Posts Tagged ‘Sutton House’

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.


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.


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.


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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