Award For Study of London’s Humble History
The Small House in Eighteenth Century London, a groundbreaking work by English Heritage historian Peter Guillery, has been awarded the prestigious Alice Davis Hitchcock medallion by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. This is the third time an English Heritage expert has won the award in the last six years.
The book, which was published in 2004, is the first ever to look at lower status buildings of the period in areas of London such as Bermondsey, Deptford, Dalston, Mile End, Spitalfields and Islington, and grew out of a series of thematic area studies begun in 1997 by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. The studies were designed to help local authorities and residents to appreciate and understand groups of historic but unassuming buildings which nevertheless play a vital role in casting new light on ordinary 18th century London and its people.
Until now the architectural and social history of Georgian London has been dominated by John Summerson’s landmark work of 1945 which focussed almost exclusively on polite, high status, neo-classical buildings built for the rich in areas such as Mayfair. These buildings have come to symbolise the architectural language of the time but, in reality, are not at all representative of how most Londoners would have lived. While we know a great deal about domestic architecture built for the wealthiest quarter of the population, until this book was published virtually nothing had been written about that which was provided for the rest. The more humble buildings explored in Guillery’s book show us how life was really lived by a large part of the population of a great metropolis, western Europe’s biggest city and its principal centre of manufacturing and commerce.
While West End Georgian domestic architecture may seem to a 21st century eye the epitome of tradition and conservatism, at the time, it represented a radical approach to the building of houses. The innovative techniques and designs of great Georgian developers and architects such as Nicholas Barbon and Robert Adam were slow to take hold in traditional working communities where timber rather than stone continued to be the material of choice and vernacular, local building traditions endured through the eighteenth century.
On receiving the award, Peter Guillery said: “Through the Royal Commission and the Survey of London English Heritage has inherited strong traditions of valuing ordinary buildings. This means unearthing the histories of those whose perspectives were not in the ascendant. This book was an attempt to listen to some of those quiet voices. For this reason, it focuses almost exclusively on east and south London and the artisans and labourers who lived there.
“This is by no means an attempt to devalue the work of John Summerson whose work on polite Georgian London will always loom large over study of the period. It is rather an attempt to add to the picture we have of that time and to adjust to shifting perceptions about the role of architectural historians and the boundaries of what we consider significant about our heritage.
“Bringing the book together was a fascinating task – I often had to explain to the bemused owner of an unprepossessing house in Bethnal Green or Deptford that their building really was of interest to us and that it held vital, often hidden, clues in piecing together a picture of the past. Documentary evidence was added to what we discovered on site visits to build up the story - we used everything from early maps and illustrations to diary entries, rate books and insurance registers.”
The first case study in the book examines London’s silk district, which spread from Spitalfields into Bethnal Green, and the workshop tenements built there to house weavers. Ribbon development in Mile End Road and Kingsland Road is used to illustrate how vernacular and polite architecture interacted at the city’s margins. The locally distinctive housing associated with the military and shipping communities that stretched along the south bank of the Thames from Deptford to Woolwich provides yet another perspective of London at the time. The last case study takes the form of a tour round London’s Georgian hinterland in places such as Islington where vernacular and polite buildings often existed side by side. Some of these still survive today including pairs of partially timber-framed houses on Upper Street dating from around 1700.
Amongst the fascinating discoveries made by Guillery is the story of Mary Lacy, an ambitious and indomitable woman born in 1740, who disguised herself as a man to become a shipwright and later a builder. In 1775-85 she built a row of houses in Deptford, “Slade’s Place”, part of which development still survives as nos 104 – 108 and 116 – 118 Deptford High Street. She moved in to the biggest house with Elizabeth Slade, probably her lover. It is stories such as these which have gone largely untold until now but which add immeasurably to the richness of the capital’s architectural and social history.