House By The Thames – Bankside’s history in one special building


Soon after moving to London five years I took a boat trip down the Thames and, from the breezy open deck, the capital’s blockbuster sights flashed before my eyes. The Houses of Parliament, the South Bank Centre, Tower Bridge and Maritime Greenwich were the places that stood out. They are the attractions that appear on postcards which are sent by tourists all over the world.

But as we neared St Paul’s Cathedral, the guide used the booming tannoy to point out an unassuming terraced property which, he said, was where Sir Christopher Wren lived when he was designing the new great church virtually opposite in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. Given the proximity of the two buildings this all seems perfectly logical. That is until you realise that the house wasn’t built until 1710, yet the new St Paul’s was started in the previous century (Wren was officially assigned to the project in 1669 and by 1710 only the finishing touches were being made to the property).

At the time of my boat trip, I bought into the guide’s plausible story. It’s only recently that I’ve found out more details about this fascinating building, just a stone’s throw from modern the Globe theatre.

Historian Gillian Tindall’s fascinating 2006 book The House By The Thames is a perfect guide for anyone wanting to know the story of this unassuming structure – and the bigger picture it paints about the wider area’s history. She believes that “where Wren may actually have lodged for a while in the 1670s was a house further west, whose dust now lies, along with so much else, under block of flats on the far side other Power Station.”

Tindall suggests that Malcome Munthe, the resident at 49 Bankside in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War “noticed a Wren commemorative plaque on a wrecked wall further along Bankside and appropriated the idea to his own house”. He also made a “far more implausible claim” that Catherine of Aragon stopped for the night there in 1502. It’s amusing to think decades on that the man’s “bogus” claims are still providing rich material for tour guides.

Old inns

While the current structure at number 49 only dates back to around 1710, the history of a property at the site goes back much further – at least to an Elizabethan house of the 1570s, but possibly even earlier. There could have been a medieval inn (and even a brothel) on the site, but it had disappeared in 1470 because the plot was described as a “void piece of ground near the steweside”. And there was no mention of building when the land was sold on in 1533.

But we have much further evidence for an inn – the Cardinal’s Hat – being built there in 1579, supposedly by a London lawyer called Hugh Browker, who owned several other drinking establishments in the area. Edward Alleyn, who as I’ve written before ran successful playhouses such as the Rose with Philip Henslowe and founded Dulwich College, is recorded as attending several dinners at what was regarded as a fine establishment.

Sadly around 1710 the timbered Cardinal’s Hat was demolished – although the vaulted Elizabethan cellars remain in the new property – and it would never be an inn again. The replacement Georgian property was a new styled, brick-fronted gentlemen’s abode. And since then little has been modified, with only stucco added to the front of the house along with new windows and door cornices.

Edward Sells was the first known occupant of 49 Bankside, taking ownership of the property from around the mid-18th century. He worked as a waterman, who ferried people across the Thames, but later entered the coal business. The Sells family prospered and, over a number of generations, bought up other properties along the river front.

What I found particularly fascinating from reading Tindall’s account was how there is a largely forgotten interlude in Bankside’s history, when this was regarded as a pleasant and even fashionable place to live. “In popular London mythology the playhouses and bear pits gave way to smoking chimneys and slum courts, with no intervening period. But the days of Queen Anne and the early part of the reign of George I were, arguably, Bankside’s own time in the sun, its moment of near-elegance.” Historian John Strype described homes in the area as “clean and handsome… pretty well built and inhabited.”

Bankside’s decline

After the mid-19th century, most of Bankside’s industrial masters moved away, so they were no longer living near their places of work. It brought about a fundamental shift in the character of the area. They became “more distant both geographically and socially,” noted Tindall. As they moved away, areas like this one descended into slums – this really was ‘darkest London’. Contemporary writers behaved as if “bringing back dispatches from another continent,” such was the “almost anthropological interest” they took.

“What had gone with them was a world of social cohesion, which had existed in spite of substantial class distances,” wrote Tindall. “It had been a world in which wholesale dealers in coals, potatoes or rice could see from themselves on their own door-steps the hardships that a bitter winter could bring and were prepared to foregather in cold churches to make immediate plans for practical help – a world in which coal-porters living in Cardinal Cap Alley and the Skin Market knew the current Mr Sells or Mr Horne as a neighbour and might rely on regular work from him.”

Tindall noted for instance how Horne had in fact attempted (unsuccessfully it turned out) to get a standard pay rate fixed for the porters so that they would not have to compete against one another when there was a shortage of work.

With the changes on Bankside, living conditions quickly fell, with numerous people often living in cramped rooms in ramshackle dwellings. “We are in the land of Shakespeare….. Yet how very unromantic these parts are today!,” wrote one commentator of the area in the early 1900s. “Poor, dilapidated dwellings are the houses in these courts…. which abut on the banks of the river. Hard indeed are the lives of the poor families that dwell therein. From morning to night they hear the ceaseless hum of the great fan at the electrical lighting works hard by.”

As for the fate of 49 Bankside, while it lasted longer neighbouring properties in retain some respectability, by 1901 it was no longer listed as a one-family house. The Census of that year recorded that it was divided into three separate dwellings and inhabited by 13 people. “The social distinction that had, in the past, separated the houses on Bankside from the tenements in the side lanes was now almost obliterated,” wrote Tindall.

Number 49 would at least partly later become a coffee room (a cafe for workers), but by 1907 no trade and occupation was listed. And after briefly being used by a waterman, it could in fact have been left untenanted. Parts of the property were later used as offices for sign-writers and window-cleaners. It was a long way for the glories of the past when it had been used as a residential property and a place of status.

Somehow however 49 Bankside regained some respectability because by 1939 it was occupied film director Robert Stevenson who spent money renovating the property and held lavish parties there. “The crowning occasion was a Tudor-style water party the Stevensons gave in June 1937 for two hundred people, for which they hired a barge to take them all to Greenwich and back while ‘roast swan’ – actually goose decorated with swans’ feathers – was consumed,” wrote Tindall. It then passed to an eccentric civil servant and a Swedish writer.

Saved by Wren?

In the aftermath of the Second World War when planners earmarked so much of London for clearance, 49 Bankside miraculously survived. Could it have been the presence of the plaque on the wall earmarking it as Wren’s house that meant it escaped demolition?

Tindall wrote that she had “come to feel grateful to” Malcom Munthe, who was living there in 1945 for putting up the sign we see today. “For in putting up his bogus plaque he may actually, whether he knew it or not, have saved the house once again,” she said. “In the Brave New World spirit of post-war planning, that now-reviled era that produced the wastelands of Elephant and Castle and desolate housing estates in Bermondsey, Georgian houses were something to be pulverised without second thought.”

Until the 1970s, the house remained in Munthe’s ownership and he let it to a family. It then fell into a state of disrepair and was temporarily abandoned. And when trustees came along in an attempt to save it, yet again, its false history was cited in correspondence. In fact, one letter even added Henry VIII and Shakespeare to the list of past residents!

There were better times ahead for 49 Bankside in the 1980s however because Malcolm’s son Guy – supposedly an ‘escort’ of Princess Margaret – took an interest in the property and began to restore it and it remains a residential property in private hands.

I’ve often walked past the house and thought about the people living there today in this unassuming spot, set back from the main path, between the Globe and Tate Modern. Thousands of visitors come every day to these popular tourist attractions which didn’t exist a few decades ago, yet here the residents are keeping alive continuities with the past. Bankside may have been transformed, but at least some things remain.

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