In Chislehurst Caves, every fourth adult is given an oil lantern to light the way through miles of underground chalk and flint. It’s a surprising touch in a world tormented by health and safety: in the New Statesman kitchen, the toaster, “a fire hazard”, has just been removed. For 87-year-old Jill Cheeseman, the smell of paraffin and sedimentary rock is exactly the same now as it was during the Second World War, when she lived down here with 15,000 others, every night for three years, and 24 hours a day for ten weeks in the Blitz.
Lord Haw-Haw, in his radio broadcasts, once warned that the Germans “knew about all the rats living under the ground in Kent” and were coming to get them – but they never did. A bomb fell directly on top of the caves, but nobody heard it. Jill’s was one of the first families to move in from their home in Mosslea Road, Bromley – six children and their mother, on a double mattress with candles. Their father stayed in the family Anderson shelter, but would bring stew in a black cauldron, balanced on his bike, and eat with them at night time. His wife got pregnant twice during the cave years, which baffles Jill. Her brother David was brought down at just a few days old; Raymond likewise, though he only lived for four months.
Soon, the caves had electric lighting, a canteen, a hospital and a police station. Three-tier bunks, or pitches, lined the chalk tunnels – a pedestrianised city that Jill’s brothers and sisters would roam, using their own pitch, M33, as a milestone. It is hard to see how they fitted the beds down here. The children were scared of the Gypsy couple who slept nearby but they loved the twin sisters, opposite, who brought them sweets. By day, their mother would stay at the bunks with the other women, including her sister, Auntie Blanche, who also had six kids. The children would bathe in an enamel bowl at night. Mother was always quite jolly, Jill points out.
People came to Chislehurst on word of mouth. It cost sixpence per week for a pitch: there were buses laid on from the East End in London, and buses to take people to the city at 5am, to work, via their houses, to see if they were still there.
Alongside the inner-city families there were “posh kids”, who’d come to the caves from the suburbs, and were reluctant to fraternise. Among the house rules, recreated now at the cave entrance, was a curfew of 9pm “for live music”.
“That was the concert troupe,” Jill explains, run by Mr and Mrs Maynard. It was the centre of her social life – “a godsend for us”. There was no school in the caves, not even during the Blitz lockdown, but there were shows on Saturday nights. Jill played the spoons and performed “My Old Man’s a Dustman”. The posh girls would do “We’ll Meet Again” in soprano voices: “One particular girl, if you touched her, she’d jerk away from you.”
Rule 12 states that if you vacate your pitch for more than four days it will be passed to another person, the assumption being that something has happened to you above ground. In ten weeks, Jill lost two friends who ventured outside – though not to doodlebugs. Dougie, 12, scratched his leg on a tree and developed septicaemia. Mary, 11, fell through what looked like a sandpit on top of the caves and was buried. “I remember when they carried her through the tunnels to the hospital. Even now I can hear her mum scream, because it echoed round in the caves.”
The cave hospital was a good one – a baby was born there, middle name Cavina – and when Jill scalded her leg at home, it was the cave matron, not an above-ground doctor, who worked on it over the course of a year. It wasn’t until she was evacuated to Rochester that war caught up with her, and a German fighter plane fired at her in a country lane.
Jill now lives five minutes from the caves. She wrote a memoir in the Eighties and attends regular cave-dweller reunions – the posh girl from the concert troupe came to one, “and hadn’t changed at all”. She sends Christmas cards to other cave children, all in their eighties. “How can the war be lovely memories?” she says. “We only played. I know it was wartime, but we were kids.”
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow