Some Nottingham Caverns

by Joe Earp

Extract Below from John Potter Briscoe, Old Nottinghamshire, 1881:

Long ranges of rock habitations formerly existed on both sides of Mansfield Road. Among the largest of these was one under Dog Kennel Hill, which had been hewn out of the Bunter Sandstone by a sandman named James Ross or Rouse, who, during a period of thirty years, worked in it, and took away the sand, (bag by bag on the back of his asses) which he sold to housewives of the Town and neighborhood to scatter upon their floors. This industrious old fellow was, about 1810, compelled by old age and infirmities to cease from his labours, and retire to St Nicholas workhouse, where he ended his days. When the Corporation  effected an improvement, (which subsequently led to the erection of the long row of houses beyond Messrs. Balm and Hills Factory) this extraordinary cavern was, on the morning of March 27th, 1837 discovered.

On the preceding day , “a man more adventurous than others had endeavored to explore its extent, but after wandering about it nearly for five hours was glad to find his way out, which he did not accomplish without great difficulty. Two individuals, hearing of this adventure, determined to penetrate through the whole of its most secret passages, and, having provided lanterns, entered the cave about 10 o’clock. After feeling their way in various directions for nearly two hours, until quite bewildered, to their astonishment a man came quickly up to them from one of the passages, bearing a torch, and politely offered his services as their conductor. Very gladly availing themselves of his assistance, they were led to a place or chamber, in which they observed five men sitting around a light, playing at cards. They were then asked if they wished to go back again, and relying in the affirmative, were reconducted. When, they supposed, about midway, a gang of ruffians, most probably the men they had see gambling, rushed upon them. One of them manged to hide himself in a recess; but the other was severely robbed and beaten”. As might be expected public curiosity was aroused, and the place was crowded to excess for several days afterwards.

A large portion of this series of caves I visited several years ago, in company with Mr S Dutton Walker, F.S.A. The gentlemen who extended this kindness to us conducted us, and was accompanied by his daughter, who carried a large ball of lace edging, which she dealt upon the floor in a continuous line as we proceeded in our work of exploration: this lace edging forming a  clue by which we retraced our steps with little difficulty. Some curious scenic effects had been produced by the judicious use of white wash and lamp black, notably a representation of a recumbent figure and tomb. These are said to have been produced by Mr Andrew MacCullum, now a well known painter.  The only signs of conviviality we met with were a number of empty bottles. The caverns extended for such a distance that we distinctly heard conveyances pass over our heads in Sherwood Street. There were frequent intersections of the various passages, and the roof was well supported by sandstone pillars. The full extent of this series of caverns was about two hundred yards.

About 1832 there was a long range of these singular habitations in ruins, on the east side of Mansfield Road. They were broken up about the time when Ross’s Cavern (as it may be named) was discovered, but the Corporation were prevented from building the row of houses which now occupy the site by the cupidity of the sturdy troglodyte, named Samuel Caulton, a superannuated smith, who inhabited the uppermost house in the rock (opposite to which he had erected a blacksmith’s shop). Having for many years occupied the place without paying any acknowledgment, he claimed it as his own freehold property, and consequently refused to ‘budge’ when the corporate officers ejected his neighbours: his widow also occupied the premises until her death, when they came into their possession. The rock on the south side of Derby Road had also been cut through in many places by sandmen.

Many of the caves near the site of St Andrews Church was levelled in 1811, by the distressed workmen who were in that year reduced to pauperism.

James Rouse mentioned above and his sand mining business, The Nottingham Sand mining Co, worked several mines in the area. There was certainly one in the area of where North Sherwood Street and Peel Street is now. They also had a sand mine where The Church (Rock) Cemetery is, as well as some on Derby Road .

Perhaps the most well known and spectacular caves are the Peel Street Caves also known as Rouse’s Mine. This cave complex  is the largest of Nottingham’s four remaining sand mines. Situated to the west of Mansfield Road the mine is 200m from end to end. It is thought that the mine was in use from around 1780 to 1810. However it is possible that the mine was worked from an even earlier date, acting as a direct source of sand for a nearby glass works which was in operation until 1760. The mine was forgotten until about 1892 when the caves became a tourist attraction, ‘Robin Hood’s Mammoth Cave’.  A map of 1844 shows a number of properties on Mansfield Road. Some of these have basements cut into the sandstone which open out into the sand mine.  In the Second World War the caves were used as air raid shelters.Two new entrances and associated tunnels were cut, lighting fitted and blast walls were added.The caves are now owned by Nottingham City Council and are not generally accessible. 

The mines were for extracting sand for spreading on floors, or anywhere that blood may have been spilt. Also slaughterhouses, butchers and public houses and shops. It was also useful for cleaning brass and copper.

Nottingham stands on large deposits of rock (Bunter Sandstone) it is basically compressed of sand held together with Barite. It was no good for glass making, mortar, concrete or even road building; but was useful in other ways. Mr. Rouse had some unique ways of mining the sand and he would soon have been closed down with today’s “Health & Safety” rules. 

His main method for extracting sand involved chipping away with a small pick, at ground level, to a depth of 5 feet (2m)to produce a long narrow horizontal slit [4/5ft wide, 1.5/2ft height and 5ft deep]. At this depth the digger towards the end of his labours was well under the overhanging rock and sometimes it all fell down on top of him. Digging out miner’s became the Rule rather than the Exception. He was eventually closed down by the local Council of the day, for endangering his workforce. The caves today have not altered from that time, occasionally trips around them are arranged.



Credit: The Nottingham Caves Survey


Credit: The Nottingham Caves Survey


About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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