This is the ultimate piece of Tynemouth folklore, and here I’m going to share some bits of information that have passed down the annals of time, as well as add some new knowledge about the place.
A Lookout to the North
The Whitley Tower was a small defensive edifice built into the cliff in the 14th century to command the view to the north of the Castle, hence the name, Whitley.
Scottish invasion was a constant threat around this time and it was Edward I (r.1272-1307), the “Hammer of the Scots” of Braveheart fame, who first had Tynemouth Castle defended with stone walls. It may have been Edward, or one of the two other Edward Plantagenet kings of the 14th century, that specifically ordered the building of the tower.
Within the tower’s basement were two chambers with a tunnel presumed to lead under the Castle so that supplies could be smuggled though in the event of a siege. A famous siege did occur during the Civil War and the Castle surrendered to General Leslie’s Scottish army on October 27th 1644.
Since the 18th century these two chambers and adjoining tunnel were known as the “Jingling Man’s Hole”. This is what William Gibson wrote about it in 1849:
“During the civil wars and in 1656, a pretended plot for surrendering the Castle to the exiled Monarch (Charles II.) is sought to be countenanced by testimony that provisions and ammunition were to be brought to the Castle through subterranean passages extending to some (unnamed) coal pits two miles from Tynemouth. Again, a subterranean passage entered from that part of the cliff which overlooks Percy Bay [King Edward’s Bay], and commonly called “the Jingler’s Hole” was explored not many years ago, and found to lead to arched apartments excavated in the rock. According to a description written at the time, a circular opening like a well was found, near the entrance, of the depth of 12 feet; at the bottom of which there was a square apartment, from which a low and narrow passage gave access to a similar apartment, beyond which it does not appear that the explorers ventured.”A Descriptive and Historical Guide to Tynemouth, with Notices of North Shields, Seaton Delaval, and Neighbouring Antiquities by William Gibson (1849)
Two years later Gibson wrote this description and offered two explanations of the name:
“The following notice of subterranean chambers within the northern side of the cliff on which the Monastery stood, was given in the Newcastle Chronicle of 23rd December, 1826:—
“A correspondent informs us, that excavations have lately been made in that subterraneous passage overlooking Percy Bay, at Tynemouth, commonly called The Jingling-man’s Hole.* No discovery of moment has been made; but it has been ascertained that the passage leads to two apartments, which, from their structure, may safely be called dungeons. After proceeding a short way from the entrance, a circular opening, resembling a well, about twelve feet deep, is met with, on descending which, there is a square apartment, out of which a narrow passage only large enough for a person to creep [through] upon his hands and knees, leads to another apartment similar to the former; here, the clearing away of the rubbish, etc. which was done by the artillery-men, has for the present been suspended, but it is hoped they will proceed with the examination of this singular and dreaded passage.”
* This name is said to have been given to it by the vulgar, probably from this hole having been the resort of some juvenile gamblers. Can it have been derived from the appropriation of the chambers described, to the jongleurs or minstrels who were maintained by the Convent?
The examination has not been prosecuted; and the author has been unable to learn whether any further disclosure has been made of the subterranean structures belonging to Tynemouth Priory, which, on the southern side especially, would probably repay investigation. Mr. Hutton, of Tynemouth, gave much attention to them.”The History of the Monastery Founded at Tynemouth by William Gibson (1847)
3 points occur to me here:
- Gibson’s reference to the name coming from “juvenile gamblers” probably refers to people playing pitch and toss (a prohibited game) in the hole, and thus the noise of coins jingling.
- His use of the the term “jongleurs” is interesting, giving rise to “jingling”. Jongleurs were travelling entertainers, story tellers and minstrels.
- I have no idea if this refers to William Hutton, said to be the first person in modern times to walk Hadrian’s Wall and published his work in 1802 when he was 78. It could well be him.
Another 19th century text, Pott’s Descriptive Guide to Tynemouth, provides the following note:
“The entrance had been partly formed by masonry, and the getting to it was one of the feats of the youth of Tynemouth.”
This was as true in the late 1980s as it was centuries ago. I’ve never been so frightened as I was when I scaled the cliff as an 10 year-old to get up from the cave, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The route down is steep, very slippy, with rat holes everywhere, and the climb up to the walkway at the top is a dangerous precipitous one with no room for error, and passed by the nest of a kestrel back then.
There have been landslips that have removed sections of the Whitley Tower on at least two occasions, in 1874 and 1886. There also seems to have been a landslip in the area in 1930 and in that same year, probably as a result, the Office of Works discovered the tunnel. I’m unsure if the blocking up of the tunnel occurred at this point, and further research is needed here.
What we are left with today is a mere shell, but looking across the sands from the doorway still provides a wonderful view.
The tunnel at Jingling Geordie’s Cave, in a corner of this recess, is now mostly blocked off with concrete. But, there is another less well known hole associated with the fabled pirate and wrecker “Jingling Geordie” on the east side of the cliffs.
Jingling Geordie the Ship Wrecker
The legend goes, and the elaborate story we were told as kids by Bill Tomlinson at the Watch House, who died some years ago, was that Jingling Geordie was a pirate, smuggler and a convict who retained the chain around his leg from his incarceration. On stormy nights he would venture onto the Black Middens and hoist a series of lamps to lure ships onto the reef. To this day, you can hear the sound of his chain rattling across Tynemouth’s rocks as his ghost clambers to and from the shore. This legend is reprised in Robert Westall’s Watch House novel, which was adapted for television in 1988.
A Less Romantic Tale
From around 1805 to 1815, the hole above King Edward’s Bay was linked with a much ridiculed vagrant and bogeyman, nicknamed Jingling Geordie. Here’s a letter to the Newcastle Journal in 1856 recalling the character and a notable hoax that took place there:
“TO THE EDITOR OF THE NEWCASTLE JOURNAL
Why is “The Jingling Man’s Hole” so called?
SIR,—I do not believe from the poor idiot alluded to by your correspondent “Navis” as “Jingling Geordie.” who, between 40 and 50 fifty years ago, was the terror of refractory children, from his wretched appearance, of which I have vivid recollection. He was usually stationed at the termination of Mr. Linskill’s avenue, then a favourite walk of the in habitants of North Shields, and I can remember being allowed sometimes to bestow a few pence on him. I should say he was a harmless idiot, or nearly so, rather than a smuggler; and from his inarticulate utterance, probably deaf or dumb. He wore a tattered suit of scarlet, and died I believe in Tynemouth workhouse. His bodily infirmity, for he had one if not two wooden legs, supported by two stilts, hence his name “Jingling Geordie,” would prevent his ever reaching the Hole, which was almost inaccessible, from its situation at the edge of the cliff. Doubtless it was some outlet of the monastery. I have heard it was a subterraneous passage, and the tradition ran, that gold was hidden by some magical process, and occasionally jingled by its mysterious owner.
Some years ago a great sensation was caused by the announcement that on a certain Easter Monday the charm would be broken and the secret revealed. Crowds flocked to Tynemouth, but no spirit was evoked, save from the cellars of the worthies who devised the plan to attract visitors to the then deserted village.
Antiquarians can probably explain its connection with the ruin, but its name is plain English, and I think none of your ingenious correspondents will be able to torture it into a Celtic derivation, though they may perhaps be able to give a clearer explanation of its uses in ancient days than I can do. In modern ones, it probably might be the resort of smugglers, but I think my old friend “Geordie” was not connected with it, save by name.
Jan. 7th, 1856 A CONSTANT SUBSCRIBER”
The greatly hyped demonstration of sorcery by a wizard named “Sieur Abdahalla” was advertised in a poster at the time with the following text:
An even older reference to the “Jingling Man’s Hole” exists, however, coming from 1780:
“On the side next to the German Ocean is a place called by the common people the “Gingling Man’s Hole,” which, it is pretended, was enchanted. Curiosity led me and two more to go; accordingly, the 2nd of August 1778, having provided ourselves with candles, ropes, etc., we entered a small arched door, going straight forward, turned west a few yards, where we found a small square hole, sufficient to let only one down at once. Having fixed all ready, we descended one by one, and found it to be about twelve feet deep, we creeped through a small hole almost stopped up with stone, but about three yards further we found another, but not being able to get further, being choked up with stones, but throwing stones to the far end, which was about two-and-a-half yards, went down to a vault—from hence it appears these holes have been to let air in, for at the bottom we could plainly discern, and there being an arched door, but finding it impossible to get these stones up, as it would have been a great fatigue and labour. It is a pity so many boys, nay old people, should be constantly throwing stones down, which, when I was at Tinemouth about 16 years ago at school, if we had, as we frequently them fall down step by step for a considerable time, but now, if one is thrown down, it will fall with a thud, amongst did, thrown stones down, we could hear the rest of them. From hence, I am certain, there has been a way out from the garrison. Being wearied with our pursuit we give over.” [sic]Quoted in The Mysterious Cave At Tynemouth By Jack Young, Shields Daily News, 12th Jan 1923
Folktales about the Cave
Many sources cite the legend of the “Wizard’s Cave”, containing immense treasure guarded by a dragon, while a fearless knight is tasked with breaking the spell over the place. This motif is very old and has been applied to other caves in English folktales. Local novelist, Jane Harvey, wrote in The Castle of Tynemouth (1806):
“The rock you inquire about, my dear,” said Mrs. Cresswell, “is the seat of the enchantment which was laid upon this castle, in consequence of the murder of our ancestor, Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland. Awful are the mysteries which it contains; but he who is fated to break the spell, must first penetrate is most secret recesses. Many indeed have already explored them, but none have returned to describe what they saw …
… the adventurer distinctly hears the sound of other footsteps besides his own, and a continual clanking or jingling rings in his ears. The cause which produces this noise has been the subject of much speculation, and many conjectures have been formed about it; but I shall not take upon me to determine positively which of them is right. I have heard it affirmed that the invisible figure being unquestionably the ghost of Robert de Mowbray, is clad in the very same armour which he wore in his life-time, and which as it moves, produces a clashing sound. Some suppose that the spirit carries a chain ready to bind the unfortunate victim in a spell of enchantment. Others believe that a bell is tolled to warn him of his fate. Nor are there wanting those who contend, that what is heard is the tinkling of keys; though here again opinion is divided, for while one party asserts that they are the keys of the cells or dungeons, where persons are kept in a state of enchantment; another maintains them to be those which guard the immense treasure buried in a secret recess of that rock,”
There is also an unattributed poem about the horrid “Wytche of Tinemouth”, who lived in the cave, She made ewes miscarry their lambs, swine eat their young, and children to be born with twisted limbs.
“In a gloomy pit o’ergrown with briars,
Close by the ruins of the mouldering Abbey,
Midst graves and grots that crumble near the charnel house,
Fenced with the slime of caterpillars’ kells.
And knotted cobwebs rounded in with spells.
Stealing forth to find relief in fogs
And rotten mists that hang upon the fens
And marshes of Northumbria’s drowned lands,
To make ewes cast their lambs, swine eat their farrow,
Sour the milk, so maids can churn it not,
Writhe children’s wrists and suck their breath in sleep,
Get vials of their blood, and where the sea
Casts up its slimy ooze search for a weed
To open locks with, and to rivet charms
Planted about her in the wicked feats
Of all her mischiefs, which are manifold.”
* A charnel house is a vault near a church where human bones are stored.
A Tragic Ending
On the Tynemouth County Borough History Facebook Group, there was a post a few years back recalling 1940s Tynemouth by Evan Johnson, with the following information:
“To keep us out of the place we had been told it was haunted by Jingling Geordies Ghost but that didn’t stop us exploring his cave. There was a very narrow passage, which you could climb down to some steps. We never ventured very far because we didn’t have a torch, but some time later, two scouts did go in, unfortunately the roof collapsed and they died; very soon after the cave was cemented up.”
I have no further understanding of this sad incident as I was unable to find out what year it was and newspaper searches have so far yielded nothing. If anyone knows more about this, please get in touch.
So that is my comprehensive overview of Jingling Geordie’s Cave. It’s a peculiar name for a singular place and I’m almost inclined to believe Gibson’s explanation on the origin name: being associated with jongleurs — medieval travelling musicians, and indeed, the doorway makes quite a stage for a busker. But basically, I think in the 18th century it was a notorious drinking den for local youths, with music being played down there and much of this noise and revelry could be heard from East Street.
Whatever it was and whatever secrets it holds, Jingling Geordie’s Cave has always, since its earliest days, been associated with all kinds of danger. Today, it remains a place that is, unfortunately, off limits. We will never know what lies down there, and maybe that is the way it is meant to be.