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Formation of the Westminster Speleological Group

The events that brought about the formation of the Westminster Speleological Group began with the chance meeting on Mendip of several Londoners during the Easter of 1949. The two paths that had been followed by these people were quite different and so the history should properly begin a few years earlier.

It was in a disused factory in Belgium, the year 1945, that Don Hutchings first became interested in caving. The factory was being used by the RAF as a barracks and sitting around one afternoon, he found an old newspaper in which was described the discovery of new cave by divers at Wookey Hole. The idea of this fired his imagination and he decided to find out more about caving when the war was over.

When the war did end, the caving community that had existed before 1939 was not quick to re-establish itself, with the Wessex CC for example, taking three years to regain even half its pre-war numbers. So, by 1947, when Hutchings was walking the Mendip Hills in search of caves, active caving clubs were not very apparent to the visiting novice and it took a trip to the library at Wells Museum to find out which clubs may exist in the London area. As it turned out, there were three, the London Speleological Group and the London branches of the Wessex CC and the BEC. Don writes:

It seemed that the LSG specialised in exploring mines in the North downs but I wrote to them and received in return a note of their next meet at Oxted I turned up, but no else did, and my interest in this particular group came to an abrupt end.

In 1948, I again went to Mendip and paid Mr Balch a visit and later helped in the excavation of Badgers Hole at Wookey Hole. However I had still done no actual caving and early in 1949 I persuaded a colleague at the office to join me on a caving trip at Easter. Neither of us had any experience at ail and the only equipment we had were torches...

On the first day (we) set out for Crooks Peak. We investigated Phelps Hole and Danny's Hole and later tried to find Loxton Hole, but without success. On the next day, we set out for Goatchurch cavern, and finding it without difficulty, prepared to descend. This merely meant taking our rucksacks off, as we had nothing to change into. Coming up the valley behind us was a party of about eight youths who obviously had the same idea, and we were a bit annoyed about this as we had hoped to have the cave to ourselves... Very soon the other party caught up with us and all the way until the end of the drainpipe and back to the entrance, the two parties were mixed up and we arrived back in the daylight on the best off terms with them. I took a few photographs of the two obvious leaders, who later learnt to be Don Carter and Fred Watson and promised to forward prints which I did.

Carter's group was a collection of friends from work and from a South London adventure group he was involved in. Alan Wrapson, Johnny Needs, Ken Barnett and Carter were young engineering apprentices at British Thompson Houston, a switchgear manufacturer in Neasden. The tedium of an apprentice's training drew together a group at the works who preferred getting out and about at weekends to the classroorns of the technical college.

The Enterprise Club was an adventure group based in Balham, South London, it's members being involved in all types of activities. There was rock climbing, delivering a yacht to the Caribbean, camping at Borley Rectory watching for psychic phenomena, trying to locate a buried Roman temple on the Isle of Sheppey, to exploring a cave under a friend's house in the South East. In 1948 they paid a visit to Mendip and armed with an O.S. map, searched out many of the cave entrances. A year later, Carter got together with Fred Watson, Dave Stagg and Joe Althorpe from the club and with his friends from work, set off for Mendip with a descent of Goatchurch planned.

After their meeting there with Don Hutchings, nothing much happened until Carter wrote to Hutchings suggesting a trip to Mendip with Fred Watson and himself during the August Bank Holiday. In the meantime Hutchings had persuaded another colleague from work to go caving at Whitsun and they explored Read's Cavern, Rod's Pot and G.B. Cave. For this trip, he had acquired 100ff of nylon rope, two cut down air raid patrol helmets and two electric helmet lamps.

The August meet was another success. While the trips simply consisted of another descent of Goatchurch and of Swildons down to the top of the 4Oft pot, it must be remembered that the three of them had no caving experience and were underground on their own. These were good trips for teaching themselves the ropes. Don Hutchings continues:

After this contact between us was lost until I received a Chriscard from Don, with a cryptic note that implied that he would welcome another trip... Easter (1950) was chosen for the trip and a previous meeting was held at Don's home, St. James Street, to agree details. There was not a single piece of transport between us, Ss a fairly complicated timetable was evolved commencing with the train to Bristol, and hiring a couple of taxis there to take us to Charterhouse where we had arranged to camp on Mr Young's farm. At this meeting, I suggested that we should give ourselves a name and Don suggested the 'Westminster Speleological Group', which was adopted.

Of course, we ran into trouble from the Outset, when we caught the wrong train at Paddington and arrived in Bristol an hour late. Some difficulty was encountered in finding the taxis, but eventually we were on our way to Mendip. Unfortunately although both Don and myself had been to Mr Young's farm, we had done so in daylight, but we arrived well after midnight and for a time we were completely lost. However we eventually set up camp and settled down for few hours sleep

We had camped a short way from G.B. cave and next day we went down to the main chamber by the long route and returned by the short route. Next day, we walked to Swildons hole, stopping at the New inn for refreshments before descending. However the walk and the refreshments had taken their toll and the descent was brief. Some of the party lost themselves on the way back and slept in a haystack until daylight. A further trip down GB... completed the activities of our party, who then struck camp and walked over Blackdown to catch the bus from Blagdon, back to Bristol.

Back in London, we decided to put the WSG on a proper footing and formed a Committee of six members consisting of President - Don Hutchings, Secretary - Don Carter, Chairman - Alan Wrapson, Treasurer - Johny Needs, Editor - Ken Barnett, and Joe Althopre. The age of each member was around 20 apart from myself at 28. Joe Althorpe resigned after a few days and took up archery, instead... Apart from the committee, there where no other members.

What is remarkable about the Group's formation is the complete absence of existing cavers. Many caving clubs came to be formed from people already experienced in caving, but in the WSG's case, it was achieved by virtual novices, taking up caving without outside help and in London, a place remote from the traditional areas of caving.

Picture of WSG in the 1950s

Early Growth of the Westminster Speleological Group

The committee's first priority was to collect together some tackle, starting with the l00ft of nylon rope that Don Hutchings had recently given to the Group.

As the committee were all new to caving, there were no old preferences for rope ladders and with them nearly all being apprentice engineers by trade, the idea caught on and Don Hutchings contacted a good engineer in Forest Gate, who came up with 85ft of ladder.

In all likelihood, the WSG became the first caving club in this country to use lightweight metal ladders, starting off with three lengths of 50ft, 25ft and l0ft. By the summer of 1951, the construction of further lengths (with closer spaced rungs) had brought the total length to 25Oft, together with 320ft of nylon rope. Part of this was held in London and part in a hut in Priddy belonging to a Mr Everdell.

their first trips, it was normal to wear just ordinary outdoor clothing when underground, but this was soon replaced with ex-army overalls bought from Milletts. A couple of ex-air raid patrol helmets were acquired, but again these were soon replaced, with fibre miners helmets. Clinker-studded boots were the common footwear. Early methods of lighting had been rubber torches, these being soon superceded by electric head-lights with waist-mounted nife batteries, the latter costing about 3s.6d. each. Candles were carried for emergencies and some members also acquired acetylene lamps. During the early summer of 1950, two further meets were held on Mendip, both camping in Burrington Combe, with trips into Goatchurch, Read's Cavern, Rod's Pot and Sidcot Swallet That July, four members spent a week camping at Priddy, looking for good sites to dig. A recess in some rocks in the Ebbor Valley was chosen and the dig, Cooks Hill Hole, began to uncover a series of archaeological finds, before reaching a rock floor.