History of Poole's Cavern

by Tony Oldham

Poole's Cavern appears to be of those caves known since prehistoric times. Medieval records refer to it, while Roman finds, including brooches and coins suggest that 2000 years ago the cave was used as some sort of shrine.

The cave takes its name from an outlaw called Poole who lived in the cave in the fifteenth century. At that time the cave had a very small entrance, making it easy to defend and very difficult to smoke him out. In 1622, Michael Drayton in his Poly-olbion described Poole's Cavern as

"Of that more generous stock, long honour'd in this shire,
Of which amongst the rest, one being outlw'd here
For his strong refuge tooke this dark and uncouth place
An heir-loom ever since, to that suceeding race"

Legends suggest that a century later Mary Queen of Scots visited the cave during the time she was being detained in the locality by Elizabeth I. She went almost to the end of the present tourist route turning back at a large stalagmite column which since then has been called "Mary Queen of Scots' Pillar".

Thomas Hobbes, tutor to the young Earls of Devonshire, who were created Dukes later, at Chatworth House, whose estates included the cavern, published a poem in Latin, "De Mirabilibus Pecci" extolling the wonders of the Peak District in 1636. A translation published in 1678 described this seventh wonder:

"The thing remain 'd, but highly worth our view,
Poole's Hole, a Cave so cali'd, and near us too.
Poole was a famous thief, and as we're fold
Equal to Cacus, and perchance as old.
Shrouded within this darksome hid retrieve
By spoils of those he robb 'd, he us 'd to live,
And towards his den poor travellers deceive.

The entrance by which to it we did come
This cave by Gorgon with her snaky hair
You'd think was first possessed, so all things there
Turn'd into stone for nothing does appear
That is not rock. What from the ceiling high
Like hams of bacon pendulous you spy,
Will scarce yield to the teeth; stone they are both.
That is no lion mounts his main so rough,
And sets as a fierce tenant o'th' dark den,
But a meer yellow stone.

Our lights persuade us now grown to decay,
To haste from the Caves' labyrinth away.
But turning first on the left hand, behold
The bed-chamber of Pool the robber bold,
All of plain stone, ne're water'd with the dew,
Furnished with bed and chamber pot we view"

Daniel Defoe, political commentator and author of Robinson Crusoe, was less impressed and, writing in 1731 in his Tour of England and Wales, complained of having to crawl for 10 yards on all fours to see something "ill-bestowed with curiosities".

Before 1854 the cave was open to anybody who dared take a candle or a fackle of wood to explore it. Local people living in the nearby cottages would act as unofficial guides. In 1854, to protect the cave and its speleothem the 6th Duke of Devonshire appointed Frank Redfern as custodian-cum-guide. The Redfern family subsequently operated the cave on a lease until 1954 when it was sold to Mrs J Alcock, but it closed in 1965 due to the death of Mr Alcock. In 1857 gas lighting had been installed, which at the time was quite a novelty, but in 1976 this was superseded by electric lighting when the cave was reopened by the new owners, the Buxton and District Civic Society.

Text by Tony Oldham (2002). With kind permission.