Caves and Caverns

by Mark Jones

Although Porteous does not name his source, it is conceivable he was told this story by a local. Leslie Crichton Porteous (1901-91) was a writer of fiction and non-fiction who became assistant editor of the Northern Daily Mail. Born in Leeds, he grew up in Manchester and spent time in the Derbyshire Peaks during his childhood. In later life, he moved to Derbyshire, first to Combs, some seven miles west of the Blue John Cavern, and then Two Dales near Matlock. Three of his novels, Broken River (1956), Lucky Columbel (1959), and Toad Hole (1960), and are set in the Derwent Valley, a short distance east from the ‘Blue John Gap’ locale.

As to the veracity of Porteous’ story, a cavern matching the description certainly existed. The site in question is Gorham’s Cave, located at Governor’s Beach on the south-eastern face of the Rock of Gibraltar by Captain A. Gorham of the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers in 1907. Gorham inscribed his name and the date of discovery at the back of the cavern. Subsequent investigations, in the 1940s and 1950s, revealed the cavern to consist of four caves and to contain remarkable evidence of Neanderthal occupation over a period of more than 120,000 years. This included rare rock engravings, from more than 39,000 years ago, which revealed the Neanderthal capacity for abstract thinking. Artefacts placed Neanderthals in the caves as recently as 28,000 years ago, thus making the cavern the last recorded place of habitation of Neanderthals in the world. Gorham’s Cave is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only one on Gibraltar. You can see Professor Geraldine Finlayson, Director of the Institute for Gibraltarian Studies, discuss the cave in a recent video [retrieved March 2023].

One problem with this story is that the discovery was barely, if at all, picked up in the newspapers. So, if Conan Doyle had Gorham’s Cave in mind, how did it come to his attention? One possibility is that he knew Gorham or his family directly. Captain A. Gorham was born in Rusper, Sussex, twenty miles west of Crowborough, where Conan Doyle lived when he wrote ‘Blue John Gap’. It is possible that, as his interest in palaeontology grew, Conan Doyle spoke to other interested parties who knew Gorham.

Another possible connection is Gorham’s regiment. The Royal Munster Fusiliers was formed in 1881 and served in India, the Second Boer War and the Great War, before being disbanded in 1922 after the establishment of the Irish Free State. In disguised form, it appears in the Conan Doyle’s fiction as the ‘Royal Mallows’ in ‘The Green Flag’ (1893) and ‘The Adventure of the Crooked Man’ (1893). In the former, the regiment has its base at Fermoy in the province of Munster, the traditional recruiting ground of the Royal Munsters. If Conan Doyle had any direct connection to the Munsters, it was after it first doubled as the Mallows and likely through the Colonel of the regiment, Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Miles. Miles was appointed Director of Recruiting and Organisation at Army Headquarters in 1904 and Quartermaster-General to the Forces in 1908, before serving as Governor General of Gibraltar throughout the Great War. As an outspoken critic of army reform (or lack of) in the first decade of the twentieth century, it is entirely plausible that Conan Doyle and Miles crossed swords.

More fancifully, Conan Doyle may have discovered Gorham’s Cave by way of the Phoenicians! ‘Blue John Gap’ was written in early 1910, after Conan Doyle returned from a holiday in Cornwall. That same holiday inspired ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ (1910), in which we learn that Sherlock Holmes had developed a theory that the Cornish language was akin to Chaldean on account of the Phoenician traders in tin. After the Neanderthals, the upper level of Gorham’s Cave was used by Phoenicians and Carthaginians traders, between the 9th and 3rd Centuries BC. There they established a shrine to leave offerings to their gods for safe passage beyond the end of the world. Had Conan Doyle’s own interest in the Phoenicians led him in some way back to Gorham?


Mark Jones is a Sherlockian and Doylean who has loved the works of Conan Doyle since reading the Sherlock Holmes stories one wet caravan holiday aged twelve. He is a member of many Sherlockian societies and is an invested Baker Street Irregular ("Peter Jones"), a Master Bootmaker of the Bootmakers of Toronto, and an Adventuress of Sherlock Holmes. Mark and Paul M Chapman together host 'Doings of Doyle - the Arthur Conan Doyle podcast' and each month delve into a different aspect of Conan Doyle's life and work, from the well-known to the obscure. Mark works in higher education and lives in York in the North of England.