Amateur archaeologist Andy digs out the truth of Wisbech’s underground tunnels

Amateur archaeologist Andy Ketley has researched the tunnels which run under the streets of Wisbech and will be talking about his findings at the next meeting of FenArch on November 22.

Amateur archaeologist Andy Ketley is a man on a mission to dig out the truth and solve the mystery of the Wisbech tunnels.

Rumours about tunnels stretching out under the town in all directions have been talked about for years, but until recently that was all they were – rumours.

The crypt under 29 Market Place illustration from Walker & Craddock's 'History of Wisbech' 1849.

Andy, a founder member and president of Wisbech-based FenArch – Fenland Archaeology Society – has spent the past few years following the clues to unearth the truth about the town’s tunnels.

His findings will be the subject of a talk he is giving at the next meeting of FenArch, at Mendi’s on Wisbech’s Old Market on November 22.

Andy, who carried out his research as part of the High Street Project with the help of Dr Judi Upton who read through the 17th century ‘Commission of Sewers’ documents and transcribed them into readable English. Chris and Glen Green, Richard Tanfield-Johnson and David Crouch, explained: “It was like trying to solve a particularly challenging jigsaw puzzle.

“I was born and brought up in Wisbech and had always heard stories about tunnels running under the town centre, but no-one seemed to know the truth.

The vault under Wisbech Castle - the end wall shows there was another tunnel leading off but the access has been bricked

“I started by examining whether there was enough evidence to take the subject seriously and that seemed relatively easy to find.

“Practically every house and building in Wisbech has a cellar – these are quite well documented, like those at the Rose and Crown Hotel, and the crypt under 29 Market Place which dates back to medieval times, and, of course, the vaults under the Clarkson Memorial and Wisbech Castle.

“The tunnels on the other hand were not so well-documented. I thought perhaps the tunnels were linked to the introduction of sewers during the 19th century, but there was no paperwork describing that kind of work when I started researching that era.

“I started to ask around and speak to people about what they had heard over the years and that’s when one local businessman told me there were tunnels under his town centre premises, but they are now blocked up.

Wisbech Castle vaults are really extensive. Picture Nick Catford.

“He had been told by the previous owners that the tunnels were curfew tunnels dug after the English Civil War when the Puritans introduced an 8pm curfew so people could sneak out after dark and clandestinely meet up.

“That was a real clue – I started to research documents from when Wisbech was a Protectorate town where Oliver Cromwell’s right-hand man John Thurlow had built a mansion on the site of what was originally a castle and then a bishop’s palace.

“I found documentation showing building water management tunnels, that seemed to be a logical explanation as to why there might be so many tunnels under Wisbech. But there was still the mystery of rumours of tunnels and vaults under Wisbech Castle which are said to radiate out in all directions and it was difficult to believe they might simply have been water management tunnels, or large vaults to store Thurlow’s goods – you wouldn’t need that many to control water.

“Then I remembered an interesting fact about Thurlow – and that was like a bombshell discovery – but to find out what that was and the conclusion I drew from it, people will have to come along to the talk...”

Rose and Crown Hotel's cellars - pictured by Nick Catford.

The talk is open to anyone interested and starts at 7.30pm – admission for non-FenArch members is £2.

Andy would also be interested in hearing from people who have stories to tell about what they have heard about the tunnels.

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