Monday, 1 February 2010

The Spirit of the Age.

One of my favourite novels is Orlando by Virginia Woolf, later turned into a film by the English film-director and screenwriter Sally Potter. The eponymous hero represents the spirit of the ages he, and subsequently she, lives through. In many ways Sutton House represents the spirit of Hackney. It was built at the time of Hackney’s glorious Tudor past and gradually went into such a decline it faced the threat of demolition, until, finally in the later part of the 20th century it has come, like the Borough of Hackney, to enjoy something of a renaissance.

In the 18th century, the novelist and one-time Hackney resident Daniel Defoe marvelled at the wealth of the area. In 1727 he wrote:
“This town (Hackney) is so remarkable for the retreat of wealthy citizens, that there is at this time near a hundred coaches kept in it; tho' I will not join with a certain satyrical author, who said of Hackney, that there were more coaches than Christians in it.”
It is now believed that the term “Hackney carriage” comes from the original village of Hackney. In which case, Hackney is further immortalised as far afield as Boston in the United States, where the Hackney Carriage Unit forms part of the Boston Police Department responsible for regulating Taxis.

On 4th April 1667 Samuel Pepys was very much impressed by what he saw at Hackney recording in his diary:
“and so to take the ayre to Hackney, where good neat's tongue, and things to eat and drink, and very merry, the weather being mighty pleasant; and here I was told that at their church they have a fair pair of organs, which play while the people sing, which I am mighty glad of, wishing the like at our church at London, and would give L50 towards it.”

Samuel Pepys being Samuel Pepys, he liked to mix the sacred with the profane and on 21st April 1667 again set out for Hackney Church, not only to hear the sublime organ music but also to ogle the beautiful Hackney schoolgirls, boarding at the various Ladies’ Academies in the vicinity. Pepys wrote:

“then took coach and to Hackney church, where very full, and found much difficulty to get pews, I offering the sexton money, and he could not help me. So my wife and Mercer ventured into a pew, and I into another. A knight and his lady very civil to me when they come, and the like to my wife in hers, being Sir G. Viner and his lady--rich in jewells, but most in beauty--almost the finest woman that ever I saw. That which we went chiefly to see was the young ladies of the schools, whereof there is great store, very pretty; and also the organ, which is handsome, and tunes the psalm, and plays with the people; which is mighty pretty, and makes me mighty earnest to have a pair at our church, I having almost a mind to give them a pair, if they would settle a maintenance on them for it. I am mightily taken with them”

Hackney also had its share of boys schools: famous alumni included the American novelist Edgar Allan Poe, who was a pupil from 1817-1820 at the Manor House school, which once stood along the same stretch of road that still contains the early Georgian “Sisters Place” (“Pastime with good company, I love, and shall until I die,”15th January 2010). In his short story “William Wilson” Poe is thought to be describing both the school itself and its head master, the Reverend John Bransby,  who also served as the vicar of the local church of St Mary’s from 1814-1825.  If Poe’s description is based on Manor House school, then the bells Poe listened to must be those of St Mary’s church across the way. This is the same Tudor church I have loved since girlhood. (The Ghosts of Christmas Past,23rd December 2010 ) As at Sutton House, Georgian sash windows would have replaced the Tudor originals. In "William Wilson" Poe writes:
“My earliest recollections of a school-life are connected with a large, rambling, Elizabethan house, in a misty-looking village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees, and where all the houses were excessively ancient. In truth, it was a dream-like and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town. At this moment, in fancy, I feel the refreshing chilliness of its deeply-shadowed avenues, inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and thrill anew with undefinable delight, at the deep hollow note of the church-bell, breaking, each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which the fretted Gothic steeple lay imbedded and asleep.
...Of this church the principal of our school was the pastor.....This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast,  - could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy?  Oh gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!”

Daniel Defoe, author of the world famous "Robinson Crusoe", also lived nearby. I recall seeing Defoe’s gravestone at the Library across the road from where the Manor House school would have stood. The gravestone can now be found  in Hackney Museum. Defoe was actually buried at Bunhill Fields near the City of London. In the past I lunched there on many a balmy day, oblivious to the fact that the author of another of my favourite books “Roxana”, lies buried close by. Had I known that, I would have tried to have found his grave.
There are many fine 18th buildings still to be found in present-day Hackney. What finally ended Hackney’s reign as a fashionable village outside of London was the arrival of the metropolitan railways. With them came a plenitude of cheap housing, as the railways meant that people could commute into work from far greater distances than ever before. This influx saw the wealthier denizens prefer to move elsewhere. In some respects the changes in Hackney’s fortunes meant that part of its great architectural heritage was spared right into the 20th century, as no one had the resources to pull it all down and redevelop.  Instead, to survive, large houses had to be used for other purposes than remain the residence of a single household. Thus Sutton House, which started life as the principal home of a leading Tudor courtier was put to use as a girl’s school in the 17th century, presided over by one Sarah Freeman. Later, its occupants included French Huguenots fleeing the draconian laws imposed on them in Catholic France.

During the 18th century the mansion was subdivided into separate houses. One of these became a boy’s school where the famous Victorian novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton boarded for a time. His schooldays came to an abrupt halt after the then headmaster boxed his ears for insolence. Whereupon Bulwer Lytton promptly boxed the headmaster’s ears in return. It ended with Bulmer Lytton’s mother fetching her precious darling from the school and arranging for him to be taught at home from then on. The cartoon character Snoopy must be deemed a fan of Bulwer Lytton’s work, since Snoopy frequently steals the opening lines from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Paul Clifford” for his own: ”It was a dark and stormy night.”

From the end of the 19th century up until 1930 Sutton House was owned by the Anglican church who turned the property back into a single building to house the St Johns’ Institute, a recreational club for men. In 1900 Sutton House was condemned by the then London County Council as being structurally unsafe. Fortunately, for subsequent generations, the local church authorities were able to launch a successful campaign to save and restore the mansion. There was a period in the 1980s when it looked as if Sutton House might go into an irreversible decline once again as it lay boarded up, following years of vandalism and damage caused by illegal squatters. Luckily, unlike its former and grander neighbour Brooke House, there was both the public will and the resources to renovate Sutton House and to re-open its doors to the public. I shall describe how it looks today at a later date.  

There is a curious postscript to the second mansion Ralph Sadleir built for himself, this time in the county of Hertfordshire. Having saved his own neck following the fall from power of his political master Thomas Cromwell, Ralph Sadleir went on to enjoy  spectacular success at the courts of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI. This allowed him to build an even more splendid house at Standon Lordship in 1546. Four years later he sold Sutton House. Four years after that he was living in discreet retirement at Standon Lordship during the reign of Henry’s fanatical Catholic eldest daughter Queen Mary, known to history as Bloody Mary owing to her relentless persecution of Protestants. Ralph resumed his public career on the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

In the 17th century, Ralph’s mansion at Standon came into the hands of a prominent Catholic family, after Ralph Sadleir’s grandson died without issue. One of these owners, the 3rd Lord Aston was imprisoned for a number of years in the Tower of London for his alleged role in a Catholic plot to assassinate King Charles II. He was more fortunate than the Jesuit priest William Ireland, who was also implicated in the plot, despite there being strong evidence that he had in fact being staying at Standon Lordship when the alleged conspirators were hatching their plan in London. William Ireland was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1679. In the 18th century the prominent Catholic Bishop Challoner persuaded the then Catholic owners to allow him to rent the mansion and establish a Catholic school there in 1749. At the time there was still a great deal of anti-Catholic sentiment, culminating in the Gordon Riots of 1780, as Parliament sought to lessen the punitive laws against Catholics. As well as targeting Lord Mansfield at Kenwood House, (Let's get physical! 2nd January 2010 ) the rioters would have dearly loved to have made a martyr of Bishop Challoner. But they proved no more successful at killing him than they were at killing Lord Mansfield. The Catholic school at Standon Lordship lasted for around 18 years, until it was obliged to find alternative premises elsewhere as the original owners needed to sell it to raise cash. The property was then purchased by a local landowner. Today, little remains of Ralph Sadleir's Tudor mansion at Standon Lordship.

Both of Ralph Sadleir’s former homes enjoyed years of great prosperity and prestige; both provided sanctuary for those suffering from either Catholic or Protestant persecution; both served as schools for a number of years; both faced demolition. Only Sutton House survived on into the 21st century. Given the choice between the two mansions, I would rather that Sutton House survived than Standon Lordship. The county of Hertfordshire is blessed with a number of fine stately homes including Knebworth House, once owned by that truculent Sutton House pupil Edward Bulmer Lytton. By contrast, Sutton House is the only Tudor mansion to have survived in Hackney. Its very survival gives hope that Hackney itself can enjoy a more settled and brighter future too.