Guildford Caverns, a sorry tale of a dig, permissions and public linen washing

Peter Burgess

New member
In 1868, the Ordnance Survey sent a survey team of men to Guildford. As part of their investigations, the team determined to locate and survey the ?caverns? under the Castle. These, in fact, are simply ancient quarry workings for chalk, utilised for building, as what is termed ?clunch?.

The story as it unfolded was published in the pages of the Surrey Advertiser and County Post. I have been digging out references to underground sites and the like in the South-East from online archives. Unfortunately, the earliest edition of the Surrey Advertiser so far available online is from halfway through a very public and animated argument between Mr. Macdonald, the person who dug the caves open, and Mr. Russell, the agent for Lord Grantley, the owner.

The following posts are transcripts of the articles and letters published during the summer of 1869. They demonstrate an intriguing parallel with today?s arguments about access, gates, digging, landowners? permissions,  and public arguments. In the 1860s, ?social media? was the local newspaper, today it?s typically UKCaving.

The extracts are long ? but worth reading right through. The careful choice of words is, perhaps the main difference between Victorian communications and the throw away insults that blight modern social media.

Peter Burgess

New member
Surrey Advertiser, 24th July, 1869

The Guildford Chalk Caves

We have kept our readers duly informed of the progress of the work in clearing out these interesting and curious remains of olden time; and with us we have no doubt they have anxiously watched the success of the arduous and persevering efforts made by Mr. Macdonald in the work. They will therefore deeply regret to hear that the caverns are now completely closed, that after Mr. Macdonald has spent time, energy and money in their discovery and clearance, after having at the risk of his own expense placed a gate to the entrance railings, &c., the legal agent to Lord Grantley retains the key, and acting either on his own responsibility, or on what we fear has been the result of but a partial representation by some one of the facts to his Lordship, refuses to throw open the caves. It might be explained that the key of the very gates erected on the faith of the public reimbursing Mr. Macdonald the money paid for them, should be detained, but that all faith should be broken with the public in not throwing the caves open to it, is perfectly mysterious.

We believe that recently Mr. Macdonald after being previously told that Lord Grantley would let the caves at the nominal rent of 1s. or 2s. a year, was directed to call at his agent?s office to see his brother, the respected recorder. After waiting for half-an-hour, he was informed by the agent that the Hon. Mr. Norton would not see him, and that he had better send in the key at once. So the matter rests, but we can hardly help thinking that some misrepresentation on the matter must have been made to Lord Grantley, for otherwise his lordship, as the high steward of the borough, would scarcely stand in the way of the caverns being thrown open to a public that would gladly avail itself of permission to see them. Mr. Macdonald has unsparingly given up everything to the work of making the caverns an attraction to Guildford, and we are quite sure the townspeople appreciate his unselfish efforts.

Meantime is it too much to expect that those who have the power, and to whom it will be no effort, should exhibit an interest in a matter that is not less important to the antiquarian and the archaeologist than to the ordinary seekers after the curious and the picturesque? We really trust to see a generous feeling displayed in this matter by those now primarily concerned.

Peter Burgess

New member
Surrey Advertiser, 31st July, 1869

Lord Grantley and the Guildford Caves

To the editor of ?The Surrey Advertiser and County Times?

Sir, My attention has been called to a paragraph which appeared in your paper on the 24th instant, under the title of ?The Guildford Chalk Caves.? I should not perhaps have noticed the paragraph, but that it contains what may lead to an erroneous impression as the discovery of the Caves, and to the part which, as Lord Grantley?s Agent, I have taken in the negociation with Mr. Macdonald in reference thereto.

The existence of the Guildford Caves was known long ago; they are mentioned in Manning and Bray?s History of Surrey and various other works; and I am informed by Lord Grantley that many years ago he was requested by several members of the Corporation and inhabitants of the town to close these Caves, to prevent their being used as a rendezvous for thieves and places for concealment of stolen property. So far, therefore, as Mr. Macdonald is concerned, he cannot claim the merit of having made any discovery, he having merely attempted to clear out the Caves, and make them fit for public inspection.

How Mr. Macdonald came to undertake these excavations is best known to himself, but if his motives were ever so commendable, seeing that the Caves were private property, he should surely have had sufficient modesty and common sense to have first submitted his plans to the proprietor, and obtained the necessary sanction and consent to go upon the ground. But this seems never to have entered into Mr. Macdonald?s mind, and it was not until a considerable portion of the excavations had been accomplished, and an account thereof appeared in the public prints, that Lord Grantley became aware of the unwarrantable trespass which had been committed upon his property.

Upon Lord Grantley making this ?discovery,? I was instructed to call upon Mr. Macdonald for an explanation of his proceedings, but Mr. Macdonald had none to offer, except that he was not aware he had done anything wrong, and begged to be allowed to continue the work on account of the ?time, energy and money? already expended.

This explanation and request were submitted by me to Lord Grantley, who declined to allow the works to proceed unless Mr. Macdonald would first apologize for the liberty he had taken, and enter into an agreement to carry on the excavations in a proper manner, without endangering the surface or doing any damage.

An apology was accordingly made by Mr. Macdonald, and Lord Grantley consented to let the Caves to him at a nominal rent for twelve months, upon his undertaking to do a stipulated quantity of work during the time under proper superintendence; but until the terms were definitely settled, and the agreement signed, it was distinctly arranged that the key of the Caves was to remain in my hands, as Lord Grantley?s Agent, and Mr. Macdonald to be allowed to have the key to show parties through the Caves at any time he might desire.

As Lord Grantley was confined by severe illness, his brother Mr. Norton, with a view to the speedy settlement of the matter, went twice through the Caves with Mr. Macdonald, and it was left for Mr. Macdonald to state the quantity of work he would undertake to do in the twelve months. This quantity Mr. Macdonald has never been willing to specify, and for this reason the matter has remained unsettled.

Meanwhile the key was left in my hands, and fetched away and returned by Mr. Macdonald from time to time. On the last occasion the key was obtained at the request of our worthy Mayor, for the purpose of showing the caves to Mr. T. Macdougall Smith, who wished to ascertain the exact dip of the chalk beds under the town. The key was given into the hands of Mr. Macdonald, with the usual request that he would return it according to the arrangement, but this he omitted to do. The key was sent for by me several times, and not being returned I had personally to apply for it, when he positively refused to give it up until he could see the Hon. G.C. Norton on the subject.

This was shortly before the day of the recent Guildford Sessions, when the Mayor and two other gentlemen waited on Mr. Norton at the request, and in the interest, of Mr. Macdonald, and Mr. Norton arranged to meet Mr. Macdonald at my office. The latter accordingly came, but on my informing Mr. Norton that Mr. Macdonald had refused to deliver up the key, according to his express engagement, Mr. Norton declined to see Mr. Macdonald, or enter upon the negociation until the key was brought back. I thereupon requested Mr. Macdonald (who was sitting in an adjacent room) to put himself right with Lord Grantley by delivering up the key. He at once returned home for it, and soon afterwards brought the key back, gave it to one of my clerks, and abruptly left the office without saying a word, although repeatedly requested to remain and see Mr. Norton that the business might be gone into and arranged.

So far from Mr. Norton refusing to see Mr. Macdonald on this or any other occasion, or any obstacles having been thrown in his way by Lord Grantley, Mr. Norton, or myself, I can positively state that the very reverse has been the case, every facility having been afforded to Mr. Macdonald, short of allowing him to do with the caves as if they were his own; and Mr. Macdonald has therefore to thank himself, and no one else, for the position in which he is now placed in reference to the Castle Caves.

In conclusion I wish to observe, on behalf of Lord Grantley, that he is desirous the public should have every opportunity to inspect the caves at all reasonable times, and also for the excavations to proceed under proper restrictions and superintendence, but he has never entered into any compact, either with the public or Mr. Macdonald, in reference to the matter. The Castle property is the private estate of Lord Grantley, having a surface area of considerable extent, on which are many valuable houses and buildings; and Lord Grantley is not willing to allow Mr. Macdonald, for his own mere personal emolument, to carry on excavations which, unless conducted in a proper manner, might seriously endanger not only the old Castle, but a large amount of other property.

As to my own professional conduct in this matter, I am quite content to discharge the duty I owe to my client, which I have done and shall continue to do, notwithstanding any lachrymose complaints of Mr. Macdonald or his quondam friend of Saturday last.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Thomas Russell,
Guildford, 30th July, 1869

Peter Burgess

New member
Surrey Advertiser, 14th August, 1869

To the Mayor and Members of the Town Council of Guildford

Gentlemen, The discovery of the extensive subterranean passages in connection with Guildford Castle having awakened a general desire that if possible these remarkable excavations might be thoroughly explored and thrown open to the public, I venture most respectfully to draw the attention of the Council to the subject, and to ask, on behalf of numerous enquirers, who personally assisted in the arduous work, and also contributed with many other gentlemen of the town and locality towards the heavy expenses that attended the effort ? it if be within the province and the power of the Town Council to take any steps in furtherance of that object? All persons with whom I have communicated on the subject agree in the opinion that the opening of the caverns would be likely to attract many visitors to Guildford, and cause it to become a spot of much more interest to antiquarians and the public in general, and it appears incredible that anyone interested in the welfare of the town would stand in the way of any improvement in its prosperity. I venture to express a hope that as Lord Grantley has consented to the caverns being opened, the Council may (as the representatives of the townspeople), be enabled to remove any minor obstacles which may exist, and secure the opening of these remarkable passages and excavations, which a long past age has left us as memorials of its handiwork.

I have the honour to be, Gentlemen,
Your most obedient Servant,
C.D. Campbell, Captain H.M.I.N.
Boxgrove Road, Guildford, July 26th 1869

Peter Burgess

New member
Surrey Advertiser, 21st August, 1869

The Castle Caves

To the Editor of ?The Surrey Advertiser and County Times?

Sir, The letter which appeared in you publication of Saturday last under the signature of ?Robert Macdonald? calls for some observations from me in reply thereto.

In the first place I must deny that my letter of the 31st instant was intended as a ?personal attack? upon your correspondent. My object was clearly stated and explained, being simply to prevent any erroneous impression the public might form from the paragraph contained in your paper of the previous week; certainly not to invite personal controversy with Mr. Macdonald. I having had quite sufficient discussion with him before, more than enough to satisfy any desire of that kind. His charging me therefore with having made a ?lengthy and personal attack upon him,? ?dragging him before the public,? ?exhibiting him as an imposter,? or questioning his ?motives in connection with opening the Castle Caves;? ? all this is mere vapouring and idle nonsense, and what no fair and candid person would impute to me on account of anything contained in my letter.

If there be any ground for the complaint that he has been dragged before the public it should surely be laid at the door of the Surrey Advertiser and County Times, not at mine; and as to his gratuitous inference that I consider him an ?imposter? because I refused to concede to him the credit of discovering the Castle Caves, all I can say is that the inference is entirely his own, and if true (of which he is the best judge), it must be drawn from other premises than what are contained in my letter.

Having said this much in reply to Mr. Macdonald?s general remarks, I will now shortly refer to his version of the facts, so far as they affect Lord Grantley, the Honourable G.C. Norton, and myself in relation to the matter.

Mr. Macdonald is correct in his statement that he first effected an entrance to the Caverns from Rack Close, and not on Lord Grantley?s land, and also in admitting that when he was ?within the Caverns some 20 feet from the entrance? he was aware he was ?trespassing on someone?s property.? This is candid enough certainly, and if the rest of his statements were equally accurate, there would be no need for myself to trouble you with any remarks in reply. But when he had made this ?discovery? ? that he was committing a trespass  -  what did he do? Endeavour to ascertain to whom the property belonged on which he was trespassing, and get the proprietor?s consent? Nothing of the kind. He was careful only to obtain Mr. Boxall?s leave to effect an entrance into the Caves, which of course he was obliged to do, but afterwards, and once inside the Caves, he takes his own or ?French leave?, and ?in this doubtful state of affairs? with regard to the proprietorship commences his ?operations? and, as he says, ?waits to be interfered with.? This is his own account of the matter, and apparently what he expects will meet with public approval!

So then in pursuit of antiquities Mr. Macdonald considers himself entitled to enter upon private property and commence a lot of underground excavations without so much as speaking a word to the proprietor, and justifies himself by publishing a letter from Captain James of the Ordnance Department, who, being fully cognizant of the trespass which has been committed, cooly informs the public that ?the initiative in the inquiries which led to the re-discovery of the rock hewn Chambers under Guildford Castle? was taken by him. So after all it is not Mr Macdonald, but Captain James who first thought of opening the Caverns. But however this may be, it is time these courageous gentlemen of the Ordnance Survey were better instructed as to the rights of private property, and that if they ?initiate? excavations under other people?s land of their own accord, without condescending to obtain the owner?s consent they are amenable to the law for so doing. Captain James may wish to shelter Mr. Macdonald under the agis of his name as an officer of the Ordnance Survey Staff, but it is not broad enough to cover the trespass committed by Mr. Macdonald.

But this assumption of ignorance of the ownership of Guildford Castle cannot be accepted as a correct statement. Mr. Macdonald must have known perfectly well to whom the Castle belonged, or if not, he might very soon have known it, if so disposed, which is virtually the same thing. And having confessed to a most unwarrantable trespass upon Lord Grantley?s property, the weak defence he has given of his conduct is attempted to be covered by angry complaints respecting myself as Lord Grantley?s Agent. This bit of ordnance strategy however will not avail him.

Mr. Macdonald has given a most incorrect account of his negociations with myself and the Honourable G.C. Norton. The object of this letter is to controvert those statements, and having done that, I shall leave Mr. Macdonald to rush into print again as often as he may choose. He states that after Mr. Norton had inspected the caverns he received ?a verbal message to the effect that he (Mr. Macdonald) was permitted free access to the caverns, and the right of exploration at a nominal rent,? &c. This is not only untrue, but nothing like the fact. Mr. Norton, on this occasion merely inspected the caves on Lord Grantley?s behalf, and stated to Mr. Macdonald that he should report the case to Lord Grantley, who would not, however, enter into any negociation with Mr. Macdonald until the latter had apologised for the trespass which had been committed. The apology was afterwards made by letter, and I was then instructed, and not before, to inform Mr. Macdonald that Lord Grantley was willing to let the caves to him at a nominal rent, but only on his entering into a proper written agreement on the subject, the  terms and conditions of which were to be settled between him and Lord Grantley. This was the message which was communicated to him, and none other.

Some time afterwards the Honourable G.C. Norton (on Lord Grantley?s behalf), met Mr. Macdonald at my office to discuss the agreement. Shortly before this interview I had been instructed by Lord Grantley to inform Mr. Macdonald that he would be required to do a stipulated quantity of work under the superintendence of a surveyor, which quantity Mr. Macdonald promised to consider, and meanwhile the key was to remain at my office until the agreement was signed, as I have before explained. Mr. Macdonald may deny this if he pleases, but it can be easily proved and confirmed by Mr. Norton. It is therefore not true that Mr. Macdonald called at my office a fortnight afterwards and was told that ?Lord Grantley required a second arrangement.? There was only one arrangement, viz., that the caves would be let to Mr. Macdonald on certain conditions, which conditions had not then been settled and agreed to, Mr. Macdonald having declined or delayed to state the number of men he would employ, two men being the minimum number then proposed on behalf of Lord Grantley.

In this way the matter stood at the time of the last Guildford Sessions, when Mr. Norton was requested to meet Mr. Macdonald, which he agreed to do at my office. Mr. Norton came accordingly, desiring to meet Mr. Macdonald and to go into the matter with him. When, however, Mr. Norton learnt that Mr. Macdonald had withheld the key, I was instructed to insist upon it being returned, according to the agreement, before Mr. Norton would consent to the interview. I thereupon saw Mr. Macdonald, who informed me the key was at his house, and he agreed at once to go back and fetch it. He went, but on bringing back the key he put it on the table, at which one of my clerks was sitting, and left the room without saying a word. It is not true, therefore, that he asked to see Mr. Norton and was refused; on the contrary, he was requested to wait and see Mr. Norton, but would not avail himself of the opportunity.

As to Mr. Macdonald?s complaints of any uncourteous ?treatment and language? on my part, I can most emphatically state that they are totally devoid of foundation. He has received no discourtesy at my office, on the contrary, every facility has been afforded to him short of allowing him to retain the key, which is ?head and front of my offending?. His statements on this point are on a level with the doubt he has impertinently expressed, that my previous letter was written without Lord Grantley?s sanction, on whose behalf, as the proprietor of the caves, I was induced to notice the paragraph which originated my letter, and not to give Mr. Macdonald the opportunity of venting his spleen and disappointment upon myself.

Having thus contradicted the incorrect statements above referred to, I will merely add, for the satisfaction of the public and those interested in the caves, that notwithstanding the behaviour of Mr. Macdonald in this matter, every opportunity will be afforded by Lord Grantley for the inspection of the caves, which have been viewed by several parties during the last few weeks, and the same privilege will be accorded to any respectable persons on their applying at my office.

But after what has transpired, Lord Grantley, as the sole proprietor of the Castle property, reserves to himself the right of making such regulations and conditions as he may deem necessary and proper, with reference to the caves.

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,
Thomas Russell.
Guildford, 20th August, 1869

Peter Burgess

New member
Surrey Advertiser, 28th August, 1869

The Chalk Caves

Letter from Captain James

To the editor of ?The Surrey Advertiser and County Times?

Sir, Owing to my absence from home I have only just seen the correspondence in your columns on the subject of the Caverns under South Hill. As my name has been somewhat invidiously mentioned, I should like to explain my share in the matter. It is true that the initiative in the rediscovery of the Caverns was taken by me, insomuch that I directed Mr. Macdonald (then a corporal in the Royal Engineers under my orders) to make inquiries in the town, in order to verify the statements in the local histories, and that the Ordnance Survey plan might be as correct as possible. Here my action ended; the excavations were carried on for six weeks, without my orders or cognizance, and I was only made aware through your columns that access to the Caverns had been gained.

If Mr. Russell will read my letter, (which he quotes one sentence from) through, he will see that my principal object was to call the attention of the people of Guildford to the Ordnance Survey, and to invite their cooperation in collecting archaeological information. I stated that Corporal Macdonald had conducted the excavations at his own expense and risk, but urged that measures should be taken to come to an understanding with the owner of the soil. I cannot believe that Mr. Russell did not see the letter, and he surely might have communicated with me then as to the alleged trespass. A note from him would have caused me to prohibit Corporal Macdonald from passing beyond the Poyle Charity property, where he had permission to be; and had I been officially requested to take notice of the act of trespass on Lord Grantley?s property, I could not then have refrained from doing so. But for several weeks the very proprietorship of the soil was a matter in which the public was in doubt, however well it might have been known to Mr. Russell. No steps were taken by Lord Grantley or his agents to stop the explorations; on the contrary, and almost open approval of their being continued was understood to have been given. The interest evinced in the matter in the town was considerable; and, on the common understanding that they would eventually be permitted to be thrown open for public inspection, money was subscribed in Guildford to enable the work in hand to be brought to a satisfactory issue.

As for my further conduct in the matter, Corporal Macdonald ceased to be a soldier before the question of trespass was mooted; and as I had not authorised the trespass (if it was such), I did not feel called on to criticize it when too late. But I had been the first to make inquiries concerning the Caverns, and did not wish them, in the interests of archaeology, to be closed, and therefore, in public and private, I did not cease to urge the townspeople to obtain a cession of them from their owner, whoever he might be.

With respect to the conduct of the Ordnance Surveyors, it is not for me to refer a lawyer to Acts of Parliament, but Mr. Russell will find on perusal of the Acts which authorise the Survey ? (if he have not copies I shall be glad to show mine to him) ? that in entering the Caverns for the purpose of making the Government Survey it is a very open question whether any trespass was committed.

As to the question at issue between Mr. Russell ad Mr. Macdonald, I anticipate that the verdict of the public will be morally in favour of the latter, although it may be legally and strictly due to the former; but of this the public will be the best judge.
I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient Servant,
Edward R. James, Captain, R.E.
Carlisle, August 23, 1869

To the Editor of the ?Surrey Advertiser and County Times?

Sir, Without wishing to prolong the controversy on this subject, I trust you will allow me to express my satisfaction that Mr. Russell has condescended to answer my statements.

If I told my version of the story with the conviction that I would be believed by those to whom I have the honour of being known, I think the angry tone of Mr. Russell?s reply is the strongest confirmation it could have received; and I shall feel quite satisfied if those friends interested in the subject will read and compare the three letters which have passed upon it.

Your obedient servant, Robert Macdonald

To the Editor of the ?Surrey Advertiser and County Times?

Sir, If I am rightly informed the gate leading into the Rock Hewn Caverns, and the key of which Mr. Russell holds in his possession, is thirty feet from Lord Grantley?s property, what right has either to have taken possession of the key or to retain it.

I have read with considerable attention the correspondence between Mr. Macdonald and the agent to Lord Grantley and I have formed my own opinion upon it, as those also must have done who have known Mr. Macdonald as I have, since he came to Guildford. Yours, &c., M. M.


Peter Burgess

New member
Surrey Advertiser, 4th September, 1869

The Guildford Caves

We have no doubt that the public, from the voluminous correspondence which has appeared in our columns on the chalk caves, now thoroughly understand the merits of the question at large between Mr. Russell, as Lord Grantley?s agent, and Mr. Macdonald, the rediscoverer and excavator. We have not the slightest intention to go over the road travelled by the disputants, although we are gratified that our energetic remonstrance some weeks ago, with ?the powers that be? has had the effect of calling forth a complete statement of the points at issue. For the public, in whose interest we write, the question lies in a nut-shell: Admission to the caves.

This Mr. Russell promises, but we submit to that gentleman and to Lord Grantley, that what the public understand by ?admission? is not sending to an office for a key, but that every person may be able to obtain ingress by asking on the spot. To this end, we believe that the improvement Mr. Macdonald was making, for lighting the caves with gas, should be carried out. We hope to see a liberal spirit evinced towards the public, and at the same time some recompense made to Mr. Macdonald for the energy time and money expended by him in his really great task. Lord Grantley may do this, or the public may, or both may unite in it, for they are both his debtors: but by someone it ought to be done: and at the same time public curiosity and the interests of archaeology should be gratified, and served, by full and perfect facilities being given to townspeople and strangers to visit and view the caves. The public ask no more. Lord Grantley can give no less.


Peter Burgess

New member
And that is where the published story stops, unless more archives come to light.

The caves WERE accessible for some time, I think visits were arranged through the museum of the Surrey Archaeological Society which is close by. This, however, stopped a long time ago. The entrance was earthed up again and the site left abandoned, until most recently, WCMS were asked to provide some members to be present when the caves were temporarily opened up to be checked over, in 2008, and we had the opportunity to look around. The caves are once more closed up.


Active member
This is an insight into underground interest at the time, I can't be bothered to look it up at the moment, but when did Victoria go underground ? there are records in Derbyshire, anywhere else?, it might be a response to 'Society things to do' back then?

Peter Burgess

New member
It is worth noting that the 1:500 plan of 1871 shows the outline of the "caverns", as also does the 1:500 plan of Reigate show the outline of Barons' Cave. I wonder whether the same surveyors covered both towns? I believe it is very unusual for the outline of underground cavities to be shown on OS plans, apart from, perhaps, railway, road and canal tunnels. I would be interested to hear whether other "caves" are similarly shown elsewhere. I think I heard that Ingleborough (Show) Cave was shown?

Also, it was unusual I believe for OS plans to be published at such a large scale. Is this also true?


New member
Most towns and cities with a population exceeding 4,000 were surveyed and published by the OS at 1:500 or 1:528 or 1:1,056 in the C19; resources were insufficient to continue revisions at this scale far into C20 and publication lapsed. Reigate was published in nine 1:500 sheets based on the survey of 1870. By the time of the 1895 revision, the 1:500 sale had lapsed save for muncipalities prepared to underwrite the cost of revision. Reigate was revised at 1:2,500, indicating that the local authority declined to pay for a revision.

Your enquiry would be best addressed to the Charles Close Society - you have the makings of a short article, especially if you have access to good quality copies of the relevant maps. Re: caves and grottoes "The entrance will be surveyed ... the underground passages in caves will not be shown unless they are used as throughfares, in which case they are shown as tunnels" ("Instructions for detailed survey and revision of large scale plans", 1952, OSD, unpubl., section C, para. 52). This reference, the only one I can find, is almost a century later than the Reigate 1:500 sheets. The OS exhibits many interesting inconsistencies in the C19; the CCS would probably be interested in an account of both the OS surveyors' digging and exploration and the resulting public dispute, as well as the unusual underground detail shown on the Reigate 1:500 sheets - although it is probably not a unique depiction of caves on C19 OS mapping, I suspect. 


Peter Burgess

New member
Apologies for being out of place, this is the missing letter:

Surrey Advertiser, 14th August, 1869
The Castle Caverns

Mr. Macdonald?s Reply to Mr. Russell

To the Editor of the ?Surrey Advertiser and County Times?

Sir, A very lengthy and personal attack on my by Mr. Thomas Russell appeared in your columns on the 31st ult., in which I have been dragged before the public under the plea that Mr. Russell was much offended by a paragraph which appeared in yours of the 24th ult. I have not the slightest idea who wrote the paragraph in question, and am not in any way responsible for the statements therein made; but I trust you will allow me to say a few words to set myself right with the public of Guildford, and to correct the inaccurate statements regarding my conduct and motives in connection with the opening of the Castle Caverns.

In Mr. Russell?s letter he exhibits me as an impostor with regard to the discovery of the Cavern, and as being actuated by motives of ?personal emolument? in my desire to carry on the excavations. He opens his attack by asking ?How Mr. Macdonald came to undertake these excavations is best known to himself.? I can answer this question by referring Mr. Russell to a letter of Captain James, R.E., which was published in your paper of January 30th, 1869, and also in one of your contemporaries of the same date, where he may read that in my first attempts to discover the exact position and extent of the Caverns, I was simply acting in obedience to the orders of my late commanding officer, from whose letter I quote the following paragraph:-

?The Recent Discoveries

?January 24, 1869

?Sir, Without wishing to detract either from the personal merits of Corporal Macdonald, R.E., or from the generosity of the gentlemen who have aided him from their purses or with their strong arms in the excavations, I would inform the public through your columns that the initiative in the inquiries which have led to the re-discovery of the rock-hewn chambers under Guildford Castle was taken by me, as the officer in charge of the Ordnance Survey of the West of the County of Surrey.?

The remainder of Mr. Russell?s charges and insinuations rest only on his own account of conversations which took place between us; and if the unwarrantable insinuation with which Mr.Russell opens his attack, and which I have just answered, may be taken as a test of the spirit in which the rest of his letter is written, I may, perhaps be justified in thinking that my own version of the story deserves at least as much credit as his.

All that I can claim with regard to the ?rediscovery? of the Caverns is this. The Caverns had been closed for some 50 years. Their existence, as objects of great antiquity and interest, was well known through the accounts given of them in Bray and Manning and other histories, but the plans found in these books were too inaccurate to work by. There were also a few of the old inhabitants of the town who remembered having been in some of the chambers but the long lapse of time and changes on the surface of the ground had completely obliterated all trace both of their exact site and the way by which they could be entered. These were the two points which I discovered. The level of the caverns proved to be at a considerable depth below the present surface of the ground in Rack?s Close, belonging to the Poyle Charity, and now in the tenure of Jesse Boxall, who kindly gave me permission to go on the land in his occupation for the purpose of effecting an entrance to the Caverns, the re-opening of which was likely to be an object of so much interest and  benefit to the town at large. Thus it will be clearly seen that I was not committing any trespass in the operation connected with discovering an entrance to the Caverns. I was acting with the full permission of the tenant of the land, and the door which I subsequently put up, the key of which is now demanded by Mr. Russell as agent to Lord Grantley, is not placed on his Lordship?s property, but on that of the Poyle Charity.

Thus as a strict point of law, I should humbly venture to question whether Mr. Russell ever had any right to demand the key of a door not placed upon the property, which he now claims as Lord Grantley?s Agent. I was of course aware that when I was within the caverns, some 20 feet from the door in question, I was trespassing on some one?s property; and this raised a question which I, and those gentlemen who had kindly interested themselves in the matter, were most anxious to settle; but it appeared to us that while we simply confined our operations to clearing paths through the rubbish with which the caverns were choked, we could not be doing damage to any private interest, while the result would bring again to light relics of antiquity full of interest to the public at large.

I am quite ready to admit that in this doubtful state of affairs with regard to the proprietorship of the caverns, we waited to be interfered with, rather than seek interference. This interference first came in the shape of warnings from Mr. Russell, but when I waited on him and shewed him the plans of the caverns, which had then been surveyed by Government authority, he produced an old plan and stated that the caverns could not belong to Lord Grantley at all, as they were underneath the property on which the County gaol had formerly stood, and which had been sold to Mr. Smyrk by the County authorities.
After this the Hon. Mr. Norton visited the caverns with me, and stated that he had found some old documents which gave his brother, Lord Grantley, a right over all the chambers connected with the Castle, contained within an area of five acres. As the Hon. Mr. Norton most courteously expressed his great desire that these caverns should be thrown open for public inspection we were only too ready to acknowledge Lord Grantley?s claim to their proprietorship, and to settle the matter we gave up the key to Mr. Russell, who wrote to me on April 7th, ?In a few days I hope you may be allowed all faculty of access to the vaults, which you may require.?

A few days after this, I received a verbal information from Mr. Russell to the effect that I was permitted free access to the caverns, and the right of exploration at a nominal rent of 1s. per annum, until the expenses already incurred had been repaid; but nothing was then said about any stipulated quantity of work, the supervision of any engineer, or the return of the key, which was given to me by Mr. Russell himself on the above-named terms, and I started from his office in company with the Mayor and Mr McDougall Smith without the slightest intimation that I was expected to return the key.

After I had been again at work for a fortnight I received a message that I was to return the key until I signed an agreement to employ a certain number of men in the caverns under the direction of an engineer. I immediately called at Mr. Russell?s office, and was referred to Mr. Hicks, one of his clerks, who told me that in consequence of some paragraph, which had appeared in a local paper, Lord Grantley now required a second arrangement. After this I called a great number of times at Mr. Russell?s office without being able to see him, and on consulting one of the gentlemen who had assisted me in the works, I was advised to apply directly to the Hon. Mr. Norton, and not to give up the key until hearing from him. I make this statement with the full permission and consent of the gentleman who advised me. At the time of the Sessions the Mayor and some other gentlemen waited on Mr. Norton, and I was informed by them that they had arranged the matter, and that I was to go up and see Mr. Norton at Mr. Russell?s office. I was there told that Mr. Norton would not see me until I had given up the key; but when I asked to see Mr. Norton on my immediate return with the key, I was told that he had left. Of course I left the office on this intimation, but I positively state that I was not once ?requested to remain and see Mr. Norton that the business might be gone into and arranged.? The only advice which Mr. Russell ever vouchsafed to me was ?Do as you choose.?
Here, for the present, ends my connection with the caverns, except that there is a large quantity of tools and plant locked up in them by means of the door put up on the Poyle property with the consent of its tenant.

I cannot conclude without remarking that the personal tone of Mr. Russell?s remarks in your columns is only in keeping with the uncourteous treatment and language I have of late received from him; but I fearlessly trust the good name and reputation, which his letter appears designed to injure, to the sense of justice and kind feeling, which has for so many years been shown to me by my fellow townsmen.

I have lived long enough among them to trust with confidence to their verdict on the insinuation that ?personal emolument? has been the active motive in my endeavours to re-open the caverns to the public; and while I protest against the incorrect statements and sneers of the person who states that he writes as Lord Grantley?s agent, I must express a doubt whether that letter has had his Lordship?s sanction, for I do not think that any nobleman would endorse such an attack on a humble individual, who has little to lose but his character.

I am, Sir,
Yours &c.

Robert Macdonald.

Roger W

Well-known member
Fascinating stuff there, Peter.

As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun!

It will be interesting if you can find any more bits of the story.

tony from suffolk

Well-known member
Dear Mr Burgess,

I feel I must acquiesce and agree most profoundly to the post of my esteemed colleague Mr Roger W (who regrettably I have yet to encounter personally, a delight I anticipate profoundly).

It would indeed be a source of most amusement to speculate on the pleasure one could derive from future posts in similar floral expressiveness relating to previous unpleasantness with regard to the dialogue generated around conficts aroused by the inevitable transition to the recognition of caverns measureless to man as a source of free transit by the general populace. 


Peter Burgess

New member
The Guildford Caverns, Dr. G.C. Wilkinson, 1930


The Ordnance Survey

In 1867 and 1868 the preparation of the new large scale Ordnance Survey map of the town was in progress, and there are various persons still living in Guildford, notably Mr. George Heath, who will have distinct memories of the levels taken on that occasion, and the investigations made respecting supposed underground passages. The officer who was in charge of the survey had his attention directed to the allusion to the caverns in Grose?s book, and he gave instructions to Corporal Robert Macdonald, of the Royal Engineers, who was under his command, to make diligent inquiry respecting their width.

Sergeant Macdonald

Corporal Macdonald, who eventually became Sergeant Macdonald, was very well known to Guildfordians who remember an earlier generation, and his memory should be kept in high esteem in Guildford by reason of the excellent work that he did for the boys of the town, especially in one of the earlier night schools, and also in the initiation of certain technical classes for boys. His night school he first of all conducted up a passage from North Street, which is now at the back of Messrs. Gammon?s shop, at one time known as Smith?s Passage, and there for some years, assisted by various philanthropic people in Guildford, he carried out important work amongst the rougher class, having quite a number of boys at his night school, and upon them his influence was exceedingly good. Later on he was concerned in the erection of a hall in the Commercial Road, and some years later still he established in Guildford the first Turkish baths the town ever possessed, so that, apart from the work that he carried out with the caverns, his name is one that older Guildfordians cherish.

His son, Mr. Sutherland Macdonald, who lives at 3 Guildford Avenue, Surbiton, has a distinct memory of the opening up of the caverns by his father. Captain James states that Corporal Macdonald made trial explorations for five weeks near the spot indicated as the probable entrance, and eventually he made his way into the large Southern chamber. The expenses of exploration, Captain James tells us, however, could not be borne by the National Survey Fund, although Guildford is undoubtedly to this same National Survey for the original effort, and Macdonald, inducing some of his friends in Guildford to assist him as volunteers, after their ordinary hours of toil, and aided by a subscription that was raised in the town, continued his researches until he had in rough fashion traced the outline of the caverns. At this point the owners of the soil above interfered to prevent further exploration, and for a while all such exploration was stopped.

In the course of this work a deep shaft was discovered, which went down into Chamber No. 5, and then, on enquiry being made, it was recollected that some convicts who were employed by the Governor of the Surrey County Gaol, who was at that time residing at South Hill House,  were ordered to dig a well, and found their way, in the course of this work, into Chamber No. 5 of the caverns, and from thence made their escape. Instructions were then given to close up the entrance to the caverns and the shaft, and from 1830 down to 1868 this enclosure appears to have remained. Mr. Sutherland Macdonald tells us that at the time of the opening of the caverns he was a scholar at Archbishop Abbot?s School, and was greatly interested in the proceedings, and had wonderful anticipations of finding ?chains, instruments of torture, skeletons, Jew?s teeth extracted under the regime of King John, and all sorts of other terrible things? in the caverns, but nothing whatever was found by his father but ?heaps of chalk debris.? He says that he was one of the very first persons to enter the caverns, but as the central opening was made sufficiently large, quite a number of people, many of whom had been assisting Macdonald in his researches, also went into the caverns.

Donny Loveland

Mr. W.H. Loveland, a Hampshire magistrate, who lives at 4 Egbert Road, Winchester, and who is the son of a very well-known Guildford resident, who was usually known as ?Donny? Loveland, explains that his father was one of the dozen working men who gave their voluntary services after working hours, and that he, with his father, went into the caverns soon after they were discovered. Mr. Richard Mason, who was then the head of Filmer and Mason, of the Church Acre Iron Works, supplied Corporal Macdonald with the exploring tools, and Messrs. Stephenson and Sons, from their candle factory in Castle Street, supplied a quantity of tallow candles, and some swan-neck colza oil lamps, in order that the workmen might see what they were doing. ?Young Donny? Loveland had the job to keep these candles and lamps alight, and, in consequence, has a very clear recollection of the caverns, and of the large round shaft to which allusion has just recently been made.

Mr. Mason, whom many of the townspeople will well remember, was a somewhat slim man in those days, and as soon as the workmen had made the necessary preparations he crawled into the cave. He was followed by his special friend, Mr. Upperton, who was Mayor on several occasions, but aittle  man of far greater bulk and stature. Those who were present on the occasion have a very distinct recollection of the difficulty there was for Mr. Upperton to get inside the caves.

A little later on several residents, headed by Dr. Schollick, who was formerly the Borough Coroner, decided to explore the caves still further, and they worked away for a while, clearing out some of the passages. In the course of their work they discovered two keys, one of which certainly belongs to the sixteenth century, and these were deposited in the Guildford Museum. These were, however, the only things of any importance that have ever been found.


tony from suffolk

Well-known member
Very interesting Mr Burgess. Residing as I did in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames during my early years, a town not too distant from that of Guildford (where incidentally some of my rather distant relatives dwelled) I was aware of the presence of caves both through their local knowledge of the area (they previously hearing of my abiding interest in speleology) and also because of a brief mention of said caverns in a book by Edward C. Pyatt, who describes them as " extensive cave system almost certainly a mine for building stone; unfortunately the entrance has recently had to be blocked up".

I assume there is little possibility of future access being secured to these caves?

Peter Burgess

New member
Two more Surrey Advertiser "cuttings" have come to light, and show how the Council decided to adopt the caves for public viewing,after all the open debate in the local paper.

Surrey Advertiser, 12th February, 1870

Proposed Opening of the Guildford Caverns

(Guildford Town Council)

The Clerk read the following report:-

?The committee appointed on the 10th August last, for the purpose of negociating with the necessary parties with the view of throwing open the caverns in the chalk cliffs to the inspection of the public, report that they have fully considered the matter, and have satisfied themselves that the caverns in question are situate in the chalk cliff formerly belonging to the County Justices, and used by them as a gaol. That the property wherein they are situate was sold by the county to Mr. Smyrk and by him re-sold to Mr. Gunton, who devised it to Mrs. Gill, who has since become the wife of Mr. Crossthwaite. On the marriage of Mrs. Gill to this gentleman, the property was settled upon her trustees, to whom it now belongs. Your committee have received a letter from the solicitors of these gentlemen, wherein they state that Mrs. Crossthwaite is desirous of meeting the views of the corporation, and is willing to let the corporation the right of using the caverns for inspection by the public by an agreement from year to year, terminable by either party at six month?s notice, at the rent of ?5 per annum. Your committee do not anticipate that there would be any serious difficulty in making a proper access to these caverns, but before proceeding further in the matter would be glad to have the views of the council whether the proposition made by Mrs. Crossthwaite and her trustees is such a one as ought to be accepted.

Dated this 7th day of February, 1870
Dodsworth Haydon, Mayor,
H. Shoobridge.

The Mayor said the committee had made a sort of provisional proposal that they should pay ?5 per year resnt with a lease at 7, 14 or 21 years, the lease to be terminable by certain notice to the lessees. This would, perhaps, have been a little one-sided, but they thought that it would not be very desirable only to become yearly tenants. But they might be willing to become yearly tenants with a proviso that if they were turned out before seven years, they would be recouped any amount not exceeding the rent ? that would be ?35.

Councillor Upperton ? the other party is willing to grant us an entrance to the caverns?

The Mayor ? Perfectly so. The Mayor went on to say that it was rather important to bring this matter before the corporation now, because just at this time men would be glad to get work in clearing out the rubbish from the caverns. He had no doubt that the opening of these caverns would be a great boon to the town, for all knew what an attraction caverns near a place always were.

Councillor Geach said he would like to know what amount of money it was proposed to spend on the caverns?
The Mayor: That we are not in a position to say, but the caverns can now be seen through.

Councillor Geach ? What will the approach cost?

The Mayor ? That would be a very small matter indeed.

Councillor Crooke ? Is it contemplated to make any charge to visitors?

The Mayor ? Certainly, when they are opened.

The Mayor then referred to the attraction the caverns might be made during the Assizes and the visit of the Bath, West of England, and Southern Counties? Association.

Councillor Upperton said he believed he was one of the first who went into the caverns ? at least he made his way in on his hands and knees (laughter.) They could now, however, not only make an easy entrance, but get about in the caverns themselves, and the question was what money they would spend in still further improving them, or in opening up new passages, or in making the present wider. The question at the present moment, however, was whether they would rent the caverns at ?5 a year. His own belief was that they would be of great advantage to the town.

On the suggestion of the Mayor, the Clerk read the following letter from Mrs. Crossthwaite?s solicitors:-

2, New Inn, W.C.

Dear Sir, - We have seen Mr. Cobby on your letter to Mrs. Crossthwaite of the 3rd inst., relating to the Caverns in the Chalk Cliff, under Mrs. Crossthwaite?s property at Guildford, and he has instructed us to say Mrs. Crossthwaite is desirous to meet the views of the Corporation of Guildford, so far as she can without prejudicing her own property. Mrs. Crossthwaite is willing to let to the Corporation the right of using the Caverns for inspection by the public under her freehold property by an agreement from year to year, terminable at the option of either party by six months? notice, at the rent of ?5, provided her surveyor reports that no damage will be occasioned to her property by the clearing or excavating of the Caverns or otherwise. The surface of the ground not to be disturbed, and the Corporation to make good any damage or injury Mrs. Crossthwaite may sustain. All expenses which Mrs. Crossthwaite may incur surveyors? and solicitors? charges to be defrayed by the Corporation, and paid when the agreement is signed or immediately after they are incurred if the agreement is not carried. Mrs. Crossthwaite is unwilling to grant a 21 years? lease, because such a lease may be prejudicial to her selling or letting the property.

We are, yours faithfully, Surin, Attree and Johnson. to Mark Smallpiece, Esq. Town Clerk, Guildford.

The Mayor ? I wanted this letter read, as after all that has been said it shows how carefully and distinctly Mrs. Crossthwaite speaks of her property (hear, hear).

Councillor Geach suggested a three years? lease to see how they got on.

Councillor Taunton moved that the further arrangements should be left to the Committee with discretionary powers to act as they might think advisable. He had no hesitation in believing that the opening of the caverns to the public would be beneficial to the town, and that it would be a great pity to miss their opportunity.

Mr. R. Mason said, in seconding the motion, that he would undertake opening up a new entrance to the caverns ? (hear, hear) ? and then the Corporation might spend money on any other improvements they liked. He had one exception to take the remarks which had fallen from Councillor Upperton. He believed that he (Mr. Mason) was the first to find his way into the caverns (Laughter).

Councillor Upperton ? I said one of the first (a laugh).

Alderman Shoobridge considered that as far as the Committee had gone, they had been very successful (hear, hear). He fully agreed, however, it was the right thing to do, to refer the matter back to the Committee, as they were not complete in anything.

The motion was carried unanimously.