The story of ammunition workers who toiled in a subterranean maze of south east London tunnels during the First World War will be told, thanks to a grant of £9,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
The Chislehurst Caves, a 22 mile long series of tunnels carved beneath the chalk downs near Bromley were pressed into service to store ammunition from Woolwich Arsenal during the 1914-18 war. A new bus route transported workers to the site and a narrow gauge railway was laid to access the deepest part of the caves. The men themselves were exposed to many hazards, apart from the danger of explosions they suffered burns and jaundice caused by the chemicals in the munitions.
Although the caves have been open to the public for many years the main emphasis is on their use during the Second World War as a mass air raid shelter. Using the HLF grant volunteers from the Chislehurst Society will research the First World War history gaining access to files held at the National Archives. They will use their discoveries to create a documentary, some of which will be filmed in First World War sections of the caves that are currently not on the existing visitor itinerary.
Special sections of these unseen tunnels will also highlight a unique series of carvings that munition workers made in the soft chalk to honour the memory of nurse Edith Cavell, who was captured and shot by the Germans in 1915.
Local schools and heritage groups have already expressed interest in learning more about this period in the history of the caves and the project will include a series of special subterranean events including talks and guided tours.
The Chislehurst Society's Heritage Rep Joanna Friel said: "Many local residents know of the Caves but have not visited for many years. We are honoured to be able to showcase the role of Chislehurst Caves as part of our commemoration of the First World War and look forward to a fascinating documentary".
Sue Bowers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said: "This project will raise awareness of the role played by the Caves during the First World War and give people a rare opportunity to view the artistic achievements of the workers who toiled underground".
Bob Neill MP commented on the news: "Projects like this play an important role in our collective memory of the past, and I feel it is incredibly fitting that these local feats of human courage and endeavour be recognised in such a way in this centenary year. It is fantastic that the documentary will open up new areas to those that are currently on display, and I very much look forward to seeing the final results soon".