Archaeological evidence above ground: Description

Pages 1-10

Survey of London: Volume 28, Brooke House, Hackney. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.

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CHAPTER I. The Archaeological Evidence above Ground


When John Evelyn visited Brooke House on 8 May 1654, he described it as 'a despicable building'. A hundred years later a large part of this 'despicable building' (which, nevertheless, had once belonged to a king) was dilapidated, perhaps even in ruins, and the remainder divided into tenements: and when, in 1759, the dilapidated portion was rebuilt, it was for the purpose of a madhouse, associated in the popular imagination with mystery and horror. Between 1759 and 1940, when it was bombed, few members of the general public penetrated its inner recesses, with the result that it became a place of legend and confused conjecture. A pardonable slip on the part of Lysons, in his account of Hackney, was copied by subsequent writers, thus adding to the confusion. The result was that, in an age that had learned to value buildings more for their antiquity and associations than for the architectural qualities that Evelyn had found wanting, Brooke House came to be imagined as having connexions with rather more than its share of such events, institutions and persons in the popular history of Hackney as appealed most strongly to a romantic fancy.

The outbreak of war in 1939, and the consequent evacuation of the patients, brought to an end the period of 180 years during which the house had been used as a mental institution, and, following the bombing, led to its acquisition by the London County Council and its eventual demolition.

The purpose of this study is to try, now that the building has disappeared, to sort out the fact from the fancy, and thus, while the memory is still fresh, to leave as accurate a record as possible of a house which, though it may never have been very beautiful, was yet of great interest historically as an example of a medium-sized country house of the late medieval period, situated near enough to London to attract, as short-term residents, a succession of famous men and women. Because of this great interest and because at the time scarcely anything was known about its building history, the demolition of the house was carried out slowly and carefully so that the structure could be observed and records made during the progress of the work. That done, the investigation was carried below ground and the foundations laid bare by means of excavations. During this stage of the work much that had hitherto been confused became clearer. The original plan and the probable order of building were established. The excavations could contribute little, however, towards answering the question 'When and by whom was the house built?'.

To arrive at a satisfactory answer to this question architectural and archaeological evidence must be read in conjunction with the evidence of historical documents, and this study will, therefore, bring all these types of evidence to bear on the problems posed by the building as it existed immediately before it was demolished. In doing this it has seemed best to present the evidence for the most part in the order in which it was discovered by those responsible for the investigations. Accordingly, after a description of the house as it appeared immediately before demolition, supplemented by reference to earlier records of the portions destroyed by bombing, an account will be given, first, of the information gathered during the course of demolition; secondly, of the results of the investigations below ground; and, thirdly, of what can be learned of the history of the property from documentary sources. Finally, an attempt will be made to bring together all three types of evidence in a coherent account of the history of Brooke House as a building.

At the time of its partial destruction by bombing in 1940 the house consisted of a heterogeneous group of buildings arranged round two courtyards, lying north and south of one another along the west side of Upper Clapton Road, to the north of its junction with Kenninghall (formerly London) Road. To the west of the house was a large garden which had originally extended from Brooke Road on the north to Kenninghall Road on the south, inclusive of the land now occupied by Kenninghall Road. The present Nightingale Road, originally a country lane, formed the westward limit. Between the house and the Kenninghall Road junction was a terrace of four eighteenth-century houses facing Upper Clapton Road. Although these were part of the Brooke House property, they do not properly belong to the subject of this study, and are, therefore, described in an appendix. Here we are principally concerned with Brooke House itself as an example, much altered and mutilated as it was, of a late medieval country house.

Little that was medieval was, however, visible from Upper Clapton Road. On this side of the house the most prominent feature was the brick-built east range or Georgian block which formed the eastern side of the southern courtyard. It had two main floors above a basement only slightly below ground level and marked by a brick plinth. There was also a roof garret. The street frontage was divided into nine bays, the five central ones projecting forward slightly under a wide pediment. Brick rustications marked the angles of the central feature as well as the extremities of the building, and the whole was crowned with a simple bracketed cornice and a brick parapet behind which were the flat-topped dormer windows of the garret. A circular window in the pediment provided light to the garret room behind. Ball finials in stone stood on the apex of the pediment and on the angles of the parapet above the rusticated quoins. The recessed sash windows of the two main floors had gauged brick flat-arched heads and stone sills and were all equal in size, each sash having been divided, originally, into six panes in the normal manner, but latterly, somewhat meanly, into two, by a single vertical bar. The basement windows in the plinth were similar though much shorter; and they lacked the stone sills. At the northern end of the central feature a door into the basement took the place of a window. The central arched doorway flanked by three-quarter engaged Doric columns supporting a broken pedimented hood gave access to the principal floor, which was reached by a flight of steps that was originally straight but had subsequently been turned southwards at the bottom, presumably when the widening of Upper Clapton Road in 1909 cut off a portion of the forecourt (Plates 13a, 14a).

At the southern end of the Georgian block was a modern pebble-dashed addition, oneand-a-half storeys high, in the form of a hipped lean-to, curiously crowned by a wooden bracketed cornice which became an eaves verge where the roof swept downwards to singlestorey height at the south end. It had a crudely proportioned Venetian window and two small square-headed windows, one of the latter being at mezzanine level (Plate 14a).

The buildings on the east side of the northern courtyard did not survive the bombing, and are un-recorded. They appear, however, to have been of a character appropriate to minor offices, and did not occupy the whole of this side of the courtyard, being separated in the middle by a wide carriage entrance.

The south front was very different in character from the east. The view of it from the road was obscured by a group of nondescript offices (including the modern addition already referred to) which projected southwards from its eastern end, but beyond these, to the west, the most prominent features of the two-storeyed stuccoed front were three large chimney stacks, projecting from the wall and decreasing in width by unequal stages towards the top. Of these, the most easterly was apparently a recent rebuilding in brick; the other two were stuccoed like the wall. The windows on this side were square-headed and somewhat irregularly spaced between the stacks, those on the ground floor being, except for the most westerly, taller and wider than those on the first floor. Between the boldly projecting first and second stacks, counting from the west, the wall was jettied out above the ground-floor window up to a few feet below the eaves, where the jetty was covered with a pitched roof extending between the stacks. A small timber bay or oriel projected eccentrically from the jetty. At the western end of the range a brick wall in the plane of the south face projected westwards into the garden, finished at the top in a bold curve. This curve followed roughly the pitch of a timber staircase built against the wall and carried on posts, rising to a landing at first-floor level in the angle between the western end of the south wall and the first projecting stack and giving access to the first floor through a door into Room 72 (Plate 7). On its south side the staircase had a balustrade of diagonal wooden trellis above a deep wooden string, and the ascent was interrupted midway by a short landing. All except the most westerly of the ground-floor windows, which was an eighteenth-century type of sash window set flush with the wall, were nineteenth century in form, the upper ones being double-hung sashes undivided into panes, and lower ones similar but with the sashes divided vertically into six narrow panes. (fn. 1) The eaves were finished with a wooden fascia below a moulded wooden box gutter, and the roof was covered with plain tiles (Plate 14b).

The west front was similar to the south front, but considerably longer, even in its curtailed state following the bombing. At the south end the roof of the south range finished with a gable lying in the plane of the main wall, its verges decorated with ornamental barge boards. The eaves were finished with a similarly ornamented eaves board. To the north of the gable the wall was punctuated by six projecting brick chimney stacks of varying widths and heights, the second, fourth and sixth of which (counting from the southern end) retained vestiges of early brickwork in their lower parts. A seventh, also of early date, had existed in the destroyed portion. For the rest, their machine-made bricks and clumsy cappings proclaimed them to be of Victorian date. Between them, and at either end, the stuccoed walls were pierced by an assortment of irregularly spaced windows and doors, the windows being, for the most part, similar in character to those on the south front. A narrow drip moulding divided the ground floor from the first floor (Plate 14c).

There is no record of the appearance of the north front, but Burlison's plan of 1842 (Plate 4) shows that it then had four projecting chimney stacks, similar to those on the south and west. The excavations showed, however, that unlike these, which were contemporary with the south and west walls, the chimney stacks on the north front were additions, probably of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Altogether, though much altered and mutilated, the south and west fronts were strongly reminiscent, in the arrangement of their chimneys, of the late fifteenth-century Hospital of St. John at Lichfield. They bore unmistakable evidence of having originated in a style of building in which the outward aspect of a house, and the prospect from it, were of no account, and in which outward facing windows and doors were indeed regarded more as invitations to thieves and vagabonds than as amenities for the inhabitants. In other words they showed that although little that was medieval in date was actually visible from the outside, Brooke House was, nevertheless, medieval in plan and conception—an inward-facing house in which the life centred round the courtyard and, presumably (though no trace of it was by then visible), the hall.

The principal access to the surviving courtyard at Brooke House, which will here be referred to as Court I, was by way of a door in the south-east corner, communicating directly with the south range (see Plate 5). There were subsidiary doors communicating with the basement of the Georgian block, with the west range, and with the middle range between the two courtyards. A passage through the middle range led to what had been the northern courtyard (Court II).

Though the basic form was medieval, the costume of the four sides of Court I was again varied. On the east side the back of the Georgian block was stuccoed, and had four windows of normal Georgian proportions on each main floor, spaced with some regard for regularity. The third window from the northern end on the 'ground' floor was blank. Below the level of the 'ground' floor the basement wall was exposed behind a covered way, at courtyard level, constructed of timber and linking the south-east with the north-east corner of the courtyard (Plates 10a, 15a).

This covered way was returned along the south side of the courtyard for the space of one bay to cover a window and the main door to the courtyard already referred to, the wall being here set back slightly from the line of the remainder of the south side. The first floor of this recessed portion was pierced by a nineteenth-century sash window and, above it, level with the first floor of the Georgian block, a small square window of the same period.

To the west of the recess an apparently late eighteenth-or early nineteenth-century twostoreyed brick facade of three bays was symmetrically composed with a semi-circular arched door, having a gothic fanlight, in the centre. The windows were of normal Georgian proportions and had sash windows set back from the face of the wall, which was colourwashed (Plates 10a, 15a).

The remaining two sides of the courtyard were of a completely different character from the two former. They, too, were stuccoed, but the windows on the ground floor were mullioned, and these and the door openings were finished in crudely detailed cement rendering, with heavy label mouldings. On the west side they afforded light to a corridor, built out from the main block of the building and covered with a flat roof. At its northern end this corridor impinged on a quarter-octangular two-storeyed turret covered with a flat roof and pierced by an ogee-headed door on the splay. The irregularly spaced windows to the first floor on both ranges, including one above the door in the turret, were similarly detailed (Plates 10a, 15b).

The appearance of the north and west sides of Court II can be reconstructed from the photographs reproduced on Plate 16, along with the perspective drawing (Plate 10b) by George Toussaint, dated 1844, and showing the court before the building of the corridor on the west side in continuation of that in Court I. In general the two sides of Court II visible in these representations resembled the corresponding sides of Court I, having the same sort of stucco finish and, apparently, similar door and window details in Roman cement on the ground floor. In each of the two northern angles were turrets like the one in Court I. These had double pitched roofs ending in southward-facing barge-boarded gables overhanging at the angles. The ground-floor corridor on the west side of the court impinged on the north-western turret as its counterpart in Court I impinged on the turret there. Above it at about the centre of the west side was a pargeted decoration, in the form of a quatrefoil, flanked on either side by a square oriel window of four lights and shallow projection, carried on brackets. There were similar oriel windows, one of three and the other of four lights, to the upper floor on the north side of the court.

It will be apparent from this brief description of the exterior of Brooke House, as it existed immediately before the bombing, that on the surface at least it could lay little claim to architectural distinction. To the trained eye, however, there were indications that the building contained, beneath the surface, things of undoubted archaeological interest, if these could only be disclosed. The same is true of the interior, as nearly two hundred years' use as a madhouse had left it.

The plan (Plates 5, 7) shows that, large as it was, the house contained no rooms of outstanding size or importance. Each range was divided, on each floor, into a large number of small rooms, which were arranged either en suite, as most of them were on the ground floor, or opening off narrow corridors, as they mainly were on the first floor. With the exception of the range on the south side of the southern courtyard, and the middle range between the two courtyards, which were each two rooms wide, no part of the building was more than one room, or at most a room and a corridor, in width.

There were two principal staircases, one rising from the entrance hall of the Georgian block, the other from the entrance lobby in the south-east corner of the southern courtyard. A subsidiary one was situated in the middle range next to the passage between the two courtyards. A short flight at the south-west corner of the Georgian block connected the ground floor of this block with that of the remainder of the building, only slightly raised above the normal ground level of the courtyards and the surrounding garden.

A point worthy of notice is that structural brick cross walls rising above the level of the first floor occurred only in the Georgian block and at each end of the symmetrical block on the courtyard side of the south range. Hence it followed that only at these points were fireplaces situated on cross walls. The remainder were situated on the outer walls of the building on the south, west and, as may be seen in the plan of 1842 (Plate 4), north sides. An apparent exception occurred in the cross (middle) range, where two fireplaces were placed on the spine wall dividing the two sets of rooms on the ground floor. This, however, was not a cross wall, and it will be shown later (page 31) that there is reason to believe that it formed the original outside wall on the north side of the building, before the construction of the northern courtyard.

For the most part the rooms were devoid of decorative interest, many of them having been formed by the partitioning of large rooms with little care for anything beyond utilitarian considerations. Nevertheless, there were features here and there of more than ordinary interest, and these must now be described.

Fig. 1. Detail of Georgian staircase

On entering the main door to the Georgian block the first thing that met the eye was the broad staircase (Plate 5, Room 12), which ascended, in three flights with quarter landings, to a broad landing at the front of the building, connected, by means of a return landing, with the first-floor corridor at the rear. This staircase was not very happily placed and was perhaps something of a stock piece, but it showed, by its turned balusters, cut strings and projecting stair ends, that it was intended to contribute to the dignity of the entrance (fig. 1). The rooms (11 and 13) on either side of the entrance hall had bold dado rails and simple boxed cornices. The chimneypiece in that to the south of the entrance hall (13) had plain square pilasters and an enriched moulded cornice and plain architrave broken forward at each end over acanthus brackets above the pilasters. The opening was marked by a gadrooned moulding. There was a somewhat similar chimneypiece in Room 43, and rather simpler ones in Rooms 47 and 51, the former having a pulvinated frieze and the latter an eared frame and fretted frieze.

More interesting than these were the rooms (23, 25, 66, 69, 71) overlooking the courtyard on both floors of the south range. Outwardly, as has already been suggested, this portion of the building appeared to be of late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century date; but the internal decoration was of a character that is generally associated with the second quarter of the eighteenth century, with its robust fielded panelling to doors and dadoes, its simple box cornice and its bold pedimented chimneypieces. There are reasons, which will be discussed later, for thinking that in spite of the divergence in character between the exterior and the interior, the whole of this work was of late eighteenth-century date (Plate 11, Rooms 23, 25, 66, 71).

The staircase at the junction of the Georgian and south ranges (Plate 20, Room 19) was of particular interest. It consisted of a series of short flights rising round a central square well, with square stopped-chamfered newels finished with added ball finials, wide closed strings, moulded handrail and stout turned balusters. Although it was outwardly of seventeenth-century date, its construction with solid wooden spandrel steps suggested that it was, in fact, much earlier (Plate 21c, d).

Various relics of the medieval building were visible internally, some of them on the surface and others after walls had been stripped at the time of the first-aid repairs undertaken in 1947–8 before the fate of the building was settled. They will be described in detail along with the construction of the house, as this was revealed during the course of the demolition; but, as certain of them proved to be of some importance in helping to date the portions of the building in which they occurred, it seems desirable to include here a note of their positions.

First, then, in the ceiling of Room 24 on the ground floor of the south range were exposed primary and secondary binders which were decorated on their undersides with the fat, bulging type of moulding generally associated with the second half of the sixteenth century. Above these, strangely enough, in Rooms 67 and 70, were the exposed principals of an arch-braced timber roof of late medieval character spanning the whole of the original south range, but apparently reduced when the central corridor was formed on the first floor of this range. Akin to the mouldings on the binders in the ceiling of the ground-floor room were those on the architraves to the doors marked R, W and X on the plans (Plates 22, 23b, 23c), one leading from the courtyard entrance lobby (21) to the south-east staircase; the second from the staircase to the first-floor corridor (68) in the south range; and the third to Room 61 at the head of the staircase. A fourth example of this type of door frame was found built into the west wall of the Georgian block: and, when it had been uncovered, the ceiling of Room 14 was found to have similarly moulded beams. The mouldings of the arched-braced principals, on the other hand, were matched in those of a pair of two-light timber windows (fig. 4) on the east side of the upper floor of the west range, and, again, in a blocked-up window (T) of similar type between the room (65) over the courtyard entrance and the second-floor corridor (the floor of which cut across it) of the Georgian block (Plates 7, 22, 24b, 24c). A blocked-up doorway in the same style (U, Plates 7, 22, 23a) had apparently given access to Room 65 from the south-east staircase, and there were remains of still another window, similar to the others, on the first floor of the turret in Court I.

Whilst the relative positions, in the structure, of these two types of moulding created a problem in dating which will be discussed later (page 71), a problem of another sort was raised by the built-up remains of a tall four-centred arch at the south end of the rear wall of the Georgian block (fig. 2, P on Plate 5). The purpose of this arch, the springing of which was eighteen feet above ground level, was a matter for constant conjecture until a solution of the problem was suggested by the excavation of the site, as described below (page 30).

Undoubtedly the most striking feature of the interior was, however, the plaster ceiling of early Renaissance date visible on the first floor of the west range in Rooms 73, 74, 77 and 78 and also in the corridor on the east side of the range (76). This ceiling is known to have extended along the whole length and breadth of the west range, suggesting that here, in the sixteenth century, had been a long gallery of impressive proportions measuring, as it did, more than 150 feet in length, or nearly half as long again as that at Haddon Hall, which has a similar ceiling and panelling. It will be shown later that the dating of the building of the northern courtyard (Court II) in the form in which it existed up to the time of the bombing hinges upon the dating of this ceiling, which must now be described in detail.

Fig. 2. Four-centred arch in west wall of Georgian block

The design (Plates 28, 29) was based on an all-over pattern of alternating octagons and squares divided by raised plaster ribs of triangular section supported by a cavetto on either side. In the centre of each octagon was a circle equal in diameter to the sides of the squares and linked with each of them by a raised moulding similar to the others and normal to the cardinal points of the circle. Half octagons and semi-circles alternating with half squares formed a border on each of the long sides. Each complete square and circle contained a coat of arms or an emblem, arranged according to a definite system. In the central row of alternating squares and circles, each square contained the arms of Lord Hunsdon in alternate supported and unsupported versions, whilst the circles had alternatively a swan and a bull's head upon a decorative shield set in a cartouche. The outer rows of squares and circles had a stag's head, a phoenix and a horse's head repeated in that order and arranged so as to give cross readings, with the central rows, of (first row) stag, bull, horse; (second row) phœnix, unsupported arms, stag; (third row) horse, swan, phœnix; (fourth row) stag, supported arms, horse; and so on.

The presence of the Hunsdon arms can be accepted as proof that this ceiling dates from the years of Lord Hunsdon's occupation of the house, which lasted from 1578 to 1583 (see page 61). It follows that the whole of the west range, including the northern portion destroyed by bombing, was in existence c. 1580. There was nothing else in the pre-Georgian house that could be so closely dated as the Hunsdon ceiling, which thus provided a terminus ante quem for the dating of earlier parts of the house.

The walls of the long gallery appear to have been panelled, along their whole length, in a series of bays divided from one another by pilasters standing on pedestals at dado height. (fn. 2) One section only of this panelling remained in the part left standing after the bombing, and this showed signs of having been patched with pieces of later date than the original (Plate 26). The pilasters, of a crude Doric order, did not diminish and had a plain rectangular block interposed between their capitals and the entablature above. Their shafts were divided, in the proportion of roughly three to two, into a fluted upper portion, with a plain necking below the capitals, and a lower portion decorated with a reticulated pattern, the two portions being divided by a narrow plain band moulded top and bottom. The pedestals had a capping and a moulded base and a panelled die separated from the capping by a plain necking. The dado between the pedestals was divided into a horizontal rectangular central panel surrounded by four elbow-shaped panels, and the space between the pilasters was similarly divided except that the central panel was vertical and that two small rectangular panel were inserted between the elbow panels on each side, making, in all, nine panels framed within an incongruous bolection moulding. The head of the space between each pair of pilasters was filled with a pair of semi-circular arches side by side, richly decorated, and supported, at the sides, on fluted half-pilasters with simple moulded capitals, and, in the centre, on a capital alone. The spandrels between these arches and the entablature of the order were filled with a large fish-scale ornament. A bracketed cornice in plaster crowned the whole. Altogether, though richly decorated, the gallery must have presented a somewhat incoherent appearance, largely because of the lack of any common measure in its parts, there being at least eight different sizes of panels in the composition.

Beyond the fact that the long gallery extended into the northern part of the west range, very little is known about the interior of the buildings that enclosed Court II on the west, north and east. In John Burlison's plan, made in 1842 (Plate 4), the greater part of the eastern half of the north range is described as a laundry, and two smaller rooms occupying the eastern extremity of the range (here increased in width by an outshot on the south side) as servants' sleeping rooms. The south side of the court was bounded by the extension to the middle range containing kitchen offices, which were flat-roofed and of one storey, except at the east end, adjacent to the Georgian block, where a garret storey had been added under a pitched roof. Except for the plan there is no record of this extension: and there, for want of further knowledge, this description of the conglomeration of buildings known as Brooke House must end.

Apart from the ever-present question of who, in late medieval times, could have built such a house in Hackney—a question that was unlikely to be answered by an examination of the structure—two main problems were posed by the detailed examination of the building on which the above description is based. First, there was no visible sign of the whereabouts of what was invariably the most important room of a medieval house—the hall; and, secondly, the position of the main gateway remained unknown. The main object of the quest which started with the demolition of the house was to discover where these two essential features, without which it was impossible to make sense of the plan, had been situated. Other questions, such as the whereabouts of the chapel (if one had existed) and of the kitchen were also present in the minds of the investigators, together with many questions of detail concerning the building history of the house, of which the most important related to the purpose of the archway (P on Plate 5) embedded in the west wall of the Georgian block.


  • 1. The divisions shown in Plate were mostly formed with adhesive tape as a precautionary measure against splintered glass in air raids.
  • 2. Some of the panelling is in the war memorial building at Harrow School. It was given by Lady Fitch to line the Alex Fitch room which was opened in 1926.