As the centenery of the First World War approaches, Josh Barrie finds out about the vital role of the Chislehurst Caves
For six years 100,000lbs of live ammunition was stored under the sleepy town of Chislehurst.
Described by many, including the wartime Major Luck, as of "national importance", throughout World War One and until 1920 explosives and munitions from Woolwich Arsenal were kept deep underground in the caves’ long passages and vaults.
Now the stories of the workers who toiled the 22-mile maze are to be told – from the danger of explosions to the burns and jaundice caused by exposure to the chemicals in the armoury.
The Chislehurst Society has teamed up with Goldsmiths University to produce a 30-minute film that will capture their lives, as well as the history of a part of south-east London often forgotten when discussing the war effort.
The documentary will delve into special sections of unseen tunnels, granting access to a series of carvings workers made in the soft chalk to honour the memory of Edith Cavell, a nurse captured and shot by the Germans in 1915.
Joanna Friel, 54, is the heritage representative for the organisation and is one of 16 volunteers now working on the project, trawling the National Archives in Kew to research the tales. She explained: "We’ve started the work and it’s been absolutely fascinating. The caves were really significant – it’s unbelievable to think that 100,000 pounds of TNT was underneath Chislehurst.
"The whole place was a tinder box – guards were even allowed to smoke. Because of the temperature and slight damp it wasn’t seen as too much of a hazard, but it’d never be okay now.
"We are honoured to be able to showcase the role of Chislehurst Caves as part of our commemoration of the First World War and look forward to a fascinating documentary."
Volunteers Hannah Terwilliger, Terry Slatter, and Maureen Johnson
The project will be funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £9,600.
The organisation’s Sue Bowers said: "This project will raise awareness of the role played by the caves during the First World War and give people a rare opportunity to view the artistic achievements of the workers who toiled underground."
The channels were dug out for chalk and flint mining and were first mentioned circa 1250. After the war they were used for mushroom cultivation and later, during the Second World War, they provided a perfect air raid shelter.
Since then Chislehurst Caves has been a popular tourist attraction, even doubling up as a music venue for the likes of David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix.
But as 100 years since the First World War is commemorated the emphasis is now on the four-year period.
MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, Bob Neill, said: "Projects like this play an important role in our collective memory of the past, and I feel it is incredibly fitting that these local feats of human courage and endeavour be recognised in such a way in this centenary year."
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