How much do you know about Hadleigh’s ‘secret tunnels’?

GLOSSY; Pretty pics of Hadleigh, Suffolk. Deanery tower through the church porch windows

Legend has it there are a number of tunnels beneath the town of Hadleigh - but how true is this? Pictured here is The Deanery next to St Mary's Church, where one of the tunnels is thought to stem from - Credit: Archant Archives

Hanging baskets in Hadleigh

Is the market town of Hadleigh home to underground smugglers' tunnels? - Credit: Charlotte Bond

The ancient market town of Hadleigh in Suffolk is home to sleepy suburbs, a handful of churches, bustling independent shops, and a few pubs. But is there something lurking beneath the surface?  

“Many towns have longstanding stories from past times, and the existence of tunnels are frequently mentioned,” says founding member of The Hadleigh Society Graham Panton. 

Richard Fletcher, secretary of The Hadleigh Society, adds: “The ‘secret tunnels’ are said to mainly stem from the 17th and 18th centuries, and are alleged to radiate from The George pub in the high street, St Mary’s Church, The Deanery next to the church, Place Farm (the Monastery) at Lady Lane, or Pond Hall in Pond Hall Road.” 

In a 1965 letter obtained by the society from archaeological assistant Elizabeth Owles to JT Gray, she wrote about the possible existence of tunnels after hearing about them when she first arrived in Hadleigh. 

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“One of the first local stories she heard was the tale of the former Monastery, once in Lady Lane, an extension of Angel Street heading north east out of town towards Ipswich, and that there was a tunnel connecting this monastery to St Mary’s Church,” explains Hadleigh Society member Roger Kennell. 

“The likelihood there was a former monastic foundation was strengthened by the fact that in Aldham Road there was a Monastery petrol station, and a small provision store to the rear called the Monastery Stores. An alternative to the monastery was that it was a nunnery, and hence Lady Lane, from Our Lady being Mary,” 

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However, these rumours were soon quashed due to lack of evidence.  

“The argument about the Hadleigh monastery or nunnery all falters with no documentary records. A possible link might be from the 1846 edition of Dugdales’ Monasticon Anglicanum, which quotes a Latin translation of the will of Aethelfleda in 991, referring to a monastery in Hadleigh. However, in 991, St Mary’s Church was not yet built, thus there cannot be any credence to this as a tunnel link.” 

Hadleigh Church and Deanery Tower

Is there a secret tunnel connecting St Mary's Church (pictured) to the monastery? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

But never fear – as the mystery of Hadleigh’s supposed tunnels doesn’t fall at the first hurdle. Just a few centuries later, the town was later believed to the epicentre of Suffolk’s smuggling era between the 18th and 19th century.  

“During the first half of the 18th century, there was a notorious smuggler named John Harvey, who owned Pond Hall in Hadleigh. He was the leader of the ‘Hadleigh Gang’, which conducted ‘runs’ from Sizewell Gap, an easy and isolated gap in the low cliffs on the Suffolk coast. It is reputed that Harvey could muster up to 100 men, each of whom could supply two horses. The cargoes brought ashore were wet goods, brandy and tea, and these were taken to various safe houses. Although some 40 miles distant, Harvey brought the goods back to the Hadleigh area, and Semer was one of these known places.” 

Could it be that The Place was one of these safe houses, with one of the tunnels beneath it used to transfer brandy and other goods throughout the town and beyond?  

“The distance from The Place to St Mary’s Church is approximately three-quarters of a mile – is such a length of tunnels as a construction a practical reality in the 18th century?” asks Roger. 

Most likely not, he says. “If there was a tunnel constructed, there would have been a ventilation problem, and the tunnel lined by some means to prevent it caving in, especially with the number of springs around the town. It’s just not a plausible idea.” 

Roger suggests that perhaps over the years, a water drainage culvert was misinterpreted as a smugglers’ tunnels, with egg-shaped brick drains constructed – but these were well after Suffolk’s smuggling era, and would likely date back to the 19th century.  

“An earlier brick drain was revealed in a television programme about Lavenham, but for Hadleigh, a continuous three-quarter mile length is unlikely.” 

So just how did John Harvey and his merry band of smugglers actually move their goods? A newsletter from The Hadleigh Society dating back to March 1990 goes into more detail about the smugglers and their escapades, and theorises that it wasn’t as underground as previously thought. 

“It is considered that a number of ‘warehouses’ must have been employed between the coast and Hadleigh for the transport and storage of contraband in an efficient and well-organised operation,” it says.  

While the legend of the secret church and smuggling tunnels have sadly proven to be mostly false by the society, there’s still some hope that the town has some mystery within its history. 

“Twenty years ago, when we we were based at The Flying Chariot on Benton Street - we soon began to hear all sorts of stories from the building’s past,” explains Graham. 

“Like many old properties, it had its fair share of lost spaces between rooms, floors and ceilings. Were they accidental, or were they deliberately created? Even if accidental, could they have been used for secret purposes, if so, what purposes? Smuggling goods, or people? What historical activities have been most closely associated with hiding places? The persecution of priests, civil war, or smuggling? Each of these falls within the period of the building, and any of it is possible. We don’t know for sure.”

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