Tunnels under Uckfield streets? That’s fake news, says history expert

Are there tunnels under Uckfield streets? That’s highly unlikely according to Mick Harker, chair of Uckfield and District Preservation Society.

Mr Harker was prompted to write to Uckfield town clerk Holly Goring after members of the council’s environment and leisure committee queried whether tunnels might have anything to do with town ‘sinkholes’.

He said it was always disappointing when councillors started quoting historic ‘facts’ which had “absolutely no basis of truth about them” and added: “They become the original ‘Fake News’.”

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An image of a ‘sunken room’ mentioned in an 1869 ‘visitors guide’ to Uckfield underneath the south corner of the Church Street junction. Picture: Uckfield and District Preservation Society.

Cllr Diane Ward told fellow councillors on June 11: “When you are talking about the top of the town, there are a lot of tunnels which are historic – initially for prisoners going from the police station to the court.

“There were also smugglers’ tunnels etc and that should be on there also.

“Each time the sinkholes appear in Church Street, and also when it did in the High Street, people were saying ‘has it got anything to do with these tunnels’.”

Cllr Ward said she had spoken to an East Sussex highways representative who said there were no tunnels.

Headline-grabbing

“East Sussex doesn’t seem to realise that ‘yes, there are’.’

She wanted to know where all the utility pipes and tunnels were in Uckfield because she didn’t think it would be long before there was another sinkhole, whether in Church Street, or High Street, again.

Mr Harker, a former town councillor himself, added: “Whilst it’s always slightly exciting and headline grabbing to talk about vast networks of tunnels under the streets of Uckfield, the reality is that there probably aren’t any.

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Stone blocks, pillars and other remains which might date to the medieval period were discovered in a modern cellar when the 1960s block was built on the corner of Church Street and High Street.

“Why would anybody go to the effort and expense of building such tunnels in a small market settlement in the middle of Sussex?

“Even as late as 1801 when the earliest Census was carried out, the population of the whole town was only 811 people.”

Mr Harker continued by saying: “At that date we did have the Maidens Head Hotel, a splendid 17c coaching house built to support the new turnpike roads and fronting an earlier timber framed pub called the Red Lyon.  (This very small building can still be seen in the car park of the pub.)

Royal visits

“No, the hotel wasn’t named to commemorate any royal visits in the late 1500s.  Queen Elizabeth I did, after all travel in some style with a large retinue.

“Her visits were well planned (and documented) so that she stayed with various rich noblemen who would entertain her in the style to which she was accustomed.

“There is absolutely no record of her even being in the area on her two visits to Sussex let alone ‘popping ‘into some local village pub in the middle of nowhere.

“Early magistrate’s courts were held in the bar of the Maidens Head but the town didn’t get a small police lock up along Hempstead Road until 1841.

Magistrates’ court

“In 1877 the magistrates’ court transferred to a new Public Hall which we now know as now the library building.

“What happened to prisoners before that date?  We don’t really know.

“What we do know is that there was a large stone built medieval building on the corner of Church Street. This did have a large cellar used by the bakery that was later built over the site.

“When the road junction was widened in the 20th century, remains of the cellar were found and photographed.

Burned at the stake

“Local folklore has it that it was in these cellars that Richard Woodman, a local iron master was held in 1557 during one of the investigations by local magistrates into his Protestant views.

“Woodman was eventually taken to Lewes and burnt at the stake in front of the Star Inn – one of the Lewes Martyrs.

“So, Cellars yes, tunnels probably No.”

Mr Harker added: “The Uckfield and District Preservation Society does have an extensive local archive and is always happy to be consulted on local historic matters.”

Exhibition

An exhibition on A History of Uckfield High Street looked at ‘Secrets under the High Street’ and published photographs of cellars discovered in the 1960s where remains included stone blocks and pillars which may date to the medieval period.

Other connected cavities were uncovered underneath the Maiden’s Head Pub (now the Smokehouse) which may have been part of the same cellar.

Secrets under the High Street

Secrets Under the High Street were covered in the Bridge Cottage exhibition about A History of Uckfield High Street and a display with the photographs used above said:

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See also:

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