The Tunnels of Hertford

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The Tunnels of Hertford – Introduction

Most people were first aware of the existence of tunnels under the streets of Hertford in an article written by Raymond Brown in the Hertfordshire Mercury on 8th October 2004.

The 1898 Map of Bayley Hall showing a subterranean passage
The 1898 Map of Bayley Hall showing a subterranean passage

At a secret location in the town, Tim Acheson declared:

“We are now prepared to reveal a secret we feel the people of Hertford should be made aware of. There is an extensive labyrinth right under their feet.”

“We are talking here about a largely unknown, indeed mostly secret, ancient underground network that stretches beneath the town’s main street and extends to Fore Street, Market Square, Parliament Square, Hertford Castle, Church Street, Bluecoats, Priory Street and in fact many, many other places.”

Ben had also said: “All the sections of the secret Templar labyrinth were once linked. Here are the parts that I can tell you about. Fore Street was once the hub of the only part of the network that you know about. No 42 Fore Street was once linked to numerous chambers beneath Fore Street. It is still linked, via a passage recently blocked by the previous owners of 42 Fore Street, reaching to Bailey Hall and beyond.”

Tim Acheson and his twin brother Ben believe that a branch of this secret society is still active in Hertford and that their predecessors built and maintained the tunnels beneath Hertford.

There are three locations in Hertford that act as the main stations for the intersecting tunnel network beneath the streets. These are Hertford Castle, Bayley Hall and Shire Hall. There are also a number of other buildings that play a minor part in connecting the network.

Hertford Castle

Hertford was founded in 913AD when Edward the Elder established two burghs or settlements on either side of the River Lea (or Lee). This was one of the few safe places for many miles to cross the river and is how Hertford is said to have got its name from the harts (or deer) who came to drink the water from the ford. Hertford is pronounced Harford with a silent ‘t’ – acknowledgements to Cllr Peter Ruffles.

The Castle motte
The Castle motte

It was not until the arrival of William the Conqueror who began to build large earthen mounds topped by a strong wooden tower, and later of stone that what we have come to know as the motte and bailey castle was established. All that remains now is an earthern mound.

The motte became the keep which was the last refuge of the defenders against attack. The bailey referred to the area inside the castle walls.

 

Hertford Castle Gatehouse
Hertford Castle Gatehouse

A new gatehouse was built on the foundations of the old one by Henry VIII using larger bricks that had come into fashion by the 1530’s. Elizabeth was the last monarch to live at Hertford Castle and its usage in future centuries was as a private house following the sale by Charles 1 to William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury in 1628.

All that now remains is the gatehouse, the Norman motte and sections of the outer wall.

 

Bayley Hall

Bayley Hall
Bayley Hall

The origins of Bayley Hall (or Bailey Hall) are not so clear. It appears in Spede’s map of 1611 and is referred to as the Manor House.

It is unclear exactly when the original house was built, who owned it or who lived in it.

It was possibly first constructed about the middle of the sixteenth century but the modern building dates from 1650 when Arthur Sparke who was then the Member of Parliament for Hertford employed Sir Thomas Clarke to pull down the old buildings and erect the present house on the foundations.

Bayley Hall passed through many different owners until 1900 when it was purchased by William Cowper for the use of Hertford Grammar School. Bayley Hall became the Headmasters House and boarding home for many of the schools pupils.

In 1930 the school moved to its present site in Pegs Lane and is now Richard Hale School. The Board of Education retained its right to sell Bayley Hall and it was used as local government offices.

In 1967 Bayfordbury Hall was also sold to Hertfordshire County Council and became part of the University of Hertfordshire. In 2004 Bayfordbury and the estate was sold by the County Council to Fairview Homes trading as Rialto.

Shire Hall

Shire Hall
Shire Hall

The Quarterly Sessions and Assizes were held in Hertford. Up until 1609 these were held at Hertford Castle where the judges were also lodged.

A charter dated 1605 from James 1 recognised the right to hold Sessions in Hertford and a charter dated 1627 from Charles 1 gave permission to erect a Sessions House, the Shire Hall which was built in 1627.

In 1767 at a meeting at the Bell public house (now the Salisbury Arms Hotel) the Council acknowledged that a new Shire Hall was needed.

By an Act of Parliament of 1768 King George III granted the building of a new Shire Hall consisting of two courts, two petty jury rooms, Grand Jury room, a room for the Corporation; and two water closets.

At the close of the Quarter Sessions on 9 August 1768 the old building was demolished and the new one erected before the next Session in November 1769.

By the late 1980’s the building was in a sorry state and parts near collapse. New plans were drawn up and the building was completely renovated to open again in 1990 to great public acclaim of the architectural quality.

Bluecoats Yard and Fore Street

 

Bluecoats Yard

Bluecoats Yard
Bluecoats Yard

This was actually a school originally sited in London but their buildings were burned in the Great Fire of London of 1666. The school was moved to Hertford consisting of 8 dormitory buildings together with a dining hall and stewards house.

The boys had been re-located to Horsham, Sussex in 1904 and although it remained a girls school they too were re-located in 1984.

The dormitory blocks are now offices and the dining hall and other buildings converted to sheltered accommodation for elderly persons.

The two figures on the entrance gates represent a murderer and his victim. One looks towards the site of the old gallows; the other to the churchyard where he is buried.

Fore Street

Fore Street looking east
Fore Street looking east

Fore Street stretches from east to west; from the London Road roundabout at the entrance to the town to Parliament Square.

Many of Hertford’s most important buildings are sited on either side of the road;  The Salisbury Arms Hotel, Shire Hall, the Corn Exchange formerly the town gaol, the Ram Inn and Pizza Express (once the Dimsdale Arms) are both sites of regular livestock markets.

These are imposing buildings and are mostly Grade II listed status. Many of the buildings in Fore Street although outwardly of concrete or brick are of plaster and lathe construction with a thin outer skin; a fact determined whilst I surveyed the street to place bolts from which to hang the Christmas lights. A few inches past the outer skin and there was nothing to support the bolts.

Tunnels at Hertford Castle

Stories of secret underground passages do have some past echoes. This is from the final paragraph of Lewis Turnor’s History of the Ancient Town and Borough of Hertford dated 1830: ‘The vaults and subterranean passages, under the castle, still remain, and have given rise to a great deal of idle tradition’.

From H C Andrews The Chronicles of Hertford Castle (1947). ‘Tradition tells of an underground passage from the Castle to Queens Hill (by the side of All Saints Church on the opposite side of Gascoyne Way). Possible but unlikely that the Castle had some secret exit and no trace of it has ever been found’.

The Castle Ice House
The Castle Ice House

On a piece of land on the southern edges bordering Castle Street thought to be the outer moat an ice-house was constructed in the late eighteenth century by the Marquess of Downshire. This was for the storage of ice which was collected during the winter and stored during the summer and connected to the castle by a subterranean passage and is the only such passage thought to be extant.

The idea of underground passages may have also gained credence from the knowledge that Hertford Castle housed a prison. The main dungeon would have been beneath the gatehouse, at the entrance to the castle grounds but inside the double moat. However in the 1530’s Henry V111 rebuilt the gatehouse on the foundations of the old one.

The structure has not changed since that time and if there was a dungeon accessible by stairs or underground passageway it has long since been crushed. Terminal damage might also have occurred in 1798 when the Marquess of Downshire blew up the twin towers with dynamite.

Hertford Castle lawn
Hertford Castle lawn

 

The gatehouse is the only remaining evidence of a once important castle; the bailey or courtyards have been totally overgrown by lawn as a modern day photo demonstrates.

If tunnels ever existed under Hertford Castle there is no modern evidence for them, nor would they lead anywhere.

The Castle Dungeons

Hertford Castle came under increased media scrutiny in 2007 fuelled by interest in the Knights Templar, The Illuminati and the quest for the Holy Grail following publication of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Hertford Town Council which has its administration offices in the Castle was besieged by requests from TV and radio stations including BBC2, Australia’s 60 minutes programme and Germany’s ZDF TV for access to the castle dungeons. These requests were politely refused on the grounds that no dungeons exist in Hertford Castle, nor did any secret underground tunnels.

In 1801 the Marquess of Downshire whose family had purchased the castle from Charles 1 in 1628 placed it up for sale. The description read: ‘basement to include a remarkably good kitchen, housekeepers rooms, stewards room, servants hall’. No sale took place but in 1920 a strong room was constructed in the basement, formerly the kitchen.

In 1995 Margaret Hart of Harts Haberdashery organised the first Medieval Night, a late shopping night in November to kick start Christmas shopping.

One of the attractions was a tour of Hertford Castle which culminated with a tour down to the ‘dungeons’. These were actually the storerooms as they were in 1801 and possibly since Henry VIII rebuilt the gatehouse. They looked authentic because the lights were dimmed and members of the Hertford Drama and Operatic Society dressed as prisoners amidst straw and skeletons and moaned and groaned and begged for mercy and food.

Dungeon exit
Dungeon exit

Thus grew the myth that there were dungeons in the castle. Medieval Night continued until 2003 but tours of the castle still take place. You are guided from the entrance, up the stairs to the Mayor’s Robing Room, down the spiral staircase and into the ‘dungeons’. You are let out into the open air through a side Door at ground level.

There are no dungeons. One of the strong rooms contains nothing more than a collection of diversion and other traffic signs for use on Medieval Night, Fun Day and other Civic Events. I know, as I have used them since 2002.

The Subterranean passage at Bayley Hall

What is not in doubt is the underground passage at Bayley Hall described in the opening to this essay.

This is the extract from Hertfordshire Archives at County Hall.

HERTFORD D/EGr/40

plasterwork No. D/EGr/57 showing Sundial, No. D/EGr/13 plasterwork, No. D/EGr/59, D/EGr/61, D/EGr/69 and D/EGr/54 Bayley Hall, Hertford 1820, Bayley Hall 1898 Subterranean passages in Cellar, Salisbury Arms? Plan 1898 showing the Bayley Hall Picture of Date range: 1898 – 1915.

Source: Access to Archives (A2A): not kept at The National Archives Conveyancing papers DE/L/Q12 Bayley Hall, Hertford. Hale’s Grammar School. [Hertfordshire Archives, A miscellaneous collection…] Date range: 1898 – 1901.

There are also said to be tunnels leading to Hertford Castle and All Saints Church. If there had been one to the latter this too would have been crushed when Gascoyne Way was bulldozed through. The only evidence of this is a quote from a Museum curator who said: ‘I only know for sure about the Bailey Hall tunnel which I believe was used by the judges when it was a law court so that they could get to All Saints Church nearby’.

In her recent book Hertford – a History published in November 2007 and containing a mountain of information Jacqueline Cooper believes that the ‘tunnel’ is more likely to be part of the drainage system. The proximity of Bayley Hall to the outer walls of the castle and therefore the old double moat gives some substance to this explanation.

Bell Lane leading north
Bell Lane leading north

However the much quoted and published map of Bayley Hall includes an underground passage leading not to the Castle but under Bell Lane. This continues up to what is now an estate agent.

However Bell Lane does connect both these Elizabethan properties and the east side of the Salisbury Arms (then the Bell) which runs half its length and is of late fifteenth century origin. In common with many inns the Hotel has a cellar which is noted in the listing above: ‘Cellar with concrete floor and largely twentieth century brick lining; medieval stonework reported in earlier list description not seen’.

It is not therefore too much of a stretch of the imagination to conceive of a tunnel connecting the three buildings.

The Fore Street tunnels

There is a fourth side to the equation – Shire Hall. As stated this was built in 1627 following a charter from Charles 1 and subsequently rebuilt in 1767 and restored in 1989. There are no reports of underground passages.

Tunnels are said to stretch the whole length of Fore Street and reach Bluecoats Yard. As we have seen this was not built until late in the seventeenth century and was until that time a field.

One has to ask why anyone would want to dig a tunnel with all the labour and material costs, using bricks which were then a new commodity, almost half a mile long to end up in an empty field. According to the reports the tunnels linked numerous chambers along Fore Street.

Hertford’s prosperity was founded on the malting industry so it should not be surprising to learn that Hertford had more than its fair share of inns. Almost every building along Fore Street has at one time of another been a brewhouse or inn. And inns usually have cellars. Many of these cellars are now basements and used by some restaurant proprietors as an extension of their business.

The Corn Exchange
The Corn Exchange

The present Corn Exchange was built on the site of the old County Gaol which was moved opposite Bluecoats following an outbreak of cholera and no doubt had its fair share of underground cellars, cells and passages.

In his book Lewis Turnor is able to state that in 1830 the town centre is well lit, paved and supplied with water from works at Hartham and gas from a site just north east of the town. To achieve this would have entailed major engineering work.

Fore Street has been dug up so many times even in the last decade as local traders know only too well. In such excavations any tunnels only as deep as the basement of local shops would have suffered some serious damage or at least been exposed by new drains, power cables, road markings, paving and the host of modern street furniture and accessories that Hertfordshire Highways have inflicted on it.

Knights Templar in Hertford

I have read all the local history books, spent more than a few hours with tired eyes scouring the Internet and all I can offer as regards the Knights Templar in Hertford is this paragraph from H C Andrews ‘The Chronicles of Hertford Castle’.

‘In January, 1308, the whole of the Knights Templars in England were arrested by the King’s orders, so in February a sorry group of six of the brethren arrived from their Preceptory at Temple Dinsley near Hitchin as prisoners at Hertford Castle; and during their incarceration there, from 14 February to 12 June, Temple Dinsley manor was charged with the cost of their maintenance. Two of them were perhaps the Richard Peltevyn and Henry de Paul who were afterwards sent to the Tower of London.’

That is it. That is all that connects Hertford to the Knights Templar. There is no mention anywhere if they were imprisoned in the dungeons or in one of the state rooms.

There is nothing of what happened to them on their release, or of the other four if indeed two were sent to the Tower. There is nothing about any treasure brought to Hertford with them and confiscated. There is no mention of the Holy Grail. There is nothing more that can be said as there is no more information.

I found The History of the Knights Templars by George Addison (published 1842) which confirmed the earlier version. He writes: ‘On the 14th of September writs were sent, in pursuance of an order in council, to the sheriffs of Kent and seventeen other counties, commanding them to bring all their prisoners of the order of the Temple to London, and deliver them to the constable of the Tower.’

This would imply that all six and not two were sent to the Tower.

The Six Templars
The Six Templars

Temple Dinsley was charged for the care of the Six Templars until June 1308 according to Andrews but we can infer from Addison that they were still being held until September when they were then sent to the Castle. Were there four or six, or just the two. It is very unclear even now.

Whatever the number J D Wetherspoons named their new public house which stands at the entrance to Hertford Castle grounds – ‘The Six Templars’.

Freemasons in Hertford

Of the Freemasons there is more substantial evidence.

To my certain knowledge lodges still meet at the Salisbury. I once entered both meeting rooms on the first floor of the Salisbury Arms Hotel on a misunderstanding that the Hertford Fun Day committee had booked one of them.

I interrupted many a member tying on his apron and was greeted by a chorus of ‘Good Evening John’ by the majority of the members in both rooms. I was not then, nor am now a member of any Freemason Lodge. They do meet regularly and there is very little secrecy about it.

I always thought I knew most about our county town until standing outside the Corn Exchange in 2008 talking to another resident about the Tesco exhibition that was being held there. She expressed her own surprise at not having seen it before but directed my gaze to the opposite side of Fore Street above Sheffield Chemist. They have been trading there since 1804 but the shop front is of 1820-30 style.

Sheffield Chemist
Sheffield Chemist
Owl on the chimney stack
Owl on the chimney stack

On the chimney stack that is shared by Sheffield Chemists and the Nationwide is the figure of a stone owl. This is the masonic symbol of wisdom.

The owl can only be seen within a limited angle of vision. It appears to face the Corn Exchange and can best be viewed from the doorway of this building and a few yards in either direction east and west. Otherwise it is hidden once you reach the traffic island in the middle of the road or continue further east or west along Fore Street. Odd!

During the Second World War the statue of Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest was removed from the roof of the Corn Exchange to prevent any possible bomb damage.

Tim Acheson appears to give the centre of the labyrinth of tunnels and passages under Fore Street as No 42 Fore Street which is now Lussmans restaurant. This is an interesting early nineteenth century building built in the Egyptian Revival style fashionable about the time of Nelson’s Egyptian campaign during the Napoleonic Wars.

It seems more likely that the centre of any secret organisation established at that time would be No 64 Fore Street, ie Sheffield Chemist given that the frontage is dated about the same time as the establishment of Hertford Lodge No.403 and that the symbol of wisdom the owl, sits above it looking over at the centre of Hertford’s booming trade in malting and brewing, the Corn Exchange.

Do tunnels really exist

The Myth Exposed

If you were to type Knights Templar, tunnels, Hertford in your favourite search engine all results will lead you back to Raymond Brown’s article in the Hertfordshire Mercury of October 8th 2004.

If I were to sit down with all the knowledge I have gained from researching this article I could construct the same theory that was proposed to Raymond Brown. Consider the ingredients – members of the Knights Templar imprisoned in Hertford Castle, buried treasure, tunnels, secret passages, secret societies and mix them all up.

You have the makings of a good story that would have intrigued Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and a nation brought up on tales of smugglers caves, castle sieges, King Arthur, his Round Table and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Raymond Brown

Raymond Brown was a good friend of mine. He left the Hertfordshire Mercury in 2007 to work on the Cambridge Evening News and lives outside the area so I don’t see him now. He helped start and run the Stanstead Abbotts River Festival and campaigned for more Government funding for our local rivers. He brought children over from Chernobyl and gave them a holiday on the river on his own house boat.

He was however a controversial journalist. In some ways he is greatly missed. When I was Town Centre Manager he would ring me every Monday morning and ask what was going on. ‘I tend to read the Mercury for that Raymond?’ I would usually ask and he would laugh back at me in his distinctive Scottish accent.

The problem with Raymond was that he liked a good story even if sometimes he couldn’t always substantiate any necessary underlying facts. After the passing of time I am not so sure that even he believed the Achesons’ account; but it was exciting and interesting and different and it got them, Hertford, the Mercury and himself world attention.

He once rang a local councillor for their views on the Templars and the Holy Grail and was told it was a lot of nonsense. His reply was something along the lines of: ‘There is no monster in Loch Ness, but it hasn’t done their tourist trade any harm’.

The Hoax

I believe that Tim and Ben Acheson have constructed a damn good hoax and Hertford and the world have fallen for it. It came at a good time, the publication of the Da Vinci Code and just in time for the 700 year anniversary of the Pope’s elimination of the order.

They achieved world wide publicity and it could have done no harm for their own publication The Insider, which must have garnered millions of hits from around the globe.

Various journalists have asked to meet the twins but they have never appeared together; sometimes not even one of them will turn up for an arranged meeting. Until such time as they are prepared to take an independent film crew into the tunnels of Hertford or produce identifiable photographs of the passageways beneath Hertford’s streets then it is difficult to believe in secret societies meeting in tunnels and chambers beneath this historic market town; or if these are the last resting place of the Holy Grail.

The secret of the tunnels exposed

(The issues in this chapter are discussed more fully in my eBook The Tunnels of Hertford – second edition published 2014 with extra material, photos and two additional chapters.)

I thought that by 2013 I had exhausted all there was to know about tunnels and the Knights Templar in Hertford. Then by chance I bought a few books at a sale in Hertford Museum which opened up new avenues of thought and maybe the final solutions.

I live on Folly Island in the middle of Hertford. The earliest houses were built in 1864 and are simple two up, two down working men’s cottages with an outside privy. I mention this because several local builders who have done work on the island have mentioned the following unusual fact. When the houses were first built there were no dividing walls in the loft spaces. You could walk, possibly crawl, from one end of the street to another; since then the space has been divided in conventional style.

But this simple concept made me think of the underground chambers that are said to proliferate in Hertford town centre. Could these also have been built in such a way that space was shared but as commerce changed more privacy was required.

The question remains: is there a network of tunnels underneath Hertford?

In 1708 a George Osmond was granted permission to establish Hertford’s first waterworks. He intended to run a pipe from land on the northern edge of Folly Island close to the original river into the centre of town. Rosemary Bennett in her history of Folly Island (available from Hertford Museum) gives this as Market Place which is opposite the Salisbury Arms and where Shire Hall stands.

Osmond ran into financial and practical difficulties and the project was taken over by Hertford Borough Corporation. The cost of home installation was beyond all but Hertford’s wealthiest residents. Various funding initiatives took place and in 1816 iron pipes replaced the old wooden ones. Problems continued. The Lea dried up; there were droughts and other water holes also dried up. Water was rationed and the town divided into zones and night supplies cut in rota. The only exception to the latter were breweries.

Bricked up cellars at site of old Youngs brewery in South Street
Bricked up cellars at site of old Youngs brewery in South Street

At the start of this essay the accepted version of tunnels was that they started under Bayley Hall and continued under Market Place and along Fore Street. If we reverse this line of thought then the underground network of tunnels is no more than the tracks of underground pipes that begin on Folly Island, run down the banks of the Lea and continue to Fore Street where they connect to Bayley Hall and then run up to the far eastern end of Fore Street to supply Youngs brewery at The Red House. This answers my earlier question as to why anyone would want to dig a tunnel the length of Fore Street; the answer struck me – to supply the brewery with water.

Rather than run north the tunnels or channels for water pipes actually run south.

Modern engineering methods, the enthusiasm of Hertfordshire Highways and the demand for clean, safe water has made those old pipes and the channels they occupied totally redundant. They have certainly been destroyed by now but the laying of water pipes appears a more satisfactory answer as to why tunnels, or more appropriately channels were dug under Hertford’s streets.

© 2016 John Barber

This page offers a brief resume of the full version of The Tunnels of Hertford in eBook format with recent research and more photographs priced US$2.99. The eBook also contains a full bibliography of all the sources mentioned.

You may quote from this article providing acknowledgement is made to the author and to this web page. Contact John Barber here: moc.r1500943408ebrab1500943408nhoj@1500943408tcatn1500943408oc1500943408