The search for Wakefield’s ‘secret tunnels’ began right where I was standing to conduct my professional genealogy research, on Bread Street in the very heart of this ancient town which earned city status in 1888.
Bread Street is now a somewhat dilapidated street running parallel to Cross Square and Little Westgate and is frequented by shoppers looking for easy access to Northgate, the Cathedral, or the shopping area of Kirkgate, or by those huddling by the backdoor of the Black Rock Pub, puffing on cigarettes. The street, in its current state, is somewhat uninviting and is desperately in need of a makeover. Disused, abandoned buildings retain their 19th century shop frontages but they are bereft of window displays, for the cracked and thin panes of glass show off grime and dirt and are framed by rotting wood tainted by the debris of crumbling brickwork. This place, however, was once a thriving street, with booths offering for sale bread from the Manorial Bakehouse, made with flour ground at the King’s Mill. Behind the booths and under the old structures that once stood in place of their current counterparts, there existed a hidden pathway of interconnected arched cellars leading to the parish church. These cellars, still in place, are now firmly fixed in Wakefield myth and folklore but are revealed here to be very real indeed.
According to Reverend J. L. Sisson in his book Historic Sketch of the Parish Church, Wakefield, twenty-four Chantry priests belonged to the church and each of the priests had lodgings in houses to the north of the Church yard, namely in Northgate and Bread Street, known in Sisson’s time as Ratten Row, and in the time of the priests’ as Bread Booths.
Writing of old religious houses in Bread Street, Fancy Goods Dealer-cum-local historian, Mr. John Hewitt in his quaint, scarce serialised volumes entitled The History and Topography of the Parish of Wakefield And Its Environs, first published in 1862, expands on the link between the street and the church.
“In bygone times, it was customary to erect booths for the sale of bread at the front of houses in Bread Street, and from that cause this street was called “Bread Booths” and afterwards its present name.
“… where now stands the Mitre Inn, was a Priest’s residence. Several other residences of Priests were also in the same locality; and from that circumstance, and the number of people who came to the Church and the Priests’ houses, the Bread Booths were erected for the purpose of selling in them bread both to the Priests and their friends.
“A subterranean passage was formerly connected with this old house. It led from one of the cellars in the direction of the Parish Church. The entrance to it is now walled up. The passage was arched over with bricks, and about 6ft in height. Probably, this underground road was for the priests to proceed by its means to and from this building and the church.
“It is believed that this old house has been used as a secret Church in days of persecution.
In the late 1880s, the renowned Octogenarian, Henry Clarkson, made an even stronger case for a subterranean pathway existing under the houses leading to the church, when he quite innocuously described how one obtained entry to the church yard in the days of his childhood. Specifically referring to the years 1810 and 1811, in his charming Memories of Merry Wakefield, the first edition of which was published in 1888, he explains that:
“At that time, the Parish Church yard was much smaller than it is now, a range of houses and shops being continued from Northgate, partly standing in the present street, and partly in the Church yard; these buildings completely blocked up the whole west side of the Church yard, extending as far as opposite the George Hotel, and the last house at that end was occupied by Wakefield Dispensary. The principal entrance to the Church yard, was an ordinary archway, under the centre of the houses I have described, about where the present west gateway is now.”
The quintessential set of double volumes that any person serious about Wakefield history should have in their collection, Wakefield Its History and People by the most famous of its historians, John W. Walker, contains further details of the arched passage. He tells of a house adjoining a Mr. Bucktrout’s grocer’s shop. Mr. Bucktrout is connected to another well-known story about Wakefield passages, this one relating to the discovery, in a Northgate cellar, of religious images, smuggled out of the Chantry Chapel on Wakefield Bridge, via another subterranean passageway during the Reformation. In our story, Mr. Bucktrout appears because his shop adjoins a house occupied by a John Bagshaw, a scisscors-grinder. J.W. Walker explains that beneath Bagshaw’s house ‘was low archway entrance to the churchyard opposite Bread Street.’
Many of the houses that stood before the entrance to the churchyard that is still used today (to access the building via the West Door, known as the Tower entrance) were cleared away in 1821. Sisson tells us that the inhabitants were to be especially praised for helping to knock down their own houses to improve the vista. Subsquent restorers of the church have also convinced the public that the removal of sturdy church fabric is for their own good. Interestingly, any talk of tunnels has been denied by those ‘in the know’ at the very same church, possibily aghast at the idea of priests having their own, congregation-free passage ‘back to base.’ If such a tunnel existed today it would be a somewhat longer walk home as the clergymen’s residences are somewhat further away, now adjoining Newstead Road at the northern end of the city boundaries.
So does any evidence for these ancient passageways exist today? The Registry of Deeds on Newstead Road in Wakefield provides original documentation that amply answers this question with a most definitive… yes! Several deeds deposited in the impressive collection make specific reference to arched cellars under Bread Street, which are described in parts, with each part owned by the occupants of the individual properties and each one adjoining the cellar of the building next door.
A deed refers to the purchase of a building on Bread Street by Alfred Moodie, a wine merchant who is remembered today by the bar on Little Westgate (backing on to Bread Street) named Moody’s. In the deed reference is made to the purchase of the building by a James Wells from an Elizabeth Hardcastle in 1812, and an earlier transaction is mentioned as taking place in 1791 and involving Wells and a Mr. Liversidge. Reference is also made to plans drawn up in 1866 and an indenture from 1853. When checked, all of these deeds for these legal transactions, and the deed here referred, each contain the following passage (the brackets are my own):
‘… and also that part of the arched cellars under Bread Street (otherwise Ratten Row) aforesaid adjoining upon the same premises.’
Perhaps worthy Wakefield men Clarkson, Walker, Hewitt and Sisson are all mistaken and the priests never occupied houses on the street and the arched cellars did not exist, but it is more likely that this route built for the priests to proceed to and from their place of work, was very real indeed and maybe a little excavation could show once and for all what lies beneath Wakefield.