41-42 Cloth Fair: City of London’s oldest house which has survived the Great Fire and the Blitz
How did this 16th century house in Smithfield survive war, riots and fires?
The Great Fire of London ravaged the City of London in 1666, altering the cityscape forever. However, despite the blaze ending around Giltspur Street just 300 metres away, one Smithfield home dating to before the fire still survives today. Located opposite St Bartholomew The Great Church is what is said to be the oldest house in the City of London. The name Cloth Fair stems back to the annual cloth fair held in August in the churchyard of St Bartholomew, which has stood on the site since 1123 when it was an Augustinian Priory. The fair was originally a trading place for merchants, but its popularity meant other attractions became popping up, including freak shows, music and other stalls. It later became known as the Bartholomew Fair and ran until 1855. It was only after the dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII (1491–1547) that the priory was reduced and houses were allowed to be built in the area. Located in what is known as the Farringdon Without ward of the City, 41-42 Cloth Fair is the only home on the road surviving from that period. The building dates back to the late Tudor/Jacobean period, having been constructed between 1597 and 1614 by Henry Rich.
When the building of 41-42 Cloth Fair was completed in 1614, it was part of a scheme of 11 houses with a courtyard in the middle called ‘the Square in Launders Green’, named so because it was on the site of the priory’s laundry. Amazingly, the houses managed to survive the Great Fire when it struck 52 years later. Records show they were unscathed due to being enclosed with the large priory walls.
During the 1700s, the building was used as a wool drapers’ shop run by Thomas and Elizabeth Witham. The decades and centuries went by and the buildings remained – if a little ravaged by time – until the early 20th century. By 1904, the building housed Markham & Co’s wholesale cutlers and electro-platers business until 1927. In 1929, 41-42 Cloth Fair was earmarked for demolition by the Corporation of London as part of its slum clearance programme on the grounds of public health. Fortunately it was saved when it was bought for £3,000 freehold, before being restored by Paul Paget (1901-1985) and John Seely (the 2nd Lord Mottistone) in 1930, who used the building as their home and an office for their architectural practice until 1978. It obviously survived The Blitz and was converted into offices for an estate agents in 1979 after it was sold by Paget and Seely. Over the 80s and early 90s it was rather neglected, but fortunately bought in 1995 and extensively renovated to the home you see today, with the co-operation of English Heritage, Royal Commission of Historic Monuments and the City of London Corporation.
The ground floor exterior is probably the most changed today and looks pretty modern. However, if you look up at the first and second floors, the rectangular timber bays with led glass windows and their pediment crowns are evidence of its history. Today the address is a Grade II-listed four-bedroom home with roof terrace worth several million pounds. In 2000, the building was honoured with the City Heritage Award for being an asset to the local area. Among the famous people to have visited the house include Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). There are rumours that skeletons are buried in foundations of the building, which is plausible given its location so close to the church.
Meanwhile, when you’re in the area check out 43 Cloth Fair next door – a Georgian house which was formerly home to Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), a writer and broadcaster who was a significant figure in the heritage movement and fought to save many historical buildings from demolition. A blue plaque notes the former resident and today you can rent the house for a holiday let from the Landmark Trust. Also, around the corner on West Smithfield is St Bartolomew’s Gatehouse, another survivor from the Tudor period.
- 41-42 Cloth Fair, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest stations: Farringdon, Barbican or St Pauls. Please note this is a private residence and not open to the public.
To read about the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse around the corner, click here.
Or to find out about the nearby Golden Boy Of Pye Corner, to commemorate the end of the Great Fire, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.