Tunnels Under Newark

Photo:The Undercroft at Newark Castle - where one of the tunnels is said to emerge

The Undercroft at Newark Castle - where one of the tunnels is said to emerge

Drawn and lithographed by Newark artist W.H. Cubley c.1838

Photo:Re-paving Newark Market Place, July 1994.  Cellars project well in front of the shops.

Re-paving Newark Market Place, July 1994. Cellars project well in front of the shops.

Overheard whilst taking this picture: Father to son: "Look, there's some of the old tunnels under Newark!"

Photo:Prison Cells beneath Newark's former workhouse on Albert Street.  They were preserved beneath Hole's Brewery which later took over the site, and were photographed here in 1949

Prison Cells beneath Newark's former workhouse on Albert Street. They were preserved beneath Hole's Brewery which later took over the site, and were photographed here in 1949

Do they really exist?

A review of the "evidence"

Are there really tunnels running beneath the town of Newark?

Cellars, sewers, water pipes, telecommunications channels - yes.  

But are there really tunnels along which people could once have walked to different parts of the town? 

Over the years many people have certainly thought so, and local legends persist as to their existence.

What follows is a round-up of reports that have appeared in various published sources, and comments from local residents over the years.

If Tunnels Do Exist, Where do they Run?

Probably the most commonly agreed route (if tunnels do exist) suggests that they run from the Friary on Appletongate to the church, and then onwards under the Market Place (or along Kirkgate) to the Castle.

From time to time during the last 100 years or so sections of road along this route have been prone to collapse - notably Kirkgate (1948), and Appletongate (1908 and 1968) - and each time this has occured it has been suggestion that the tunnels are to blame.

Here, for example, is how The Newark Advertiser reported the appearance of a hole in Appletongate in 1908:-

"A heavy cart passing along Appletongate broke through the crust of the road near the Chauntry [ie near today's Palace Theatre] disclosing a circular hole excavated in the roadway about 4ft in circumference and 3 1/2ft deep.  It is believed that the work is the result of of rats which infest a number of subterranean passages which are believed to honeycomb the roadway and vicinity, connecting up the parish church, the Chauntry and Priory [ie Friary]".

Such reports have done much to reinforce the popular belief that the tunnels exist, and have focussed speculation as to why (if they do exist) they should have been built in the first place.

If Tunnels Do Exist, Why Were They Built?

The most frequently heard response to this question is that they were constructed during the time of the Civil War (1642-1646) to enable soldiers from the town's Royalist garrison to move about unseen and without fear of attack from the Parliamentarians.

At first sight this explanation may appear to possess a degree of logic: Newark certainly suffered very badly from destructive mortar and cannon fire during the three Civil War sieges and a number of prominent buildings close to the town centre were damaged or even destroyed.

The castle and church were both scarred by enemy fire while at least one house in the centre of the town - that belonging to Alderman Hercules Clay which formerly stood on the site of today's NatWest Bank in the Market Place - was completely destroyed by an explosive mortar shell.  

It is therefore clear that the Parliamentarians were able to strike right at the heart of Newark, and one might imagine that the soldiers stationed in the town would wish to take every precaution to avoid being fired upon.

Yet, even allowing for their ability to fire into the centre of the town, it is wholly inconceivable that the Parliamentarians were able to observe Royalist troop movements above ground, let alone aim their weapons with sufficient accuracy to hit them.

Some Suggestions about the route from published Histories of the town, and from local reminiscences.

1. William Dickinson's 'History of Newark' (1816) suggests there was a tunnel between the Friary and the Chauntry

"From time immemorial a tradition has prevailed that the two religious houses in Appletongate [ie the Friary and the Chauntry] were connected by a subterraneous passage with each other, and also with the church.  It has been affirmed by Mr. Samuel Foster [who purchased the Friary soon after the year 1700].... that he filled up, or covered over, subterraneous passages in almost every direction".

Dickinson concludes that Foster's testimony may be accepted as proof that an underground link did exist between the Chauntry and Friary. He concedes, however, that further evidence would be needed to confirm the extension of the tunnel from Appletongate to the church.

2. R.F. Sketchley's Lecture on the History of Newark (1859) talks about the part of the route from Appletongate to the Church

William Dickinson was unable to supply "evidence" of the extension of the tunnel from Appletongate to the church, but 50 or so years later in 1859, in a lecture given at the Corn Exchange (the text of which was published as a pamphlet) R.F. Sketchley pondered whether a route was suggested by certain features traceable above ground:- 

"The vast vaults under the Friary.... the like capacious receptacles under the former Chauntry House; the moulding as of the arch of a doorway in the wall of the vault behind the Communion screen [in the parish church], and the vestiges of a passage entrance visible in the side of the Castle crypt [ie the Undercroft] may perhaps be accepted as indicators of the existence of this subterranean communication".

3. A Local resident Gives Her Views About the supposed Tunnel from Appletongate to the Church

One local resident, writing in the mid 1990s (when she was in her 90s) recalled how, in the year 1912 she was taken by her father into the bowels of the parish church and shown a hole - partially bricked-up - in the northern wall of the crypt which was said to mark the entrance to the tunnel.

She was also told that, above ground, the route of the tunnel could be traced as running immediately to the left of the imposing residence on Church Walk known as Kirkwood.

This house, she was told, was originally intended to be one of a pair, but that the second was never built because its foundations would have been directly over the route of the tunnel

Over the years, such tantalising speculations, musings, and half-facts have done much to keep alive public interest in the idea of tunnels beneath the town.

4. Matthew Hage's incomplete 'History of Newark', printed in 1832, suggests that the old gaol in Market Place may have been part of a tunnel system between the Church and the Castle

With reference to the remaining section of the supposed tunnel - from the church to the castle, Hage, on p.20 of his text, mentions the following in connection with the Market Place:-

"In the centre formerly stood a Cross: also the common gaol; under it was a vault, used as a dungeon and place of security for prisoners.  It has frequently been affirmed, that this was only another portion of the great subterraneous [sic] vault which formed the communication between the Church and Castle"

5.  Other Local Residents Consider the route from the Parish Church to the Castle

With reference to the remaining section of the supposed tunnel - from the church to the castle - other local residents have suggested evidence which marks its route under the Market Place and into Kirkgate.

A former landlord of the Wing Tavern (in the north east corner of the Market Place) considered that he had found part of the passage under the pub, leading out under the Market Place

In the north west corner of the Market Place, remembered another local resident, an old longitudinal cellar, brick-arched and running in an east-west direction, beneath the former Queen's Head Inn had clearly been bricked-up at either end, but could have been part of a much longer system.

Another reminiscence, meanwhile, is given by someone who, as a child in the Second World War, was shown a large iron door in the cellars beneath what was then W.E. Bush's fishmonger's shop (now the Charles I Coffee House) on Kirkgate which was said to be another entrance to the tunnel.

If The Tunnels Do Exist, Is There Anyone Who Has Actually Been Down them?

"His candle went out.... by ghostly agency, and he came back white and unsuccessful, but would never tell what he had found".

Such reports of bricked-up entrances and iron doors may be tantalising, but could just as easily relate to what they most obviously suggest - the large cellars that are known to exist beneath many shops in the centre of Newark.  Many of these cellars project a good way outwards from the building to which they are attached.  This is particularly true of properties around the Market Place where episodes of re-surfacing have regularly 'brought' these to the surface making them plainly visible to all and sundry.

So, what would appear to be missing from all these reports is any first-hand account from someone who has actually been down into the tunnels (ie into one which is definitely not a cellar) and seen for themselves.

R.F. Sketchley, in his lecture, does mention the local legend of some bold fellow who was supposed to have set out to explore the tunnels, but the story is inconclusive:  As he began to explore, says Sketchley, "his candle went out, of course, by ghostly agency, and he came back white and unsuccessful, but would never tell what he had found".

In 1996 it was reported by a local resident that the long-standing former Librarian of Newark, Mr Arthur Smith, had told how, as a young man, he had found the tunnel entrance at the castle and started to explore.  As the air was so foul, however, he had to turn back.

Apart from the Friary - Castle route, is there any suggestion that tunnels lie anywhere else in the town?

1.  The Olde White Hart

In 1979, when local archaeologist Dr. John Samuels was conducting a major excavation on the Olde White Hart Inn (now the Nottingham Building Society) in the south east corner of the Market Place, he was alerted to the possible existence of a tunnel linking the inn with the Governor's House (now Greggs bakery) a little further to the west on Stodman Street.

Although he thought the chances were very slight, Dr Samuels was aware that many such stories could possess an element of truth and so proceeded with cauton in his archaeological dig.

When his team began to excavate they unearthed a large brick-lined well just below the surface, with two brick-lined conduits running into it.

Sadly, on closer inspection it was revealed that the conduits measured only about 4ft in diameter and were almost certainly 19th century storm water drains.

2. Barnby Road

"At the end was found a wooden coffin containing a skeleton"

In January 1938 The Newark Advertiser announced that a system of stone-roofed tunnels had been found off Barnby Road.  The passages were discovered by two pupils from the Mount senior school and were described in the Advertiser report as being "15 to 20ft long, and of sufficient size to allow a person of average height to stand up in them.  At the end was found a wooden coffin containing a skeleton".

It was suggested by one of the boys' teachers that the whole area was a prehistoric grave mound (or Barrow) and that the skeleton had been interred between 700 and 1,000 years ago.

The town's museum curator was duly informed and made a thorough investigation of both the site itself and documents relating to past usages of that part of the town.

It was this latter form of enquiry which quickly discredited the claims of the boys' teacher when it was discovered that far from being over 700 years old, the passages were only a little over 20 years old and were, in fact, the work of the Royal Engineers who had been stationed in Newark during the First World War.

The bones were identified as non-human,probably rabbits or something caught by a fox.

This page was added by Website Administrator on 03/03/2013.
Comments about this page

I've found a couple of articles from the Newark Advertiser from 1990 that talk about holes appearing in Kirkgate and that a 'radar probe' was made to find out what was causing them. The follow-up article revealed that a collapsed sewer was the cause. Shame it wasn't a hidden passage!!

By John Farjeon
On 07/03/2013

My father Bill Coyne lived in the Old Moot Hall in the 1940s and early 1950s. As a young boy he heard the legend of the Newark Tunnels and the following is an extract of his article on the Moot Hall. The middle cellar was just storage. From there was a long passage with places for lights or candles, this lead to the back cellar. This was dark and dank (no grates or windows). This was of different construction to other cellars, more stone than brick with arched roofs in alcoves. In 1934 a new room was built behind the shop taking place of a yard and store room so most of the cellar ‘ceiling’ was the wooden floor of the extension. There is a plan of this in the museum which shows the cellar (I have a photocopy), and also a paper stating that the cellars which were supposed to be cells, were filled in the mid 1960s. My father was told by his father that ‘items’ from the ‘cells’ had been given to the museum in the 1800’s, but I can find no proof of this. Some finds were discovered during Curry’s rebuild of the site. I don’t know what these were. I have seen though, in the part of the back cellar which went under the side Church Walk (like a coal cellar), the floor of which was several inches lower than the remainder. There were large iron hinge pegs on the entrance to the alcoves, that large gates would have hinged on. Also marks on walls made by metal objects? Now these alcoves may just have been gated areas for security, wine, food etc., but may have been the internal remains of the 1708 building or before who knows? You stepped over a stone step to reach this cellar and inside was a long brick trough with stone slabs on top. In one corner of the cellar was a bricked up arch. This was facing Church Street, newer bricks than the wall. It was about 4ft high. We always thought it might be part of the supposed tunnels mentioned in Cornelius Brown's History of Newark and recently in Ghosts & Legends of Newark by Rosemary Robb. Old maps show two rows of building here, and the bricked up doorway might just have lead to cellars of long gone buildings, but when I think how many times the roads have collapsed at the corners of Middlegate, Kirkgate, Barnbygate and Cartergate in my life and we are told “Its only the sewers”, is it? I think of the tunnels My mother Edith Coyne also worked in the old Currys building in the 1950s. She told me recently that this building has a large cellar and one part of it extends out under the market place, you could go so far but it was bricked up at the end. I for one am intrigued by the idea of the possible Tunnels and a great history mystery!!

By Anne Coyne
On 09/03/2013

I know these rumours have been flying around for years, but on the two occasions that the Market Place has been re-surfaced (and excavated) in my life-time, no tunnels were found. My father, who was an early amateur archaeologist who worked with Prof. Barley in the early days, and who had a life-time interest in Newark's history, also worked for the East Midlands Electricity Board. Meter readers who worked under him (in the early days) reported that the cellars that ran under the Old White Hart, what is now WH Smith's (Blue Bell Inn), Saracen's Head and the Clinton Arms, were once all connected. Obviously, when Barclays Bank came along, this was not suitable! Some of the 'tunnels' were, it is believed, nothing more than much extended, large cellars. I have no factual, written down evidence of this, only hearsay from father. I have been down into the cellars at the Friary. They are large, old, but certainly not tunnels!

By Jill Campbell (NALHS)
On 11/03/2013

I read with interest your article in the Newark Advertiser regarding tunnels in Newark.I would like to contribute.Facts I am sure of, hear-say, it was a long time ago!Back in the 1960's my parents kept the "Wing Tavern" public house in the corner of the market place.Before we moved there we were told of the existence of a tunnel leading from the pub to the Parish Church and Castle.We were told that the last time an attempt to walk the tunnels was abandoned due to noxious gases. I believe that was circa 1926.We eventually found the entrance to the tunnel in the lower beer cellar but unfortunately it was bricked up a short distance in. It pointed in the general direction towards the rear,of what then was, Coynes shop.As an aside, to the left of the tunnel was an entrance to an underground bowling alley which extended underneath and to the front of,what then was, the Children's Library.There was, and maybe still is, an air grille at pavement level on the front of the building.Hope this is of interest.Regards,Alan Ingham

By Alan Ingham
On 22/03/2013

The story reported by Jill Campbell agrees in most details recounted to me by Arthur Barker, also a meter reader for EMAB. He elaborated the story by his complaint that the overall result of various property owners, not just Barclays, bricking up their relevant access, was to make his task of reading meters from Old White Hart to the Governor's House 45 minutes longer. More confirmation comes in a short article by Charles Lawrence, whose father owned the Clinton Arms Hotel during WWII, in Newark Civic Trust Magazine issue 67. In it he reminesces about his childhood exploration of the tunnel and his disappointment on discovering that it had been bricked when next he ventured there. I will copy this item to the page and also question him further regarding exact location etc. Re the note by Alan Ingham regarding the vent at ground level. It still exists as a vent to the cellar of the grocer's shop, G.H. Porter. Its last real use was as a means for smoke to escape from the bacon smoking process performed there. I have in the past been down there, but have no recollection of anything that could be interpreted as tunnel/s. The new owners claimed recently in the Newark Advertiser that there are tunnels there. Investigation was already loosely discussed with the previous owner and is ongoing. Re item 3 regarding evidence of a tunnel running close to Kirkwood, depending how close, this alignment follows roughly the line of the old town wall/ditch. The old vicarage stood somewhere nearby too. I am sceptical.

By George Wilkinson
On 30/03/2013

With reference to George Wilkinson's comments, the vent I referred to was not serving G.H.Porter's shop but nearer to the Parish Church and under what was the Children'Library.

By Alan Ingham
On 03/04/2013

Although I am not old enough to have seen the passages, or explored them. There has always been a rumour that there are secret passages under spring house near the sconce. Although not sure if it's true. I thought it might be worth a mention.

By Tilly Hatton
On 28/07/2019

In the early 70's my dad was driving me along Kirk Gate and onto Middlegate saying that he hoped we weren't too late.We pulled up outside Charlie Masding's shop and went in. My dad stayed talking to Charlie, and I was taken down some stairs on the right hand side of the shop by another employee. There were two builders at the bottom bricking up the stairs by the light of a single bulb, and they said they'd left a bit for me to get over. I climbed over and into what to me (pre-school age) was a massive tunnel, easily big enough for horses and possibly a carriage. It was brick-lined with an arched ceiling (not as tall and narrow as the ones shown in the drawing above, but bigger than the one in the photograph). It curved slightly away to the right (I was facing Castlegate) and one of them said it went all of the way to the castle, but the light only lit up about 20yds. I was told to look the other way, and it was blocked up with rubbish and rubble underneath what would be Middlegate. The employee came back and I must have looked worried that I couldn't now climb over as he told the builders to stop and get me back, and one of them reached through and lifted me over the last bit they were leaving for me. As he did, he said that I was the last person that would ever stand in that tunnel. When I got back into the shop, my dad was asking Charlie why he was blocking it up and not using it for storage, and he said it was to stop people breaking in as he didn't know how many other buildings had access to it. He suggested that there were a number of tunnels from the civil war. I eventually realised that the whole thing was organised for me to see the tunnel before it was bricked up but my dad hadn't said anything beforehand to get my hopes up in case we were too late. Masdings at the time were on the same side as the cinema, and I think they either moved to a bigger shop or took on a neighbouring one to expand (80's?) before moving across the road to where they are now. It definitely wasn't a cellar and wasn't actually underneath Masding's shop, more under the one to the right.

By Dave
On 07/09/2023

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