Ref: TR309414
Date of visit: July 2010

[Source: Chris Rayner]

The caves, or rather tunnels, are in the former Winchelsea Quarry in Dover. They comprise four parallel and evenly spaced tunnels driven in at right angles to the quarry face, with irregular linking cross tunnels and offshoots for latrines. Three of the tunnels then draw together and then two tunnels continue on, a shorter one with two 45 degree offsets heading towards the Westmount building while the other one heading for a smaller chalk quarry in Tower Hamlets is longer and more sinuous.

Referred to as the Winchelsea to Priory Hill caves shelter in planning documents, these were used as a shelter for 1350 people in the Second World War, and a local resident Gerald Sedgwick recalls his family taking advantage of the shelter’s 2 and 3-tier bunks regularly in preference to their back garden Anderson Shelter. There was hot and cold running water and flush toilets, and an above ground Decontamination Centre and First Aid Post with four rooms accessed via air locks and with gas curtain separation from one another. The tunnels themselves had “an overhead cover ranging from 25 to 90 feet” and were adapted and extended after the Munich crisis

The main tunnels were bored near the end of the First World War to test a rotary cutting machine, possibly a Whittaker machine, that could be used to drive tunnels on the Western Front. The advantage of cutting a test tunnel at Dover was to allow it to be also used as a “dug out”, as air raid shelters were often called at the time, to protect citizens from Zeppelin and Gotha bomber attacks. The tunnels at the time may have been called Priory Gallery. A 1923 newspaper recalled that "...the R.E. Tunnelling Company made a series of experimental tunnels between the chalk pit in Folkestone Road and the chalk pit at Tower Hamlets, which were intended for use as an air raid shelter, but were never actually used, as by the time it was finished in 1918 the raids had ceased."

In 1939 the tunnels appeared wonderful to the people of Dover and the Dover Express newspaper in June 1939 enthused that “most parts almost appear to have been turned as with a lathe, so true and finished are the sides of the tunnel. Though perfectly watertight, there is a slight amount of condensation, which, however, rapidly disappears when the several entrances are opened, generally once a week”.

Fifteen months later the gloss had somewhat gone off and a local Councillor in the Dover Express described discontent with the lavatory accommodation which “was in the most deplorable condition, so bad that no decent person could use them… It was also a fact that at night time people staked their claim and took their bedding there, so much so that late comers found it impossible to sit down. ... Some of the mattresses were deplorable, and they were taken out into the pit in the day time to be dried in the sun. The town was giving these people good shelter, but it was up to them to look after health as well. If these conditions continued there was going to be trouble up there. If the matter was referred to the Emergency Committee they might be able to take some steps, but it was most unfair for people to stake their claims and thus prevent other people from sitting down. The Mayor said he thought it was a matter for the Public Health Committee”.

Conditions though must have improved by 18th October 1944 when the King and Queen took shelter during a shelling raid, for the Queen at least was smiling as she emerged after the raid was over

Visit by kind permission of the Owners

Gerald Sedgwick’s complete recollections as told to his younger sister Wendy Lynch are recorded on Sussex History Forum.

[Source: Chris Rayner]

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