Author: Maggie Summerfield
A Priest's Hole is a hiding place for a Catholic priest built into many of the Catholic houses of England during the period when they were persecuted by law. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 there were several Roman Catholic plots against her, hence the persecutions. The hiding holes were mainly built between the 1550's and the Catholic led Gunpowder PLot in 1605. They could be found in fireplaces, stairs and attics to hide both priests and regalia. (A notable builder of these was Nicholas Owen who was caught and tortured to death in 1605 and was deemed a martyr in 1970). Philip of Spain, Queen Mary's widower, sent the Armada over in 1588 to try and restore the Catholic faith back to England. It became high treason for a Catholic priest to enter England. The Jesuits were formed in 1540 to help the Catholics fight the Protestant Reformation. Their priests would live with families in the guise of tutors or relatives. Safe houses would be identified by various secret signs. Priest hunters or "pursivants" would measure windows and tap wall in their hunt for the hiding places.
The Old House in South Street, Rochford was originally built around 1270 and would have had a central firepit, but the house was extended as the owners became more prosperous and a large fireplace was built. At some point the face of the fireplace was covered up and was like this when the house was last used as a private residence between 1970 and 1982. Memories of someone who lived there during this period include clearing the grate of soot and ashes for his Mother and seeing above his head, rungs set inside the chimney breast. Sadly, since this, the chimney has been blocked. However, the front of the fireplace was stripped of plaster during the Council renovations and has revealed three niches. Two side ones and a rather grand central one. It is an exciting thought that behind this fire and in the chimney might be Rochford's very own Priests Hole in the oldest house in our town.
The photo shows Maggie and Dulcie next to the Old House fireplace during a guided tour.