Redcliffe Caves the History

The entrance to the caves in 1997 with all vegetation removed. Photograph : Alan Gray


The term Caves should not really be applied, rather Mines since the whole area, both discovered, undiscovered and backfilled was excavated and backfilled by man; there is no natural caves and in the far reaches of the caves the pickmarks are easily discernible. The red sandstone rock was converted into sand and put to several uses - the glass making trade to manufacture cheap brown bottles and the pottery trade to make a slip for glazing pottery.


The pickmarks are visible on the walls. Photograph Kay Wills

Two Myths -

i. The Caves stretch as far as Clifton and Knowle. The caves are located in a hill of red sandstone. On a geological map of the area this hill of sandstone stretches from just over the Floating Harbour around to just before Temple Meads, about ¼ of a mile into Bedminster and over to near the Lloyds Building. The accessible caves cover just over an acre but it is recorded that they did cover between 9 to 12 acres but due to modern buildings, sewers and a railway tunnel most of the “lost”caves will probably not be relocated. One other point of interest is than about 400 feet beneath this wharf are tunnels from the Bedminster Coal Field.

ii. The name Redcliffe Caves. This is not really correct since all the caves were formed by man. The Red Sandstone was dug out by pick and shovel, mainly for use in the glassmaking trade; there are no natural caves. So really the caves should be renamed Redcliffe Mines but the word mine refers to the extraction of a mineral so perhaps they should be renamed Redcliffe Quarry. After the mining effort the caves were put to other uses for storage of valuable goods, glassware, pottery and packing materials and also as a dumping ground.

I read in an article that the caves were also used to store elephant's tusks and palm oil, another myth I thought but research proved otherwise -


From 1800 until 1868 King family lived in numbers 1 & 2 Redcliffe Parade West, directly above the caves. First Thomas King and later his two sons Richard and William King. They were traders - African Merchants.

An extract from the book "Three Voyages to the West Coast of Africa 1881 to 1884" by John Chandler Langton lets us know the type of goods traded.
"Gunpowder, guns, rum, gin, ginger wine, tobacco in leaf, pipes and snuff-boxes, flimsy fabrics of all shades and patterns, second hand coats (unredeemed pledges), sheets, rugs, manillas (native money tokens valued at 2½d), clocks odd pots and pans, fish hooks, small needles and tick threads, neptunes (thin copper disks four feet in diameter used for the evaporation of sea water to obtain salt), odd crockery, odd bed room ware, odd cutlery, scissors, razors, brushes, trashy jewellery, scent, soap, salt, mirrors, glass tumblers etc.

The West Coast must be a happy hunting ground for dumping goods not saleable at home. Everything was most shoddy, oddments or throw-outs."
It took a little more time for me to prove the elephant’s tusks and palm oil, but research in the local newspapers provided the answer -


One of those dreadful calamities which occasionally befal ships at sea and in port was witnessed at Radcliffe Wharf, Bristol, on Saturday afternoon, upon the occasion of the baroque Porto Novo taking fire, under circumstances that reflect upon the negligence of occasionally hired men. Fortunately the partial destruction of this vessel was unattended with any of these serious consequences which accompany a fire on mid-ocean, but, we are sorry to say, at the same time, it has been the case of greatly injuring two individuals whose want of foresight led to the catastrophe and loss of property. As well may be imagined, the report of the ship being in flames in the port of Bristol, where such occurrences are almost unknown, excited a vast amount of curiosity amongst the citizens, who flocked to Welsh Back and adjacent places to obtain a view of the burning wreck. The scene was animating and exciting, but we were enabled, notwithstanding, to glean the following particulars, which may be relied upon for accuracy. The Porto Novo is a fine but aged baroque, and was formerly the property of Messers Bruford and Dyer, who some time since were obliged to place their vessels in the hands of assignees, and this was the last of the number at sea. She was engaged in the trade peculiar to the west cost of Africa, and on her outward voyage was commanded by Captain Townshend, but he returned from the coast in one of the mail steamers, the mate, Mr Gordon, succeeding to the command. She took out a large stock of such commodities as are coveted by the natives, and for which palm oil &c., are bartered; a good deal of the articles intended for exchange were brought back. She left Cameroons on the 10th of November last, her cargo consisting of 230 tons of palm oil, 200 tons of barwood, 4 tons ebony, 400 lbs gum copal, 65 lbs bees wax, 4,400 cocoa nuts, 883 lbs gunpowder, 6 cases returned goods, some port-wine, besides other miscellaneous property, and arrived here on Monday last, after a tolerable fair passage. After she had discharged her gunpowder outside the port she came up to Radcliffe Wharf, and was discharging her cargo up to Saturday, when at half past two o’clock in the afternoon, a couple of laborers, named Mathling and Robert Quick, went down into the lazarette, a compartment of large vessels, situated near the stern, and well known to all acquainted with the construction of ships. The object of their visit is known to us, but in their present difficulty it need not be named. The men had a naked candle with them, the room being a very dark one, and, from some cause or other yet unexplained, a spark from it fell on to a quantity of loose gunpowder that had carelessly been allowed to remain there exposed to view. An explosion was the immediate result, and the poor fellows with difficulty ascended from the spot, dreadfully burnt about their heads and arms - indeed, so severely were they injured that they were at once conveyed to the General Hospital, where Quick lies in an exceedingly dangerous condition. The officers and seamen energetically applied themselves to the task of extinguishing the fire by throwing numerous buckets of water, and at one time it was thought that the flames were entirely subdued. Not so, however, for they crept from below to a case of umbrellas, and during the time occupied in endeavoring to exclude the air the fire had considerably extended, and was threatening destruction of the vessel. A general alarm of fire was given, and engines from the following offices arrived in the order named :- West of England, Police, Sun, Imperial, and Norwich, all of which got into full play as rapidly as possible. It was, however, evident to the most casual observer that nothing could save the ship unless the process of scuttling was immediately resorted to, and especially as the cargo was of a very inflammable character. A party of shipwrights and ship carpenters, under the direction of Mr Fogarty, were speedily at work, and the Porto Novo, then drawing 14 feet water, soon rested on the bank against the wharf, just a foot or so under her keel when she was floating. The fire continued to rage throughout the after part of the ship and the anticipations of those who suggested the scuttling not being realised, it was deemed desirable to get her heeled over that a greater admission of water might take place. The heat of the poop deck now became intense, and considerable inconvenience was felt from the suffocating influences of the smoke, which ascended in thick dense volumes, driving the most courageous from their posts. Silks, elephant’s tusks, guns and provisions sent up a united odour of destruction, and all were apprehensive that the combination would be increased by the palm oil, in which case a conflagration might have been expected that would have rivaled in brilliancy the flames of the James Baines at Liverpool, or of the Kent in the Bay of Biscay. The engines did not cease their labours, Mr Superintendent Handcock, of the Bristol police, with a large body of men, Mr Alexander, of Bedminster, and the various fire brigade officials being most actively engaged. Midnight was fast approaching without any indication of the flames being arrested, and it was then determined to cut away the masts by the board, an operation that was performed with complete success by four o’clock yesterday morning, and which threw the vessel over on her bilge, thus filling her with water fore and aft and obtaining a mastery over the opposing element. By the adoption of this arrangement the palm oil was untouched, though the fire had broken through the after hold compartment, but beyond this no further damage was done to the hull. The stern cabin and adjoining rooms were completely gutted, even to the ribs of the ship, and the poop and all the furniture was entirely destroyed. Fancy beads and charred tusks were plentifully strewed about the remaining portions of the deck and debris appeared to be composed of various other descriptions of property. A piano, value about 66 guineas, which the captain had brought home for repairs, was consumed amongst other valuables. During the whole of the time large crowds of people accumulated, who, of course, indulged in every description of speculation as to the probable result, many believing that the gunpowder was on board, and that an explosion of 883 lbs of it would certainly "shiver the timbers" for ever of the old Porto Novo. The arrangements of this as well as other well regulated ports preclude ships from entering their berths with anything of the kind on board. Yesterday (Sunday) large numbers of persons visited the vessel, while still greater numbers viewed her from the Welsh Back, and in the course of the morning no less than six immersions took place. Parties of men were busily engaged on board in the removal of spars and gear lying on the deck, and from their worn out appearance it was apparent they had no easy or brief time of it. The scene she presented was calculated to fill the beholder with awe and emotion, and induce him to picture to himself the dread realities of a fire at sea. There she lay half under water, with her main and mizzen masts gone, her deck covered with burnt rubbish, and her stern a mere shell! The General Insurance Company comes to the aid of the assignees, the cargo having been insured in their office for £9,000 and the hull for £1000 since her arrival here. As yet no estimate can be formed as to the extent of the damage done, but today, we understand, a survey will be made by the competent authorities. We cannot close our notice of this accident without stating that the fire brigades and all parties connected with the ship, together with the police, rendered the most untiring exertions to save her and although these exertions were not so eminently efficacious to save the ship in her entire form as might be wished, they were not the less cheerfully and ably rendered.


Since we presented our readers with the account of the destruction of the after part of this ship, upwards of 400 casks of Palm Oil have been got out with very trifling damage. The ship, which after the fire, rested in the mud upon her bilge, was "righted" by means of tackle affixed to her fore-topmast, and a pair of shears was erected upon the deck, by which means the casks of oil were lifted from the hold. The deck of the fore part of the ship, to which the fire had not extended, has been partially torn-up, and with the aid of long boat hooks, the casks are started from their stowage, and immediately rising to the surface, are floated to the hatchway, from where they are raised. The Ivory was nearly all burnt; the Ebony had not yet been recovered from the hold, but will not suffer any deterioration of value by being immersed.


The sale of this unfortunate vessel took place on Monday afternoon by Messers Barnard, Thomas and Co. who realised for the hull £700 and £9,500 for the Palm Oil and the rest of the cargo, excepting the Ivory, which is to be disposed of in London.

So we have it elephant's tusks and palm oil stored in Redcliffe Caves.

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