Springfield House

Above: Springfield House standing on high ground in the park.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, much of what we now call Inner London was just open countryside. Much of it was given over to farms, common land and woodland. The wealthy used to acquire a large piece of land and have a have a large house built. The large estate was often turned into extensive gardens, often with large stables and a coach-house. If the owners wanted to visit London they would usually have their coachman drive them to town. It was all very elegant and a very sedate way of life.

Springfield House came into existence in 1820. It stands on high ground which slopes down to the east with the River Lea at the bottom of the hill. From the high ground, there are extensive views across Walthamstow Marshes. The owners of the house are not sufficiently famous to be recorded in the history books but one thing is for certain – they must have been very wealthy. Such houses are a rarity in Inner London these days because many of them have been demolished for one reason or another. The few that remain have been converted, like this property, into parkland. A similar example in SE London is the large house in the large grounds of Brockwell Park.

Springfield House went up for sale by auction in 1902 and was purchased by a group of local businesses for use as an amenity for Londoners. The land was opened in 1905 as a public park. Three mansions – ‘Springfield House’, ‘Spring Hill House’ and ‘The Chestnuts’ – stood within a total of 32 acres (13 hectares) of grounds. The other two houses were demolished, due to their poor condition, when Hackney Council took over the land and converted into a park.

Springfield Park lies a little east of the road called Clapton Common and extends NE to the River Lea. Springfield House remains but it is now in use for community purposes and also the well-used tea-rooms.


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Good Shepherd, Cathedral Church of the

Above: The main entrance to the church from the road with decorated stonework incorporated into the building.

It is often said about the history of London that there is no need to make up stories about its buildings because, in many cases, the truth is stranger than fiction. The history of this particular church admirably illustrates this point.

Standing on high ground near Clapton Common is a church that is decorated with some of the strangest architecture of any in London. It was built 1892-95 in Gothic style, by Joseph Morris and Sons, for the Agapemonite cult as the ‘Church of the Ark of the Covenant’. Although a Quaker, Joseph Morris contributed to the purchase of the site on Rookwood Road and two of his daughters, Violet (also an architect) and Olive (a wood-carver and engineer) were residents at Spaxton, Somerset, where they were members of the sect. Seating about 400 people the magnificent church, decorated with elaborate symbolism, was erected at the cost of £20,000, paid for by the leader of the cult – Henry James Prince (1811-99). The name comes from ‘Agapemone’, meaning literally ‘the abode of love’. The Agapemonites, who held decidedly unconventional views on marriage and the role of women, relocated to Upper Clapton from their original community, established in 1849 in Spaxton, Somerset. They had obviously prospered by this time.

Above: The stone spire with bronze figures at the base.

Although the church has a conventional floor plan, the exterior stonework is covered with an extensive collection of statuary and symbolism. The main doorway is flanked with large stone carvings of angels and the four evangelists symbolised by a winged man (St Matthew); a winged lion (St Mark); a winged ox or bull (St Luke); and an eagle (St John). The same four figures, cast in bronze, look out from the four corners of the base of the spire.

Above: Closeup of three of the bronze figures.

The two weather vanes appear to allude to the words of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, depicting a fiery chariot and a sheaf of arrows (presumably of desire), while the main spire is surmounted by a spear. Inside the church, the stained glass windows, designed by the noted children’s book illustrator, Walter Crane and made by J S Sparrow, betray the unconventional nature of the sect as they illustrate the ‘true station of womankind’.

The Agapemonite cult had always been surrounded by scandal while based in Somerset. After the move to Clapton, this degenerated into a complete farce. The original leader, Henry James Prince, who claimed to be immortal, died in 1899 and was succeeded by the charming but philandering John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, who wasted no time before declaring himself to be ‘The Messiah’. Challenged by a jeering mob to prove his godhood by walking on water across Clapton Pond, Smyth-Pigott declined and retired to Somerset, where he was said to enjoy the favours of as many as seven ‘spiritual brides’ a week. Smyth-Pigott, who also claimed immortality, died in 1927, after which the cult went into decline.

The church was closed in the 1920s, having been abandoned by the cult. It was later acquired in 1956 by the Church of the Ancient Catholics and called the Ancient Catholic Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd. In 1969 the church was designated a Grade II* listed building. The reasons for the listing included ‘An imposing and very complete, late-Victorian church with a tall landmark spire, a splendid hammerbeam roof and a largely intact scheme of original fittings … The stained glass is extraordinary and has more than special interest in the context of Arts and Crafts design … The special historic interest as a built manifestation of the plurality of religious ideas that emerged in the 19th century, evidencing the more bizarre end of the belief spectrum.’

In 2005 the church was used as a place of worship by the Georgian Orthodox Church – originally the state religion of Georgia, in Western Europe. The full title is ‘Georgian Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lord’.

In 2016 the listed building was at the centre of a legal battle over who should receive the proceeds from its sale for £1 million. As has already been mentioned, the originator of the church was Henry James Prince and when he died, in 1902, he was succeeded by John Hugh Smyth-Piggott. An 1892 deed stated that any funds from the sale should be used to promote the objectives of the sect. But since the group no longer existed, Smyth-Piggott’s grand-daughters claimed that, because he was the last surviving member of the original trustees, they were entitled to the proceeds. A statement to the court read ‘All the community members are now long since deceased and gone. The six named are the direct descendants of Beloved and his ‘soul-bride’ … and are therefore the rightful and only true beneficiaries of the trust.’ Judgment in the case was reserved.

The ornate church stands in Rookwood Road, on the north side of Clapton Common. Being built on high ground, the spire can be seen from quite a distance, particularly from Hackney Marshes which lie to the east.


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De Beauvoir Square

Above: Houses on one side of the square.

The semi-detached villas surrounding De Beauvoir Square were designed in Dutch style by Robert Lewis Roumieu, a Huguenot descendant, and Alexander Dick Gough. They were built 1838-39 when Richard Benyon de Beauvoir, the local land-owner, was developing the area which became known as ‘De Beauvoir Town’. The De Beauvoir family owned land from 1687. Before that date, the Guernsey family acquired part of the land on which Balmes House had stood.

The area was developed as a carefully planned new town designed to attract prosperous residents, although it does include a range of other housing as well. The new town was built around De Beauvoir Square and primarily built with houses decorated with ‘Dutch gabling’. The special character of the neighbourhood has been retained and is recognised by the designation of the De Beauvoir and Kingsland Road Conservation Areas which include many listed and other notable buildings.

De Beauvoir Square is a classically laid out garden square and is protected under the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931. The square consists of beautiful rose beds and lawn areas as well as a children’s play area, and it is host to a number of small neighbourhood events which take place each year.

Most of the elegant houses in the square remain today. It is a little west of Kingsland Road and on the north side of the Regent’s Canal which runs under Kingsland Road. During the Second World War, some of the houses were destroyed and the land where they stood was built on with a modern block of flats.

It has to be said that Kingsland Road is no picture book setting and the nearby Regent’s Canal still has several industrial buildings standing beside it. De Beauvoir Square, therefore, is a welcome touch of elegance in an area that mainly lacks much grandeur.


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Bishop Wood’s Almshouses

Above: The almshouses in 1998, when they were still in use.

These unusual almshouses were erected in 1665 by Dr Thomas Wood, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. He was born in the parish of Hackney in 1607 and died in 1692.

As well as the almshouses, which can be seen in the picture, there is a tiny chapel which is on the left of the view. It is said to be the smallest chapel in England, having seats for only ten poor widows. The almshouses were originally intended to provide for the poor and needy of Clapton.

There are two dates – ‘1888’ and ‘1891’ – on the exterior walls which are the dates when the houses were refurbished in the 1880s and again in the 1930s. The chapel was also restored during the later restoration.

Sadly, in 2014, the buildings were put up for sale. The Trustees claimed that they could not afford to modernise the houses which had needed considerable work to improve them for about 50 years. The last residents left in 2013 and were relocated to Dr Spurstowe and Bishop Wood Almshouse on Navarino Road. Dr Spurstowe and Bishop Wood Almshouses Charity said that it intends to build “another large brand new almshouse on a new site in Hackney” using the proceeds from any sale.

The importance of the almshouses has been recognised by giving them a Grade II listing from English Heritage, and any buyer would have to conform to strict building conservation rules. The buildings stand at Nos 158-162 Lower Clapton Road at the corner of Newick Road, beside the Clapton Pond and the gardens.


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Hackney Town Hall (Old)

Above: View looking north along Mare Street at the white stone building which was once the town hall. To the right is the remaining tower of the old church of St Augustine which is still surrounded by a large number of trees growing in the old churchyard.

If you want to know where the ancient village of Hackney developed, you need to make a visit to the northern end of Mare Street. Mare Street extends north from where it joins with Cambridge Heath Road, where the thoroughfare runs over the old Regent’s Canal. From that point, Mare Street runs almost due north until it reaches the junction with Amhurst Road. Mare Street continues north but the remaining short part of the street is restricted to traffic and is mainly in use by buses.

It was at this short northern part of Mare Street that the village of Hackney began. The ancient church tower of St Augustine is beside the street and also a modest white stone building, which was the first town hall. Until the formation of Metropolitan London (in 1900) most of the land was administered as parishes. The local administration for each parish was provided by a Vestry Committee. The parish vestry hall for the parish of Hackney was rebuilt in 1802 and in 1900 it was refaced in stone and given a pediment inscribed ‘Hackney Old Town Hall’. The building remains today – on the east side of Mare Street – and it is one the earliest vestry halls within the boundary of old Metropolitan London.

A new town hall was built on a new site in 1866 and that was in turn superseded by today’s Town Hall, built in 1937 on yet another site – further south but also beside Mare Street.

Existing vestry halls are very rare in Inner London because, when the 28 Metropolitan Boroughs were created, a new administration came into existence to run each new borough. Those in charge demonstrated considerable civic pride and in most cases, a new town hall was built in each new Metropolitan Borough to contain the staff who ran them. Either the new town hall was built on the site of an old vestry hall or a new town hall was built on a new site and the old vestry hall was demolished because it was no longer required.

Hackney’s vestry hall was refaced in 1900 which means it cannot claim to be the original 1800s structure but it is still a very rare building of its type in Inner London today. The old building was later used as a branch of the Midland Bank and it retains the look of a bank to this day. When the bank branch closed down, the building stood empty for several years and it is now in use as a Coral betting shop.


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Hackney Overview

Above: The London Borough of Hackney shown on Google Maps. The yellow dotted lines show the old Metropolitan boundaries of Stoke Newington and Shoreditch. Other place-names in the old Metropolitan Borough of Hackney have been added to the map.

For those who don’t know the area, the mention of Hackney brings to mind an unattractive location with very little history. Why a place is ‘branded’ in this way is not known but the area of Hackney shares a ‘low rating’ by Londoners, along with other place names like Clerkenwell, Bermondsey, Poplar and Camberwell. If you mention that you went on a conducted walk around localities like Greenwich, Eltham, Hampstead, Blackheath or Chelsea then the person with whom you are talking will reply ‘How wonderful, that’s such an interesting area’ but if you mention that you have been on a walk around the first collection of names the reply will be ‘Why did you choose that?’. As we all know, a name means everything and some of the places in London can often be labelled uninteresting without even visiting them to find out if the rumour is true.

To say that the streets of Hackney are uninteresting is probably to admit that you have never been there. If you reply ‘Oh yes I have, I have driven through on many occasions’ then either you are a very unobservant person or you have not been to the side streets – they are just ‘dripping’ with history.

Hackney’s origins are of a community that grew up towards the northern end of today’s Mare Street. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), that land was part of the very large Manor of Stepney. It was all very rural, set on the eastern side of the large County of Middlesex. The only parish church was some distance away – several miles in fact. It was the church of St Dunstan which still stands in the old village of Stepney.

In early times the Knights Templar owned land at Hackney and they probably built the original church whose tower still stands beside Mare Street today. Gradually, Hackney developed into a country village about three or four miles to the north of the City of London. It was mainly surrounded by farmland and market gardens.

By the 18th century, wealthy merchants started to live in the area, building grand Georgian houses and travelling to the City in their private carriages. With the coming of the omnibus, working-class people were able to live at Hackney and travel to the City of London or Westminster by that mode of transport. The railway also made a huge impact on people’s lives and caused the area to expand with houses and streets – living in Hackney and other suburbs but commuting daily to Central London.

It is a strange fact that no underground lines were constructed between the City and Hackney. It is only within the last decade that the Overground has provided the local residents with an additional train service but that does not link Hackney with the City. For many residents, it is more likely that they will travel by the 48 bus from the centre of the original village of Hackney which is an easy route but rather slow. From Stamford Hill, the same problem applies and that is why there is a very regular 149 bus service.

If you walk around the streets of shops – like Mare Street – you could be forgiven for thinking that Hackney is a rather uninteresting place. It is gradually being smartened up and is now being called ‘Hackney Central’. However, if you start to explore its side streets you will find a very different aspect, with large houses and wealthy people still living there. Much of Hackney has become gentrified and the effect is spreading to nearby neighbourhoods in NE London.

Comment 15 – 500th Blog

Today the blogs have just passed the 500th mark. We have been going for about three and a half years which means that about half the land within the old Metropolitan London boundary has been described. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have contributed to the blogs with comments or additional information. It is all greatly appreciated.


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Hackney, London Borough of

Above: Outline map showing all the old Metropolitan Boroughs. Three are shown in GREEN. They were combined to form today’s London Borough of Hackney.

This year we shall take a look at the whole of the London Borough of Hackney. The shape is rather like a triangle, with a pointed end just touching the City of London. The actual boundary with the City is really quite short. Bishopsgate (a street in the City of London) runs north within the City boundary and eventually becomes called Norton Folgate. The road then crosses the boundary between the City and the London Borough of Hackney and is then called Shoreditch High Street. The roadway just described is all part of the A10 which runs north to Stamford Hill which marks the approximate northern end of the London Borough. The A10 is on the line of the old Roman Road running north out of Londinium. It was called Ermine Street by the Saxons. It was also called the King’s Road which is why part of it is called Kingsland Road today.

The line of the Roman road was laid out on land that rises at a very gentle gradient as it runs north from the City. At Norton Folgate the land is 46 feet above sea-level. By the time that road has reached the junction with Upper Clapton Road the land has only risen to 102 feet above sea-level. It does mean, however, that if you walk or drive across the land to the east, the roads dip down to the marshy, open land beside the River Lea.

Once up at Stamford Hill, the visitor finds that the land to the north falls away once more. There is an east-west ridge that runs across the line of the A10 which was once entirely covered with trees. It formed the Middlesex Forest which is today only evident in places like Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath – both of which are much further west of the London Borough of Hackney.

The London Borough of Hackney came into being in 1965 when three Metropolitan Boroughs (Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington) were combined into the one larger borough. Of those three older boroughs, it will be seen that the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney was by far the largest. The other two boroughs lost their identity when all three were merged and given the new name of Hackney.

Over the next few weeks, some of the places of interest within the London Borough will be described. We shall start with places in the old Metropolitan Borough of Hackney and then work our way through the other two. The history of this part of London may not be quite so grand as in the City or in Westminster but, nevertheless, it has items of great interest.


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