PRESS RELEASE FOR HERALD EXPRESS
By Philip L. Armitage
During the Victorian period Brixham’s three principal fossil “bone” caverns (Windmill Hill Cavern, Ash Hole Cavern and Bench Cavern) attracted much scientific attention, but are now largely forgotten, especially since the closure of the Windmill Hill Cavern in 1977 (a very popular show cave with locals and visitors alike). The Museum exhibition therefore aims to “reinstate” the importance of the caverns, explaining the circumstances of how each cavern was discovered, explored and how the fossil discoveries made in them contributed to our knowledge of extinct prehistoric animals that once roamed Brixham during the last ice age.
It was during pioneering scientific excavations at Windmill Hill Cavern (also known as The Brixham Bone Cavern and Philp’s Cavern) carried out by the eminent palaeontologist William Pengelly in 1858 that irrefutable evidence was uncovered proving the great antiquity of man, a contentious question in Victorian times.
The display comprises ice age fossil mammal teeth (dating from 56,000 years ago) donated by the Thyer family. In 1945 a young teenager Dennis Thyer lived with his family in the house above the Windmill Hill Cavern (Mount Pleasant Road) and although the cavern was officially closed to the public he managed to find an alternative “entrance” in the nearby quarry. Exploring the cavern system he discovered and collected fossil teeth which have been recently identified by Dr. Armitage, Curator of Brixham Heritage Museum as teeth of spotted hyaena, woolly rhinoceros, brown bear, reindeer and wild horse. Dennis carefully wrapped the fossils in tissue paper inside a Jacob’s Cream Cracker tin. Sometime after his death, Dennis’s sons and daughters decided to return the fossils to Brixham and allowed the Museum to research these specimens and place them on display. A scientific article on these fossils written by the Museum Curator will be published next year in “Studies in Speleology”.
Other material on display includes prehistoric pottery and a stone axe head collected by Museum volunteer Graham Head during his exploration of Ash Hole Cavern in the 1960s. There are also four explanatory panels and a full-size cut out of a female cave bear created by Museum volunteer Louise Cresswell. We are inviting children to suggest a name for this bear.
The display was officially opened by Mrs. Yvonne Hunt and Mrs. Yvette Stock, Dennis Thyer’s daughters. Brixham Town Council members were in attendance as was the Former Torbay Mayor Mr. Nick Bye. The Museum Curator presented Mrs. Hunt and Mrs. Stock with flowers and commemorative mugs printed with a colourful scene of ice age animals that once roamed Brixham – the work of local artist Rose Coulton who also produced illustrations featured in the display panels. A special presentation of an engraved plate was also made to Graham Head for his contributions to the Museum’s archaeological researches.