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Noted Secret Chambers and Hiding-Places

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Were one to analyse the present-day never openly-acknowledged taste for mystery in any form or shape, most of us of the older generation would be able to resurrect from memory the pleasurable pantomime thrills - that is to say, when there was some attempt at coherence in the presentation of fairy stories - afforded by the unexpected exits and entrances of some of the performers, such as the good fairy and the demon.

The spring trap-door and panel were as essential during the Christmas vacation as the traditional turkey and plum pudding. The present lackadaisical appreciation of the marvellous by the youngest and most advanced generation, maybe, has in a measure been brought about by the premature discernment capable of penetrating such palpably shallow tricks.

But ingenious contrivances similar in several respects, constructed long before the days of the oldest "Old Drury," turn up occasionally to prove beyond doubt that their secrets have outwitted the most Sherlock-Holmian brains. The ancient house is demolished and a secret chamber, never dreamed of, is brought to light, its entrance so cunningly masked in oaken wainscotting or floor-boards that a cavity behind or beneath has never been suspected.

The majority of these hiding-places are known as "Priests' Holes," and they originated from the days of religious persecution of the sixteenth century, and were constructed mainly for the preservation of the lives of those ministers who, after the Reformation, adhered to their faith and, contrary to the law, continued to celebrate mass in the houses of the old Roman Catholic gentry.

But long before this time the fortified residence of the feudal baron was provided with the very necessary accommodation of some secret lurking-place, exit or entry, so that in an emergency he might evade the enemy. The underground passage was the forerunner of the ordinary "Priest's Hole" by many centuries, and though the instances of these which at the present time can be threaded for any considerable distance are rare, there is ample evidence to prove that in the " good old days," when a man's house, though his own castle, by no means meant that he was safe from intrusion - sometimes in very formidable shape - speedy means of avoiding the uninvited were absolutely necessary. The ingenious artfulness lay not so much in the hidden doorway or trap-door as in the discernment shown in utilising useless vacant spaces between walls and ceilings sufficiently large to afford a temporary asylum for a human being anxious to hide from the law when capture, in nine cases out of ten, meant death.

The art of concealment, however, reached perfection in Tudor times. Then it was that a Roman Catholic priest devoted his life to the construction of hiding-places or "Priests' Holes." "Little John," the architectural genius who worked out these clever mathematical problems which have successfully outwitted so many subsequent generations by the simplest and most primitive methods, saved countless lives when priest-hunting was a matter of daily occurrence; and in after years many a hunted Cavalier has blessed the inventors' ingenuity when hard-pressed by Cromwellian bloodhounds. Does not one of the most fascinating and thrilling romances of English history relate how "the Merry Monarch," in the days long before he developed his "merry" mood, owed his life to the hiding-holes of Boscobel, Moseley, Trent, Heale, etc.

The present writer has been down into these confined spaces, and wondered how his "sacred Majesty" could breathe for any length of time within such stuffy and narrow limits. The open-air fiends of to-day surely would have been suffocated, for the apertures for the admittance of air and light naturally were limited to a minimum, and in some cases even the faintest glimmer of daylight was out of the question, and an iron spike in the wall, to serve as a candle-holder, was the limit of luxury permissible. An unfortunate inmate, half-stifled for breathing space, could in some instances draw a little ozone into his lungs by placing his mouth close to a tiny chink or channel whose external aperture was screened by the flourishes of ornamental sculpture - shallow ventilators unnoticeable in external brickwork, small holes concealed by growing creepers, or movable pegs which would never be suspected of serving any other purpose than securing solid oaken beams together.

Then there was the question of sustenance, food for any protracted period of imprisonment, a difficult matter in the case of a long drawn-out search of two or three weeks' ferreting, with sentinels posted in every room and corridor, and expert searchers prying night and day, measuring, sounding, stripping off wainscotting, ripping up floor-boards, or burrowing beneath suspicious and uncemented flags of stone.

A small stock of provisions that would suffice for a few days was usually stowed away in readiness; anything that would keep a certain length of time such as raisins, apples, nuts. And if at the critical moment of a sudden raid the wanted person 01 persons could smuggle into their secret lair a liberal supply of bread and cheese, so much the better: for the expedient of administering soup or wine by means of a straw passing through some out-of-the-way cranny in or behind the panelling was useless when confederates were kept not only close prisoners, but their actions and emotions even were minutely under observation on the chance of a tell-tale clue.

Indeed, as in all cases of deception, accomplices were essential for avoiding the vigilance of the "pursuivants," as alert as the most accomplished detective of modern times through continual practice.

In nine cases out of ten it was the movements or actions of the inmates of a suspected household which eventually led to discovery; either that or the priest in hiding was starved out of his lurking-place, sometimes with limbs so cramped and painful that surrender came as a happy release.

The "Priest's Holes" in the old Worcestershire mansion, Hindlip, thus withstood a protracted search, the fugitives at last being forced to deliver themselves up. And when they appeared like spectres before the enemy, the latter were still at a loss to imagine whence they had come; indeed, the secret arrangements in this notorious rabbit-warren of "Powder Plotters" were so impenetrable that not until the old house was demolished were the bulk of the ingenious hiding-places discovered.

In cases where a secret chamber was situated in the basement of a building, a fugitive fared far worse than when he was immured in the upper regions, for the conditions of damp and moisture, especially in moated dwellings, were capable of inflicting a variety of tortures upon most robust constitutions. Instances are known where unfortunate inmates have had to stand knee-deep in stagnant water for days at a stretch. Thus it is that one finds sometimes a thick layer on the floor of sand, so as to absorb at least a portion of the moisture. And to guard against a noise within arousing suspicion, the walls of the hiding-place may be padded with felt, with leather straps hanging at the sides to facilitate entry or exit.

In Elizabeth's reign, when it was necessary for a priest to celebrate the forbidden mass, the tiny "Popish Chapel" was usually located up in the roof, with a convenient "Priest's Hole" close by, into which the cleric or private chaplain could vanish at a moment's notice. Here the holy vessels and vestments were kept for the forbidden religious ceremony. Secret entrances to these not infrequently were made from the roof, through movable tiles or a portion of the leading, and also down chimneys provided with a double shaft.

Many a feudal castle or manor house has rigidly preserved its grim secret for centuries until some reconstruction, or perhaps demolition, has brought to light its long-forgotten tragedy of a sudden disappearance. For example, at Minster Lovel the mummified remains of one of its possessors who fought for the Yorkist Rose were found when some of its sturdy walls were removed. In the depth of masonry several feet in thickness a roomy chamber was found provided with chair and table, and here was seated the poor victim, who had been starved to death, walled up in his own fortress. Homeward he had fled from the battlefield, only to fall into his own death-trap, for it is supposed the friend 01 retainer who should have released him when danger had passed had himself been made a captive!

HPHE famous Bride in the Chest story, by comparison, is somewhat mythical, for the rightful possessors of the actual chest are represented by many traditional claimants. Not a few of our ancestral houses pride themselves upon the genuineness of their case, yet none of them can produce the actual skeleton, as did the grim walls of the Oxfordshire stronghold. As my Lord of Lovel patiently sat awaiting his doom, so was he found centuries afterwards when his very name was well-nigh forgotten.

The "Priest's Hole" proper, of course, is to be found more particularly in the Midlands, where mainly were centred the families adhering to the old faith, though examples may be found also in nearly every other county. The ancestral seats of the Throckmortons, Catesbys, Huddlestons, Winters, Comptons, Wisemans, Whitgreaves, Beddingfields, etc., naturally provided ample secret accommodation for Jesuits, so harshly persecuted in the reign of the Maiden Queen. The insecurity and dangers of the time may be exemplified by a visit to that most secluded ancient mansion of the Comptons, Compton Wynyates, which is so hidden and buried in its sylvan hollow that a traveller would never dream of its proximity unless he stumbled across it by accident. The cautious internal arrangements are very different from what they were at the time of William Hewitt's visit, when the old house had been unoccupied for years, for then its mysterious nooks and corners had not been renovated and utilised for habitable purposes. The "Popist Chapel" high up in the roof is intact, truly, but not the numerous hiding-places scattered throughout the curious old pile - the "false floors" for providing a death-trap for the pursuer and other sinister arrangmenets so very necessary in the "good old days." The curious old Berkshire house, Ufton, or the crumbling old mansion of Harvington, in Worcestershire, also preserve a mystic power of creepiness which by no means is dispelled when their gloomy hiding-holes and trap-doors are pointed out; solid pivoted entrances of oak and thick cement capable of deceiving the cleverest and shrewdest detective vision. Ufton's rugged walls of sturdy beams and plaster would never echo with a hollow sound.

In "Woodstock" Scott gave such a graphic and realistic account of the mystic picture leading to the complicated winding of Rosamond's labyrinth that one feels a little resentful that "the magician of the north" should have drawn so largely upon the imagination. Yet it is gratifying to encounter at Lyme Hall the mysterious movable portrait that suggested to the author the concealed entrance into those intricate passages which had vanished almost into a fable long before the time of bluff Sir Henry Lee's royal visitor with Cromwell at his heels.

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Pictures for Noted Secret Chambers and Hiding-Places

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