So, to the oldest domestic building in London’s East End.
Fewer than three miles across open fields to Bishopsgate in the City, Tudor Hackney was known then for its ‘healthful air’, with the result that many courtiers and merchants chose to have their country pads there. One such is Sutton House.
Sir Ralph Sadleir commissioned the edifice in the 1530s. He was a diplomat and court favourite; he and his wife had seven children. One day a stranger rode up to the marital home announcing himself to be Lady Sadleir’s first wife. This meant that the seven progeny were illegitimate – then a tremendous stigma. After much gnashing of teeth Sadleir got a private act of parliament passed to annul the wife’s previous marriage, creating the first case of divorce on grounds of abandonment.
Sutton House, restored not long ago by the National Trust, was built on the familiar Tudor H-plan (though the wings are splayed, as other structures were in the way of a symmetrical design), but, most unusually, it was made of brick – at the time people called it the ‘Bryk Place’. (You can see the original brickwork behind the hinged panelling above the fireplace in the Great Chamber.) Sixteenth-century labourers dug the clay for the bricks from Hackney Brook. The windows at the front were curiously high at the time – higher than my head – apparently to foil ‘the rogues and vagabonds’ prowling the streets.
The NT thinks the lav might be the oldest in East London – they were called garderobes in polite circles then.
In turns a school, a trade union HQ and a mission for the poor, Sutton House is like a palimpsest – layers upon layers of life and history. In the 1980s squatters moved in, and rather brilliantly the Trust has restored a room with archive squatting paraphernalia and graffiti – London Belongs to the Millions, not the Millionaires, murals, vinyl and the rest. This is apparently an ‘evolving’ exhibition, which will soon trace the squatting movement back to the Civil War. There’s also a Sutton House Queered exhibition, part of the National Trust’s. programme commemorating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.