Past Reflections: Historical Interactions with the Site

After learning about the folkloric association of Deneholes and Hangmans Wood, it is now time to turn attention towards how the people of the area interacted with the site in the past. In 1899, W. H. Hamer published an article in The Idler, a monthly ‘gentlemen’s’ magazine that is now defunct. Hamer provides a 7 page exploration into the Deneholes and admits that at the turn of the 20th century, the origin story behind the holes had remained as mysterious as ever. Hamers report builds on an extensive investigation carried out by the Essex Field Club 12 years previously in 1887.

The Essex Field Club

Having been in existence since 1880, The Essex Field Club is a self-described society for wildlife enthusiasts concerned with the natural history and geology of Essex. It was founded ‘to promote the study of the Natural History, Geology and Pre-historic Archaeology of the County of Essex and its borderlands’, and carried out extensive field work investigations throughout Essex. The club attended Deneholes on numerous occasions to investigate the crevices underground in an attempt to ascertain their origin. One report, by a T. V Holmes, from 1883 has the following to say on the origins of the Deneholes:

That these Deneholes are very ancient – that they certainly date from a time when the art of building can scarcely be said to have existed on the island, and when invisibility formed the best security against the sudden attacks of an enemy – seems, to me, evident’

Holmes has clearly fed into the folkloric origin story of an Anglo-Saxon hiding place and even goes one step further by suggesting that the holes were used as hiding places of/from pirates who were scouring along the Thames. Later, in 1887, The Essex Field Club decide to extend their investigation and finally descend below the surface. This was achieved through the generous funding of those who subscribed and donated to the EFC; a group of benefactors made up of members of the public who felt it was important that the site be preserved so that local people could also explore the Deneholes. The underground investigation continued over 6 weeks but was eventually halted due to funding issues and the dangerous nature of the excavations. The EFC had to dig through layers and layers of sand and gravel, an activity they described as very difficult and tedious. Their tools were also stolen by ‘unauthorised visitors’ but, thankfully, there were no accidents.

Excerpt from a report by The Essex Field Club (1887)

A Wonderful Discovery of Nothing

Back now to Hamers report of 1899, where it appears that although regular trips were taken into the depths of Hangmans Wood, no definitive answer was ever given to establish the actual origin of the Deneholes. Hamer reveals that by the time of his report, the Deneholes had been excavated in such a way to allow easier and safer access for those wishing to explore them. However, this did not provide any further illumination on the answers he was seeking. In fact, it only seemed to add to the confusion. From his own descent into the unknown below, Hamer offers the following theories that could explain what Deneholes are;

  • Chalk quarries
  • Weapons pits
  • Food storehouses
  • Living quarters for subterranean cave dwellers
  • Dungeons
  • Burial places
  • Underground temples for sacrificial rituals

Hamers clear investment in and commitment to discovering the true origin of the Deneholes is nothing short of admirable, though it seems the further down the rabbit hole he went, the further he strayed from receiving the all important answer. The mystery remains what appears to be a close guarded secret, and as he puts it himself, ‘it is said those who know the most of them say the least’. Evidently, folklore can and will persist.

Further Reading:
Hamer, W H, ‘The Deneholes of Hangmans Wood’, The Idler ; an illustrated magazine, Feb. 1892-Jan. 1899; London (Mar 1898): 162-168

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Goldsmiths History Grad & MA Folklore Student @ University of Hertfordshire

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