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Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

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Sutton House is a National Trust property in Hackney. That would be unusual enough but it’s a Grade II* listed Tudor manor house. Yes, there’s a Tudor house in east London.

Despite its misleading Georgian frontage, this 16th-century home has nearly 500 years of history. A rare example of a Tudor red-brick house, it was built by a courtier of Henry VIII. It has been home to a succession of merchants, Huguenot silk weavers, Victorian schoolmistresses, Edwardian clergy and 1980s squatters, plus headquarters for a 20th-century trade union.

Its history reflects the changing condition of Hackney, from a village in the 16th century, providing a healthy country retreat for London’s rich, to a cosmopolitan inner London borough in the late 20th century.

Oldest

Sutton House is the oldest domestic building in Hackney and the second oldest in east London. (Bromley Hall, which survives next to the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, is slightly older but is not open to the public.)

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

Mistaken Name

Thomas Sutton (1532–1611) was the founder of the London Charterhouse. Sutton House takes its name from the misapprehension that it had been his home. In fact, he lived – and died – in a neighboring property called Tan House which was pulled down in 1806 to make way for a terrace of 16 Grade II-listed Georgian houses on the cul-de-sac called Sutton Place. (Beautiful houses by the way, so do have a look while in the area.)

The Bryk Place

Hackney was well-liked by the nobility in the 16th century. Cromwell lived in Clapton and Dalston Kingsland’s name comes from being the ‘king’s land’ as Henry VIII had an estate there. (I really don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before.)

Sutton House was built in 1535 as a 3-story family home known as ‘the bryk place.’ The owner was Ralph Sadleir, a name you might recognize from Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012) and the TV adaptation (in which he becomes Rafe Sadler).

Tree-ring analysis of the timbers in Sutton House has confirmed the age of the property. This fits in well with the fact that Sadleir’s mentor, Thomas Cromwell, was rebuilding nearby King’s Place at that time. One hundred oaks from the royal forest at Enfield, north London, had been given to Cromwell by the king and it seems likely that some may have been used at Sutton House. In the 15th and 16th centuries, bricks were rare and most houses were timber-framed with wattle and daub panels. Bricks were a relatively new, expensive and fashionable building material. This house would have been very unusual hence the name.

Sadleir built his house in the familiar Tudor ‘H’ plan, with two wings separated by a central range. However, because of older buildings retained close to the site, the rear of both wings had to be built askew. 

The brickwork was decorated up to the second-floor level with ‘diapering.’ Bricks that had blackened from over-firing in the center of the brick kiln were used for decoration so nothing went to waste. Lozenge and diamond patterns were popular. The bricks were around two inches in depth; typical of the period.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

About Sir Ralph Sadleir

Born in 1507, Sir Ralph Sadleir entered the household of Thomas Cromwell at the age of just 14. Sadleir learned Latin and developed many other skills he would later put to good use in his political career. From early adulthood, he served as Cromwell’s secretary, and Cromwell trusted him enough to send him on missions to help implement the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and also on ambassadorial missions to France and Scotland. Sadleir rose to become an influential courtier and diplomat, a knight and privy counselor – and one of the richest commoners in the kingdom.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder
A drawing of an unidentified man, 1535, perhaps Sir Ralph Sadler (1507–1587) by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sadleir met his wife at Cromwell’s house. Ellen Barre (sometimes called Helen) was Cromwell’s cousin. Ellen had been previously married, but her husband had disappeared while in Ireland and was presumed dead. Ralph and Ellen married and had children, whereupon Ellen’s first husband resurfaced after being missing for several years. This would have made the Sadleir children illegitimate. In desperation, Sir Ralph sought and obtained a private Act of Parliament to annul the first marriage. This was the first case in England of a divorce on the grounds of abandonment. The couple went on to have at least seven children.

After marrying, Sadleir, by now the Principal Secretary of State in Henry VIII’s court, built a family home in semi-rural Hackney in 1535. The Bryk Place was built next to his father’s estate. It was probably one of the grandest houses in the area at the time. An entire house made of bricks was all about status and showing off. 

Within a decade, Sadleir’s title had risen to Master of the Great Wardrobe and he had built himself a grand mansion at Standon in Hertfordshire. In 1550, he sold most of his Hackney estate including ‘the bryk place’ to John Machell, the Sheriff of London, for £500. Machell’s son lived here next and then it was bought by Captain John Milward. 

Captain John Milward and the East India Company

The house was bought in the early 17th century by the silk merchant Captain John Milward, of the East India Company. At the time, Hackney was still a village built around a single street (Mare Street) surrounded by farmland. The area was popular with the gentry for the clean air of the countryside. The house became known as Milward House.

The East India Company had been founded in 1600 by traders. Many of its early merchants had houses in Hackney. Milward rose to such a position that his daughter married the son of the East India Company Governor.

Captain Milward mainly traded silk with Iran, on favorable terms granted by Elizabeth I, and quickly became very wealthy. By 1625 he had joined the governing body of the East India Company and it was around this time that he bought ‘the bryk place’ with the wealth generated by his international trading. It should be noted that by 1628, the East India Company was transporting enslaved people from East Africa to Indonesia.

Milward and his wife Anne filled Sutton House with rich imported furnishings. When the value of silk dropped rapidly in the 1630s, as the popularity of American cotton grew, Milward had to mortgage the house to a colleague. By 1641 he had transferred all of his holdings in the East India Company to four individuals including his son. He died soon after.

Two Houses

In 1743, Mary Tooke, a wealthy widow moved into Sutton House. Mary was the first of many Huguenots who occupied the house in the next 70 years. The Huguenots were French Protestants who fled religious persecution in Catholic France. Mary was the last for over 100 years to live in the house as a whole as it was soon divided. 

John Cox bought the house around 1742 and made extensive alterations. Cox had been building new houses in the Homerton neighborhood of Hackney for some years. He bought ‘Milward House’ to modernize and let for higher rent than he could obtain by leaving the house in its old-fashioned state.

He removed the old windows and installed elegant sash windows. A Georgian facade was added over part of the building and the interior was divided into two self-contained residences. At the end of the work, very few of the Tudor features could be seen. But as with modernizing builders today, many of the original features were simply covered or painted over so could be revealed again by later owners.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

The eastern house became known as Ivy House (later Picton House). Colonel George Garrett lived in the house on the west side, known as Milford House. 

From 1790 to 1816, Nicholas and Sarah de Ste Croix and their 16 children occupied the east wing of Sutton House (named Ivy House). Later, Ivy House was lived in by Victorian solicitor Charles Pulley for around 40 years. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder
On display in the Blue Room, there’s this jacket worn by Sarah de Ste Croix and the Christening bonnet worn by her children.

At the turn of the 18th century, Hackney was renowned for its many schools, and the house contained a boys’ school, with headmaster Dr. Burnet, which was attended in 1818 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The building next became Milford House girls’ boarding school from 1837 to 1875. It was established by William and Eliza Temple and housed up to 24 pupils, four teachers, three servants and their daughter. When the house was being restored in the early 1990s, many items from the girls’ school were found under the floorboards. A selection can be seen in the display case in the Victorian Study.

Whole Again

From 1891 the two residences were converted back into one large house for the St. John’s Church Institute – a social and recreational center for young men (like a YMCA). 

In 1900 the recently founded London County Council condemned the building as unsafe. The Institute fundraised and sympathetic renovations revealed the carved oak paneling and two of the ancient stone fireplaces. New additions, in the then fashionable Arts and Crafts style, were built to designs by Lionel Crane, son of Walter Crane, the designer friend of William Morris. (Walter Crane worked on the Arab Hall at Leighton House Museum).

The Institute was in residence until the Second World War.

National Trust

By 1936 the church had decided that the Institute needed new and more suitable club premises closer to the centre of Hackney. The house was initially offered to the Borough Council which carried out a survey but decided against the purchase. An appeal was launched to save the house for the nation. The sponsors were Lord Crawford and Balcarres (President of both the London Society and the London Survey Committee), Lord Esher (Chairman of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and George Lansbury (Vice-President of the National Trust and Labour MP for Poplar). The freehold was £2,500 and a further £500 was needed for urgent repairs. A tireless advocate of this campaign, and its principal fundraiser, was Percy Lovell who was Secretary of both the London Survey Committee and the London Society. In these roles, he played a very important part in the recording and safeguarding of London’s historic buildings and, almost single-handedly, ensured that the building would be protected.

Sutton House was bought by the National Trust in 1938 with the proceeds of a legacy from William Alexander Robertson, who had died the previous year. As a plaque on the front wall explains, Robertson made the bequest in memory of his brothers, who had been killed in action during the First World War.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

The National Trust thought it was a Georgian House when they took possession. So you can imagine their surprise as the house’s history was uncovered and they realized they had a Tudor house.

During World War Two, it was used as a center for Fire Wardens of the Civil Defence Service who kept watch from the roof. 

And from the 1960s it was rented by the ASTMS Union (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs), led by its charismatic general secretary Clive Jenkins. When the union left in the early 1980s, the house fell into disrepair.

Squatters

In 1985, squatters moved into the derelict house. They named it the Blue House (for no other reason than they liked the name) and held rock concerts in the barn. They lived here for 18 months and turned the house into a community center with a vegetarian cafe. In the end, the loud noise from a concert was the reason they were evicted.

After they left, thieves got in (as the building was unoccupied) and many objects were damaged or stolen. The National Trust had wanted to turn Sutton House into luxury apartments, but a campaign from the local community saved the house. 

A full-scale restoration was undertaken from 1990 to 1993 and the house was opened to the public in 1994.

What to See

Unusually for a National Trust property, Sutton House is open in the autumn. (It looks like it only closes in January.) I recommend booking a guided tour as you gain a lot from the knowledge of National Trust staff and volunteers.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

The tour begins in the garden so you can look at the outside of the building. This area was a tannery, and then until the 1980s, it was a scrapyard (hence the “and breaker’s yard” in the property title). It’s also why the metal gates incorporate toy cars which were donated by local celebrities.

You can’t miss the scrap artwork called The Grange by Daniel Lobb. It’s made of old caravans and interiors salvaged from stately homes. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

Our tour then moved to the central courtyard, where the Tudor flower garden and knot garden would have been. From here we could see more of the exterior of the building and the only original mullioned Tudor window. It was called the Armada window because it was believed the oak frame came from a captured Spanish galleon from the Armada in 1588 but no one now knows if that’s true or not though.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

Heading inside, the ground floor Linenfold Parlour has walls lined with exquisite linenfold paneling carved from oak. (The name is because the wooden carving looks like draped cloth.) Hampton Court Palace and Westminster Abbey are the only two other places in London where you can see linenfold paneling. (I did see more this year though in Coggeshall, Essex at Paycocke’s House.) 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

There is some trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) painting behind some of the hinged panels revealing the original 16th-century walls underneath. It’s thought this was painted as a temporary decoration while waiting for the panels to be created. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

We then saw the 17th-century Painted Staircase. Captain John Milward installed the painted staircase, which was decorative as well as practical. Trompe l’oeil effects were used to give the appearance of elaborately-carved wood. The painting was a relatively inexpensive way for the owners to show style and taste, without the cost of paying a master woodworker to carve balusters and other three-dimensional decorations. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder
A conserved section of trompe l’oeil at the bottom of the stairs

At the top of the stairs is the Little Chamber – a small panelled room that was probably used as a bedroom, possibly by Sir Ralph Sadleir’s wife Ellen. There is a colourful reproduction of an oilcloth covering the floor, plus reproduction and age-appropriate furniture authentic to the time period but not to the house.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

The oak paneling probably dates from the middle of the 16th century. The panels might have been originally painted red but, in the 1890s, cream paint covered the walls and fireplace.

There have been many claims of hauntings at Sutton House. Tales of dogs wailing from the empty house in the dead of night are thought to be the dogs that belonged to John Machell who lived at Sutton House from 1550 to 1558. The dogs can still be seen in the coat of arms in the fireplace of this room.

The center of the house is the Great Chamber –  a large and luxurious room used for entertaining and meeting guests. When Sutton House was owned by the St John’s Church Institute in the early 20th century, this large space was used as a billiard room. The paintings on display here have been loaned by the Sadleir family.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

The Great Chamber leads to a small Victorian Study, probably used as a bedroom in Sir Ralph Sadleir’s time. The Study is decorated to show what it would have looked like when this section of the house was owned by a wealthy solicitor (lawyer) named Charles Pulley, who lived here for over 40 years until his death in 1864.

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

A door in the study leads to a garderobe, probably the oldest in east London. A garderobe is an early en suite toilet built into a cupboard. Waste would have fallen into a cesspit below, and a servant would have to empty it.

The Blue Room at the top of the house was used by squatters. Rather than restore the room to its original Tudor state, The National Trust has recreated this room as a time capsule to remember when the squatters were here. It was these young people who created a place for the local community, so it’s right they should be acknowledged. The largest wall is painted in the spirit of the squatters but is not how they left the room. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

Down the back stairs to the ground floor, the Georgian Parlour, is decorated to show what it would have looked like in the middle of the 18th century when the house was divided into two sections. 

In Tudor times, this room may have been a buttery – where food was stored and a place for serving food before being taken to the Great Hall. In Georgian times, it would have been used for hobbies, including the new fashion of drinking tea. The cupboard in this room was where the garderobe’s cesspit had been. We were told the Georgian Parlour is one of the most haunted rooms in the house. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

The Tudor Kitchen shows how a 16th-century household ate and prepared food. This room has at times served as a parlor, entry hall and even a lavatory block. 

Exploring Sutton House National Trust in Hackney – A Tudor Wonder

Then back across the courtyard to see the models of Hackney from the 16th century in the lobby. Interestingly, the London Overground follows the route of a lost river, the Hackney Brook. Here’s a lovely video walking the route.

I really enjoyed my visit to Sutton House, and I wondered why I had waited so long to go there. I would like to see the National Trust give a stronger acknowledgment of the problematic legacy of the house from the East India Company days and the wealth gained from slavery.

Visitor Information

Address: Sutton House, 2–4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E9 6JQ

The closest station to Sutton House is Hackney Central. From the station, cross Amhurst Road and Mare Street and enter St John’s Churchyard Gardens. You pass beside the 13th-century tower of St John-at-Hackney church. Walk through the churchyard gardens to Sutton Place. At the end turn right, and you will see Sutton House.

Opening Hours: Sutton House is open for tours only on Wednesdays & Fridays, at 11am & 2pm. On Sundays self-led visits are from 11am to 1pm, with tours only at 2pm & 3.30pm. The Breaker’s Yard is open during house opening hours.

Please note, there is no longer a café or shop at Sutton House.

Official Website: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-house-and-breakers-yard

Laura Porter
Author: Laura Porter

Laura Porter writes AboutLondonLaura.com and contributes to many other publications while maintaining an impressive afternoon tea addiction. You can find Laura on Twitter as @AboutLondon, on Instagram as @AboutLondon and @AboutLondon Laura on Facebook.

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