Saturday, 14 August 2010

Eastbury Manor House Part One

Having spent the past few weeks closeted at home, the Brimstone Butterfly decided it was time to emerge once more from her cocoon. Thus I made the lengthy journey by Tube to Upney in order to explore Eastbury Manor House. Owned by the National Trust but run by Dagenham and Barking Council, this fine Elizabethan House once enjoyed a splendid isolation set high above the surrounding marshy countryside. Over the centuries the landscape has changed markedly. The marshes were drained, the farmland sold off and vast tracts of social housing built in their stead for the poor of London, moved out here from their slums in the East End.

Upon viewing Eastbury Manor House for the first time, I was immediately struck by the incongruity of seeing a 16th century mansion surrounded by a sea of nondescript council houses from the 20th century. The celebrated author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, only ever saw Eastbury Manor House on the one occasion and then it was in passing as he rode by on his epic journey to record his “Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain.' In the first volume of this book published in the 1720s. Defoe described Eastbury Manor House thus:

"A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, antient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was at first contriv'd, and that all the first consultations about it were held there."

In “The Environs of London: volume 4: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent” written over 70 years later in 1796 another Daniel, this time one Daniel Lysons, is sceptical as to the house’s connection with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, writing:

“Eastbury-house, an ancient and very spacious brick edifice, of which a view is annexed, stands about a mile west of the town, on the road to Dagenham; and is now in the occupation of Mr. Brushfield. There is a tradition relating to this house, either, as some say, that the conspirators who concerted the gunpowder plot held their meetings there, or as others, that it was the residence of Lord Monteagle, when he received the letter which led to its discovery; both, perhaps, equally destitute of foundation. It is probable that Sir Thomas Vyner made this house his country residence, before he purchased the old mansion near the church at Hackney. Some of the rooms at Eastbury are painted in fresco; in one of them is a coat of arms.”

Modern scholarship also throws doubt on there being any firm link between the principle conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot and Eastbury House. Certainly there is no evidence to suggest that any part of the conspiracy was hatched here or that the mansion was used to shelter fugitive conspirators once the plot had been discovered. The legend may well have arisen because a sister-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the indicted plotters, was married to his younger brother Lewis. In 1603, just two years before the plot Lewis Tresham, his wife and his mother-in-law, the latter two both named Maria Perez, were all recorded as residing at Eastbury Manor House. In that year the elder Maria Perez’s husband had died and an inventory was taken of the house and its contents.

Eastbury Manor House, like Sutton House, is an early example of a brick built house in England. It was built around the late 1560s on land once owned by the Abbey of Barking. The Abbey itself had fallen into ruin after it has been dissolved by Henry VIII several decades earlier. Sir Ralph Sadlier, the builder of Sutton House in Hackney had made his money from being a courtier. Clement Sysley, the original builder of Eastbury Manor House made his fortune as a merchant and could afford to install costly glass imported from Italy in the windows. When the house was leased by Alderman Moore, husband of the elder Maria Perez, in the late 16th century, the walls of some chambers were covered with frescos, which were mentioned in Daniel Lysons aforementioned book of 1796. Sadly only fragments of the wall paintings survive today, but there is a reconstruction in miniature on display in the house which shows how the chamber would have looked in all its original painted glory.

Eastbury Manor House, like Sutton House underwent a decline in its fortunes and even faced the real threat of demolition in the 20th century. After its grand beginnings as the country residence of a man of wealth and status in the 16th century, Eastbury Manor House was reduced to being tenanted by farm labourers in the 19th century, who used part of the ground floor to store hay and stable horses. As with Sutton House, the neighbourhood around Eastbury Manor House also saw a decline its fortunes. That was perhaps why the house survived. In subsequent eras, it had not attracted wealthy owners, who had the means to either extensively remodel it or have it pulled it down so a more fashionable dwelling could be erected in its place. When faced with demolition, it potential fate captured the attention of those who realised its unique value as an Elizabethan manor house, which structurally had survived little changed for centuries and was now an architectural jewel in an area with little left to commend it from such an architectural perspective. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was able to bring to its influence to bear on the National Trust who purchased the manor house and its remaining grounds in 1918. The National Trust in turn leased the manor house to the local council, who are responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. Over the past century or so the house has had many uses: at one point it was used as a convalescent home for the sick, at a time when the local marshy air was considered more beneficial and wholesome than the polluted atmosphere of the city; its sole surviving original turret was used as a look-out point during the Second World War; for a time it served as a museum for the district, displaying suits of armour, oil paintings and other such treasures.

Eastbury Manor House now serves as vibrant community centre. Its rooms no longer contain furnishings of earlier centuries. Indeed, the only furnishings are distinctly utilitarian in the main such as late 20th century chairs and tables used in the many functions which take place in the mansion today, such as weddings, business functions and school workshops. What Eastbury Manor House loses in terms of period pieces it more than compensates for by the large numbers of people who use its rooms on an almost daily basis. At times there will be as many if not far more people roaming around its Tudor chambers than were ever present in the household of its original builder, Clement Sysley.

Having set out the history of Eastbury Manor House, I shall be returning to the subject to describe my tour of the mansion itself.