For many, the White Cliffs of Dover are the quintessential part of the British nation. As tall, sheer walls of white chalk that shine in the sun, their image is as striking and as it has been symbolic – an icon of the island nation as a whole, and of all the history that comes with that. It’s highly significant, then, that these iconic cliffs are connected to the Harrow area in a very notable way.
Enter the Chalk Mines of Pinner. The chalk here is of the same which makes up our famous southern cliffs, with the chalk going deep underground after Dover, resurfacing next in the Northwood Hills area. The story of these mines is a long and, indeed, a highly visible one.
Work on Pinner’s chalk began early as the fourteenth century, though the mines would not become especially prosperous until the eighteenth and nineteenth. Owned by a builder who sought to use the local chalk reserves to create lime for his building work, the mines would operate only for a few months in the spring to facilitate the builder’s work in the summer.
During these months, vertical shafts would be chiselled into the ground and along ladders the miners would descend into the subterranean, where they would work in two-man teams – one hewing the chalk, and the other filling a barrow, which would then be moved to the base of the nearest shaft to be hauled up to the surface. Thanks to the layer of Hertfordshire Puddingstone beneath the Pinner soil, the miners were able to dig deeper into the roof – or our ground – than most other mines, with the puddingstone having acted as an effective roof over the chalk, stabilising it. Indeed, in some places, some 65% of the chalk was removed, and done so without making the whole mine unstable – a feat that no doubt many other mine owners would have liked.
Down in the mines, miners working in the candlelight would use the soot of their flames to scrawl their initials and dates across the walls – leaving behind a visible record of their work, a record which can still be seen to this day. A number of people have been identified as a result of this graffiti, perhaps most notably one J. Gumm – now recognised as John Gumm, miner between 1855 and 1870, who would appear to have signed once for every day passed, the last date he recorded being July 28th 1870, which is also the last date to have been recorded across the entirety of the mines.
With countless names and dates scrawled across its walls, the mines are an open book, from which the lives of long-past people can be uncovered. Indeed, the mines and their graffiti have been seen to show wider trends in the past, such as the fact that literacy was more common amongst labourers of this period than is typically presumed, with many of the mine’s writers having been capable of inscribing their names – despite the fact that compulsory education was not introduced until 1972.
With so much to see, it’s perhaps unfortunate that the mines have been closed off to the public for some years now on the basis of health and safety reasons. Reportedly, in some places sand can be seen to have slipped into the caverns, calling into question the sturdiness of the mine overall. Yet even so, some of the entrances to the mines can still be found across Pinner to this day – with one being found near the woods on Uxbridge Road. Though unremarkable in its appearance (pictures can be found online), it may be worth keeping an eye out for if you are in the area, and for the other entrances across Pinner.
At the very least, it may be worth thinking about just what can be found beneath your feet when in and around the Pinner area – whether it be chiselled caverns of a once booming industry, the scrawled names of past people that still linger like ghosts on the mine walls, or the for same chalk made famous by Dover’s White Cliffs, which also has long made up the foundation of Harrow’s historic village.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Big Tam – Flickr (more photos from the mines can also be found in this gallery!)