History of the Hermitage and Oratory
This unique historical artefact consists of two chambers, side by side, chiselled out of the sandstone hillside by medieval hermits. The entrances would have originally overlooked the Friarwood Valley towards St Richard's Friary further down the hillside, but in 1880 Pontefract Dispensary was built over the site and it is now hidden in its basement. The Hermitage leads to a remarkable spiral staircase of 65 steps cut into the rock, descending to a shallow basin of fresh spring water which lies 51 feet below the centre of Southgate. The hermits' chisel marks are clearly visible in the walls of the barrel-vaulted passage which has 4 alcoves for candles that would have been the only form of lighting. Near the bottom of the staircase is a carving of a skeleton in the wall, probably of medieval origin, but the graffiti scratched around the basin are certainly much later.
The first hermit recorded in Pontefract was Peter of Pomfret who was executed by King John in 1213 for predicting his downfall. In 1386 it is recorded that Robert de Laythorpe granted the Hermitage and accompanying land to his brother Adam for life and he was followed by his son Robert. The Oratory was founded in 1432 by the 28th Canon of Nostell Priory, John de Huddyfield. It was a roadside chapel next to the Hermitage with a domed 8 foot ceiling, containing an altar with cross, fireplace and rock-hewn flue.
There were hermits in residence until Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538/39 when St Richard's Friary and St John's Priory in Pontefract, as well as Nostell Priory were all closed. The Oratory was closed and lost to memory until re-discovered in 1854 when workmen digging a new drain in Southgate, fell through the roof.
The Oratory (left), with the hole in the ceiling and the nineteenth century brick pillar to the left. The altar is towards the bottom of the picture.
On the right: the entrance to the Hermitage (photos courtesy of Pontefract and District Archaeological Society)
After the Dissolution, the Hermitage and its garden were in private hands, the last owner of the site was Dr William Wright, surgeon to Pontefract Dispensary, who died on 17th November 1877. In his will read out on 3rd August 1878 he gave the Hermitage Gardens as a legacy specifically for the building of a new dispensary. Provision was made to allow access to the Hermitage and Oratory from the basement of the Dispensary, although part of the entrance chamber of the Hermitage, probably the hermit's living area was sealed off by the building's foundations. The hole through which the workman fell in 1854 is visible in the ceiling of the Oratory, but the centre of the chamber is taken up by a large nineteenth century brick pillar supporting the roadway above.
From the mid-20th century Pontefract and District Archaeological Society have conducted tours of the site with the permission of the owners, the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, until the closure and demolition of Pontefract General Infirmary in 2011. The building of the new Pontefract Hospital close by appears to have disrupted the water table and the Hermitage has been affected by flooding necessitating the application of pumps continuously. It is planned to reopen the Hermitage and Oratory to public visits later this year.