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Archive for February, 2018

A guest post by LH member Lissa Chapman. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter from February 2014.

I remember exactly where I was at 1am on 1st February 1994. Standing at the top of an eighteenth century staircase in Hackney at the end of a sixteen-hour day, wondering if I had the energy left to walk down the stairs, let alone organise a press launch later that morning. This was the culmination of six years’ hard work involving hundreds of people: Sutton House was about to reopen after its restoration – although that one word hardly does the story justice.

Twenty years on, Sutton House has the glossily cared-for, slightly corporate look of most National Trust properties It is hard to remember, and must be harder still to imagine, that only seven years before that triumphant reopening, Sutton House was derelict, filthy, much of its past forgotten and its future likely to take the form of redevelopment as private flats. Yet it had been in National Trust ownership for half a century.

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Sutton House from Homerton High Street.

The background to this unlikely-seeming story is this. Sutton House was presented to a less than enthusiastic National Trust in the 1930s, long before such a modestly sized house in a run-down urban area was much valued. So it was given basic repairs and let, latterly serving as offices to the trade union ASTMS until their sudden departure in the early 1980s. At that point the house, empty, leaking and forlorn, was regarded by the management of the National Trust as a “Pandora’s box of problems”. And soon those problems were compounded when squatters moved in. It was at this point that the conversion proposal was put forward. And it was a close-run thing.

Three local residents wrote separate letters to the Hackney Gazette deploring the neglected present and uncertain future of Sutton House; this quickly resulted in the birth of the Save Sutton House campaign, and the first open day was held in December 1987. I first visited the following summer. The poster had described a Tudor house: I almost walked past it. But once in, I soon became involved – early memories include rare breed sheep in the courtyard, fortune tellers in the west cellar and baking vast numbers of cakes to sell. Almost anything went – on one occasion a group of decorous young folk dancers were joined by a patient from one of the supposedly locked wards of Hackney Hospital. It took the audience a few seconds to realise he was naked from the waist down, and a few more to conclude that he was not a new sort of Morris man.

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The state of the courtyard in 1991.

Once the National Trust had changed its mind about Sutton House, planning began for its future. And the final agreement was that the house should be made available after restoration not only for formal education purposes and individual visits, but as accommodation for meetings, parties and performances. One room on the second floor became a National Trust office, and into this moved a project manager and fundraiser – It was discovered that it would be necessary to spend over £2 million to restore the house.

While these battles raged, the true history of the house began to emerge, winkled shred by shred out of Hackney and other archives. Much of it was unearthed by a photographer called Mike Gray. It turned out that the name “Sutton House” was the invention of a Victorian historian who knew that Thomas Sutton had lived somewhere in Hackney (he was almost right – Sutton’s house had been close by). In Sutton’s time, Hackney was a village, famous for its healthy air and its market gardens, located at a convenient weekly commuting distance from London. Wealthy City merchants built houses for their families here, conveniently close to their place of business yet away from the ever-present risk of disease in the crowded city.

The true builder of what was at first known as the “bryk place” turned out to be a man named Ralph Sadleir, a self-made millionaire who began his career in the household of Thomas Cromwell and who survived not only his master’s fall but lived to be an octogenarian and the richest commoner in England. This was the house he built when he was on his way up in the world, and the home where his children spent much of their early years. By the end of Henry VIII’s reign he was not only established as a valued royal servant, but had become rich, owning thousands of acres across southern England. So he sold his modest Hackney property, and the house became home to a succession of mercantile families, later serving as one of the girls’ schools for which Hackney was known in the seventeenth century (the ever-susceptible Samuel Pepys made special trips to the local church so he could ogle the school girls, stopping off at a pub for cherries and cream).

Over the following centuries the “bryk place” was transformed, extended, renamed, given new identities, new surroundings and new neighbours. It was in turn one house, two houses, flats, several different schools, a church youth club, a warehouse and assorted offices. Its 30-acre home farm shrank to a small courtyard: it was refaced, re-fenestrated, re-roofed and re-used. It was small enough and useful enough to survive while every one of the other Hackney mansions was destroyed.

All these transformations had left their evidence in the fabric – and these layers of time were kept when the house was restored. Now visitors can open inset doors in panelling to see what is beneath, lift floorboards in the Great Chamber to see the structure of the joists, walk through a room that looks unequivocally Victorian, open the door of the adjoining Tudor garde robe and examine preserved cobwebs, then go up a floor and see one of the squatters’ wall paintings still in place.

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London Historians’ group visit to Sutton House in 2015.

The next chapter Sutton House’s history began in late 2014 when the plot of land next door, which was a car repair yard in 1994, opened as a community garden. Archaeological investigation had revealed some of the brickwork of the house that stood next door in Ralph Sadleir’s day.

For the record, I did manage to get to the bottom of the stairs. And most of what could then still be termed Fleet Street wrote about the house and its restoration. In 1994 few journalists found it easy to believe anything good could be happening in Hackney. But a lot has happened since then.


Lissa Chapman is co-founder of Clio’s Company which specialises in London-based site-specific theatre. Among many previous adventures, she was the first press officer for the newly-restored Sutton House. 

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A guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter of February 2014.

One of the really fascinating characters in Eighteenth Century London was a certain Mr John Joseph Merlin. He was born at Huys, near Maastricht, in Belgium on 17 Sept 1735. If he is known at all, it’s for inventing a form of roller skate and crashing into a mirror when making a spectacular appearance at a soiree. While playing the violin and wearing his skates…(as one does).

The earliest mention of this Grand Entrance appears to come from a work entitled “Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes” written by Thomas Busby in 1805.
He relates:

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.”

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John Joseph Merlin by Gainsborough.

There was, however, rather more to Mr Merlin than inventing skates-sans-brakes. Indeed, he is one of my heroes of the century – a man whose accomplishments fitted perfectly into the Georgian era. Merlin was an inventor, a showman, a fine musician, a clock maker and much more besides.

It appears that he studied for six years as a maker of clocks, automata and mathematical and musical instruments at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. He came to the notice of the Court and arrived in England in May 1760, aged twenty-five, as part of a diplomatic entourage. He soon made valuable friends and connections, including Johann Christian Bach, Thomas Gainsborough and many others.

Merlin was also a popular visitor at the household of the musicologist Charles Burney, father of Fanny Burney. She observed: “He is a great favourite in our house…He is very diverting also in conversation. There is a singular simplicity in his manners. He speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom. He does not, though a foreigner, want words; but he arranges and pronounces them very comically.”

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Charles Burney by Joshua Reynolds.

He set to and developed many refinements to existing musical instruments – to the harp, the harpsichord, the new-fangled pianoforte and so on. He invented and patented a harpsichord with pianoforte action. By 1763 he appears to have been involved in the preparation and finishing of a large barrel organ as a gift for the mother of George III.

By 1766 he had started working with James Cox, the brilliant showman, jeweller and goldsmith who opened a museum at Spring Gardens at Charing Cross. Merlin became Cox’s “chief mechanic” developing the mechanism for the famous Silver Swan, now the star of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.
When Cox got into financial difficulties, Merlin decided to set up on his own. In 1783 he acquired premises at 11 Princes Street off Hanover Square and called the place Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. Here he offered refreshments to visitors, charging two shillings and sixpence to go in during the morning session and three shillings in the evening.

What they saw was an impressive array of his automata and various inventions. One of the people attending the exhibition was a young schoolboy from Devon called Charles Babbage. The story goes that Merlin took Charles upstairs to see his workshop and to show some more exotic automata. Babbage later recalled: “There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high”. One of the figures was “an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak”. Babbage was completely gob-smacked. “The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible”. In 1834 Babbage actually managed to buy the two exhibits which had so profoundly affected him.

He was later to go on and invent the forerunner of the modern computer.

As if inspiring the Father of Computing was not enough, Merlin invented a host of other items:

  • A mechanical chariot equipped with a mechanical whip and an early form of odometer called a “way-wise.” The distance covered was shown on a dial at the side of the vehicle. Apparently Merlin liked to advertise his chariot by riding it through Hyde Park on Sundays.
  • A Dutch oven or Rotisseur with a mechanical jack to turn meat (patented 1773).
  • A bell communication system to summon servants, with a list annexed to the bell push.
  • A ‘Gouty Chair’, propelled and steered by the user turning winches on the arms. 1811.
  • A mechanical garden.
  • A revolving tea table with a robotic 12 cup central samovar for the perfect Georgian hostess.
  • A Hygeian pump to “expel foul air out of Ships Hospitals Bed clothes etc”.
  • A gambling machine which, once wound up, would play a game of ‘odd and even’ for up to four hours!
  • A set of whist cards for the blind (a sort of braille precursor).
  • A prosthetic device for a “Person born with Stumps only” which apparently enabled a person to use a knife and fork, hold a horse reins, “and even write with great freedom”.
  • A personal weighing machine in satinwood called Sanctorius’s Balance.
  • Various exquisite clocks.
  • A set of weighing scales with a built-in micrometer screw for measuring the size, thickness and weight of golden guineas (and their divisions, the half guinea and quarter guinea).
  • A perpetual motion clock (with James Cox). The change of pressure in the Earth’s atmosphere acted as an external energy source and caused the winding mechanism to move. Somehow it failed to catch on…
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The Gouty Chair.

Merlin died at Paddington in May 1803 at the age of 68. In his will he directed that his 30 year old horse should be shot – presumably because he could not tolerate the thought of anyone else riding him, or of the horse suffering in old age. Having died unmarried, he left his property to two brothers and a sister.
All in all, a prolific inventor and a fascinating chap.

Merlin you old wizard, I salute you!


Mike Rendell is a founder member and great supporter of London Historians. Also known as the Georgian Gentleman he has written several excellent books about the period and runs a very active blog. He is on Twitter as @georgiangent.

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A guest post by LH Member Valerie Colin-Russ.

London’s oldest lion statues are not native Londoners but took up residence here many years ago.  The very oldest pair, five thousand years old, were two of three brought to London at the end of the nineteenth century by the eminent Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie.  Both unfortunately broke into fragments on the journey and remained in the crates in which they arrived until archaeologists reconstituted them between 1980 and 1982, since when they have found a home in University College.  The third lion was smaller and arrived intact and was used as a model for the others’ reconstruction.  This smaller one now lives in the Ashmolean at Oxford.

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London’s oldest lion, one of two held in University College London.

Various London museums are home to several other ancient foreign lions (who have not been shattered and reconstructed) who are now long-established London residents.   For instance in the British museum can be found several such, including two beautiful Egyptian ones, made of  red granite, dating from 1400 BC, an Assyrian lion dating from 860 BC  and one from Halikarnassos from the fourth century BC.  One from Knidos (the date is disputed between the fourth and second centuries BC) stands in the museum’s Great Court.

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Halikarnassos Lion in the British Museum.

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Egyptian Lion, British Museum.

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Assyrian Lion, British Museum.

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Knidos lion in the Great Court of the British Museum.

The oldest native London lion dates from Roman London and was found in Camomile Street  in a bastion of the City wall but probably came from a Roman cemetery nearby and was  then reused as building material in the construction of the wall.  This lion has an animal in its mouth and is thought to represent the all-devouring jaws of death.  He dates from the fourth or fifth century AD and now lives in the Museum of London.

The oldest London lions still in their original position, although inevitably considerably weathered, are the pair on the York Watergate dating from 1626.  The gate is all that remains of York House, the home of the Duke of Buckingham, and once led from his garden to the river when the Thames was much wider before the construction of the Embankment.  One other seventeenth century lion survives in much better condition, standing guard (with a companion unicorn) at the beginning of Palace Avenue, the road leading from Kensington Road to Kensington Palace while a rather grumpy-looking pair sit atop the Lion Gate at Hampton Court and date from about 1700.

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York Watergate near Victoria Embankment.

However, the heyday of London’s lions was from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the start of the second world war; it was essentially in the days of Empire that the London lion really flourished!


DSC00653_250These facts have been extracted from a book by one of our members, Valerie Colin-Russ,  which was published in 2012 by Frances Lincoln Ltd called “London Pride”; she had tracked down over 10,000 lion statues in Greater London. All images in the above article are by Valerie Colin-Russ.

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