Treacle Mines of England


It should have been a mine-shaft, but they built a tower. Saxonbury Tower stands proud on the Kent, Sussex border, but should never have been there. A gentleman from Frant had discovered treacle, in the area of Saxonbury Wood, whilst out dowsing with his 'treacle-tracker'. He drew up plans to sink a mine, which he sketched on the back of a beer mat in his local Frant ale house near the church. Sadly, he drank himself silly, leaving his drawings, which found their way into the hands of Robert Stacey a local builder; Robert read the plans up-side-down, so that is why there is no treacle mine.


Today, if you walk in Saxonbury Woods, you will find a tower, but you can be sure there is treacle under foot. The Sussex soil in this area has been described as 'stoachy'. In the days when men were charcoal burners; when men dug for iron ore and drove the wagon loads of ore to the many furnaces in this area, the roads became gradually worse. The cattlemen added to the chaos. There were tracks of cattle droves everywhere, the foot marks of oxen rutted the ground, horses could not keep their legs because of the sad state of the muddy roads; it has even been said that all the tall people living in this part of Sussex - had longer legs than most, simply because they had to pull so hard to get their feet out of the sticky mud to make any progress.


What is not commonly known that this stickiness, in the stoachy conditions, comes from the underlying treacle ! You may well scoff, but arm yourself with a treacle-tracker (or dowsing-rod) - walk through any woods between Buxted and Tonbridge - and you find a strange feeling as your dowsing-rod passes over the ground; a sharp twitch, followed by an upward swing, and eureka your treacle-tracker hits you in your face; you have found treacle.


Before you rush off to fill in all the forms for planning permission to open up a treacle-mine, it is as well to read more about the Treacle Mines of England. You may feel you should explore other areas first, because treacle mine sites can be found all over England, but not in Yorkshire. If you live in a remote place which could be described as being small and rural, you could be sitting on a treacle mine. For the past century, many village people, that have claimed to have a treacle mine, have become the butt of many jokes, but in times of gloom, the stories told about our Treacle Mines have been very funny - and really it was all part of a big cover-up by the Government !


The tales of treacle mines were given a badge of identity called "blason populaire" by the Political Intelligence Executive in 1899, which was charged, by the Government at that time, with the task of creating an underground resistance movement in case of invasion from an enemy. The P.I.E. agents, known as the Treacle Miners, used the legend of the ancient treacle miners to establish a net work of defences that would act offensively, following an invasion of our country. As the enemy occupied an area, the Treacle Miners would emerge from their mines and carry out as much sabotage as they could to hamper the enemy's movements.


The first mines selected for re-opening included; Dunchideock in Devon, Buxted in Sussex, Sabden in Lancashire, Tadley in Hampshire and Caister in Norfolk.


Following the demise of Napoleon, England dropped its defences, suspended most of its troops except for its 'Regular Army' which was engaged on "Imperial" duties, leaving the Yeomanries for any internal duties. It was brought to the Government's attention, that Germany remained a threat and that even some internal problems had proved difficult for the Yeomanry Home Guard to handle. One such incident involved the 45th Regiment of Foot which had their barracks at Canterbury. It was about mid-day on the last day in May 1838 that the internal security was threatened by a rabble army led by a mad Cornish man - Thom Courtenay who was also known as 'Mad Sugar Tooth Courtenay' (because of his claim to have the sole rights for all the treacle mines in Cornwall) but, he much preferred to be known as Sir William Courtenay, Knight of Malta - and he proudly carried his family standard which depicted a crossed spade and pick on a sea of treacle.


The fact was; that Sir William (Mad Sugar Tooth) Courtenay, Knight of Malta, had been released from the Kent County Lunatic Asylum and immediately aroused a fanatical following of country yokels and armed them with clubs. He drilled them and prepared them for battle, promising them a better life if they would follow him. News of the rabble army was sent to the local part-time constable. He donned his uniform called in his brother for support and swore him in as his deputy. Both of them went to confront the mad Cornish man. Sadly, Sir William Courtenay was in no mood for being arrested and without much a do - shot the constable's brother.


Luckily the 45th Regiment on Foot was on parade in Canterbury and they moved in strength to arrest Courtenay and his men. In the affray that followed, Courtenay shot Lieutenant Bennett of the 45th, who was advancing towards the mob with his sword raised. Almost immediately Courtenay himself was killed and many others were arrested. (In Canterbury Cathedral there is a wall tablet placed in Lieutenant Bennett's memory).


Following other 'internal' disturbances, it was decided to form a secret defence army. This resulted in the formation of Treacle PIE (Political Intelligence Executive) which has been kept a secret for almost a century. When it was created by the Home Office in 1899 its activities were headed by Tom Holland from Burnley in Lancashire. He and his executive members which included - Patrick Pitman, Hol Crane, Brian Williamson, Alfred Longley, Robert Malone, John Kelly and John Hodgson. These men, from different areas of the country, were each given the task of assembling personnel to form a secret army to protect England from any enemy. Tom Holland and his colleagues, used the 'Legend of the English Treacle Mines' to organise units of Treacle Miners.


Little comment was made in the many villages, where local men were recruited to re-open old treacle mine workings (most of them had been closed for over two hundred years and had become part of the folk tales of the villages). Tom Holland re-opened the Sabden Treacle Mine in the side of Pendle Hill in Lancashire; the Dunchideock Treacle Mine, near Exeter in Devon, was managed by Patrick Pitman of Dunchideock House; Basil Courtenay in Buxted in East Sussex; Alfred Longley in Hampshire were the other 'agents' in-charge.


Secret Service Agents, most people think are supermen like James Bond living a life of excitement with danger at every turn, performing feats of daring in defence of their country; the weapons they used were specially designed and the agents who used them belonged to a world of violence, wine and women. This was not the case for the Treacle Miners. These agents were recruited from all walks of life; they all had to be fit, reasonably intelligent honest citizens, who would eventually be transformed into redoubtable terrorists.


In a brief memorandum to Tom Holland, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying that P.I.E's function was to :-


" co-ordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy that could invade our shores...... and to confuse all, in a cover-up of their activities, with a form of black treacle -propaganda - which would baffle, and amuse, ............... "


Each 'Treacle Miner' was provided with a revolver and explosives.


After the first year at least one hundred 'Treacle Mines' were re-opened; everything about their activities was kept highly secretive, but the miners (some of them local with families) gave out stories of finding new sources of treacle.


Tom Holland wrote to the Prime Minister :-


Dear Prime Minister,


Treacle P.I.E.


The treacle miners have been accepted by the communities where they are operating, largely because most of the miners have been recruited locally, mostly from among farmers, game-keepers and known poachers who know the areas well. The men have been trained to act offensively where any enemy troops may be concerned.

In addition to their revolvers and explosives they have been equipped with rifles, grenades, daggers, semaphore flags and heliograph mirrors. Most of the 'agents' will remain with their own families living in their own villages, others have been placed into lodgings. In the event of an invasion, living quarters have been provided, in the mines, to match the comforts of their own homes.

All the activities of the Treacle Miners are under the direct supervision of a 'Mine Manager', who is in close collaboration with other units throughout the country, using pigeon-post or our special signal-network posts.


Tom Holland set up Sabden Hall in 1893 and established the first base of operations and training, this base was closely followed by the opening of Dunchideock House near Exeter and Buxted Manor in East Sussex. Within the extensive grounds of these bases, their isolation was enough to conceal their use as training bases for the Treacle miners.

The Treacle Miners were well versed in the history of the treacle mines of England; techniques in sabotage, spying and unarmed combat. It was essential for the 'plan' to work that the Treacle Miners should be able to play a defensive role, whilst the true nature of their work should remain secret. The plan worked so well that of the one hundred treacle mines, that were re-opened, no one knew, in any of the villages, that under their very noses, a secret army was at work.


By 1920, with no invasion, all the agents returned to their normal life and the treacle mines were closed, neglected, overgrown and forgotten. But, the Dunchideock mines were still producing treacle in 1997 - and it is thanks to their research into the treacle mining history, which dates back to the dinorsaurs, that we can read about how 'treacle' played an important part in our history and that treacle is still there waiting to be found probably under our own feet.


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