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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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in our time

I am a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 most Thursdays at 9am. There are various ways you can search it, but as a service to our readers, here is a list of the London-related ones.

Aphra Behn
Annie Besant
Athelstan

Thomas Becket
Bedlam
The Black Death
The Bluestockings
The Book of Common Prayer
Boudica
Robert Boyle
Brunel
Fanny Burney

Caxton and the Printing Press
Chaucer

Mrs Dalloway
The Death of Elizabeth I
Dickens
The Domesday Book

The East India Company
Englishness
The Enlightenment in Britain

Michael Faraday
The [Great] Fire of London
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The Gin Craze
The Great Exhibition of 1851

William Hazlitt
Octavia Hill
Holbein at the Tudor Court
Robert Hooke

[Samuel] Johnson

London

Marlowe
Milton

The Novel

Titus Oates and His ‘Popish Plot’

The Peasants’ Revolt
Pocahontas
[Alexander] Pope
The Putney Debates

The Restoration
The Royal Society

The Scriblerus Club
Seventeenth Century Print Culture
The  South Sea Bubble
Suffragism

The Trial of Charles I
The Tudor State

Utilitarianism

Oscar Wilde
Mary Wollstonecraft


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A guest post by LH Member Roger Williams. 

Review:  The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
By Peter Stone

51FqDHqHplL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_It is flattering when a publisher asks out of the blue if you would care to write a book. That’s what happened to London Historian member Peter Stone, when his posts about the city on his The History of London website caught the eye of Pen & Sword History Press.

The subject he chose was the port of London because, he says, as a Londoner born in the East End, he wanted to know more about it, and there were few comprehensive books on the subject. The result is The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations, a 250-page book with 16 photographs, half a dozen prints and a dozen clear, specially-drawn maps that tell the story of the port from Roman Londinium to DP World London Gateway.

Medieval London is particularly well researched. This was a time when wine was the biggest import, and the Vintners Company established a 400-year monopoly. Trade was wrapped up in rules and regulations, even stipulating where foreigners could stay ashore. In the early 12th Century crews of foreign ships, when approaching London Bridge, we learn, were required to sing the Kirie Eleison to show they were not pagan pirates.

Elizabethan times saw a great expansion is shipping. Legal quays were established along the City’s foreshore, which held a monopoly on the landing of imports for 250 years. Suffrance wharfs on the south bank were later added to handle the increased volume of cargo brought mainly by charter companies like the East India Company that held monopolies on trade in great swathes of the world.

The first wet dock was in Rotherhithe. Howland Wet Dock was initially designed to shelter ships en route to London, but it also served the whaling fleets, whose messy business was kept away from the city. By 1800 an estimated 8,500 vessels could be seen between six miles below London Bridge and two miles above it. Import and export docks were sorely needed and they developed with great rapidity –– London, West India, East India, St Katharine’s, the Surrey Docks complex and the Royal Docks. An aerial photograph from 1957 shows their enormous extent.

With quotations from Pepys to Millicent Rose, the book is good on social history, on the lives of all those involved in the docks that by 1900 supported 20,000 full-time jobs and half as many casual ones. Ben Tillett, the unions and the everyday lives of dock workers are evoked, and the role of the Port of London Authority fully explained. There is the development of the villages from the City to the Isle of Dogs, from the time when Stepney was a village with a dock at Ratcliffe to today, when everything has slipped way down the river. But Tilbury, it is heartening to read, is still active, exporting engines from Ford at a rate of two vessels a day and importing a quarter of a million vehicles a year. Petroleum, steel, timber and sugar are still important imports, while DP World London Gateway, which covers an area twice the size of the City of London, can handle the largest vessels in the world,

The story of London’s ports is the story of the city, and, with a final chapter that looks to the future, Peter Stone has given the port of London a fulsome and highly readable biography.


The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
by Peter Stone is published by Pen & Sword History with a cover price of £19.99.


Review by Roger Williams. His latest book is ‘Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries’, Bristol Book Publishing, £7

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Hairposter49 years ago this very evening, the stage musical HAIR opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre, heralding the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, whatever that was. A troupe of hirsute performers led initially by Oliver Tobias and including Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry (yes, the seeds of Rocky Horror) delighted London audiences for the next five years until the theatre roof literally came down.

The previous era –  the Age of Stage Censorship – had ended the previous day with the Theatres Act 1968. This new law extinguished the considerable and centuries-old powers of the Lord Chamberlain to curtail all sweary bits, nudy bits and politically subversive bits from the theatres of the nation.

As the title suggests, the Lord Chamberlain is a Royal official. Originally, the approval or otherwise of new productions fell to the Master of the Revels, a powerful and lucrative royal sinecure. His physical office between 1578 and 1607 was based at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell. Whenever I visit there, I always imagine the work of Shakespeare and his great contemporaries  having their first airing in front of the Master or his officials.

This situation pertained (not forgetting, of course, outright suppression during the Commonwealth) until 1737. Robert Walpole happened to be the Master of the Revels at that time. Weary of anti-government satire by the likes of Henry Fielding, Walpole put censorship on a statutory footing with his Licensing Act 1737, giving the responsibility of stage censorship directly to the Lord Chamberlain. Under the Act, the Lord Chamberlain could suppress any performance without recourse of appeal. The measures were softened with slight modifications in 1788 and 1843, but essentially our public entertainment remained thus bridled for over 200 years.


Interesting article on HAIR and contemporary theatre censorship here.
Complete 1968 HAIR soundtrack on YouTube here (terrific!).

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A guest post by LH Member Jill Browne, who runs the blog, London Heritage Hotspots.

imagesBook Review: Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, by Coll Thrush. (Yale University Press, 2016)

Indigenous London is a readable scholarly examination of a two-way street that for centuries has been treated as one-way only.

The book is based on the stories of individuals who were taken to London from their homelands over the past 500 years or so. Typically what we read in history books is, “Mr. Great Explorer brought three Natives back with him and he went on to do great and wonderful things.” Nothing more about the three.

Coll Thrush, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, takes us with the three (actually, more like 50), instead of with Mr. Great Explorer.

His operating definition of “Indigenous” and the finite number of people Thrush has been able to feature limit what would otherwise be an unmanageable scope of work. The book deals with people from Canada, the United States, Hawaii (before becoming part of the USA), Australia, and New Zealand.

This book has three parts.

The main text is academic, examining the cross-pollination of cultures, one person at a time. Indigenous people travel to London. They observe and are observed. While they are being studied, they learn. Their preconceptions of how English people live are wiped away and they try to understand what’s really going on. They may be the cream of London society, or be ignored and sidelined. Finally, if they’re lucky enough to survive, they might get to go home and tell their stories, just like Marco Polo told his.

In the meantime, bit by bit, the Londoners form an impression of what Hawaiians are like, or Inuit, or any visitors. It’s an imperfect impression, based on close study of a few individuals, but it’s more enlightening than a second- or third-hand account.

Eventually, the Indigenous people and the English might come to a common understanding of each other’s culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy outcome for everybody.

The English want to take over and sooner or later the Indigenous people recognize the threat and want to stop it.

Some of the Indigenous travelers are diplomats. Thrush makes the point that often, historically and today, Indigenous people want to deal directly with the person with whom they have a treaty: the Queen. They do not want irrelevant colonial offices and provincial administrations set up to subordinate them.

The book has been praised for taking a new approach to Indigenous history, and it probably has already inspired more scholars to carry on with close examinations of individual lives. Where will it lead? Are we about to see new angles on old legends about the Old World meeting the New?

The two non-academic parts to the book are shorter and quite different from each other.

Between the academic chapters, Thrush includes interludes of free-form poems, which I quite enjoyed. My brain had to work hard in the academic parts (and by no means am I equipped to fully understand them). Then, the author flipped things around and let his and my creativity have a turn. It was an interesting technique and the more I think about it, the more I think it adds to the overall reading experience.

Finally, the third part, which is by far the shortest, may be the only part some readers will want to look at. This is the Appendix of self-guided walking tours of parts of London relevant to the stories and examples used in the academic text. It would be interesting to start there and use the index to pull out as much information as you might want about one of the tours. It’s definitely worth a look for people who like London history.

Bottom line: This book has earned accolades from academics. As a general reader I fear that much of the author’s argument was lost on me but I was able to appreciate the facts and evidence he has compiled and indexed. The creative interludes were a nice sizzle on the steak. For the non-specialist like I am, I would say, don’t ignore this book. Start with the walking tours and from there, use the index to choose excerpts that attract you. The book is rich in information that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.


Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, 310pp, by Coll Thrush is published by Yale University Press. Available for £22.50.


A signed copy of this book is London Historians member book prize for March 2017. 

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Or know about. I contend that you can’t begin to understand London’s history properly without a pretty decent knowledge of its geography too, and how it’s changed over time. The answer, of course, lies in maps.

There have been many, but here – up until the end of the 19C – are the most notable, milestones if you will (with a few other items thrown in, e.g. Visscher, Tallis).

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Tudor London by Braun and Hogenberg

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Mid 18C London by John Rocque

c1560 Ralph Agas (attr. disputed)

1572 Braun and Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum

1593 John Norden. Maps of the Cities of London and Westminster

1616 Claes Visscher (1586 – 1652)   A Panorama of London

1667 Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 – 1677), City of London after the Fire, and more

1676 John Ogilby (1600 – 1676) and William Morgan (d 1690), City of London

1682 William Morgan, London &c Actually Survey’d, London and Westminster

1746 John Rocque (1706 – 1762) A plan of the cities of London and Westminster, and borough of Southwark.

1762 House numbering introduced.

1799 Richard Horwood (1757 – 1803), PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE

1827 Christopher (1786-1855) and John  Greenwood  (d 1840) Map of London.

1840 John Tallis (1817 – 1876), London Street Views

1898 Edward Stanford (1827 – 1904), Stanford’s Map of the County of London.

My list is just scratching the surface. There are dozens – possibly hundreds – of omissions, not least speciality maps relating to bombs, insurance, poverty, temperance, religion etc., And then there are the panoramas. Pure joy.


Recommended Reading/Owning
The Times Atlas of London (2012)
London, a History in Maps (2012)  by Peter Barber
Mapping London, Making Sense of the City (2007) by Simon Foxell


Recommended Sites
Locating London’s Past
Mapco
Motco
Stanfords


My final tip. Join the London Topographical Society.

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Mansions of Misery, A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison by Jerry White.

Book review and guest post by LH Member Jane Young

mansions of misery by jerry whiteMy introduction to the work of Jerry White was some time ago as a history student. The superb Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 (1980) contributed to two dissertations and later, as a lecturer in social history, it became a perennial staple on the essential reading list.

Mansions of Misery has much in common with Rothschild Buildings in that it is a “microhistory of a small distinctive community” and focuses on individual stories in minutiae, and most entertaining detail. An in depth account of the Marshalsea Prison, the culture of debt, credit and commerce and everyday economy of the commonplace necessities of life and trade in the Capital during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

A study of people as well as an institution; all human life is here. Through the personal accounts of the debtors the incarcerated are given a voice. The looming threat of the Marshalsea is given a resonance and sense of place now almost unimaginable, permeating life in London across all classes. The story of the Marshalsea is also the story of ordinary Londoners and the telling of it results in a fascinating and beautifully written social history of the metropolis.

The research is thorough; moreover a subject that has the potential to be gloomy is made intriguing and immensely readable. A narrative that naturally requires some explanation of the British legal system of the years the Marshalsea was in operation is well executed in a clear and concise manner. Excellent endnotes add interest for the casual reader and make for an invaluable addition to academic reading lists.

The book reveals the Marshalsea during the times made familiar by Hogarth, Smollet and Dickens from the inside: the living arrangements; the hierarchy; the role of the turnkey; relationships among the prisoners; trades that not only served the Marshalsea but were also dependent upon it; the construction and fabric of the building and changes that took place as it evolved from early beginnings until closure in 1842. Within this is contained a picture of London that makes for compelling reading.


Mansions of Misery, a Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison (364 pp) by Prof Jerry White is published by Bodley Head on 6 October 2016 with a cover price of £20.00.

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