Sad loss of gentle but tenacious Caves and Shell Grotto researcher Chris Pearson

Chris Pearson in the Shell Grotto, from Out of Your Tree 3, by Priory Studios. Photo: Dominic Lee

Talented, kind and generous archivist and researcher for both the Shell Grotto and the Margate Caves, Chris Pearson, has sadly died.

Chris passed away on February 13 at the age of 68.

Remembered as a generous friend to many, Chris was a tenacious and thorough researcher, always seeking out primary sources and with a remarkable talent for unearthing new information.

It was Chris who first established a link between the Caves site and noted 18th-century natural philosopher and educator Margaret Bryan.

Artist Paul Hazelton said: “I had the very good fortune of benefitting from Chris’s immense generosity and passion for local history when he assisted me during my art residency at the Margate Caves in 2019.

“His contribution, helping unravel the enigma of Margaret Bryan, who ran a school for young ladies above the Caves, not only aided me with my work but also enriched Bryan’s legacy.”

Science historian and author, Dr Patricia Fara, who is an authority on women’s contribution to science, said Chris “certainly compiled more information about this elusive woman than anyone else”.

Chris also located the family of another elusive Caves’ figure, the recently deceased artist Karol Edward Osten-Sacken (known as KEOS), who painted and restored some of the murals in the Caves in the 1980s.

“Chris had a very particular and rare ability to connect some of the dots that others could not,” said Paul.

Margate Caves manager Kayleigh McMahon said: “Chris was a valued member of the team at the Caves, a kind and gentle man always willing to share his extensive knowledge.

“His contributions to our archive is unmatched and his enthusiasm for research was awe inspiring. It is not an exaggeration to say we will be a little lost without him.

“Throughout his time at the Caves he carried out many duties, from researcher, to archivist, to teacher – whichever hat he was wearing his passion for the Caves helped us get where we are today.”

Chris at the Margate Caves opening Photo Frank Leppard

Born on December 30, 1952, at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Chris was proud to be a cockney – albeit perhaps the most softly-spoken and shy one you could ever wish to meet. He was educated at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington, and spent many years as a customs officer. He is survived by his brothers David and Michael, and his younger sister Mary.

Chris’s interests were eclectic, ranging from gemology to the painter Sir William Orpen, of whom he was a distinguished scholar, a member of the Orpen Research Project, he was often asked to contribute to cataloguing paintings by major London auction houses.

Featured in his photographer friend Dominic Lee’s book Out of Your Tree 3, which documents people and their hobbies, Chris chose Grottos and Caves from a wealth of possibilities.

He had been working on compiling and digitising the Shell Grotto archive for a number of years.

Shell Grotto owner Sarah Vickery said: “Chris was an absolute treasure and something of a gift from the gods – a kind, generous and gentle soul. He just loved unearthing information, putting wrong information right and dispelling myths, although he did all of that very quietly, with no ego at all. It was never about Chris – it was always about the work.

“His research around setting straight the facts concerning the Grotto’s discovery made it possible for us to completely re-interpret the Grotto’s story, presenting factual information rather than the oft-told fiction. He was the person I rang when I had an obscure question to ask, or an eBay discovery to share, or just needed a sympathetic ear. He was a valued team member and a dear friend. Those who say that no one is irreplaceable never had Chris on their team.”

Before he died Chris was working with Rod LeGear, Vice President of Kent Archaeological Society and Chairman of Kent Underground Research Group, on a paper for the Kent Archaeological Society about Margate Caves.

This was to replace a 2009 paper that had – typically enough – been made out of date by Chris’s own in-depth research. “As promised to Chris, it will be completed and all being well should be published later this year,” said Rod, adding, “In more than 50 years of publishing papers and articles, I have never written anything with anyone. Chris was the only person I felt comfortable enough with.”

Tribute with thanks to Sarah Vickery and teams at Margate Caves and Shell Grotto

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