A New Light on London's History

posted 30 Mar 2021 3 mins

(Virtual) Event with the Heritage of London Trust Our online talk on March 30, A New Light on London’s History, took us on a fascinating journey through the hidden past of the capital.

Dr Nicola Stacey, director of the Heritage of London Trust (HOLT) is a passionate advocate for architectural and archaeological preservation and the event, hosted by Venetia Hoare, really brought to life the social history behind London’s lost estates and monasteries.

‘In the 16th century, the city was bounded by Westminster Abbey in the west and the Tower of London in the east,’ Nicola explained. ‘All around were lovely, green spaces where throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy families built their country houses. A hugely expanding population was supported by industrial expansion, the privacy and peace of these country houses were lost, and the owners decided to move out of London. Over time, many of these great estates were turned into public parks and only ruins or fragments of the houses remain’.

Many such fragments are wonderfully evocative of past glories and HOLT has done much to preserve them for future generations. Northumberland House, the last of the Strand palaces to survive, had ornamental gardens stretching from Trafalgar Square to the Thames; now a single arch of the original structure remains, removed to Bromley in the early 20th century and recently restored by HOLT. A picturesque grotto echoes the splendour of Wanstead House, once known as  ‘the Versailles of London’, while the history of Beaufort House, the Chelsea home of Sir Thomas More, is told in a series of beautifully restored coats of arms on a bench in the King’s Road.

Traces of ancient monasteries are also scattered across the city. Nicola alerted us to the excavated remains of Bermondsey Abbey, just visible through a glass panel in the floor of a Turkish restaurant, and vividly conjured the life of St Leonard’s nunnery from a crumbling gateway by the Blackwall Tunnel:

‘It’s just the evaporation of a priory, really, but its footprint is still there,’ she pointed out. ‘Monastic ruins are extremely vulnerable, not just because of their age, but because of the sort of stone that was used to build them. Often they’re just stone fragments, and because they’re hard to interpret, there’s less incentive for people to take an interest in them. But these ruins reflect really important medieval, political and social networks and if one digs deep, one can find the stories.’

Community engagement is a large part of HOLT’s remit:

‘In the last 40 years we’ve initiated and run around 700 restoration projects across the city and we have around 40 projects going on at any one time. We give grants, we conduct condition surveys and we work with local authorities to get the project to happen. But we also work very hard with locals to help them understand the significance of their surroundings. Last year we launched an education programme called Proud Places, which has been absolutely amazing. We’ve worked with schools, with referral units, and with pupils who’ve been excluded from school, and it’s wonderful how excited these young people have been to learn about the history of their local area.’

Following Nicola’s talk, our Q&A session pursued a dozen more avenues of enquiry – including a highly diverting history of cabmen’s shelters – with many interesting observations from our online audience. All were enthused by Nicola’s wealth of knowledge; none, it is certain, will view London in quite the same light again.