Pages 67-75

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

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It is now possible, by bringing together the evidence provided by the building itself, both above and below ground, with that from documentary sources, to attempt a coherent account of the probable history of Brooke House, and the people who left their mark upon it, during the four and three-quarter centuries of its chequered existence. In offering such an account we must emphasize that there still remain gaps in the chain of evidence, and that, as we have frequently found in the course of our investigations, it is possible for some single newly discovered, or hitherto overlooked, fact to alter the whole course of the story. Nevertheless, we feel reasonably confident that, although we have not always been able to reach precise conclusions with regard to dates and persons, the account we have to offer represents the actual history of the structure, to the enlightenment of which each type of evidence has brought its own, indispensable, contribution.

So far as we have been able to discover (though certain unexplained remains on the site of Brooke House point to the existence of an earlier structure) the story begins in 1476, when William Worsley, later Dean of St. Paul's, acquired an estate in the healthy and convenient parish of Hackney. There, according to what seems the most plausible interpretation of the facts presented on pages 53–4, he built a house with a notable roof, which Simon Birlingham, (fn. 1) having perhaps been employed as an apprentice in its construction, continued to think of as 'the Dean's roof' even after Worsley had disposed of the property.

Supposing this to have been the case, we have now to establish a connexion between the Dean's roof and Brooke House, and for this the documentary evidence is not, by itself, conclusive. The most convincing evidence that the Dean's estate and the Brooke House estate were probably one and the same is that, notwithstanding a discrepancy in the recorded acreages, the Brooke House property and that of Sir Robert Southwell (who bought 'free houses and [a] dwelling place with . . . free lands lying in Hakeney sometyme Seth Wursleis' from the heir of Sir Reginald Bray to whom the Dean sold his Hackney estate in 1496) both contained two closes in 'Chistilfyld', 'Chistley Feldes' or 'Cheseleyfeld' in Tottenham.

Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that the foundations of Brooke House uncovered in the course of the excavations indicated a hall of a size that might well have been appropriate as a model for the hall of a City Company, and that we know of no other house in Hackney at this time that could have provided a model for the Pewterers' roof. Moreover, the form of the oriel arch in the hall was consistent with a late fifteenth-century date for the building. Most significant, however, was the evidence of the wall painting (though by reason of the Tudor roses, this must be dated after 1485) which, in addition to the letter W and the arms of Radclyffe (Roger Radclyffe being the name of the Dean's steward) bore a portrait of a man in clerical habit kneeling in the customary attitude and position of the donor. The temptation to associate the painting with Worsley, and to suggest that, in the kneeling figure, we have a portrait of the Dean, is strong. It must, however, be admitted that a difficulty arises over the identity of the standing figure, which, with its beard, crossed keys and double-transomed staff can be no other than St. Peter, wearing, perhaps, a form of tiara and a long trailing cope or mantum as symbols of Papal authority. Worsley, as Dean of St. Paul's, might have been expected to appear under the patronage of St. Paul. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that he probably owed his advancement in the Church to William Bothe (whose Hackney estate he acquired) and William's half-brother Laurence, each of whom crowned a successful career by becoming Archbishop of York. Might not Worsley have entertained the hope that St. Peter, patron saint of York, would do as much for him? Whatever may be the explanation, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion, in the face of all the evidence, that the builder of Brooke House was William Worsley, and that the building was begun shortly after he had acquired his Hackney estate in 1476.

The house that Worsley may be presumed to have built was planned round a single courtyard, with its sides facing roughly towards the cardinal points of the compass. On the east side, nearest the highway from Hackney to Tottenham, was the block containing the hall, a substantial brick building having a square oriel window, towards its south or upper end, looking out into the courtyard. About the middle of the block, on its east side, was a projecting porch or gatehouse, also brick-built, with diagonal buttresses at its forward angles. A description of this gatehouse—in all probability not the gatehouse of Sir Rowland Hayward (see page 49)—in the lease of 1724 (pages 63–4) suggests that it may have contained, above the entrance, a lodging intended for a porter, approached by means of a turret staircase. Foundations of such a turret were found in the course of the excavations, but they were entirely covered by a tiled floor which was integrally associated with that of the alterations to the porch, of presumed sixteenth-century date. Taken by itself this evidence could lead to no other conclusion than that the turret had been demolished at an early date: yet the Chatelain engraving of 1750 shows one existing in the correct position, as does the anonymous drawing in the London Museum. Thus we are faced with conflicting evidence, that provided by the excavations alone being certain, so far as it goes. Nevertheless, when due allowance has been made for the notoriously unreliable nature of topographical drawings (particularly those of the picturesque school) and for the possibility that the London Museum drawing may not be entirely independent of the Chatelain engraving, it remains difficult to believe that the turret shown in both drawings should have been an object of pure fancy. Unfortunately the conflict cannot now be resolved. All that can be said is that it would have been perfectly possible to support the upper part of the turret, on the side shown by excavation to have been destroyed in its lower part, by means of a single balk of timber spanning no more than six feet.

Immediately opposite the porch a door in the west wall of the hall block gave access to the courtyard, suggesting the existence of a screens passage between the lower end of the hall, on the south, and what was presumably a buttery on the north. The exact form of the latter is now, however, a matter for conjecture, owing to the absence of foundations continuing the line of the east wall of the hall at the north end of the block. At the opposite end of the hall, behind the dais, was the chapel, where the wall painting described on pages 21–2 occupied part of the north wall. By 1547, at least, this southern end of the hall block contained two storeys, for above the chapel was a floor consisting of heavy beams decorated on the underside with the fat mouldings of the early sixteenth century, and the door leading from the head of the south-east staircase into the room above was of the same period. Moreover, the particular made for the granting of the house to Sir William Herbert in that year refers to a 'Closet commynge out of the great Chamber over the Chappell'. Presumably the closet was in the upper part of the turret attached to the south-east corner of the house. The foundations of this turret were uncovered in the course of the excavations, and the turret itself was still standing in 1797, when it was shown in Malcolm's view. Whether it was entered, at ground level, from the forecourt or from the south-east corner of the chapel is not certain, but it is worthy of remark that a direct connexion between the 'great Chamber' and the east end of the chapel might have been considered appropriate in a house built for an ecclesiastic. The somewhat unusual arrangement whereby the chapel, and not the parlour, was situated immediately behind the great hall, whilst, to judge by the mouldings of the ceiling beams, the parlour occupied the east end of the south range, may perhaps be accounted for in the same way.

Here it is necessary to say a word about the forecourt to the house, which, as we have seen (page 49), was irregular in shape, diminishing in width from south to north, and bounded, on the west, by the hall block, and, on the east and north, by brick walls. The northern boundary wall returned on to the hall block some five feet beyond the north wall of the porch. Beyond this point the east wall of the hall block seems to have been on or near to the original boundary of the property. Thus it would appear that the arrangement was governed entirely by convenience, and that no though of architectural composition or external display entered into its design. Evidently Brooke House was not intended to be a building of great estate.

Behind the brick hall block a single courtyard seems to have been bounded on its remaining three sides by buildings of two storeys constructed of timber resting on brick ground walls, the upper storey being everywhere jettied out over the lower one. Exceptions to the general employment of timber for these walls occurred in the outer walls of the south and west ranges, where the lower storeys were of brick. The purpose of this may have been to stiffen the large brick chimney stacks, which, three on the south and two on the west, projected beyond the main faces. Further stiffening would no doubt have been provided by the brick partitions, which, bonded into the outer walls at right angles, separated the north and south ranges from the west. They, too, were confined to the lower storey.

To the north of the main house, in what we may perhaps be permitted to describe as Worsley's time, were several small buildings arranged in an irregular fashion round a rudimentary yard, later completely enclosed, except for an entrance on the east side, by filling in the gaps between the buildings, to form the original version of Court II (see page 33). Finally the whole site was bounded on the west by a broad ditch which there is every reason to believe was the one mentioned in the description of 1547 (see page 59). It is not known whether this ditch returned some distance along the north, as it certainly did along the south, side of the site.

Some time before about 1578, when Lord Hunsdon may be assumed to have decorated the long gallery with the ceiling bearing his arms and emblems, 'Worsley's' house underwent considerable alteration and enlargement. Any temptation to attribute the transformation to Lord Hunsdon himself is removed by the architectural character of the work, which suggests a date at least forty years earlier than the period of his association with the building. It therefore becomes necessary to find an earlier owner to whom the work can plausibly be assigned.

There can be little doubt that this owner was Thomas Cromwell, who received a grant of the property from the King (to whom it had earlier been surrendered by Henry, sixth Earl of Northumberland) on 24 September 1535, ante-dated to the preceding 25 March. Throughout the summer of 1535 there had been great building activity at Hackney. In May the King had given orders for one hundred oaks 'to be employed towardes our buyldynges' there and a little later Cromwell too was employing workmen on building work at Hackney. Seventy-four are recorded as having received payment in August, and even as late as 23 September, the day before the actual date of the grant of Brooke House to Cromwell, payment was made to fifty-eight. There would appear, therefore, to be sufficient grounds for suggesting, particularly in view of the ante-dating of the grant, that the King's oaks and Cromwell's workmen were employed at the same place—Brooke House.

The quantity of timber and the labour force involved indicate works of some magnitude: and such, indeed, were the alterations and additions effected at Brooke House. They comprised (1) the enlargement of the ground floor of the south, west and north ranges of the original house, by the substitution of brick walls, built under the ends of the jetties, for the original walls of timber on the courtyard sides of the south and west ranges and both sides of the north range, with the addition of two bay window in the south range; (2) the reduction in width of the upper storey in the south and west ranges by cutting off the jetties on their outer sides and moving back the timber walls until their outer faces were flush with those of the brick walls of the lower storey; (3) the rebuilding of the roof of the south range and the remodelling of that of the west range; and, finally, (4) the formation of a regular northern courtyard in place of the irregular group of outbuildings to the north of the house. The evidence of the excavations, read in conjunction with that provided by the building above ground, goes to show that most of these operations must have been carried out at practically the same time (Plate 42).

The new section of the west range was a prolongation of the original west range as altered in both storeys. Its east wall was of one build with the brick north wall of the original north, henceforward middle, range also as altered. The four-centred brick arches at either end of the passage linking the two courtyards across the middle range were identical, from which it follows that the substitution of brick for timber walls on the lower storey of this range was more or less simultaneous. Again the new south wall of the middle range was of one build with the turret and new east wall of the original west range, as was the new north wall of the south range, with its bay windows. The only operations that could conceivably have been carried out independently, before, but not after, the prolongation northward of the west range, were the reduction in width of the upper storeys of the south and west ranges, and the consequent reconstruction of their roofs. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, however, it seems reasonable to assume that this work, the purpose of which remains obscure, was included in the series of alterations attributable to Cromwell.

In carrying out the work much of the timber belonging to the disturbed portions of the building was no doubt re-used. Evidence of this, in the shape of studs, storey posts and other members bearing idle grooves and notches, was, in fact, plentiful. Some, too, may have been used for burning lime. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to assume that new timber was required at least for the upper storey of the new west and north ranges of Court II, and for the arched members of the roof of the south range. This raises the question of whether the hundred oaks from Enfield Park and Chase could have provided a reasonable amount of timber for the works, and to answer it builder's quantities have been taken off, using the known construction of the southern part of the west range as a basis for the measurement of the new work in Court II. The result is a quantity of timber equivalent to about eighty oak trees averaging two loads of forty cubic feet of log timber apiece. This figure makes no allowance for partitions, doors or the replacement of damaged timbers in other parts of the building, and may, therefore, be regarded as an indication of the possibility, at least, of the King's oaks having been used for the extension of Brooke House.

Another question raised by the documentary records relates to the possible whereabouts of the four 'parelles' or chimneypieces mentioned by Cromwell's agent on 24 July. Apart from the kitchen fire-place at the eastern end of the north side of the middle range, there were, in fact, originally two chimney stacks, (fn. 2) accommodating a possible total of four hearths, in the addition to Brooke House. At the time of the demolition one of these, on the north side of the upper floor of the middle range, near its junction with the west range, still retained its original chimneypiece. This was of stone, with moulded and stopped jambs, and a head composed of two stones meeting in the centre and moulded to the shape of a flat Tudor arch within a rectangular sinking (fig. 18). A date of 1535 would not be inappropriate for the feature, and it could well have been one of the 'parelles' referred to.

One further matter of detail must be noticed. The arch-braced roof of the south range had mouldings which, in their shallow hungry profiles were late gothic in character. On the other hand the mouldings on the beams of the ground-floor ceiling beneath it were fat and bulging in a manner normally associated with the early Renaissance, as were those of the beams in the ceiling of the chapel. (fn. 3) Had the Renaissance mouldings not occurred below the gothic roof in the south range, which must, therefore, have been, at the earliest, contemporary with them, there would have seemed to be every reason for supposing the gothic roof to belong to an earlier date. As it was, the relative positions in the structure of the two types of mouldings served to emphasize the uncertainty that prevailed in such matters at the time the alterations were made.

Another problem, not unconnected with the above, concerns the moulded heads and jambs of the doors marked R, W and X on the plans (Plates 5 and 7) and their relation to the porch in the south-east corner of Court I. Stylistically the mouldings of these door frames (Plates 22, 23b, 23c) were akin to those of the beams referred to in the last paragraph. The porch, formed by building a wall, some 10 feet 6 inches long, in line with the south side of the oriel window of the hall, and then returning it, at right angles, on to the north side of the south range, cannot have been later than Cromwell's time, since his work on the south range finished against it with a straight joint. On the whole (a straight joint being evidence of no more than a temporary halt in building operations) it seems reasonable to assume that the porch was, in fact, one of Cromwell's improvements, in accordance with his evident desire to increase the comfort and convenience of the house.

Fig. 18. Details of middle range

Direct communication between this new porch and the hall was obtained by cutting a door between them immediately to the south of the oriel window; and above the porch a room was formed, having a window (T, Plate 7) looking into the hall, and a door (U) communicating with the upper floor of the south range. Both door and window (Plates 22, 23a, 24b, 24c), though less refined in detail, were similar to the windows (YY, Plates 7, 24a) in the east wall of the upper floor of the west range, and consistent, also, with the archbraced roof of the south range. They were, in fact, thoroughly gothic in character, plainly differing from the hybrid forms of the door frames at R, W and X, with their square heads and bulging mouldings combined with crude gothic stops at the bottoms of the jambs (Plate 23b, 23c). Were it not for their affinity with the ceilings of the chapel and the ground floor of the south range, the temptation to assign these three doors to a date later than that of the porch, with its associated gothic details, would be strong. As it is, the position of the door R, in the original north wall of the south range, serves to strengthen the suspicion that, like the ceiling beams, they may have belonged to Worsley's building, and that Cromwell's alterations and additions were everywhere carried out in a taste more conservative than that of his predecessor.

The effect of Cromwell's alterations was that, henceforward, Brooke House had a regular service courtyard to the north of the original one, with an independent entrance on its east side. The range of buildings on the north side of the new courtyard, being originally without chimneys, would appear to have been devoted to such things as the 'Fayre barne' and 'Faire Stable Roome' mentioned in the particular of 1547; the old north, now middle, range contained the kitchen premises; and the west range was given up to living quarters with the extension of the long gallery on the upper floor. Turrets, one of them containing a privy, occupied the two northern angles of the new courtyard and the north-western angle of the old one. Less certainty prevails with regard to the arrangement of the plan, to the east of the middle range, between the north end of the hall and the entrance to Court II, but, as we have seen, it may be that Cromwell's enlarged buttery and scullery occupied the two-gabled projection shown in the Chatelain engraving (Plate 12a).

Cromwell held the house, in effect, for little more than a year. After him, if the above account is correct, no further alterations of any moment were made until, some time between 1578 and 1583, Lord Hunsdon installed his ceiling, and perhaps the panelling, in the long gallery. There followed another period during which the owners and occupiers, who included the Countess of Lennox, the Countess of Oxford and Fulke Greville, first Lord Brooke, left no recognizable mark on the house. When next an addition was needed the times had changed, and architectural taste had changed with the times.

There is no record of the building of the south-east projecting wing shown in the Chatelain engraving, and any attempt to date it must be based on stylistic grounds alone, for which the engraving and the London Museum drawing constitute the only evidence. From these it would appear that the building was an example of the somewhat homely manner developed by London builders in imitation of the new style introduced into Court circles by Inigo Jones. This particular form of 'builders' classic' was prevalent in and around London from about 1630 up to the time of the Great Fire, and on stylistic grounds it would be reasonable to place the south-east wing of Brooke House, or 'Cottage' as it came to be called, somewhere between these two dates. Moreover, consideration of the documentary evidence suggests that, since the house appears to have been let from 1628 to 1643, the Cottage was, in all probability, built after the latter date, either by the second Lord Brooke's widow, who lived in the house for some years at least from 1644, or by the fourth Lord Brooke, who succeeded to the property and title in 1658. Significantly, perhaps, the nearest remaining stylistic parallel among London buildings is a row of houses (Nos. 52–55) on the west side of Newington Green. These are known to have been built in 1658 and have brick pilasters, rising from a basement storey, with semi-circular brick arches above the first-floor windows. A parapet has been added at a later date, so that the original form of the eaves is unknown; but what remains is sufficiently like the work at Brooke House to raise the question of whether the two may not even have been built by the same builder. There is no record of the manner in which the Cottage was decorated internally, but it is worth remarking here that the south-east staircase (Plates 20, 21a), which, though not actually within, was adjacent to it, bore a striking resemblance to one at No. 52 Newington Green (Plate 21b). By 1797 the building had lost its eaves, along with its balcony, brick pilasters and pediment, and had been given, instead, a Strawberry Hill Gothick south front.

Meanwhile another, more striking, transformation had been wrought on the main building. The division of the house into tenements, apparent in the extant leases of the early eighteenth century, suggests that the family had by then abandoned interest in it as a possible residence for themselves, and were content to regard it simply as a source of income. Various details indicate that alterations, perhaps of a makeshift character, had been undertaken. In particular, mention of a cellar, which according to the description in Pangbourne's lease, could have been situated only within the confines of the hall, at its south end, means that the hall must have been divided horizontally over at least part of its area by the insertion of a new floor, perhaps associated with the lowering of the hall floor by about 18 inches, which was the amount by which the floor of the basement had been sunk beneath the level of the thresholds of the original doors to the hall (see page 64).

Such expedients make it clear that Brooke House had declined in dignity since it ceased to be occupied by a member of the Greville family. The extant records give an impression of general squalor, and it would be reasonable to assume that the fabric had suffered accordingly. This applies especially to the hall and adjacent portions of the building, where the recorded makeshifts were situated. It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1758, after William Clarke had taken a lease of the house in order to convert it into a madhouse, the rate book records that it was in process of 'rebuilding'. This rebuilding refers, of course, to the construction of the Georgian block, on the original foundations of the hall range, as a residence for the superintendent; and may also have included the insertion of sash windows in the south and west fronts. In this connexion it is worthy of notice that the London Museum drawing of the house shows the hall gone, though the porch and the various single-storey additions in front of the hall are represented as still standing. The inference seems to be that the drawing was made in 1758, and that the purpose of the unknown artist was to make a record of the building before any more of it disappeared.

The building of the Georgian block was the last major alteration to the fabric of Brooke House. There remain, however, several minor alterations in the rear still to be accounted for. Of these the most important were the addition to the north side of the south range, and the consequent formation (which, in its turn, necessitated the remodelling of the ceiling of the arch-braced roof) of a corridor giving access to it on the first floor. Some difficulty has been experienced in dating these alterations, which appeared, at first sight, to be full of contradictions. Stylistically the interior seemed to belong to the first half of the eighteenth century, whilst the façade to the courtyard with its gothic fanlight could well have been built about 1800. The remodelling of the ceiling of the east end of the original south range, being a conscious attempt to conform to the style of the existing work, was less amenable to dating on stylistic grounds, but could scarcely have been earlier than the third quarter of the century. In spite of these apparent divergences, however, it seems probable that the whole of the work was carried out at the same time, since it is hardly likely that, even early in the century, the new rooms would have been built without the independent means of access provided by the corridor. The solution of the problem is perhaps to be found in the plaster cornice in the corridor, on the back of which was scratched the date 1776. Certainly there are North London parallels of about the same date for each of the manners recorded in this small addition to Brooke House: and in default of any other evidence the matter may perhaps be allowed to rest there, with the final observation that it would not be unreasonable, after seventeen or eighteen years of occupation, for William Clarke to embark on minor alterations to his property.

It is possible that the gothicizing of the south front of the Cottage, shown in Malcolm's engraving of 1797, and already mentioned, was done at the same time; and that the eighteenth-century gothic doors on the east side of the west range and the south side of the middle range were also inserted in 1776. These last had fanlights similar to the one in the addition to the south range, except that they were framed within an ogee arch instead of a round one.

Thus, by the end of the eighteenth century, Brooke House was already becoming a hotch-potch of styles both externally and internally. The process was carried still further after 1842 by the replacement of Georgian by Victorian sashes in some of the windows, both in the Tudor and the Georgian parts of the building; the enlargement of others along with the insertion of undisciplined glazing; the addition of glazed conservatories and decorative barge boards, and the construction of the ground-floor corridors on the west sides of the two courts. These corridors were faced externally with Roman cement, which was also applied to the Tudor brickwork, including the windows, of the middle range. The upper parts of many of the chimney stacks had already been rebuilt in 1842, but those which still retained their original tops, consisting of separate square shafts set on the diagonal, were rebuilt apparently in late Victorian times. By 1842, also, the turret at the back of the Cottage had been demolished. Finally, in 1909, the Cottage itself (by then unrecognizable as the building appearing in the foreground of the Chatelain engraving) was demolished in connexion with the widening of Upper Clapton Road; the Georgian east front was extended some six feet southwards; and the Edwardian version of the Cottage built to replace the original.

In the end the house that Worsley may be presumed to have built and Cromwell enlarged—once the home of courtiers, and the scene of one of the saddest episodes in the history of the English Crown—could only be described as nondescript. Its character had been obliterated in the course of its history.


  • 1. Birlingham was admitted Freeman of the Carpenters' Company in 1481. Bower Marsh, Records of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, vol. 11, 1914, p. 60.
  • 2. Excavation showed that one of the pair in the northern extension of the west range was a later addition.
  • 3. In the small dining room at Barrington Court, Somerset, is an imported panelled ceiling having similarly moulded beams and said to be of c. 1520 date.