ARCHAEOLOGY / The house with a colourful history: Five centuries have seen a variety of inhabitants in one London building, writes David Keys

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The Independent Culture
HISTORICAL researchers and archaeologists have completed one of the most thorough investigations ever carried out into a standing building in Britain.

After five years of research, detailed examination and restoration work, a team of specialists, working under the auspices of the National Trust, have pieced together the complex social and architectural history of the oldest domestic building in London's East End - Sutton House.

An East End historian, Mike Grey, has succeeded in tracing 25 of the more important owners and tenants who have occupied the building over the past four-and-a- half centuries.

In the 1980s, the brick-built Tudor house was occupied by squatters, and after their eviction, was looted by architectural thieves. Even five years ago virtually nothing was known about the building's history. But this month, after a pounds 2m research and restoration programme, Sutton House has opened to the public.

Research has revealed that the house was originally built by a top Tudor civil servant, Ralph Sadleir, who became secretary to Henry VIII's ill-fated chief architect of the Reformation, Thomas Cromwell, and then principal secretary of state to the king himself.

When Cromwell was executed for alleged heresy and treason, Sadleir (who had become very wealthy through his role in the dissolution of the monasteries), was thrown into the Tower of London. He was eventually released and lived on to serve Henry, Edward VI and Elizabeth I in various diplomatic and administrative posts, his last key role being that of a judge at the trial of Mary Queen of Scots.

When Sadleir moved from Sutton House, midway thorugh his career, it became the home of a prominent City wool merchant, John Machell, who became Sheriff of London, and whose daughter-in- law's ghost is said to haunt the building.

One of the next occupants of Sutton House appears to have been Julius Caesar, the son of an eminent Italian,, who became Master of the Rolls to James I. The building then became the home of a flamboyant Royalist social climber and silk merchant, Captain John Millward, who went bankrupt. Next came a teacher, Robert Skingle, who was forced to resign from the local school for incompetence.

In the latter half of the 17th century, Hackney was famous for its numerous girls' schools - and indeed, the somewhat lascivious diarist, Samuel Pepys, used to travel to the area to stare at the schoolgirls.

'That which we went chiefly to see was the young ladies of the schools, whereof there is great store, very pretty,' he once wrote in his diary. His contemporary, the antiquarian John Aubrey, however, condemned the schools as hotbeds of female 'pride and wantonness'.

Sutton House was home to one of these Hackney girls' schools from 1670 to 1690, and then again from 1720 to around 1745. The Tudor character of the house was irrevocably changed in around 1700, when a farmer called Daniel Stacey altered the external decor in line with the architectural fashion of the Queen Anne period.

By 1750, the building had been divided into two separate homes, and the east part was subsequently occupied by French Huguenot silk merchants for several decades.

The western half of the building then became a school again - this time for young 'gentlemen'. However, its most famous pupil - who later became the Victorian novelist Lord Lytton - left under a cloud for beating up the headmaster.

Hackney was so popular as a location for private schools that battles used to break out between schoolboy armies. The boys' school at Sutton House then became a girls' school from around 1835-1871. The pupils' closest neighbour was the occupant of the eastern half of the house, Charles Horton Pulley, who used to horsewhip his subordinates.

Middle-class Hackney withered away in the late 19th century, as industrial London expanded eastwards. Sutton House changed accordingly, becoming an institute for working men set up in the now- reunited building, by the chaplain to the then Prince of Wales.

In the 1930s, the institute moved out and Sutton House was threatened with demolition. It was bought for the nation through the National Trust, which still owns it.

Over the past 50 years, the building has been used as council social services premises, and as a trades union headquarters (Clive Jenkins' ASTMS in the 1970s) before being taken over by squatters in the 1980s.

To reconstruct over 450 years of history has involved not only archive research, but also a virtual excavation to work out the exact sequence of architectural changes and to search for archaeological finds buried within the structure of the house. This revealed some 350 finds, including 16th-century coats of arms, 17th-century metal inn tokens and delft tiles, an 18th-century lady's glove and shoe, and 19th-century clay pipes and jigsaw pieces.

'Local historian Mike Grey's research work, the excavations carried out by Museum of London archaeologists, and an architectural survey by English Heritage together represent one of the most thorough investigations of a domestic building ever carried out in Britain,' says National Trust spokesperson, Lissa Chapman.

Sutton House's historic rooms, at 2 & 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E9, are open 11.30am to 5.30pm every Wednesday and Sunday. Admission pounds 1.50 adults, 50p children. National Trust members free.

(Photograph omitted)