Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Canonbury', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 269-273. British History Online [accessed 25 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Canonbury", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 269-273. British History Online, accessed June 25, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Canonbury", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 269-273. British History Online. Web. 25 June 2024,

In this section



The Manor of Canonbury—The Rich Spencer—Sweet Tyranny—Canonbury House—Precautions against another Flood—A Literary RetreatThe Special Glory of a Famous House—The Decorative Taste of a Former Age.

The manor of Canonbury, so called from a mansion of the Prior of the Canons of St. Bartholomew, was given to the priory by Ralph de Berners, not long after the Conquest. At the dissolution it fell into the receptive hands of Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal, and at his execution an annuity from the manor was bestowed on ill-favoured Anne of Cleves. In 1547 Canonbury was granted by Edward VI. to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, from whom it passed to the ill-starred Duke of Northumberland, only a few months before his beheadal. In 1570 Lord Wentworth, to whom Queen Mary had granted the manor, alienated it to Sir John Spencer, " the rich Spencer" who figures so often in the civic history of Elizabeth's reign.

Sir John was an alderman and clothworker of London, sheriff in 1583–4, and Lord Mayor in 1594. He appears to have been a public-spirited honest man, and often stood forward boldly in defence of the Privileges of the City. On one occasion we find him protesting against the great Bridge House granaries of London being taken as storehouses for the navy; and on another, resisting an attempt to force a new recorder on the City. He also helped actively to suppress a riot of London apprentices, five of whom were hung on Tower Hill. The wealth of Sir John was so notorious, that it is said a Dunkirk pirate once contrived a plot, with twelve of his men, to carry him off, in hopes of obtaining £50,000 as ransom. The men came in a shallop to Barking Creek, and hid themselves in ditches near a field-path leading to Sir John's house, but luckily for Sir John he was detained in London that night, and so the plot was frustrated. The residence of this citizen at Crosby House, where, in 1603, he entertained the French ambassador, the Marquis of Rosny, afterwards better known as the Duke of Sully, we have alluded to in a former chapter. Sir John's only daughter, Elizabeth, tradition says, was carried off from Canonbury House in a baker's basket, by the contrivance of her lover, young Lord Compton, and Mr. Lewis says this story is confirmed by a picture representing the fact preserved among the family paintings at Castle Ashby, a seat of the Comptons, in Northamptonshire. An old Islington vestry-clerk has preserved an anecdote about this curious elopement. Sir John, incensed at the stratagem, discarded his daughter, till Queen Elizabeth's kind interference effected a reconciliation. The wily queen, watching her opportunity, requested the knight to stand sponsor to the first offspring of a young discarded couple. Sir John complied, honoured and pleased at the gracious request, and her Majesty dictated his own surname for the Christian name of the child. The ceremony over, Sir John declared, as he had discarded his undutiful daughter, he would adopt the boy as his son. The queen then told him the truth, and the old knight, to his surprise, discovered that he had adopted his own grandson, who ultimately succeeded "his father in his honour, his grandfather in his wealth." Sir John died in 1609, and in St. Helen's there is still his monument, with his daughter kneeling at the feet of his effigy. At his funeral about a thousand persons, clad in black gowns, attended, and 320 poor men had each a basket given them, containing a black gown, four pounds of beef, two loaves of bread, a little bottle of wine, a candlestick, a pound of candles, two saucers, two spoons, a black pudding, a pair of gloves, a dozen points, two red herrings, four white herrings, six sprats, and two eggs.

Lord Compton's mind was so shaken by the vast wealth he inherited at his father-in-law's death, that he became for a time insane. He died in 1630, of a fit produced by bathing in the Thames, after supping at Whitehall. A curiously imperious letter of his wife to her lord was published in the European Magasine of 1782. It begins with loving tyranny, and demands the most ample pin-money:

"My Sweet Life—Now I have declared to you my mind for the settling of your state, I suppose that it were best for me to bethink or consider with myself what allowance were meetest for me. For considering what care I have had of your estate, and how respectfully I dealt with those which both by the laws of God, of nature, and of civil polity, wit, religion, government, and honesty, you, my dear, are bound to, I pray and beseech you to grant me £1,600 per annum, quarterly to be paid."

She then calmly requires £600 additional for charitable works. three horses for her own saddle, two mounted gentlewomen, six or eight gentlemen, two four-hourse coaches lined with velvet and cloth, and laced with gold and silver, two coachmen, a horse for her gentleman usher, and two footmen, twenty gowns a year, a purse of £2,220 to pay her debts, £10,000 to buy jewels, and as she is so reasonable, schooling and apparel for her children, and wages for her servants, furniture for all her houses, and when he is an earl, £1,000 more and double attendance. In truth these citizens' daughters knew their rights, and exacted them. Lord Compton was created an earl in 1618. The second earl, a brave soldier, was killed during the Civil War, at the battle of Hopton Heath, in 1642–3.

THE NEW RIVER HEAD. (From a View published in 1753.)

Canonbury House is generally supposed to have been built in 1362, ten years after Edward III. had exempted the priory of St. Bartholomew from the payment of subsidies, in consequence of their great outlay in charity. Stow says that William Bolton (prior from 1509 to 1532) rebuilt the house, and probably erected the well-known brick tower, as Nichols, in his "History of Canonbury," mentions that his rebus, a bolt in a tun, was still to be seen cut in stone, in two places, on the outside facing Well's Row. The original house covered the whole of what is now Canonbury Place, and had a small park, with garden and offices. Prior Bolton either built or repaired the priory and church of St. Bartholomew, and, according to tradition, as Hall says, in his chronicle, fearing another flood, he built a tower on Harrow Hill, and victualled it for two months. Stow, however, redeems the prior from ridicule, by telling us that the supposed tower proved to be only a dove-house.

The mansion was much altered by Sir John Spencer, who came to reside there, in splendour, about 1599, and it is now divided into several houses, Canonbury Place having absorbed the grand old residence, and portioned out its relics of bygone grandeur. A long range of tiled buildings, supposed to have been the stables of the old mansion, but which had become an appendage to the "Canonbury" Tavern, was pulled down in 1840. A tradition once prevailed at Islington that the monks of St. Bartholomew had a subterranean communication from Canonbury to the priory at Smithfield. This notion had arisen from the discovery of brick archways in Canonbury, which seem to have been only conduit heads, and had really served to lead water to the priory.

After the Spencers, the Lord-Keeper Coventry rented this house. In 1635 we find the Earl of Derby detained here, and prevented from reaching St. James's by a deep snow; and in 1685 the Earl of Denbigh died here. About 1719 it seems to have been let as lodgings. In 1780 it was advertised as a suitable resort for invalids, on account of the purity of the air of Canonbury, and the convenience of a sixpenny stage every hour to the City. It then became a resort for literary men, who craved for quiet and country air. Amongst those who lodged there was Samuel Humphreys, who died here from consumption, produced by overwork, in 1737. This Humphreys was a secondrate poet, who sang the glories of the Duke of Chandos's seat at Canons, and whose verse Handel praised for its harmony. Ephraim Chambers, the author of one of the earliest cyclopædias, also died here, in 1740. Among other lodgers at Canonbury House were Onslow, the Speaker; Woodfall, who printed "Junius;" Deputy Harrison, many years printer of the London Gazette and Mr. Robert Horsfield, successor to Messrs. Knapton, Pope's booksellers.


But the special glory of the old house is the fact that here Oliver Goldsmith for a time lodged and wrote, and also came here to visit his worthy friend and employer, Mr. John Newbury, the goodnatured publisher of children's books, who resided here, having under his protection the mad poet, Christopher Smart. We know for certain that at the close of 1762, Goldsmith lodged at Islington, at the house of a Mrs. Elizabeth Fleming, to whom he paid £50 a year. This choleric and strictly just landlady had her portrait taken by Hogarth, as tradition says, when he paid a visit to Goldsmith. Goldsmith frequently mentions Islington in his writings, and his jovial "shoemaker's holidays" were frequently made in this neighbourhood. The poet and three or four of his favourite friends used to breakfast at his Temple chambers about ten a.m., and at eleven they proceeded by the City Road and through the fields to dinner at Highbury Barn. About six in the evening they adjourned to White Conduit House to tea, and concluded the evening by a merry supper at the Grecian or the Globe.

"The two principal rooms," says Lewis, "which are in the first and second storeys of the plaister part of the building facing Canonbury Square, and appear to have been fitted up by Sir John Spencer, are each about twenty feet square and twelve feet high, and wainscoted with oak from the floor to the ceiling in complete preservation, and uncovered with paint. The lower room is divided into small panels, with fluted pilasters and a handsome cornice; and over the fireplace are two compartments containing lions' heads, escalop shells, &c., in finely carved oak, as represented in the engraving. The other room, which is over this, is yet more highly ornamented in the Grecian taste, with carved wainscot in panels, intersected with beautifully wrought pilasters. A handsome cornice runs round the top, composed of wreathed foliage and escalop shells, and over the fireplace are two female figures carved in oak, representing 'Faith' and 'Hope,' with the mottoes, 'Fides. Via. Deus. Mea,' and 'Spes certa supra.' These are surmounted by a handsome cornice of pomegranates, with other fruit and foliage, having in the centre the arms of Sir John Spencer. The floors of both rooms are of very large fir boards, the ceilings are of plain plaister, and the windows are modern glazed sashes, opening towards Canonbury Square.

"The other apartments are smaller in size, and contain nothing worthy of remark. On the white wall of the staircase, near the top of the tower, are some Latin hexameter verses, comprising the abbreviated names of the Kings of England, from William the Conqueror to Charles I., painted in Roman characters an inch in length, but almost obliterated. The lines were most probably the effusion of some poetical inhabitant of an upper apartment in the building, during the time of the monarch last named, such persons having frequently been residents of the place.

"The adjoining house contains many specimens of the taste for ornamental carving and stucco work that prevailed about the time of Queen Elizabeth. At the top of the first flight of stairs are two male caryatide figures in armour, and a female carved in wood, fixed as ornaments in the corners of a doorway; and the ceilings of a fine set of rooms on the first floor are elaborately embellished with a variety of devices in stucco, consisting of ships, flowers, foliage, &c., with medallions of Alexander the Great, Julius Cæsar, Titus Vespasian, &c. The arms of Queen Elizabeth are also given in several places, one of which bears also her initials 'E.R.,' and the date 1599, at which time the premises were fitted up by Sir John Spencer. The chimney-pieces in this house are very handsome, and in their original state must have had a rich and grand appearance, but they are now covered with white paint, although in other respects they have not sustained any material injury. One of them exhibits a very elaborate piece of workmanship in carved oak, containing figures of the Christian and cardinal virtues, and the arms of the City of London, with those of Sir John Spencer and the Clothworkers' Company, of which he was a member. There is also a monogram or device, apparently intended for his name, with the date 1601, and the whole is supported by caryatides of a very elegant form. In another room is a chimney-piece divided into three compartments, and intersected by handsome columns with Corinthian capitals, and containing a male and female figure in long robes, with the arms of Sir John Spencer in the centre, surrounded by curious carved work. The Spencer arms and the crest (an eagle volant) also occur in other parts of the sculpture, and the whole is supported by two caryatides bearing on their heads baskets of fruit. The rooms of this house still retain the ancient wainscoting of oak in square and lozenge panels, but covered with white paint; and the old oak staircase also remains, together with several ponderous doors of the same wood, having massive bolts, hinges, and fastenings of iron.

"In another adjoining house is a handsome chimney-piece of carved oak, covered with white paint. In the passage of the house, placed over a door, is an arch having a blank escutcheon, and another charged with the rebus of Prior Bolton. There are also over another doorway the arms of Sir Walter Dennys, who was knighted (fifth Henry VII.) on Prince Arthur being created Prince of Wales. These are cut on a stone about a yard square, formerly fixed over a fireplace in another part of the old house, but since placed in its present situation, with the following inscription underneath:—

"'These were the arms of Sir Walter Dennys, of Gloucestershire, who was made a knight by bathing at the creation of Arthur Prince of Wales, in November, 1489, and died September 1, 21 Henry VII., 1505, and was buried in the church of Olviston, in Gloucestershire. He married Margaret, daughter of Sir Richard Weston, Knt., to which family Canonbury House formerly belonged. The carving is therefore above 280 years old.'"

The latter part of this inscription is erroneous, says Mr. Lewis, as neither the Dennys nor Weston family was there before the dissolution, and the carving is of a much later date.

"The old mansion, when in its perfect state, was ornamented with a turret, &c., and surrounded by a highly picturesque neighbourhood, as shown in a scarce print published by Boydell about 1760."