The architecture of Crosby Hall

Pages 57-63

Survey of London Monograph 9, Crosby Place. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1908.

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As the only extant example of the most important factor in a metropolitan palatial residence of its time this Hall possessed a peculiar interest. It had been fortuitously handed down to us, a remnant of the highest type of the architecture of its period, erected when the near termination of the Civil Wars was permitting a fuller attention to domestic needs and comforts.

The extent of Crosby Place and the plan of its buildings are fully discussed in a previous portion of this monograph. The hall, at the time of its erection, formed no doubt the chief and most ornamental portion of the whole edifice, but, if we may judge from the recorded remains of the adjoining parlour and solar, or "great chamber" (called recently the throne room), it is evident that the whole place was one of great richness and beauty.

Work of restoration had been, in the first half of last century so ruthless in connection with the north-western wing of the outer courtyard, containing the parlour and great chamber, that no architectural description of such ancient work as remained to us is called for. A solitary fragment of the south wall of the wing still remains, and unless condemned by some exacting or anti-historical district surveyor, probably will remain, embedded in the party wall of the buildings of The International Banking Corporation which now occupy the site of the courtyard. This fragment is worth noting as the last remnant, when the work of demolition is completed, of ancient Crosby Place, save some vaults now outside the curtilage. When these modern bank buildings in their turn reach the housebreaker, this built-up fragment may perhaps excite the curiosity and speculation of the latter-day antiquary. Mr. Norman has so fully examined what is known from documentary evidence of the history and form of this part of the building, that I need not go further than call attention to the cusping of the elaborate roof (Plate 23), which was of much interest, and resembled that occurring in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, and also in the restored cloisters of St. Stephen at Westminster.

It is well to make a further note upon the folly of needless renewal by way of restoration. When Blackburn rebuilt this part, instead of preserving and repairing what he found, it is clear from existing drawings that he tried to reproduce the old details, suiting them, however, to his convenience. But the old roof was destroyed and a copy in fir and papiermâché substituted for it. This was patent enough to a keen observer. It was announced, however, as a discovery at the recent demolition, and ignorantly (if not wilfully) used to cast doubts upon the authenticity of the ancient roof of the hall itself.

I confine myself now to an examination of the hall proper and its immediate adjuncts, and John Britton's plan of 1813, as being the earliest in any measure complete, may be adopted for reference (Plate 20). Its inaccuracies, already alluded to in general terms upon page 34 (supra), must be particularly noted. He locates Crosby Square instead of Great St. Helen's at the north end of the hall, probably a slip or engraver's error. In the chamber at the north end he shows a large opening giving upon Great St. Helen's. This was doubtless originally a window, and had been cut out for warehouse purposes to which the building was given over. Plate 7 gives us some further information, and shows also the original entrance doorway (at f, Plate 20). Some part of this doorway remained until recently and is shown by Hammon, but its composition had been altered in the process of restoration. This entrance led into a narrow vestibule, which in its turn gave upon the northern annexe to the hall on the left hand, and upon the parlour on the right.

Passing to the great hall, we have a plain parallelogram divided by windows and roof principals into eight bays, exclusive of the western gallery. The internal area, not counting the gallery, is 53 feet by 27 feet. The gallery adds 13 feet to the length.

The segmental ceiling, having a blunt four-centred arch, is divided transversely into four compartments, making thirty-two compartments in all, and each compartment is again subdivided by heavy longitudinal and transverse subsidiary ribs with bold bosses at every intersection. Between these subdivisions the constructional curved rafters are made to show. At the intersection of the main transverse and longitudinal ribs are a series of pendants, twenty-seven in all, including the half pendants at the ends, and from these pendants spring a system of four-centred arches in every direction with traceried and cusped perforated spandrils over them, the whole securing an effect of great richness combined with solidity of construction (Plate 10).

The chief transverse ribs or principals are brought down the wall 4 feet 6 inches below the springing line on to stone corbels, treated as pendants to correspond in general form with the timber pendants of the roof (Plate 12).

At this point a curious and interesting idiosyncrasy of construction may be noted. These corbels were cut upon long bonding stones reaching about 2 feet 6 inches into the wall. Upon the table of the corbel was fixed a flat piece of iron, bottle-shaped on plan, the base outwards over the corbel and the head in the wall. The length of the iron is 1 foot 4 inches, greatest width over the corbel 4¾ inches, and the thickness 7/16; inch. The head is turned down 2 inches with a jagged shank for running with lead into the stone. Over the iron, which, excepting the lug, was laid upon and not let into the stone, was a piece of deerskin with the hair still upon it and the hair laid downwards. The woodwork of the principals was separated from the stone of the corbels by the iron and skin, which seems to have fulfilled the function of a moveable joint. The irons have very neatly engraved upon them an arrow head, the mark no doubt of the ironsmith. They remained unrusted and the skin intact at the day of demolition, but where restored corbels had been introduced they were missing.

From these stone corbels or pendants, which are hollow-sided on plan and exactly fill the wall space between each of the windows, there also spring timber wall arches forming a label to the four-centred window head, with traceried spandrils over them as before, and supporting a rich cornice ornamented in each bay by seven deeply cut and bossed quatrefoils (Plate 11). The very careful arrangement by which roof and windows are brought into one complete and interdependent design is one of the chief features of the conception, and alone puts this remarkable composition in the forefront of its period and class.

Upon the west side and occupying the third and fourth bays from the north end stood the great bay window (known as the oriel) deeply recessed and elaborately groined. The composition of this, and the manner in which the curtain arch, occupying the width of two bays of the roof, is again worked in with the latter so as to continue the general lines of the scheme is masterly. The window is set out in five sides of an octagon, three and a half of which are pierced by two-light windows, each with double battlemented transoms. The remaining northern side and half the southern are filled by blank panels, matching the windows, a frequent device in work of this period, where an adjacent building or the thickness of the wall blocks the light, as in this instance. In these windows the double cusping of the two lower tiers of lights should be noticed; added richness is thus given to these lights over those of the ordinary windows. The form of vault is that known as lierne. The figure forms five sides of an octagon. The main ribs spring from single groin shafts in the angles of the octagon which are brought down to the floor level by elongated bases. There is a ridge rib (slightly domed) rising from the head of each compartment and meeting the main ribs in a very magnificent boss, ornamented with an esquire's helm, mantling and torse bearing the crest of John Crosby. There is no shield, which reminds us of the freedom of heraldic treatment in those days. The shield itself occurs isolated in diminutive form upon one of the smaller bosses. The lierne ribs cross one another at the ridges in a boss, and at the crossing are intersected by a horizontal rib taking the lines of the octagon. Secondary liernes and wall ribs complete the scheme, the latter forming scoinson arches over the windows. The setting out of the ribs is carefully marked upon the bed of the springer stones, thereby showing that the springers were worked upon the banker.

The centre of the fifth bay of the main roof from the north end is occupied by a hexagonal opening recently used as a light shaft. This, no doubt, was originally designed as the ordinary lantern for the emission of smoke from a central hearth or brazier, but in Britton's and Pugin's time it was filled in by richly ribbed panelling, of which both authors give a plan. The existing hexagonal curb proves to be of oak, but in parts of doubtful authenticity. I see no grounds for doubting, however, what the draughtsmen have indicated. There was thus provision made for the hall lantern as well as the fireplace. It has been supposed that the fireplace was a later introduction. It was upon the east wall opposite to the bay, but a little further north. Although patched and restored it undoubtedly belonged to the 15th century (Plate 36). The construction of the flue as revealed by the demolition suggested its originality, and it seems probable that the lantern was closed, if not in the first instance, at a very early time. The fireplace had been a not uncommon feature, especially in smaller halls, from an earlier date than this. Opposite the fireplace was a door leading to the western apartment. This doorway was a restoration of the original.

Returning now to the window arcade on the west wall, the two northern bays are filled by blank panels necessitated by the existence of the northern wing abutting against the wall in this direction. The sills of these panels were some 3 feet above the ordinary sill line. Opposite these blank windows Britton shows two others with glazed lights but similarly raised sills (Plate 21). It is probable that there was a lower building on the east side which necessitated the variation, and the panels opposite were made to match. This solution is, however, problematical, since the sloping boundary line may have approached the east wall very closely (Plate 25). The canted wall of the northern annexe suggests the previous existence of buildings belonging to the convent, square with the line of the Close. The rich roof was carried only as far as the eighth bay from the north. In the southern portion beyond this the windows exist only on the west side. They are the same in design but differently located, being brought together so that there is no wall space separating them. Since this leaves no room for the roof principals or corbels, it alone is proof that the main roof never extended southward beyond its present termination; but in addition to this it has been found that the last existing roof principal is smaller than the others and moulded upon one side only, from which it is perfectly evident that there must have been some form of partition cutting off the southern part. The roadway leading to Crosby Square passed through this portion of the hall beneath the gallery. This and the opening for it in the west wall were constructed by Edward Blore, architect, in 1831, and at the same time he restored the wall and windows over the opening.

No doubt originally there was on the ground floor the usual screen cutting the hall off from the passage which led to the butteries and kitchens after the orthodox manner, while on the first floor the space over the passage may have formed a landing to the principal stairs and a connecting link between the first floors of those wings of the Place which occupied roughly the two sides of what is now known as Crosby Square and was then the garden or inner court. Of the east wall over the gallery nothing remained. The wall had been removed, and the back of the wall of the 17th century adjoining house (now No. 8, Crosby Square), closed in the space. Britton (Plate 21) repeats here the pair of windows as on the opposite side. If they ever existed, the buildings which probably abutted here must have had only a low elevation.

It remains to refer to those parts of the vaults which were beneath the hall and its northern annexe, all of which were original. Built of brick, in one span, the main crypt forms a barrel vault beneath the hall, including the whole of the roadway leading to Crosby Square. Here, at its southern end, at the south-east angle, is the commencement of the long vault shown in Wilkinson's plan (Plate 19), while under the northern annexe, where it is separated from the rest by a thick wall, the vault is reversed. The vault under the parlour was of precisely the same character. The main crypt beneath the hall was originally lighted by six four-centred windows, three of which looked east and three west upon the outer court; the northern portion by one similar light towards Great St. Helen's which had been preserved. The outer walls were carried to a depth of about 15 feet below the present ground level, and rested on the natural soil which was here brick earth. (fn. 1) The barrel vault, two bricks thick, sprang from a set-off, 4 inches wide, 4 feet 3 inches above crypt floor line, and rose 5 feet to the apex, almost to the level of the hall floor. The intermediate walls shown on Plate 29 were modern introductions, and when they were built the floor space between them was lowered 2 feet 6 inches. The vault was actually four-centred, but almost elliptical. The bricks are of precisely the same size and quality as those used in the spandrils of the upper walls over the windows, and we may gather that the vault was probably turned when the builders had adopted brick for the completion of their walls above the roof springing. The arch joints were very true and of excellent white mortar, but they were not truly radiated. They sloped a little outwards through the whole archivolt and a V-shaped key of Kentish rag stone was inserted at the apex. The six main crypt lights are shown correctly upon Wilkinson's plan (Plate 19), those upon the west side being wider than those opposite. Their construction was unusual. The openings were four-centred unglazed lights fitted with shutters and the usual ironwork. The inner splay was wide and the splayed sill long and sloping to the springing of the vault. Just beneath the level of the hall floor a four-centred stone scoinson arch was turned, only 3 inches thick, and over this was a discharging arch at the level of the outer head. The space between the two arches was filled with a brick spandril again only 3 inches thick, this spandril forming part of the hall wall: this arrangement had not been disclosed earlier and is not shown upon the measured drawings. Had the brick vault been continuous across the windows it is clear the latter would have been wholly obliterated. The brick vault was therefore pierced and over the piercing an oval vault was turned (Plate 19), the whole arrangement being ingenious. At the level of the scoinson arches rough stone corbels were inserted along the walls, evidently for the purpose of carrying the supports to the floor, which must have been of wood. Whether the haunches of the vault were filled in or not originally does not appear.

A few words upon material are called for. The outer walls were 3 feet 3 inches thick, increased to 3 feet 7 inches below the vault. They were faced with Kentish rag and filled with clunch, flint, ragstone, and fragments of brick roofing tile and floor tiles, some of the latter encaustic. Britton is imaginative in showing the interior walls of ashlar. Above the window arches brick was the material, 8½ inchest to 9 inches by 4¼ inches by 2 inches being the size, the same brick as used for the vault of the basement. The dressed stone was generally Reigate freestone (greensand), as employed in Westminster Abbey. The external repairs upon the west side and the refacing of the west wall had been executed in Bath stone with some Caen, the former probably being used by Blackburn and the latter by Blore. Considerable restoration had been carried out to the oriel but the vault over it was absolutely genuine and untouched, and from the fact that the original iron tie at the springing remained intact—a very interesting piece of construction—it is clear that the oriel was preserved to us generally in an authentic form. The roof was of oak. The carved pateræ, a feature of the design, were cut upon the solid in the first instance, but at one of the restorations many of them had been cut out and foolish substitutes in fir inserted. The general construction of the roof was admirable, but an unusual feature was the use of large nails as well as oak pins. These nails were in perfect preservation and some of them 8 inches long.

No notice of Crosby Hall can be complete without a reference to its noble proportions, and the fine effect of its plain walls contrasting with the rich and harmonious scheme of windows and roof. It was not one of the great halls in size, but even in its forlorn condition, with its suspicion of early 19th century restorations upon it and the later veneer of eating-house vulgarities to alloy its charm, it yet stood a monument of the highly developed artistic taste of a great building age. In it was displayed a combination of simplicity of parts, of solidity of construction, and of richness of detail where richness is called for—the whole a striking and impressive unity, put together without conscious effort, a lesson of repose to the modern architect. Fortunate are we to be the successors of those who could produce work of this high class, unworthy when as in this case, we fail to appreciate or understand our fortune.

Tenderly and reverently treated, Crosby Hall might have shaken off with ease those evidences of neglect or attention by which the commonplace and unappreciative are too readily deceived. It might thus have remained for long years a type of noble architecture, the last, but a worthy and living record of mediæval London. That London should allow such a record to be wiped out for any cause whatever is a fact surely that passes comprehension. She is adding to the legacy of vain regrets which future generations will sadly inherit.

In conclusion let it be recorded that William Wilkins, in erecting the New Hall for King's College, Cambridge, in 1824, paid Crosby Hall the compliment of adopting its roof, which he reproduced in plaster.


  • 1. Immediately north of the hall (or of the site) portions of several Roman amphoræ were found.