Roger Dalton May 2009

Return to Studies

A Tunnel between Etwall Hall and St Helen’s Church?

Report of an Investigation Carried Out between 2007 and 2009

The aim of the investigation was to discover a possible tunnel link between the site of the former Etwall Hall, now the John Port School complex, and St Helen’s Church  Map of Site.

A number of resistivity surveys were made in what were considered to be the most promising locations. In the event no evidence of a tunnel was found. The background to the investigation and the difficulties encountered in its execution are set out below.

Historical Background

The Domesday Survey of 1086 refers both to a church and manor in Etwall. In 1170 St Helen’s Church was made over to Welbeck Abbey and in 1370 the manor was given to Beauvale Priory.  

There is no evidence of a large house in Etwall before the arrival of John Port (1470?-1540) in 1495. The Port family was not to have a controlling interest in Etwall until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540 when they were granted the manor and the advowson of St Helen’s. Even so, as wealthy lawyers, the two Sir John Ports, father and son, both based themselves in Etwall and would have had need of a house of distinction. Evidence is lacking as to the character of such a house but Craven and Stanley in ‘The Derbyshire Country House 2004, 95-9’ argue for a Tudor Hall which formed the core of the rebuild in the latter seventeenth century, initiated by Sir Samuel Sleigh and that in the early eighteenth century by his nephew Samuel Cheetham. The existence of the Tudor Hall is first indicated by a letter of June 1545 which refers to a great storm which damaged trees in the vicinity of Mr. Porte’s house (JB Henderson and ER Robinson, The Etwall Heritage, 1979, 107). After the death of the second Sir John Port in 1557 the Hall was occupied by his younger daughter Margaret and her husband Sir John Stanhope and later by his older daughter Elizabeth and her husband Sir Thomas Gerrard to whom the manorial succession passed in the 1560s.

The Gerrards were lords of Etwall until they sold the manor in the 1630s but were also noted recusants. The first Sir Thomas Gerrard was implicated in both the Ridolfi and Babington plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in 1571 and 1586 and was imprisoned in the Tower. His son John was a Jesuit and was also so imprisoned. It is the strong Catholic persuasion of the Gerrards which gives some credibility to the notion of a tunnel.  The Gerrards would have been required to attend St Helen’s under the Act of Uniformity of 1559 and Arthur Smith argues in ‘Etwall: A Portrait of a Derbyshire Village, 1990, 33’ that Sir Thomas did so willingly; as late as 1592 John Manners of Haddon was writing to his fellow Commissioner for Recusancy, the Earl of Shrewsbury, that ‘Sir Thomas Gerrard comes to church as if he had finally conformed(Talbot Papers MS3199 1570-99, National Archive). He would not have needed a tunnel to reach St Helen’s, it would have been costly to construct and his visible attendance would have been to his advantage.  

More problematical for the Gerrards was the celebration of mass, which had to take place outside the church. In fact they would have needed to get a priest into the house and hide him. In common with other catholic houses a priest’s hole was a feature of the Tudor Hall. This was retained during subsequent rebuildings as indicated in 1899 (Etwall Hall, Country Homes and Gardens Old and New 1899) ‘an ingeniously contrived priest’s hole with secret communication with cellar and roof and accessed behind the fireplace in the master bedroom’. This was also observed by Arthur Smith at the time of demolition in the 1950s adding that ‘what seemed to be an underground passage between hall and church’ was also revealed. Tim Parnell, son of the last owner Reg Parnell, recalls in conversation playing in tunnels as a boy and soon after the opening of John Port School a tunnel entry below the west side of the main school building was blocked off. Another feature of the Hall site which may have had tunnel connections was the ice house nearest to the domestic buildings at the back of the Hall to the north. Other anecdotal evidence comes from the site of St Helen’s Church where recent works have pointed to the presence of underground features. There is therefore sound evidence of perhaps extensive substructures in the vicinity of the Hall site and a good case for carrying out geophysical surveys to determine the existence of a tunnel.

The Site and the Survey

The Hall and grounds were acquired by Derbyshire County Council in 1952, leading to demolition of the Hall in 1955 and the development of the John Port School complex. No survey of the Hall and its surroundings appears to have been made and the whole area has been profoundly disturbed by construction operations. Even the site of the ice house was lost in the reshaping of land for playing fields. The extent of the Hall cellars and their exits is therefore unknown.

In addition to the difficulties of the disturbed school site there is the matter of the partly sunken roadway which separates the eastern boundary of the former Hall and the west, tower end, of the Church. The original Hall boundary wall still partly exists, as indicated by the early narrow hand made bricks, with a drop outside it down to the roadway. To the east of the roadway there is a steep rise up to the pathway in the immediate vicinity of the Church. The problem is the necessity for a tunnel to pass under this roadway and then rise sharply up to the Church perhaps via a stairway.

The Results

The surveys carried out were resistivity surveys which enable the character of the ground to be revealed in cross section form to a depth of 3.5m. Colour variation shown in the resultant cross sections reflects variation in material and moisture content. A tunnel would have appeared as a clearly defined black area. Such surveys are best carried out in undisturbed ground and are not as effective as the ground radar techniques currently used in archaeological work.  Inspection of ground conditions within the John Port School site, in the vicinity of the roadway and also St Helen’s Church revealed very few locations where there was little evidence of disturbance. These are marked on the satellite image. Within the school grounds only one grassed area was considered appropriate. Near the Church it appeared that the best chance of success lay between the sunken roadway and the rise up to St Helen’s and the extended line surveyed covered potential approaches from the whole of the Hall site. The area of the churchyard to the northwest of St Helen’s was also surveyed.

As indicated, no hint of a tunnel was found in any of these locations. This does not mean that a tunnel did not or does not exist as we may not have looked in the right places.  A tunnel in total or in part may have collapsed or been filled in and not detectable by the method used with its depth limit of 3.5m. There is a need to keep the tunnel issue under review.


Our thanks are due to Keith and Barbara Foster of Swarkestone for conducting resistivity surveys and for bringing their fresh eyes to the problem we were seeking to resolve. We also thank the Head of John Port School for allowing us access to the site. The survey arose from the curiosity of the Rev. Stewart Rayner recently retired Rector of Etwall to know more about his Church. Sadly the outcome has not been positive but the need to think through the problem has been worthwhile.

Terry Gotch, Marianne and John Pritchard-Jones, Stewart Rayner, Derek Roome and I assisted with the survey work.