I was working front of house the other day at Oak House and while the Oak House staff delivered summer holiday activities and space themed fun in the visitor centre, I manned the house itself and spoke to visitors as they came in to look around (or younger visitors who came in to do the moon trail).
Anyway some lovely ladies came in who had enjoyed Oak House as children around 50 years ago and were enjoying looking around and discovering how much it had changed over that time. They enjoyed what we had done to the house to help tell the fascinating story of the site and make it look more and more like a 17th century home fit for the ‘middling sort’.
When they returned to the hall they asked the question that staff have been asked many many times before by older visitors…….
…..’where have the priest holes gone?’
I explained that there aren’t any priest holes at Oak House. As with countless other visitors before them the answer came back that they were shown a priest hole many decades previously so they know there was definitely a priest hole.
I gave the ladies my usual response saying that what they were shown was actually a cupboard. On hearing this I am usually faced with disappointment or often disbelief as visitors insist that there was definitely a priest hole and they were shown it decades ago!
So how do we know there aren’t any priest holes?
By the late 1500s and early 1600s it became very dangerous to be a Catholic in England. It was illegal to have a Catholic priest in your home and practice Catholic forms of worship. Therefore Catholic families devised elaborate ways of hiding their priests in case a search was carried out. The penalty for discovery was certain death for the priest and possible death for the owner of the house or a least confiscation of their wealth.
The family at Oak House were not Catholics, in fact they were Puritans, which was a very devout form of Protestantism. Therefore the Turtons certainly would not have been hiding Catholic priests at the Oak House in the mid 1600s.
When I explained to the two ladies who had visited on this particular day that the family were Puritans, what I had told them about the priest hole being a cupboard suddenly made sense. The enthusiasm they had as children for secret hideaways and tales of hidden priests had made them forget what they knew as adults about it being only Catholics who needed to hide their priests.
If you have ever visited a Catholic house where there are real priest holes such as Harvington Hall or Baddesley Clinton you will know how elaborately constructed priest holes were, with secret chambers behind other secret chambers, hiding places under toilets, behind fireplaces, in wall cavities and under staircases. It shows even more clearly that what we have at Oak House are actually just really useful cupboard spaces for underwear and bed linen (unless it was a rather risky double bluff hoping that soldiers coming to raid the house would think it too obvious so didn’t bother checking the cupboard!)
At Oak House there are actually quite a lot of cupboards built into the walls. Houses had only a few key pieces of furniture so these cupboards were very useful, particularly those around the chimney which would act as an airing cupboard and keep linen from becoming damp.
Storage built into the walls and panelling may also have been used to store expensive books and other valuables like pewter plates, goblets or tankards and could have been locked.
Is that a priest hole? Nooooo
So it would seem that at some point in the 1950s/60s there was a member of staff at Oak House who were showing visitors the Oak House ‘priest hole’ with excitement and enthusiasm. We don’t know if they believed that it was really a priest hole or if it was just a way to liven up people’s visit to the house. Also sometimes there is also just an assumption that Tudor and Stuart houses all had priest holes – but of course it wasn’t wrong to be a Christian, just to follow Catholicism.
We would love to know which of our cupboards was being shown off as a priest hole, so if anyone can remember where they were shown the priest hole was then do drop us a message.
Just to dispel another myth there are not only no priest holes but also no tunnels to Dudley Castle or to a local pub or to anywhere else – but we’ll save that story for another blog!
The Oak House hall, which would have been the entrance, and dining room for Oak House.
So what about the answer to the question ‘where has the priest hole gone?’ well essentially the priest hole has gone the way of many myths. More research, further study of original documents and a greater interest from staff in telling the real story rather than a tale has mean that the Oak House priest hole has disappeared along with lots of other long told stories about our buildings.
There may be no priest holes here at Oak House but the story of the Turton family and Oak House is still absolutely fascinating. So why not come and visit – we’re open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays 2pm-5pm until the end of September then we move to our winter opening hours.
You can find out more about visiting at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/museums and follow the link to Oak House or find out what’s on at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/joininmuseums. Or call us Tuesday- Friday on 0121 553 0759