A very popular object on our Meet the Collection tour has been this mysterious face. The old museum paperwork for the object describes it as a plaster cast of a face from “Jack Cade’s Cavern” on Blackheath.
What’s wonderful about this unassuming object is that it is the last remaining ‘tangible’ piece of evidence for a fascinating Greenwich landmark. Jack Cade’s Cavern is believed to be one of a series of caverns and tunnels that worm their way beneath Blackheath, Charlton and some areas of Greenwich Park. It’s not clear how the name of ‘Jack Cade’ came to be associated with the cavern and some of our sources simply refer to it as The Blackheath Cavern. Some of the caverns in the area may have been naturally occurring, while others appear to be the result of a thriving Limeburner industry in the area in the 17th century. (A fascinating blog and source of information for this being the Greenwich Industrial History Society blog in the bibliography below). Limeburning, the process of making lime by burning blocks of limestone, led to large quarries and caves being excavated in the borough and, according to some contemporary reports, not being properly filled in. Perhaps a contributing factor to the collapse of part of the road in the area in 2002!
The Blackheath Cavern appears to have been adopted for much more entertaining pursuits, becoming a tourist hot spot after its rediscovery in 1780. Visitors would love to explore the tunnels, find the secret well chamber and see the carved decorations all illuminated by coloured lanterns and even a candelabra! The image below, from a 19th century guidebook, gives a wonderful depiction of what visiting the cavern could have been like.
Graffiti found on the walls of the cavern when it was re-explored in the 1940s, highlights how it was not only a place for tourists, but a good place to grab a drink from the underground bar. A punter named J. Johnson left a messaged carved into the wall saying, “All you that come into this place, take my advice I pray: Get some ginger brandy at the Bar.” (For more details do read the Blackheath Bugle blogpost in the bibliography below). For some however, there was a little bit too much fun taking place. Scandalous reports of dancing girls and drunken parties began to circulate and in the mid 1850s the cavern was closed.
The location of the cavern has long been a subject for debate amongst local historians. However, the discovery of the Borough Engineer’s notes from the 1940s indicate that the entrance was found just off Maidenstone Hill in Blackheath (See the Blackheath Bugle blog for a potential map of its location). Most exciting for our collections team, however, was the detail in the 1940s records of the decoration of the chamber:
“There are a few notable carvings in relief on the walls, one of a large head representing the Devil (with a pair of horns), a smaller head, beautifully modelled, of which a plaster cast has been taken…
(Extract from Notes of Borough Engineering Team member, 1946)
It seems very possible, if not likely, that the plaster cast head in our collections is indeed the same one that was taken in 1946 during the Borough Engineering Team’s exploration of the caverns! Before researching this blog, the only information we had about the head was that it was from Jack Cade’s Cavern and had been given to the museum collections, by Council officials, in the 1960’s. We really do love finding out more about the wonderful things we have in store!
Did you see the plaster cast head during one of our pop-up visits? What did you think of it? Please keep in touch with us via @GreenwichMCA and we really hope to see you all at another tour stop when the lockdown is over!