Nick Powe: My family’s 140-year involvement with Kents Cavern

Nick Powe

Nick Powe - Credit: Archant

STANDFIRST: Nick Powe talks about his family's 140-year involvement with Kents Cavern:

Nick Powe's great-great grandfather, George Smerdon

Nick Powe's great-great grandfather, George Smerdon - Credit: Archant

Twenty years ago I became custodian of Kents Cavern in Torquay. The family's involvement goes back to 1865 when my great-great-grandfather began work on a pioneering archaeological excavating concluding 15 years later in June, 1880.

In the last 140 years ongoing examination of artefacts from the caves has made Kents Cavern one of Europe's most important prehistoric cave sites and for the last 20 years I have been responsible for ensuring that in everything we do we follow a strict framework of statutory measures, and our own high standards, to protect the caves for generations to come.

We operate within the area's prestigious UNESCO designation. Since 2004, I have had responsibility for the Torbay's Geopark as chair of the management organisation.

The Victorian cavern excavation was masterminded by William Pengelly. He lived in Torquay for more than 40 years and his cave researches attracted distinguished visitors to his house; members of the British, Russian and Dutch Royal families and even Napoleon III.

Francis Powe, who with his son Leslie, set about transforming the caves into what we see today

Francis Powe, who with his son Leslie, set about transforming the caves into what we see today - Credit: Archant

He had read accounts of finds in the cave made in the 1820s by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr John MacEnery. MacEnery's interest in archaeology came from the monastic ruins at Torre Abbey in Torquay, the Cary family home.

Digging in the cave earth, MacEnery discovered carved stone tools, shaped by humans. Fossilised and trapped in the stratigraphy, at the same level, he found remains of extinct Ice Age animals, bones and teeth.

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He had difficulty reconciling his discoveries with accepted Biblical chronology. Remains of prehistoric animals presented no issue, the Biblical account of the Deluge explained these fossils, but human handicraft from the same period, that was an altogether more controversial assertion.

The existence of a cave in Wellswood was well known but unlike the discovery of another important cave in Brixham in 1858, Kents Cavern has never been 'discovered'.

Kents Cavern's long aracade slope

Kents Cavern's long aracade slope - Credit: Archant

Roman coins later discovered indicated modern people had been venturing into the caverns for more than 2,000 years.

Uncontrolled access to the cave for hundreds of years presented a challenge to Pengelly's theories of ancient human occupation. He had to devise a scientific method to convincingly refute claims the stones had been buried by modern visitors.

He came up with a three-dimensional grid mapping system, commonly used today but entirely new in 1865 and employed a small trusted team. My great-great grandfather, George Smerdon, was foreman.

William Pengelly's excavation journal entry on Wednesday, May 26, 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, June 19, 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.'

Ilsham Road, Torquay

Ilsham Road, Torquay - Credit: Archant

Keen to ensure access to the cave would be controlled for its future protection, Pengelly rewarded Smerdon by making him custodian with a small pension.

With his son-in-law, Francis, they rented the cave from Lord Haldon until 1903, when the site was acquired by my great-grandfather.

The cave was probably a passion for Francis while the quarry and woodlands provided a return on his investment.

Francis and his son Leslie set about transforming the caves into what we see today. They created a cave tour route and installed electric lighting in 1936.

Jawbone found in Kents Cavern

Jawbone found in Kents Cavern - Credit: Archant

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 1986 to 2000 when I took over as the fifth-generation custodian of the Caverns.

Twenty years on, I was all set to celebrate 140 years of being open to the public, except, of course we will not be open on June 19, 2020.

Hopefully in July we can start up again.

A hand axe

A hand axe - Credit: Archant

Kents Cavern Great Chamber

Kents Cavern Great Chamber - Credit: Archant

Kents Cavern

Kents Cavern - Credit: Archant

Kents Cavern entrance hall

Kents Cavern entrance hall - Credit: Archant