The Denehole in Church Lane in Nonington

Notes made by Dr. Hardman
concerning the discovery of a denehole at
Church Lane, Nonington, in May of 1939.

Deneholes-further information.

Mr. Fred Garlinge with his first lorry at The Haven, late 1930's. He served as a Captain in the Home Guard during WW2.
Mr. Fred Garlinge with his first lorry at The Haven, late 1930’s. He served as a Captain in the Home Guard during WW2.

Discovered in the last week of May 1939 in the grounds of Mr. F. G. Garlinge of Church Lane (now The Haven in the present Vicarage Lane), Nonington. Mr. Garlinge has recently built a bungalow on the right hand side of the road leading from The Royal Oak Inn to the church (now The Haven). He is a haulier and near the bungalow is a range of open sheds for housing his motor lorries. In one of these sheds and inspection pit was made. A domed cover of brickwork was met with at a depth of about 18 inches below the surface and when this was broken open a vertical shaft about 2’ 6” (2 feet 6 inches) in diameter was disclosed. A rope was attached to an adjacent post and a ladder let down into the shaft and in this way a precarious descent was made possible.

On Saturday 4th June an inspection was made by Mr. Western Plumptre who descended the shaft. On the same day a representative of the “Kent Messenger” also went down. Mr. Plumptre communicated the find to me and on the 5th June I visited the spot accompanied by Mr. C. W. Knox, Admiral R. G. Morton and Capt. A. G. Morton and the three latter descended the shaft. The shaft is carried through a surface bed of loam into the chalk and is bricked round at the top to a depth of 5 or 6 feet. The bricks did not appear to be old and we judged they were 18th century date. At the bottom of the shaft-perhaps 28 or 30 feet deep-it opened out into four domed chambers lying around the shaft and each of them about 20 feet (I am not sure of the dimension) in diameter. The chambers were dry and the air was sweet. In this district the old wells, now mostly disused, are about 120 feet deep. The chalk had a fresh appearance and in two of the chambers there had been falls of chalk of apparently recent date. The marks in the chamber walls appeared to indicate the use of a modern pick.

The brick-lined opening to the denehole

Finds in the chambers were as follows:

Small scull, apparently of a rat and a few other small bones.
Piece of wood, apparently oak or elm, about 9” x 2” showing marks of decay.
Old lamp of metal which had lost its spout, probably 18th. Century.
Several iron nails about 2 ½ “ long and not old.

These served to be nothing definite to indicate the age of the denehole. All the indications seemed to me to indicate that there had been some use made of the excavation about a century and a half ago, but this would not be inconsistent with the original excavation being of much greater antiquity. Mr. Garlinge states that from the recollection of his ancestors the site has been an undisturbed meadow for the last 100 years. I have got a strong impression (in which my friends concur) that whatever was the original purpose of this and other deneholes they were made to obtain the use of underground chambers and not for the use of the chalk that was excavated from there. Mr. Garlinge is interested in the find and eager to have it investigated. He has apparently no intention of doing any surface work at present which will interfere with investigation.

Dated W.H. 5.6.39.


 7.6.1939. Further particulars obtained on a further visit accompanied by Mr. Stebbing.

 Depth of shaft: about 31 feet.

 Diameter of shaft-6’ 3”.

 Four chambers 10’ in height with domed tops.

 Diameter from centre of shaft  N.E. 18′

 Pick marks rather wide.

 Late type indicated.

1939 June-Kent Messenger newspaper clipping-Church Lane Nonington denehole
A report on the finding of the denehole from The Kent Messenger, early June 1930. From the archives of Neil Prebble, a Nonington native.

Mr. Stebbing later included an account of his visit to the Church Lane denehole in an article published in the Archaeologica Cantiana, vol. LI.

 Notes on some excavations of the nature of deneholes, by W. P. D. Stebbing, F.S.A., F. G. S ,and other sources.

In May 1939 Mr. F. G. Garlinge was digging an inspection pit in his lorry garage on land next to Church Lane, from where he ran his coal delivery business. Excavation was underway in the north sloping corner of land that had been used as meadow for at least a century when a brickwork dome was discovered some 18 inches (450 mm) down, which when broken through disclosed a brick lined vertical shaft some 3 feet (900 mm) in diameter descending to the level of the solid chalk, some 30 feet (9 metres) or so. At the bottom of the shaft was a surface bed of some 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 metres) of fallen loam and chalk which prevented accurate measurement of the depth. The denehole‘s layout was untypical in that the large shaft went down directly into a central space from where four domed chambers opened out, so needing a ladder or windlass and rope to descend the shaft and to bring up excavated chalk. The bricks used in the construction of the shaft and dome were of a type used within the previous 150 years of the date of discovery.

The four chambers were of differing height and dimension, the largest having suffered an extensive chalk fall which left the overlying loam exposed. This probably indicated the excavators were amateurs, possible ordinary farm labourers, as they had ignored one of the basics of excavation in not leaving a sufficient depth of chalk to support the roof of so large a chamber. The marks of the picks used in the excavation were clearly visible and plentiful. Found in the debris at the bottom of the shaft were a few small mammal bones, a piece of wood and an 18th century type iron lamp minus its spout.

Mr. Stebbing concluded by saying believed that the denehole had been dug to provide chalk for liming agricultural land and originated in the 18th century.

 From: The Chelsea Speleological Society Records, volume 4. Deneholes by H. Pearman. January 1966.

“In May 1939, Mr. F. C. Garlinge, of Church Lane, Nonington was digging an inspection pit in his motor-lorry shed when he pierced an 18 inch diameter brick dome. A vertical shaft, 3 ft. in diameter, was found beneath. The shaft was 30 ft. deep, the first 5-6 feet being through loam, and the rest in chalk. The shaft was lined with bricks and opened out into chambers at the bottom. An 18th century lamp was found in one of the chambers”.

Deneholes have been discovered in other parts of the parish, a least one was found to the west of St. Alban’s Court when the ground collapsed underneath a tractor which partially fell into the resulting hole. Unfortunately no examination of the hole was made before it was filled in.

Deneholes-further information

The chalk uplands of Kent once had many hundreds, if not thousands, of deneholes.  A ‘denehole’ or ‘danehole’ is essentially a number of small chalk caves radiating from the bottom of a vertical shaft. The origins and purpose of these man made excavations have long been the subject of intense interest and debate. Victorian historians put forward many theories  to explain their excavation which included Druidic temples, ancient flint mines,  hiding places from raiding Danes (hence dane-hole), and even to their being elaborate animal traps. Some old deneholes were doubtless used as safe places to hide contraband goods from the Revenue men but this was not why they were dug.

William Lambarde wrote of deneholes in his 1576 ‘Perambulations of Kent’ “There are to be seen (in Kent) sundry artificial caves or holes in the earth, whereof some have ten, some fifteen and some twenty fathoms in depth: at the mouth narrow, like the tunnell of a chimney or passage of a well: but in the bottom large, and of great receipt: insomuch as some of them have sundry rooms one within another, strongly vaulted, and supported with pillars of chalk, and, in the opinion of the inhabitants, these were in former times digged, as well for the use of the chalk towards building, as for to marle their arable lands therewith”.

It is now the widely held view that the majority of deneholes were simply chalk mines sunk to obtain an unpolluted supply of chalk to spread as “marl” to fertilize surrounding fields.  It may be puzzling as to why a hole 20 or 30 ft deep needs to be dug when chalk often occurs at or near the surface, but the shallow chalk may not have always been available on a farmer’s property and there is a smaller loss of cultivatable land when  chalk is extracted from a narrow shaft instead of an open pit. Deeper dug chalk was  also then regarded as being ‘fatter’  or more enriching. This is due to the fact that deeper dug chalk has higher concentrations of important elements such as magnesium which are leached out of the chalk nearer the surface by rainwater filtering down through it.

The benefits of chalk to enrich soil  was known to the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, who around 70 A.D. wrote of the ancient British mining it for that purpose, describing how: ‘the chalk is sought from a deep place, wells being frequently sunk to 10Oft, narrowed at the mouth, the vein spreading out within as in mines. This is the kind most used in Britain. It lasts for 80 years and there is no instance of anyone who has put it on twice in his lifetime’

Leases from Norman times to the present day often include covenants for the regular marling of tenanted land and a 1225 statute of Henry III gave  the right to everyone to sink a marl pit on their land. The primary use of chalk excavated from deneholes and chalkwells was for agriculture, but it was often used for road making and repairs as compacted chalk made a good foundation for road beds. Chalk was also freuently used for house building as an infill for walls and for centuries chalk was burnt to extract lime for making mortar for use in the construction of buildings varying in size from cattle sheds to cathedrals.

The use of deneholes declined as new systems of agriculture came into widespread use from the early 1800′s and small land-holdings were absorbed into larger farming units. As the nineteenth century progressed the demand for chalk for industrial and agricultural use began to increase and huge chalk quarries were opened up.  Many of the old deneholes dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries were filled in or blocked up, although a few were still being dug at the beginning of the 20th century. Deneholes are still sometimes found in woodland and hedgerows and provide a valuable habitat for various types of wildlife such as bats and insects.

For further information on deneholes I highly recommend the Kent Underground Research Group website


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