Pontefract’s Heritage at Risk: The Dispensary and Hermitage

by Colin White

Pontefract Dispensary and the medieval Hermitage accessed by its basement are a significant part of Pontefract’s heritage but both are at risk through neglect. The Dispensary has been unused since Pontefract General Infirmary (PGI) closed in 2011 and is now derelict. The Hermitage is endangered by a raised water level due to alteration of the water table from the construction of the new Pontefract Hospital.

 Funded by public subscription in 1880 the Dispensary was the first purpose built hospital in Pontefract. Over the following decades the building was extended and evolved into Pontefract General Infirmary (PGI) which was maintained by the community as a voluntary hospital until the NHS took it over in 1948. By the time it closed in 2011 PGI was a large district general hospital of 500 beds. The Dispensary therefore represents 131 years of PGI heritage but its location has a much longer history: St Richard’s Dominican Friary 1256 – 1538, liquorice cultivation from medieval times until the mid-twentieth century and the Hermitage.

The Hermitage is a unique historical artefact, listed Grade 1 by Historic England, consisting of two chambers chiselled out of the sandstone hillside by hermits. The entrances originally overlooked Friarwood Valley towards St Richard’s Friary 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 51 feet below the centre of Southgate. Pontefract’s most celebrated hermit was Peter of Pomfret who was immortalised in Shakespeare’s King John but he has no historical link with the Hermitage and the first documented hermit was Adam DeLaythorpe in 1386. The adjacent Oratory or chapel was founded in 1432 by the Canon of Nostell Priory. There were hermits in residence until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538/39 when the Oratory was closed and lost to memory until 1854 when workmen digging a new drain in Southgate fell through the roof. After the Dissolution the Hermitage was in private hands, the last owner of the site was Dr William Wright, surgeon to Pontefract Dispensary who left the Hermitage Gardens in his will for the building of the dispensary. 

From the 1970s Pontefract and District Archaeological Society conducted tours with NHS permission until July 2009 when the construction of the new Pontefract Hospital nearby disrupted the water table causing the water level in the Hermitage well to rise. Because of this and the dangerous state of the Dispensary public tours of the Hermitage were no longer safe.

Pontefract Heritage Partnership (PHP) is a community benefit society formed to take ownership of the Dispensary and Hermitage for the community by asset transfer from the NHS. The plan is to restore and renovate the Dispensary, create a social enterprise using part of the building as a visitor centre for the Hermitage and a museum to celebrate the rich history of the site, and rent out the rest of the building commercially to generate income for sustainability of the project. PHP has been negotiating with the Mid Yorkshire Trust for over 6 years and although the NHS wishes to return the building to the community progress has been very slow. 

To learn more about this project go to our website: www.pontefractheritage.co.uk. There will also be a public meeting in St Giles Centre on 13th June with presentations about the Hermitage water problem and the project generally.

This article was featured in Issue 5 – June 2019.

Cover image © Michael Hirst.

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