by Frank E Earp
This is the story of one man’s efforts to preserve what he thought to be an important part of Nottingham’s history and something he considered a ‘National Treasure’. It is also the story of the clash of two men’s ambitions, – the Rev. George Oliver and Edwin Patchitt.
Nottingham is a City founded upon a system of ancient, fabricated sandstone caves. Beneath many of its streets are a veritable labyrinth of passages that if put together would stretch for many mile. There are three main groups of caves, which if marked on a map, form an isosceles triangle, with sides of around 3 miles. To the south west are the caves known variously as ‘Lenton Hermitage’ or the ‘Papish Holes’, – to the south east ‘Sneinton Hermitage, – to the north are the caves of Rock Cemetery, part of which was once known as ‘Robin Hood’s Cave or Stables’. The heart of the City of Nottingham lies within this triangle of caves, none of which are natural. It is the caves of Rock Cemetery, which concerns this article.
Having set the scene of the action our story starts with the Nottingham Enclosure Act of 1845. In order to compensate for the loss of open space created by this act, the City Council set aside over 130 acres of land for public parks and amenities.
By 1850, the population of the City had grown and along with the need for new housing came the need for other services, one of which was the provision of new burial grounds. Plans were drawn up for a new cemetery to be built on some of the land set aside in 1845. The new burial ground was to be called Church Cemetery and plans included catacombs cut into the natural rock and a large new church which would have rivalled anything in the City.
The land chosen for the new enterprise, – described as,”….a bare and barren hill,” – was part of a sandy ridge running roughly east-west. Here, the ancient north-south road out of the City, – now the A60, Mansfield Road, – traverses the ridge before entering the old Sherwood Forest. Known as Gallows Hill, the summit was the place of public executions until 1827. The original site of the gallows, which were moved to the steps of the Shire Hall, was just in-front of the Cemetery gates.
The Cemetery, – on the western side of the road, – now covers more than half of the northern slope of the ridge and overlooks the Forest Recreation Ground, which was developed around the same time from the land covered by the old Nottingham Race Course.
‘The Cemetery Company,’ composed of local business men, was set up to oversee the building work and facilitate its future operation. The Clerk to the Company, – solicitor and future mayor of Nottingham, – Edwin Patchitt, own a vast track of land, – known as Patchitt’s Park, – on the opposite side of the road. Whilst the Cemetery was under construction, he began to develop this land, building large ‘villas’ and fashionable houses for the wealthy middle class.
Money for the project began to run out and the over-ambitious plans were cutback. The church was never built and the burial ground became known as Rock Cemetery, from the bare sandstone rock into which part of it is cut. The Cemetery was still incomplete when it was opened in 1856.
The site was not completely the ‘bare and naked hill’ described. At the foot of the hill was a large cavern known as Robin Hood’s Cave or Stable. Tradition has it that this was used by Robin and his outlaw band to hide in and stable their horses. It was from this base that Robin is said to have rescued Will Stutly from the nearby gallows. The area had been used for rope making and there were a few rough buildings on the side of the hill and some small caves, one of which was being used to keep chickens in.
As excavation work began around a shallow depression or valley cut into the hill, a number of curious features began to be uncovered from under the layers of accumulated sand. Watching events was the Rev. George Oliver. As more and more oddities began to emerge, Oliver though he saw evidence of a recognisable structure, something he was to later call a ‘Druid Temple’.
It is hard to imagine that a ‘man of the cloth’ like Rev. Oliver might object to the building of Nottingham’s fine new church and cemetery on what amounted to wasteland beyond the City limits. Oliver did not object to the work as a whole, but to the possible destruction it might cause to caves and other strange feature close to the Mansfield Rd.
He believed these to be, ‘….a dilapidated structure of an age approximating on 3,000 years. Between 1858 and 1859, Oliver addressed his concerns in a series of seven of ‘open letters’ to Patchitt, – who by this time had become Lord Mayor of Nottingham, on office to which he served two conservative terms. These letter were published a book entitled; ‘Shadows Departed.’ A Few Conjectures on the British Antiquities in Nottingham and Vicinity.
This was by no means the first time Oliver had written on such a subject. In 1846 he published his letter addressed to Baronet Sir Edward Bromhead – prominent land owner and mathematician, – under the title of; ‘The Existing Remain of the Ancient Britons within a small district lying between Lincoln and Sleaford.’
Before going on to describe just what Oliver believed he had discovered it is important that we take a look at the man himself and establish his credentials on the subject.
Rev. George Oliver is described as; “….one of the most distinguished and learned of English Freemasons….” Oliver was born in the Nottinghamshire village of Paplewick in 1782. He was the eldest son of Samuel Oliver – rector of Lambley- and his wife Elizabeth. Like his father the young George Oliver was destined for the Church. After receiving what is described as a ‘liberal education’ he became a Deacon in 1813 and was ordained in 1815, taking the post of Chaplin to the Bishop of Lincoln.
Oliver’s approach to his calling was always a scholarly one. At the age of 54, in 1836 he became a Doctor of Divinity. But Oliver’s passions were not only for the Church. He inherited from his father a love of Freemasonry and went on to become one of the foremost Masonic writers. His list of publications are to numerous and involved to cover here. It is important to mention that Oliver’s Masonic interest lay in Masonic History and a subject known as ‘Mystic Masonry’.
Much of Oliver’s work involves what Freemason call the Spurious Freemasonry of Antiquity. Freemasons believe that rituals and doctrine are subject to the divine influence of a single God and consider this to be True Freemasonry. In an ancient passed, Noah reviled the secrets of Freemasonry to the pagans who corrupted it to a less pure form. Oliver believed that the Druids where practitioners of Spurious Freemasonry.
It is to be remembered that Oliver was a Victorian antiquarian and his understanding was limited to the knowledge of the age. At this time, the archaeological practice of dividing the past into separate periods, – Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. – had not been established. Victorian antiquarians considered that before the Romans arrived in Britain there had been but a single culture, which the referred to as the Ancient British.
. At the time of the first Roman conquest of 55 B.C. Britain, – along with most of Continental Europe, – was populated by a Celtic people. This period in history is now known as the Iron Age. Julius Caesar and others describe the priesthood of the Celts as being Druids. As Victorian antiquarians like Oliver took much of their information on earlier periods from Roman writers any ancient site considered being ritual, must have been built by the Druid.
We can see now Oliver’s confusion. His considered 3,000 year old site should be placed in the late Bronze Age and therefore would have had nothing to do with the Iron Age Druids.
Despite the fact that the land was virtually waste ground, clearing it proved no easy task. Particularly difficult was a small plot of land at the eastern end by the road. Here was the old rope-walk, – a rope making site, – a few tumbled-down buildings and a number of small caves. These were set in a shallow depression in the ground which ran parallel to the road, north-south up the hill.
Thousands of tons of sand were slowly remove from the hollow, revealing that it was no minor scar on the landscape but a ‘man-made’ feature. Running north south, parallel to the road on its eastern side, – a deep rectangular ‘quarry’ like trench emerged. At its southern end, – the steepest part of the hill, – the walls of this enclosure which are over 40’ in height, – form a semicircle.
It is worth saying here that this form of ‘excavation’ allowed the builders maximum access to a sheer cliff face, in a minimal space. Certainly, the builders had taken advantage of this fact and the three sides of the enclosure, – which is naturally open to the north, – are lined with caves.
The deepest of these caves are at the southern end, – what Oliver refers to as the ‘Head of the Temple’. On the western side is the original Robin Hood’s Cave, the mouth of which has several entrances. These lead to a complex of tunnels, – which are on two levels, – some of which run over a mile under the City and connect with the caves in the Park, known as The Papish Holes.
My own maternal grandfather lived in a house on Raleigh Street, Radford to the west of the cemetery caves. A short flight of stairs in the cellar of the house led to a cave tunnel which in-turn led into a network of further tunnels. Exploring these tunnels my grandfather found that they emerged in both the cemetery and cellars under the houses of the Park. For obvious reasons my grandfather kept these tunnels a close family secret.
It is possible to write a whole book on the subject of Robin Hood’s Cave. There is a story that a group of Victorian gentlemen exploring the complex of tunnels became lost and did not find the exit for several days. Within the complex are a group of caves with wall painted to resemble a church or chapel. Such is the skill of the artist, depicted are the effect of light shining through a window onto an alter complete with cross. Found elsewhere in this group of caves were carved niches in the walls containing human remains and a complete ornamental tomb.
The caves on the eastern side of the enclosure were found to be roofless, but their mouths still recognisable as magnificent arches. One of these tunnels, at the northern end, – once passed under the Mansfield Road, emerging in a cave on the other side in Patchitt’s Park. This cave is described by Oliver as being, ‘….a spacious cavern capable of holding over two hundred people.’ When work started on building the houses in the Park, 160 skeletons were found buried just yards from the mouth of this cave.
Down the centre of the enclosure a ‘serpentine path’ had been cut deep into the ground. At the northern end this divides into two, each branch terminating at the cave mouths. On the eastern side of the path at the southern end are the broken remains of yet more caves. Such is the appearance of the enclosure it has led several writers on the subject to suggest that the whole was roofed over forming one vast cavern.
Many of the features of Oliver’s supposed Druid Temple, – including the caves, – were incorporated into the new cemetery and can still be seen today. These are all to be found within the enclosed area, – the ‘Temple,’ – bounded by the sheer cliff faces from which the Rock Cemetery now takes its name.
Oliver gives the dimensions of his Temple, – enclosure, – as being 140 yards in length with the semi-circular end as 35 yards in diameter. The floor of this area is now filled to capacity with graves, but amongst these can be found the details of Oliver’s temple. Descending into the enclosed space from the main gates is the Victorian path. However, the central path between the graves is Oliver’s original ‘serpentine path’.
Ignoring the graves, the path is lined on either side by 30 pits cut into the rock floor, which are described by Oliver as ‘holy water tanks’. These are generally rectangular in shape and vary in depth from 6’’ to 1’. It has been suggested that these were created as part of a medieval bleaching, dyeing or tanning works. However, all three of these industries require a constant supply of water, – in the case of bleaching, running water, – and adequate drainage. Both of these are missing from the cemetery site. Further, the containers or tanks used in these three processes are usually of uniformed depth. Comparing the medieval tannery in the Broadmarsh Caves it can be seen that these ‘tanks’ are clearly not for this purpose.
Within the semi-circular enclosure at the northern end, – Oliver’s ‘Head of the Temple’ are number of curious features. At the centre of the semi-circle, is a large stone ‘table’ with a rectangular shallow pit at its foot. Behind this is a neatly cut stone pillar which appears to have once been considerably taller. The top of this pillar is a semi-circular notch, giving the whole a forked appearance. If the pillar was indeed taller than it now is, this notch would be half of an oval hole cut through it. Oliver describes these as; The Alter, and the Tolmen, – holed stone.
Perhaps the most curious find, – which has now disappeared, having been broken-up by the cemetery workmen, – was what Oliver describes as a ‘Rocking Stone’. Rocking Stones are natural geological features, where erosion has caused a large boulder to be perfectly balanced on the surface of the ground. These boulders can be ‘rocked’ by the slightest of touch, but not toppled. Oliver states that the workmen had great fun with this stone, but found that they needed considerable effort to overturn it.
On the eastern side of the southern end of the enclosure, are the broken and uncovered remains of what appear to be yet more caves. Oliver declares these to be the ‘Archdruids Private Cell’ along with the remains of a dolmen, – a Neolithic chamber tomb, formed by three upright stones and a horizontal capping stone.
Along with a description of his Druid Temple, Oliver makes great effort to place it into the surrounding landscape. He declares that the site is at the apex of an isosceles triangle with sides of over a mile and a quarter. The base of this triangle is formed by the line between the caves of the Parish Holes to the west and Sneinton Hermitage to the east. These three cave systems do in fact form a triangle although a modern satellite map shows that it is not a perfect isosceles.
It is unfortunate that Oliver was unable to support his hypothesis with datable artefacts. However, when describing the triangle of caves he refers to a large hoard of Bronze Age axe heads, spear tips swords and daggers found by workmen, in Great Freeman Street, close to its junction with St. Ann’s Well Road. The site of this discovery is stated as being on an ‘eminence halfway along the line between the Temple and Sneinton Hermitage. Oliver notes that amongst this hoard of ‘war like implements’, were bronze tubes, – one of which was over 9’’ long. These he suggests were the ends of a staff of office used by a Druid Priest.
It has been suggested that the Druid Temple is the nothing more than a medieval bleach works and the caves the product of sand mining. Having described the enclosure and the vast complex of caverns, I will leave the reader to make their own decision as to whether this is the case.
Just a final twist to the tale. It is a strange coincidence or a deliberate choice that Edwin Patchitt, the man who designed the cemetery and who was mainly responsible for it in its early days, chose his family tomb to be located in what Geroge Oliver described as being the ‘Archdruids Private Cell’?