Friday 14 February 2020

The Tiverton Castle Tunnels

In various old books, there is repeated speculation about a tunnel running from the castle and terminating in the town, possibly used as an escape tunnel during the civil war. It is interesting how this has persisted through time, but there appears to be little evidence a tunnel ever existed.

Illustration of Tiverton Castle from William Harding's The History of Tiverton, Vol 2
Illustration of Tiverton Castle from William
Harding's The History of Tiverton, Vol 2

From Dunsford (1790), in the part of the book on "Antiquities and Public Buildings" on page 300, the following is written:

Under the round tower, near the drawbridge, were some stone steps, supposed to have led to the entrance of a subterraneous passage, or covered way, beneath the moat and church yard to the middle of the town, by which a communication was preserved with the inhabitants of the town during a siege, supplies conveyed to the garrison, and the means of retreat secured.

Abraham Hurley informed me that his mother had descended many of the steps, and had picked up an old bit of a horse's bridle and some other little matters, but never saw any other part of the subterraneous passage, though there is little doubt but these steps, perhaps to a greater depth, led to such passage, now probably filled up. A report prevailed about twenty years since, that a portmanteau with money or valuables in it, was found by the farmer who then rented the barton and lived in the castle, but the matter was never ascertained to the public.

In another part of the book titled "Remarkable Occurrences" on page 188...

It is probable, that some of the garrison escaped by retreating in the covered way that led from the castle, many feet under ground, to the middle of the Fore-street, in Tiverton, which was wide enough for two men to walk a-breast, and opened at the Red Lion inn. The course of this way is at present unknown; perhaps filled up, or otherwise demolished.

Blundell's¹ and Hewett's Memoirs: Thomas Rodd informed me, that in digging a grave some time since in the church-path leading from St Peter-street to the little door of the church, about five feet deep, a pavement was discovered, which was probably the arch of the said covered way. Another such pavement was discovered by the west wall of the church-yard, which probably covered another way from the castle to the town.

¹ This refers to Memoirs and antiquities of the town and parish of Tiverton in the county of Devon, faithfully collected from ancient records by John Blundell, published in 1712.

And in the chronological events listing on page 254...

1773: In October some Cornish miners, recruits of the 31st regiment being in Tiverton, dug, in the garden behind John Bryant's house, in Fore-street, to discover a subterraneous passage, or covered way, said to have led from the castle to the centre of the town, without success; but at the depth of thirty feet, they took up several lumps of tin ore, which were shewn to many of the inhabitants. They also dug in the round tower of the castle, for the same purpose, to a level with the bottom of the surrounding moat, but did not discover any part of the supposed subterraneous passage.

From Harding, vol. II (1847), he adds on page 102...

Under the Castle wall on the west is the entrance to a covered way supposed to pass under the town and terminate in Gold Street near the Red Lion. Others have imagined it extends to Blundell's School; but not with much reason, as an underground passage would hardly have been formed a century after much of the Castle had been removed and it had ceased to be a baronial residence.

In the rather odd comedic novel that features historical elements, A Pedestrian Tour of Thirteen Hundred and Forty-Seven Miles Through Wales and England, published in 1836, reference to the tunnel appears in a fictional passage...

Wherever there is a castle of any antiquity, and which is known to have experienced the vicissitudes of fortune, fertile brains, a love for the marvellous, or the power of superstition, generally create some mysterious legends respecting it, which are to be found in the mouths of the inhabitants in the vicinity. The most usual and favourite place of security (in romance) is undoubtedly a dungeon or subterranean passage :- what castle is without it somewhere (though no one can find it?) - and who is it that has ever been to Tiverton and has not heard of the "dungeon," that passes from the castle the whole way under the town? To resort thither with half a dozen candles "to explore," has often been the frolic of a holiday afternoon among schoolboys. 

There is an article on the BBC site from 2001 by local resident John Wright, who owned a house in Gold Street that he claims was linked to Tiverton Castle by the legendary tunnel.

The Heritage Gateway, which searches 60 separate resources, has an entry for Tiverton Castle that includes the following reference(!):

The Society of Moorland Dowsers, 2002, Untitled Source (Worksheet). SDV345512. Identified the possible site of the Norman keep, twin moats and a tunnel system linking the castle with the church and town.

But most damningly, in Thomas Webster Rammell's catchily titled book, Report to the General Board of Health on a Preliminary Inquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage, and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of the Borough of Tiverton, published in 1851, he undertook a comprehensive drain and sewer survey of Tiverton, and this makes no mention of a tunnel, only a 15" drain.

So other than the grave digger's find, there seems to be little else to support the existence of a tunnel. Have you heard any rumours or have any anecdotal evidence?

08/11/2021 Update: Recent evidence unearthed (quite literally) indicates the grave digger's discovery was likely just the top of a brick vaulted crypt.

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