Discover the history of the Georgian terrace and the people who lived there.
Number 4 Princelet Street is probably the most Instagrammed house in Spitalfields. With its bold pinkish red colour, its shabby façade and charming shutters, it’s proved the perfect backdrop for many a photoshoot – both professional and candid. Today, the building isn’t a home, but is rented out for events or filming locations. However, like many other Georgian terraces in E1, No.4 has an interesting history.
In the early 18th century, the area we now know today as Spitalfields was the edge of London – with fields spreading out east just beyond Brick Lane. The area had been a hub for industry since the 15th century when it was known for brick and tile manufacturing. Over a century later, a young man named Joseph Truman Senior (d.1719) joined the William Bucknall’s brewery near Brick Lane around 1666. Thirteen years later, entrepreneurial Joseph acquired the brewery’s lease following the death of Bucknall. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the Truman family rapidly grew the Black Eagle Brewery, later known as the Truman Brewery (but more on the Trumans later).
With London’s population rapidly expanding in the early 18th century, housing development on the city’s fringes continued at pace. Two London lawyers Charles Wood and Simon Michell started developing the roads known today as Fournier Street (aka Church St), Wilkes Street (aka Wood St) and Princelet Street between 1718 and 1728. When the latter was built, it was known as ‘Princesse Street’ or ‘Princes Street’. It appears to have renamed Princelet Street in the 1890s. Wood and Michell leased the land to master builders, who built terraces of townhouses for both sale and lease. Although these houses are expensive and sought-after today, at the time they were aimed towards working Londoners and migrants, particularly the Huguenots, who had been fleeing religious persecution in France in waves since the 1680s.
When it was built in 1723, No.4 Princelet Street was actually numbered No.2 Princes Street. Together with No.1 Princes Street (now No.2 Princelet Street), the pair were the last houses to be built on the road. Wood and Michell had granted local carpenter and builder Samuel Worrall 99 year leases to erect the two terraces, as well as No.6 Wilkes Street around the corner. In June 1724, Worrall leased 1 Princes Street and 6 Wilkes Street to a glover for £756 per annum.
Back to the Truman family, whose business was booming in the early 18th century. Joseph Snr’s grandson Sir Benjamin Truman (1699-1780) had joined the family-run Black Eagle brewery and it was under his watch the business saw rapid expansion, becoming one of the biggest breweries in London. He supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was later knighted by King George III (1738-1820). Benjamin moved into 2 Princes Street in 1724, which was a perfect location due to its close proximity to the brewery. Four years later, Benjamin would have a next door neighbour in textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), who moved to 1 Princes Street in 1728 with her sister Mary. Today, a blue plaque commemorates Anna’s residency at the house. Read the rest of this entry
On an ‘island’ in the side streets of Westminster stands an old remainder of a Georgian poor school. Although the pupils have long moved on, the listed building is now home to an upmarket bridal boutique. At the junction of Buckingham Gate and Caxton Street is a 17th century schoolhouse building. Blewcoat School was originally founded in Duck Lane (now known as St Matthew Street) in Tothill Fields, slightly south of its present site, in 1688. It was established as a charity school to educate 50 impoverished boys from the parish of St Margaret’s and St John. Pupils wore a uniform of long blue coats and yellow stockings, the colour blue being associated with charity at the time.
In 1709, local brewer William Greene (d.1732) leased some land from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to build a permanent building for the school. Greene and his brothers had inherited a lot of land in the areas of Chelsea, Kensington and Westminster from their brewer father John. The family had owned the Stag Brewery at Tothill Fields since 1641 and it was rebuilt and enlarged in 1715 by William. In the 19th century, the brewery was taken over by Watney, with the Westminster site eventually closing in 1959. Today, there’s a nod to the former brewery with a road by the school being named Brewer’s Green. William Greene built a school and schoolmaster’s house on Caxton Street, with many of the pupils being sons of his brewery workers. The timing to move locations was good as Duck Lane was swiftly going downhill, with the area dubbed Devil’s Acre by Charles Dickens. Devil’s Acre had become one of the capital’s most notorious slums in the mid 18th century, renowned for its stench, dire sanitation standards, and cheap, dark dwellings.
Although there is no record of the architect, there has been speculation it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). The two-storey building was built of brown brick with two tiers of windows on every side. The main entrance on Caxton Street features a Doric porch with a statue of a Blewcoat pupil in the famous blue coat above the door. The interiors feature pilasters, coving, Corinthian columns and fireplaces.
Now established in Caxton Street, the Blewcoat School pupils spent their days learning to read and write and about religion and trades. The school paid for the education of 20 boys for free, alongside fee-paying boys. Around four-five years after the move to Caxton Street, the school started admitting girls, who were also taught needlework and household chores. In 1842, records showed there were 86 poor children enrolled (52 boys and 34 girls). The school educated generations of boys and girls until 1876 when it ceased hosting female pupils. In 1899, the governors obtained an order to close the school and give the land and the buildings to the Vestry of St Margaret’s and St John. The Blewcoat moved premises to another site, with the original building being used for the Infants’ Department of the Christchurch School. The building ceased educating children in 1926.
During World War II, the Blewcoat School building was used by US services as a store. In peacetime, it was utilised for a spell by the Girl Guides. In 1954, the building was Grade I listed by Historic England and bought by the National Trust. The NT used the school as a membership and head office, later being converted into a gift shop. In 2013, fashion designer Ian Stuart gained permission to refurbish the interior and use the building as a boutique for bridal gowns and evening wear. It was opened the following year, and Stuart remains in business today. You may have seen him and the school building in the Channel 4 show The Posh Frock Shop.
- Ian Stewart – Blewcoat, 23 Caxton Street, Westminster, SW1H 0PY. Nearest stations: St James’s Park or Victoria.
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The history of Bedfordbury, which dates back to the 17th century.
Due to widespread slum clearance and redevelopment over the centuries, there aren’t many Georgian shop buildings left in the West End. However, two such shops have managed to survive for over 200 years, despite previously standing in one of the most notorious slums in central London.
Bedfordbury is a short road of only about 500ft, linking New Row to Chandos Place. The name Bedfordbury comes from the Earls of Bedford, who acquired the seven acres of land in the 16th century. As Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford (1572-1627), focused his energies on developing the centre of estate, the fringes became a magnet for haphazard building. A series of small alleys linking Bedfordbury to St Martin’s Lane, including May’s Buildings, Hop Gardens, Turner’s Court, Goodwin’s Court, and Brydges Place, started to pop up. By 1700, the Earls and Dukes of Bedford had practically lost control over the buildings. The lack of landlord control meant the buildings’ standards were far from adequate and the area started to disintegrate into slums, with large groups of families being squashed into upper storeys above the shop levels. In 1887, the steward of the 9th Duke of Bedford’s London estates, wrote: “Every grantee became his own freeholder and his plot of land was under his own absolute control, with this result: that Bedfordbury commenced its career by every man doing what was right in his own eyes in the way of building. A number of alleys came into existence, and instead of a single house being put upon a single plot … a man would put two or three or four on it, may be half-a-dozen houses, or cottages, or anything he pleased upon it, and that went on in perpetuity; and from the time those grants were made until a few years ago… Bedfordbury gradually became one of the worst dens in London.”
No. 23 and No. 24 are likely to be the oldest existing buildings today on Bedfordbury. Built in late 18th century, the terraced houses incorporate the entrance to Goodwin’s Court. Both buildings stand tall at three storeys and have dormered mansard roofs. However, No.24 is slightly wider and features two dormers, with the entrance passage to the Court on the left. The current ground floor shop fronts are not original. No.24’s shop dates back to around the first half of the 19th century, while No. 23 has a mid-century bowed shop window to complement the similar styled windows of Goodwin’s Court.
From the late 18th century to the present day, there has been a high turnover of businesses in the shops at No. 23 and 24. In 1791, a man named Barnard Baker sold household upholstery and hardware, followed by chandler and coal dealer Richard Davis in 1798. Next door at No.21 was a pub called the Cock & Bottle, which stood on the site for over 100 years, but has long been demolished. In 1833, a miniature and jewel case maker William Fuller, of No.23, was declared insolvent at the debtors’ court. By 1842, 23 and 24 were the premises for surgeon JN Walters and hairdressers Cowan & Co respectively.
Moving into the 19th century, the turnover of shops and residents continued to be high – no doubt many were keen to move on when finances allowed due to area’s reputation as a slum. Among the businesses at 23 and 24 in the mid 19th century were greengrocer Michael McNallay and hairdresser/perfumier Reuben Clamp. In 1859, Victorian author and journalist George Augustus Sala (1828-1895) wrote of his disgust of Bedfordbury, describing it as a “wretched little haunt”. He elaborated: “A devious, slimy little reptile of a place, whose tumble-down tenements and reeking courts spume forth plumps of animated rags, such as can be equalled in no London thoroughfare save Church Lane, St Giles. I don’t think there are five windows in Bedfordbury with a whole pane of glass in them. Rags and filthy loques are hung from poles, like banners from the outward walls.” In April 1871, No.24 made the newspaper after one of its residents, John Pencott, was hospitalised after being bitten by his girlfriend in the cheek.
Learn about the history of Somerset House on a free tour.
Somerset House is one of my favourite London buildings. It’s so versatile, full of history, is beautiful to look at and has a wealth of entertainment and art options. The current building we see today dates back to the 18th and 19th century, but its history goes way back to the 16th century. With over 450 years of history on the site, there’s a lot to take in. However, the Historical Highlights Tour, which takes place every week is a good place to start.
The first large house on the site was a two-storey property, which started to be built in 1547. It was a home for the Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1500-1552), who was given the land by his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. He served as Lord Protector of England for the first two years of his nephew King Edward VI’s (1537-1553) reign from 1547-1549, who was only nine when he came to the Throne. However, Somerset was overthrown in October 1549 and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552. His house, known as Somerset Place, was taken into the crown’s possession, with the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) living there during her half-sister Queen Mary’s (1516-1558) reign. However, the house hadn’t been completed decades later, with 16th century historian John Stow (1524/25-1605) referring to Somerset Place as still ‘yet unfinished’ in 1598 – over 50 years after building work started.
By 1603, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort to King James I of England (or James VI of Scotland) was given Somerset Place for her London residence, with it renamed Denmark House in her honour. Anne enrolled architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), among others, to make some improvements and additions to the long neglected house. Following Anne’s death, Jones designed a chapel in 1636 where her daughter-in-law, Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), wife of King Charles I, could quietly worship as a Roman Catholic, when Protestant was the dominant religion of the time. A small cemetery was established outside the chapel, with some of the 17th century gravestones being shown during the tour. Read the rest of this entry
The history behind Horace Walpole’s unique 18th century home.
Without a doubt, Strawberry Hill is one of the most unique houses in the capital. I was first introduced to it when I saw an Instagram photo of the building’s stunning Gallery and wanted to find out more. Built as a private home, it stands in Twickenham, south-west London, a short walk from the Thames and is now open to the public as a museum.
Strawberry Hill was built in stages from 1749 to 1776 as a home for Horace Walpole (1717-1797), a politician and the son of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Horace was under pressure to find himself a country seat (18th century Twickenham was countryside) and found one of the last sites available in the very fashionable area. The original house on the site was called Chopp’d Straw Hall, which Horace wasn’t too impressed with and renamed his new build Strawberry Hill after finding the name on an old lease.
Work on the house started in 1749 with Horace conceiving a vision of a Gothic castle. His inspiration from Medieval architecture predated the Victorian architectural fashion for Gothic revival many decades later. Horace and his team of amateur architectures looked at the Henry VII chapel and tombs at Westminster Abbey, as well as tombs from Canterbury Cathedral for ideas. The resulting building looks like a cross between castles and Gothic cathedrals. The first stage of construction was complete by 1753, with a second stage of alterations taking place in 1760, a third in 1772, with work finally being completed in 1776, costing £20,720 – a rather hefty sum in the 18th century. Read the rest of this entry
Have you spotted the old lettering reading ‘Exchange and Bullion Office’ on this Georgian terrace?
Without a doubt, Wardour Street is one of the busiest roads in the West End. Stretching the length of Soho and bordered by Chinatown, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, it means the street attracts a lot of traffic – both vehicle and pedestrian. Most Londoners and tourists will have passed down Wardour Street at some point in their commute to work, sightsee or socialise. However, with the road so busy, how often do you have time to stop and look up at the buildings around you?
Wardour Street is home to a wide range of architecture from the 1700s to present day – such as the W Hotel. The road itself has been named various things over the centuries and has been visible on maps since the Elizabethan times. In the late 16th century, it was named Colmanhedge Lane, which was then a popular route across the fields of the Burton Saint Lazar lands. The lane linked the Charing Cross area to the main road we now know as Oxford Street, which was simply described as ‘the Way from Vxbridge to London’. Old maps of what is now known as Soho shows the lane follows the current Wardour Street nearly exactly, including the slight bends at Old Compton Street and Brewer Street.
Following the Restoration in 1660, the land at the southern end of Wardour Street was leased by Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1699) to Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans (1605-1684). By 1676, her son King Charles II (1630-1685) granted the freehold of the three and half acre plot to the Earl, who swiftly disposed of the land to builders, who erected buildings by 1681-2. On a 1682 map, what we now know as Wardour Street were actually three different roads – So Ho in the north, Whitcomb Street in the middle and the abbreviated Hedge Lane had remained for the southern end. However, within three years, the portion of the road between Coventry Street and Brewer Street was renamed again as Princes Street after Prince Rupert (1619-1682), while the upper part near Oxford Street was renamed Wardour Street after the landowner at the time Sir Edward Wardour (d.1694). It was during the 17th century that Soho was really transformed from fields into a residential and business district. By 1687, the properties on Princes St were owned by Sir Anthony Deane, who sold them to Richard Bourne. By the 1720s and 1730s, many of the buildings on Princes Street were of poor quality and were torn down and rebuilt by Bourne’s family.
The history of the ‘little brother’ to The Monument.
Most Londoners have heard of The Monument in the City – after all there’s a tube station named after it and it’s pretty visible on the skyline (despite the increasing amounts of skyscrapers). The Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and erected in the 17th century to commemorate the beginning of the Great Fire Of London in 1666. However, did you know there’s also a monument to mark the end of the Great Fire? While The Monument is a 202ft tall Grade I-listed structure, the sculpture commemorating the end is rather more low-key.
The Golden Boy Of Pye Corner is located on the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane in the Smithfield area of the City. The name Pye (or Pie) Corner is believed to have come from a nearby inn, named the Maypie or the Magpie, which has long since gone. At the time of the Great Fire in September 1666, a pub named The Fortune Of War stood on Pye Corner. Five days after starting at a bakery on Pudding Lane, the Great Fire finally came to an end at the pub (although this has been disputed by critics who believed it’s too convenient to have a Pudding Lane and a Pye Corner at either end of the inferno). Cock Lane stems back to at least 1200, taking its name from where fighting cocks were sold. However, the lane had a rather more smutty association by the late Middle Ages, when it was the only place in the City you could find legal brothels (most of brothels of the time being south of the river in Southwark/Borough). Meanwhile, Giltspur Street is believed to have been named for the gilt spurs worn by knights at jousting tournaments at Smithfield. While the name is first recorded in the 16th century, it was previously known as Knightsriders Street during the Medieval heyday of the jousting tournaments in the area.
While The Monument was completed in 1677 – 11 years after the Great Fire – the sculpture of the Golden Boy did not appear until the early 18th century, erected on The Fortune Of War public house. The wooden carving of a chubby little boy, around 2ft tall, was made to represent the gluttony of Londoners. One of the many causes suggested for the fire was it had been a punishment from God for the city’s residents being so gluttonous. He originally had the words ‘This boy is in memory put up for the late Fire of London, occasion’d by the sin of gluttony, 1666’ inscribed upon his torso, but it eventually became impossible to read. When he was first carved, he was a natural wood colour and was given many nicknames, including ‘The Glutton’, ‘Fat Boy’ or ‘Naked Boy’. It was only when he was gilded in the late 19th century, he became known as ‘The Golden Boy’.
A few decades after being gilded, The Fortune Of War was torn down in 1910 and on its site now stands the Grade II-listed headquarters of City & Guilds (an image of the pub just before demolition, can be found here.). Fortunately, The Golden Boy was remounted on the Edwardian building with his original chest inscription carved underneath him in stone. Below that, reads a rather lengthy sentence (which in my opinion is crying out for some punctuation): ‘The boy at Pye Corner was erected to commemorate the staying of the great fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the Sin of Gluttony when not attributed to the papists as on the Monument and the Boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral he was originally built into the front of a public-house called The Fortune of War which used to occupy this site and was pulled down in 1910. The Fortune of War was the chief house of call North of the River for Resurrectionists in body snatching days years ago. The landlord used to show the room where on benches round the walls the bodies were placed labelled with the snatchers’ names waiting till the surgeons at Saint Bartholomew’s could run round and appraise them.’ This rather gruesome fact refers to The Fortune Of War being renowned as a popular hotspot for body snatchers in the 19th century. Located across the road from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, surgeons and anatomists would visit the pub to buy bodies for research.
- The Golden Boy Of Pye Corner can be found on the junction of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest stations: Farringdon, St Paul’s or City Thameslink.
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The historic pump outside the Royal Exchange was restored in 2013.
Less than two years ago, I blogged about the sorry state of the old Georgian water pump on Cornhill in the City of London. I’m happy to say, it has since been restored and repainted a completely different colour. This post will revisit the history behind the Cornhill pump, which has long stopped providing water, but is now an attractive piece of London’s street furniture and a protected piece of our heritage.
Cornhill is a road in the heart of the City of London, known for its bustling offices and designer boutiques. Located a stone’s throw from the Bank of England, the name Cornhill comes from it being one of the city’s three hills – the others being Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill.
While demand for public wells has ceased over the past 100 years, the staggering history and aesthetics of the City’s old street furniture means many of these pumps can still be seen today. The Cornhill pump is outside the Gucci store at the Royal Exchange, just a minute’s walk up from the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street, the location of ‘The Standard’ – the first mechanically pumped water supply in London. Constructed in 1582 on the site of previous hand-pumped wells, it was discontinued in 1603. As well as being a source for water, The Standard became a meeting place and also the mark from which distances from London were judged, before this later moved to Charing Cross.
Although The Standard pump was discontinued in the early 17th century, back down the hill outside Gucci, the current pump was erected nearly 200 years later. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the rapidly expanding population of the developing city, there was a growing demand for water pumps in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1708, the Government passed the Parish Pump Act, ordering that every parish in London must have a water pump and designate men to extinguish fires.
In the late 18th century, two of the City’s big players of the time, the East India Company and the Bank of England, together with the local fire stations and the bankers and traders who worked in the area, jointly funded the cast iron pump (it is believed adjoining granite trough is likely from a later date). It was designed by architect Nathaniel Wright, who built St Botolph Aldersgate in Postman’s Park and was the surveyor to the north district of the City of London.
The inscription on the road-facing side of the pump reads: ‘On this spot a well was first made and a House of Correction built thereon by Henry Wallis Mayor of London in the year 1282.’ It continues on the Royal Exchange-facing side: ‘The well was discovered much enlarged and this pump erected in the year 1799 by the contributions of the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring fire offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill.’ As well as the inscriptions, the Grade II-listed pump has fire insurance emblems on each side at the top – Royal Exchange, Sun, Phoenix and County. The base facing the Royal Exchange reads ‘Phillips & Hopwood, Engine makers, fecerunt’, which was practically invisible when it was previously painted in black until the restoration. Philips & Hopwood were a Blackfriars-based firm co-owned by Samuel Philips and James Hopwood, who made pumps and fire engines, which existed between 1797-1811. Fecerunt is a Latin term, meaning ‘to put in place’.
When I first spotted the pump in 2012, it was in a sorry state. It was painted in the City of London’s light blue colour, just like the Old Police Telephone posts. However, the paint was peeling, rust was setting in and it generally looked neglected amid the flashy surrounding buildings of the City. The pump had actually been Grade II-listed by English Heritage in January 1950. Fortunately, at some point in 2013, the pump was restored and repainted. It now stands shiny and bright, in cream and white paint, complementing the nearby boutiques of the Royal Exchange. The inscriptions have been painted black so are now clearer to read. Unfortunately the granite trough has gone and has been replaced by a small wrought iron railing – presumably to protect the pump from potentially bad parking or drivers! However, the missing trough means you can now read the architect’s name across the road-facing base.
As a little side note, the pump in it’s original blue state can be seen in the climax of the first Bridget Jones’s Diary movie, where Renee Zellweger’s Bridget enjoys her first kiss with Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy after he buys her a new diary from the Royal Exchange.
- The Cornhill pump is located on the north side of Cornhill, outside Gucci (9 Change Alley), City of London EC3V. Nearest station: Bank.
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Read more about the City of London’s street furniture and the Royal Exchange
The Georgian terrace has a plaque claiming to be the former home of Sir Christopher Wren… but what’s the truth?
Cardinal’s Wharf isn’t usually on a tourist’s checklist of things to see in London. However, inevitably a large proportion of visitors will pass by it while on the way to the Globe or Tate Modern and be attracted to the row of 18th century terraced houses juxtaposed by 20th century architecture. Standing out amongst the three buildings is the tallest – No. 49 Bankside – a three-storey cream building with red door. If you get close enough, you’ll find a cream, ceramic plaque linking it to a very important Englishman – Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Renowned as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich and many of the City of London’s churches, Wren is an important name in the history of the capital. The plaque claims: ‘Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral. Here also, in 1502, Catherine Infanta of Castile and Aragon, afterwards first queen of Henry VIII, took shelter on her first landing in London.’
If you stand with your back to the building, you have a lovely view of St Paul’s over the Thames. It’s easy to imagine Wren retiring with a glass of something to the first floor in the evening after a long day at work and gazing out of the window surveying the progress… however, sadly it’s not quite what happened. Wren was tasked with rebuilding a lot of the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666 and is believed to have based himself at Bankside… but at a building a few doors down from No.49, which has long been demolished.
Writer and historian Gillian Tindall uncovered the truth behind the myth of the building in her 2006 book The House By The Thames: And The People Who Lived There. It turns out No.49 was actually built in 1710 – the same year St Paul’s Cathedral was completed, so that already debunks the theory Wren was based there during the decades it took to build his masterpiece. Tindall believes the plaque stood on the actual house that Wren did live in, but a few houses east – situated where a modern block of flats stands today behind the Founders Arms pub. Her theory suggests Malcolm Munthe (1910-1995), who owned the property in 1945, retrieved the plaque when the original Wren building was demolished and placed it on No.49 to protect it from demolition (for a photo of No.49 in 1946, click here). While the act may have led many to confuse fact and fiction, the plaque’s incorrect placing has managed to save the house from destruction. Bankside was heavily bombed during World War II, before there was mass demolition and redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s, so the continued existence of these three houses in Cardinal’s Wharf is a remarkable thing. According to Nicky Haslam’s 2009 memoirs ‘Redeeming Features’, antiques dealer and ‘King of Chelsea’, Christopher Gibbs (1938-2018) lived at No.49 at some point in the 1960s. Situated next to the 1940s-built Tate Modern (formerly Bankside Power Station) and the modern reconstruction of The Globe theatre (opened 1997), Cardinal’s Wharf is a striking contrast to the modernity around it. The house used to stand a lot closer to the Thames, until the Greater London Council revised the waterline back in the 1970s, creating a larger pedestrianised area we see today. No.49 remains the oldest house on Bankside today. Read the rest of this entry
If time travel were ever made possible, I would do everything in my power to get to the front of the queue to try it out. However, with the possibility of crossing space and time looking unlikely at the moment, I’ll have to make do with my imagination…
This is where the unique Dennis Severs’ House comes in. While not exactly a museum, this private house is opened on rare evenings as a ‘still-life drama’. Earlier this month, I booked tickets for an evening visit time slot with my mother after hearing the house was opening its doors. As we weren’t allowed to take photos – so as to not distract from the experience – I will attempt to give a best description as possible of this unusual visit.
The Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate Street, standing amidst a neat row of early Georgian terraces, just a stone’s throw from Spitalfields Market. No. 18 was built in 1724 and had four storeys, including a basement – featuring 10 rooms which are all accessed on your visit. At the time of building, Folgate Street was known as White Lion Street, being renamed the former in 1938. In the early 19th century, an attorney lived in the property, with a silk or velvet manufacturer moving in in 1856.
The fact No.18 is still standing is very lucky indeed, as its neighbour at 20 was demolished in the 1950s, with 12 and 14 following suit in 1980. These lost houses were eventually replaced by the Georgian-inspired modern terraces you see today.
The late American artist Dennis Severs (1947-1999) bought the property in 1979 when it was dilapidated and spent 20 years restoring each room in different historical styles from the 18th and 19th centuries. Throughout each room are signs of the fictional inhabitants, the Huguenot Jervis family, who are imagined to have lived in the house over several generations.
After being greeted at the front door, we were given a brief premise to turn off our phones, no cameras or talking and let the house draw us in. The motto of the house is, ‘You either see it, or you don’t.’ Starting on the ground floor, before working our way down to the basement, then up to the upper floors, each room was full with antique furniture, clothing and other remnants from yesteryear. However, in contrast to museums where visitors are kept at a distance from roped off interiors, you are invited to study the objects in furniture in great detail, up close and personal. If you looked close enough, you could see little notes written by the Jervis family.
Although no-one lives in the house now, lit candles, sound effects and crackling fires makes 18 Folgate Street feel very much alive. Discarded clothing, half-eaten food, unmade beds and broken cups on the floor give the impression the house is still being lived in – but as if the inhabitants have just popped out for a minute, or perhaps left in a rush. The creaky, original staircases and my barely-visible reflection in the aged, glass mirrors added to the feeling I was in another time. Further fuelling the historic atmosphere, sound effects of ringing bells, clip-clop of horses and carriages and cannon shots helped drown out the 21st century sounds outside.
After 45 minutes, I left the Dennis Severs’ House very impressed. It is such a unique place and gives you plenty food for thought. When visiting for the first time, keep an open mind and embrace the quiet and olde world of the house. Although it is also open for some daytime visits, through personal experience I would believe the evening visits would be a lot more atmospheric.
- Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX. Check the website for detailed opening times and how to book. Nearest stations: Liverpool Street or Shoreditch High Street (Overground). For more information, visit the Dennis Severs’ House website.
To watch Dan Cruickshank’s BBC documentary on the house on YouTube, click here.
Learn about the history of another Spitalfields terrace, No.4 Princelet Street.
For more blog posts on London history, click here.