Ramsgate Flour Mill (Rank Hovis) Air-Raid Tunnel
The Ramsgate Flour Mill was built in 1865, and closed in 2005 when the site was sold by Rank Hovis to a private developer, as it was no longer commercially viable. It is situated next to the site of the old Ramsgate Town Station, which has long been demolished and is now a block of flats (Chatham Court).
The mill survived two world wars, but sustained heavy bombing during World War 2. As the threat of war came nearer, air raid tunnels were dug. One “for the men” was dug under the old railway cattle pens (to the rear of the site), which gave the shelter about 25 feet of chalk and concrete as protection.
For the office workers, a separate shelter was constructed, which was a brick lined tunnel dug from the general office down into the ground. Under the mill, this was made wider to give a fair size room. A way out was up two long flights of concrete steps into the Margate Road.
The shelter was provided with a bucket toilet, gas curtains either end, lighting and heating. When “Hudsons look-out” gave the alarm, the office staff would pick up their ledgers and file down the stairs and carry on working in their underground office. During the war, the mill was very lucky. A lot of damage was done for nine bombs fell on the mill site, with only one failing to go off.
The street entrance to the air raid shelter was bricked up after the war, and the entrance from beneath the office was also sealed up. Apart from a brief inspection in 1984, the tunnel has been blocked up ever since. However, by kind permission of the site’s new owner, and an ex-employee showing us where the entrance was, we recently gained access to the office air raid shelter.
Entry is now via a locked manhole cover, inconspicuously located on the site. Not the most obvious location for an entrance! (fig 1)
Figure 2: Looking down the manhole into the entrance (8 ft drop to steps)
Descending the concrete steps, the tunnel was brick lined throughout, with a smooth vaulted ceiling. It was tall and narrow, just wide enough for one person to walk along comfortably. About 6 ½ ft high and 3 ft wide (fig 3)
Figure 3: Descending the concrete steps
The concrete steps descended steeply. The walls were whitewashed, and very clean throughout the length of the tunnel. There was no graffiti at all on any of the walls, indicating this was indeed not a public air-raid shelter, and also it had not been used for a very long time!
After 24 steps, the tunnel levelled, and turned left at right angles (fig 4). After turning left a second time, the tunnel continued down for a further 10 steps.
We had travelled about 30 feet into the tunnel, and about the same distance down.
After the steps ended, the tunnel continued straight ahead.
We passed through the remains of a wooden door frame, with leather straps (and buckles) hanging from the top of it. (figs 5,6). This was where the first gas curtain would have been.
Figure 4: Tunnel frequently turns at right angles
Figure 5: Wooden door frame with leather straps which would have held the gas curtain
Figure 6: Another view of the wooden door frame
This tunnel now intersected with another one, crossing at a 45 degree angle, running to the left and right.
To the left was a deep alcove, with the remains of a curtain. This was where the bucket toilet would have been, with the cloth curtain providing the only privacy. (fig 7)
The tunnel continued on to the right for about another 15 feet, before again turning at right angles and opening out into a large chamber. (fig 8)
Figure 7: Toilet recess with remains of privacy curtain
Figure 8: Underground office chamber
This underground chamber was about 16 feet long, 6 ft wide and 7 ft high, and was the wartime office room.
The tunnel continued on from the other end of this underground office, turned 90 degrees left again, then right, and we passed under another wooden door frame, with the same leather buckles hanging from the top, which was the remains of the second gas curtain protecting the wartime office chamber. (fig 9)
Figure 9: Remains of second gas curtain
Then we came to two long flights of steps leading steeply up to the surface, beneath the office floor (fig 10). The exit was blocked by concrete slabs (fig 11). The remains of the wooden planks or trapdoor that had originally covered the exit could be seen.
Figure 10: Steps leading back up to the surface beneath the main office building
Figure 11: The blocked up exit beneath the floor of the main office
Figure 12: The bricked up street level entrance to the air raid shelter can be seen from Margate Road. An air vent in the bricks is all that gives this location away
Figure 14: Ascending the steps towards the office building. The roof detail is well made and quite intricate here
Figure 15: Looking down the main tunnel, showing a typical cross-section. (A very old broom can be seen at the end)
The tunnel was extremely well constructed, completely built with bricks, and painted white. This was in stark contrast to the nearby Ramsgate Public Air Raid tunnel system, which had been roughly hewn out of the chalk in a hurry, it seems this private shelter had been constructed to a high standard. Construction would have been funded privately, by the Hudson company who owned the mill at the time.
It was also very clean, with no signs of wildlife, or graffiti. The construction (such as the bricks, dimensions of tunnel and ceiling architecture) made it look almost part of the mill itself, and built in the nineteenth century, however, it was subsequently found out that it was of more recent construction, built on the eve of world war two to enable the mill office staff to continue working, even during a heavy air raid.
Also on the Hovis Mill site is a deep well, used to supply water to the screenroom. It is 120 feet to the water, which is at a depth of 26 feet.
A description of the well by L.G. Gray in his book “From Wind to Power”, 1985:
“The well was dug by a local firm of contractors by the name of Haskings in the year 1898. Just above the water level there is a short safety tunnel used when things are being lowered down. Small shelves were dug into the chalk to put candles on, the only source of light down there, and the walls are covered with dates and names of all those who ventured down there, either to dig the well or do maintenance on the pump. I deeply regret that on my last trip down there I did not take a camera with me, for there is now almost one hundred years of history inscribed in chalk, 120 feet down. The old two throw pump is still down there, but I doubt if anyone will ever go down there again. The water was so crystal clear that one could see right through the water to the bottom. If one moved the water, the light would dance and reflect all over…”
The well is still accessible from one of the out-buildings, now a store room. However, in 2006 you would never know it was there, as it has been capped off, and a partition wall built over the top. However, by shining a torch through a small 1 inch diameter hole, you can see it clearly beneath. It is roughly hewn from chalk, and around 3 ft diameter. The water authority has recently installed a modern piece of measuring equipment to it.
Current site of well. The black probe entering into the hole is some kind of measuring device put there by the water board when the mill site was vacated