35: London Bridge at Ingress. Part 2 – The Cave of the Seven Heads.

Cave of the Seven Heads 2022 Ⓒ GMH

Ingress Park at Greenhithe in Kent is full of 19th and 18thC follies and tunnels and caves associated with Ingress Abbey and the previous house that stood on that site. See previous post https://buildinglondon.blog/2022/03/20/34-london-bridge-stones-at-ingress-abbeypart-1/

However in terms of the remit of the Building London Blog, relevance to London’s building materials, one of these stands out… the Cave of the Seven Heads. [ My mind actually reads/says this as The Cave of the Severed Heads, which may actually not be that wrong as the heads represented may have been those of people be-headed and whose heads were among the hundreds displayed on London bridge up till the 17thC!]


The Cave of the Seven Heads is a small cave cut into the old chalk hillside, nothing unusual in this area, but it has an entrance arch of stone with six, the seventh is missing, stones carved with faces or  heads. And, it’s been said that the stones come from the Old London Bridge.


So e.g. the official Historic England listing states “ The Cave of the Seven Heads in the grounds of Ingress Abbey … Garden folly. c1833 reusing earlier masonry possibly from old London bridge. Cave excavated into the side of an embankment with rough stone exterior wall with arch with four keystones of grotesque heads which possibly came from the medieval London Bridge” [1]

And the document produced by Pandora International, who once owned Ingress Abbey states: “There was a number of Follies built c1833 in the grounds of the Abbey: – The most interesting perhaps was the Cave of the Seven Heads, reusing earlier masonry possibly from Old London Bridge. A cave was excavated into the side of an embankment with a rough stone exterior wall. There was an arch in the wall with four keystones of grotesque heads which possible came from the medieval London Bridge. The cave itself was a semicircular chamber about 12 feet across with two stone pillars. Where the remaining three heads were placed is not known.” [2]


However there is a debate over the date of the Seven Heads, with the AOC Archaeology investigations suggesting it dates from the 18thC “In 1748, the house was conveyed to Viscount Duncannon, who became Earl of Bessborough in 1758… The impact on the landscape during the twelve years of Bessborough’s ownership is not entirely clear from the documentary sources, but it is likely that some of the follies and other developments in the grounds were initiated by him, particularly the Cave of the Seven Heads, the South Tunnel, and the Flint Cave (Fig. 4)… The Cave of the Seven Heads lies within a landscaped dell that originated as a quarry. … The arched entrance contains sculpted grotesque heads and the whole structure is largely built of roughly-hewn blocks giving a rustic appearance. The imposing frontage suggests that it was a structure to be looked at rather than one that was used as a viewpoint.” [3]


And here discussed by Kent County Council.

“The Cave of the Seven Heads probably dates from the mid 18th century, built under the direction of Lord Bessborough….The Cave of the Seven Heads lies within a landscaped dell that originated as a quarry. An access road established by the 18th century to the lower parts of the site runs above it. The arched entrance contains sculpted grotesque heads and the whole structure is largely built of roughly hewn blocks giving a rustic appearance. In the recent fieldwork report, it is stated that the Cave dates to the mid eighteenth century when it was built for the then owner of the Park, the Earl of Bessborough.

The Listed Building entry for the site however, states that the cave dates to c1833, reusing earlier masonry possibly from London Bridge. The ‘heads’ are the keystones for the arch, while the interior chamber contains two stone pillars. It should be noted that the current Ingress Abbey building [TQ 57 NE 93], which dates from 1833, is also supposed to have used stone from Old London Bridge [see Listed Building Records Green Back no.TQ 5875 SE 9/10003].” [4]

But, actually regardless of when the Cave of the Seven Heads was constructed, neither date actually rules out the possibility that the stones came from the Old London Bridge, as both dates correlate with when major works took place; either the 18thC date, when the all the houses were removed and the bridge significantly widened between 1758 and 1762 [5] or when the whole bridge was completed knocked down in 1830-32.


There is an argument though against the latter date. The bridge of 1760 looks pretty staid and undecorated. So for me it seems unlikely that the faces/heads are from that bridge.

The Bridge Gatehouse, where historically severed heads were displayed, was knocked down in the 1760s too and that too must also be a possible candidate for the origin of these stones, as after the gruesome practice was discontinued in the 17thC it’s possible that someone chose to reference it’s former function with some decorative carved heads.  

Heads on Old London Bridge

Exploring London notes “…, famous heads to [ to ] adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

The practice of parboiling the heads of traitors and the dipping them in tar before putting them on pikes above the gate apparently dates from 1305 when Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head was displayed there. The practice apparently continued until 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there.”

…to close the history of this rebellion; … in January 1451, twenty-six of the Kentish rebels were tried before the King and his Justices Itinerant, and executed at Dover, and other places in the County; and that on Tuesday, February 23rd, as Henry returned to London … Against his entering the City, nine heads of those who had been executed were erected on London Bridge, that of their leader standing in the centre. ” [17]

This however suggests that the Bridge House was not demolished till 1766 … see the medallion [16]

There is though also some suggestion that the heads themselves may not be from Old London Bridge at all  but may have been part of the old City of London Gates which were demolished in 1760-61.

from https://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/06/03/the-city-gates-as-they-appeared-before-they-were-torn-down/

There is evidence that the stones of these gates were used to for London Bridge, to protect the starlings, piers: “Mr. John Smeaton, the celebrated Engineer.. proceeded to survey the Bridge, and to sound about the dangerous Sterlings, he advised the Corporation to buy back again the stones of the City Gates, and throw them into the water, to guard the Sterlings; preserve the bottom from farther corrosion; raise the floor under the Arch; and restore the head of the current required for the Water-works, to its original power. These City Gates … had been previously sold and taken down, in 1760 and 61 … It was probably the materials of the first of these, which lay in Moorfields, when Mr. Smeaton advised their being thrown into the Thames: and with so much promptitude was that advice followed, that the stones were bought the same day; horses, carts, and barges were instantly procured, and the work commenced immediately, although it was Sunday morning.”
Chronicles of London Bridge 1827 

Is it possible then that there were carved faces on one or more of these gates that were snapped up when they were demolished and rather than just thrown into the Thames, sold on?

Looking at them all it is possible! Aldgate appears to have some faces on on some of it’s drawings. [8] [9]


Anyway unless there is documentary evidence somewhere in the archives to be discovered we will never know, and of course, the whole thing could just be simple an ornamental folly!

Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Cade!

Peasants Revolt by @Red Saunders https://beyondcanvey.wordpress.com/general-history-articles/the-peasants-revolt-of-1381/

However! There is an even more exciting possibility! Though I emphasise this is pure speculation on my part! Is it possible that the heads at Ingress may represent three heros of Kent: Wat Tyler, [10] the leader of the 1381 anti-Poll Tax, Peasants Revolt [11] who after conquering London with his army from Kent was murdered while negotiating with Richard II, John Ball, [12] [13] of Essex but who in 1381 was imprisoned in Kent for radicalism and released from Maidstone Prison by Wat Tyler or Jack Cade, [14] ‘The Captain of Kent’ who led a Kentish rebellion in 1450 that briefly controlled London?

Wat Tyler by William Blake 1819
“from his spectre as in the act of striking the tax gatherer on the head”  

Tyler and Cade both having marched their Kentish armies triumphantly to London, very possibly en route from Rochester going past Ingress and Greenhithe and coming within a stones throw of the future site of the Cave of the Seven Heads, and across London Bridge, both then ended up with their heads spiked upon it after their murders and so maybe ended up being represented in these stones!   

Artwork by E. Burne-Jones, April 1888, for the first book edition of William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball. Illustrates the John Cade couplet “When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?”

John Ball is famous for his speech during the march on London, here recited by Michael Rosen, though while executed following the Peasants revolt, his head didn’t end up on London Bridge.

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may ( if ye will ) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

I counsel you therefore well to bethink yourselves, and to take good hearts unto you, that after the manner of a good husband that tilleth his ground, and riddeth out thereof such evil weeds as choke and destroy the good corn, you may destroy first the great lords of the realm, and after, the judges and lawyers, and questmongers, and all other who have undertaken to be against the commons.

For so shall you procure peace and surety to yourselves in time to come; and by despatching out of the way the great men, there shall be an equality in liberty, and no difference in degrees of nobility; but a like dignity and equal authority in all things brought in among you.”

And check out the brilliant Past Tense blog post about the Peasants Revolt here – https://pasttenseblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/02/today-in-london-radical-history-1381-essex-and-kent-rebels-hold-conference-at-barking-as-peasants-revolt-gathers-pace/

And again is it not possible that, if the cave is from Harmer’s time, that a radical lawyer and Alderman of the City of London, could have wanted the feature to represent historical radicals?

However as I have said, this is pure idle speculation with no basis in fact whatsoever! 😀

Chalk for London

One last London connection: This cave is cut into the chalk hill that Ingress stands on the side of, and could only have been done after the chalk had been quarried previously. A road runs along the top of it. And we know that chalk from this specific area, Greenhithe was used in London in the 15thC –  “… in 1477 there is reference to chalk from Greenhithe being fired for lime to be used in the repairs to the London Wall between Aldgate, Cripplegate and Aldersgate (Greenhithe Conservation Area 1976, 3).” [15]

The cave is also a bat sanctuary and even though it has now been cleared around will hopefully still be. This picture shows it in 2001!
At the time it was said  Pipistrelle, Daubenton, Natterers and Brown Long Eared Bat all used the caves at Ingress. [18]

from http://www.servercontent.com/theingressor/main_follies_01.htm

Visting / Getting there

Ingress Abbey is easy to get to with public transport from London.

The simplest way is by train from London Bridge to Greenhithe and then a 10 to 15 minute walk

More interestingly get a fast train from Kings Cross International and Stratford International to Ebbsfleet then a walk across the Swanscombe Marshes, currently the battle ground between locals and a vast planned, but looking increasingly doomed ‘London Resort’ theme-park.  https://www.saveswanscombepeninsula.org.uk/

The Cave of the Seven Heads is a bit hidden away, but just look for a cul-de-sac called The Dell, off Ingress Park Avenue, and you will find it.

The whole area is well worth a trip out of London. Immediately around Ingress Abbey are a series of 18th and 19thC follies and caves, with a Heritage Trails sign-posted, high chalk cliffs behind from long abandoned quarries while the other direction the stunning views of the wide Thames looking across to Essex.

See these links for walks around Ingress. https://sebastiansswagger.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/tunnels-at-ingress-abbey/ http://www.servercontent.com/theingressor/main_follies_01.htm


[1] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1362088?section=official-list-entry
[2] https://docs.google.com/document/d/1u9OXpxYh7c9MC0HoQu7v2ZadIpNkka5p0M6fxRR5BzQ/
[3] Early Roman features, possibly defensive, and the modern development of the parkland landscape at Ingress Abbey, Greenhithe” Les Capon AOC Archaeology 1998-2004 https://www.kentarchaeology.org.uk/Research/Pub/ArchCant/129-2009/129-01.pdf
[4] https://webapps.kent.gov.uk/KCC.ExploringKentsPast.Web.Sites.Public/SingleResult.aspx?uid=MKE25639
[5] http://rceasussex.org.uk/2014/10/14/the-history-of-london-bridge-and-the-demolition-and-reconstruction-of-the-present-bridge/
[6] https://exploring-london.com/tag/bridge-gate/
[7] https://londonpast.co.uk/LondonBridge/index.shtml
[8] https://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/06/03/the-city-gates-as-they-appeared-before-they-were-torn-down/ 
[9] https://exploring-london.com/2012/01/06/lost-london-gates-special-aldgate/
[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Tyler
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasants%27_Revolt
[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ball_(priest) John Ball
[13] https://www.johnballsociety.org/whowasjohnball
[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Cade%27s_Rebellion
[15] “Early Roman features, possibly defensive, and the modern development of the parkland landscape at Ingress Abbey, Greenhithe” Les Capon AOC Archaeology 1998-2004 https://www.kentarchaeology.org.uk/Research/Pub/ArchCant/129-2009/129-01.pdf
[16] https://thames.me.uk/s00049c.htm
[17] Chronicles of London Bridge https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47475/47475-h/47475-h.htm
[18] http://www.servercontent.com/theingressor/main_follies_01.htm

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