Back to Basics

Croydon Caving Club is now 30 years old, and it is perhaps an appropriate time to look back at the Clubs past. By complete chance, whilst thinking about this article, and quite unprompted, one of our past members - Graham Bessant, who some of our older members will remember - emerged from the mists of time and turned up at the Blacksmiths Arms one Wednesday in January.

The reason for his reappearance was that he had been clearing out his loft and had discovered an old account book for Croydon Caving Club. This document turned out to be a gem. It contained the accounts for the first three years of the Club, including its inception, giving an intriguing insight into the roots of the Club.

Pages 1 and 2 of the accounts book record the founder members of the Club who had, out of interest, paid the princely sum of 10 shillings (50p) for the privilege. Drawn mostly from the ranks of the Croydon YHA group and the South Norwood Rover Scouts, they were:

Chris Dawes (Treasurer)
Alan Cartwright
Saun Norman
Joe Harris
Anne Alexander
Ron Smith
Chris Smale (Chairman)
Dick Ockenden
Moya Hannabues
Keith Metcalfe
Brian (Soaps) Serff

The records show that membership quickly rose to 23 by the end of 1964 adding such names as Robin Richards, Bob Reader, Alan Rowe, Chris Morgan and John Pearce. By 1966 the membership total had reached 33.

Of the founder members, most have, alas, lost contact completely. Dick, however, is still living in the Croydon area but no longer caves; Soaps is living in Colorado where he has in the past been an accomplished mountaineer; and Saun is based in New Zealand where he organises adventure expeditions for a living. Since leaving Croydon, he went on to serve for many years in the Antarctic and, amongst a host of other mounaineering achievements, has joined expeditions to scale Everest. The last stalwart of the original membership is, of course, Ron Smith who now has 30 years continuous membership of Croydon Caving Club to his credit.

Of the current membership, our Chairman, Paul Selby, joined the club on 9 December 1964 and Allan Ockenden on 24 August 1965. Colin Grange made his first appearance as early as 2 June 1965. Paul Sowan also became a member in the Clubs first year.

Delving deeper into the records, other snippets of Club history can be gleaned. It is of interest to note the expenditure levels in the early records since they highlight the very different life of the Club in those days. For instance, expenditure in the first year on equipment amounted to œ1 for a carbide lamp and 6/- for 4 helmets. A first aid kit set the Club back a staggering £1/15/- and stationary 14/9d. Also appearing in the early accounts is the long lamented Dingy (sic) Fund which was set up to purchase an inflatable dinghy for use on caving trips, although it is still not clear what caves were in mind at the time. Up to its abandonment in 1967, it failed to amass more than £3/6/9d (£3.34).

The Club was formed during a period when caving as a sport was receiving much more popularity than it had hitherto, and caving technology was poorly developed. Wire ladders were the state of the art method of scaling pitches and were hand built. Much of the early club expenditure was on ladder making equipment including the infamous fly press which was used to talurit the rungs. Polypropylene hawser laid ropes were the bees knees for life lines because they were rot resistant (the fact that they didn't have much strength didn't seem to worry anyone!).

As far as personal equipment is concerned in the early 60s, wet suits were up market gear, too expensive for most, so 'dry grots' (old clothes) worn over a pair of long johns and covered with a boiler suit were the order of the day. Helmets were either ex-coal board cardboard specials or plastic site helmets. The ensemble was generally finished off with a pair of ex-army leather boots. Lighting was almost exclusively by carbide and the lamp was the only item of gear that it was thought appropriate to purchase new. The complete cavers equipment could be acquired for 30/- (£1.50).

Times have fortunately changed since the formative days of the Club, and the contrast between these early days and the way the Club runs now reflects the general changes in society itself. Unlike the relatively affluent car owning membership of today, Club members did not own cars and trips were much more group activities. Trips took place regularly on a monthly basis, travelling by hired minibus or in the famed 'Snowdrop' (a converted Kent County Council ambulance). In those pre-motorway days, the trip to Mendip would take about 8 hours where accommodation was frequently in the Barn at Lower Farm or camping at the top of Burrington Coombe. Trips to Yorkshire were epics taking 12 hours or more. Arrival was in the early hours of the morning and caving often started directly after pitching tents. The long return trips often meant it would be 2am on the Monday before everyone had been dropped off home.

The caving programme for 1965 included 5 trips to Mendip, 4 to South Wales, and 1 to Derbyshire. A trip to Buckfastleigh in Devon took place the Whitsun weekend and this became a regular ritual for many years. Yorkshire is notable by its absence, partly because of the distance, and perhaps the perceived difficulty of the caves.

Monthly Indoor Meets in these early years were held at the Clifton Arms, South Norwood, and a room levy of 9d charged. Attendances were regularly over 30, a record that is, alas, difficult to equal these days.

The old cash book will now be deposited in the Club library for anyone who wishes to look through it.

Allan Ockenden