Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Blitz - Researching the Damage Today

The 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz in London has reminded me what I have seen in my research of the city over the past few years. One of the key aspects of my work as an historian is the impact, literally, of World War II on buildings in the capital. No research into the history of a house or area can be complete without checking if there had been any damage sustained between 1939 and 1945. Most of the local borough archives hold records of “enemy action”. 

Some of these archives hold the original, hand scrawled reports, written by air raid wardens at the time; of the death and devastation as it happened and which streets had been hit, how many people were injured and how many were dead. I remember particularly searching the Tower Hamlets archive in Poplar and seeing these reports, noting hundreds of dead, one street after another. Even from my safe position nearly 70 years later in the peace and calm of an archive, I shivered at the horrible reality of what these people went through.

The most revealing source of information which I use for every research assignment in the capital is the series of London County Council Bomb Damage maps (held at the London Metropolitan Archives). These were commissioned to detail the extent and nature of bomb damage across London. Each building that sustained damage was coloured depending on the severity of impact. 

Black - Total destruction 
Purple - Damage beyond repair 
Dark Red - Seriously damaged, doubtful if repairable 
Light Red - Seriously damaged, repairable at cost 
Orange - General blast damage, minor in nature 
Yellow - Blast damage, minor in nature 

The map here shows the centre of the City of London. You can see the swath of purple denoting “Damage Beyond Repair”. It is impossible to think of such total destruction happening today, but it happened within living memory. If you get the chance to view the complete map collection in the London Metropolitan Archives, have a look at Stepney and the Mile End Road. That isn’t coloured purple, it’s black and covers acres of small back to back houses where ordinary working people were killed in their thousands.

I am often moved by the stories that emerge through my research. Cold official documents can reveal the human side of love and loss, triumph and disaster – but nothing achieves that more for me than the records and maps of 1939-1945.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A Home Fit for Heroes (and Pirates)

A few months ago I researched the history of Hammonds Place for a client. I have written an article about my findings in the current edition of "Listed Heritage" the magazine of the Listed Property Owners Club. Here in Building Storeys is an abridged version of that article. I hope you find it interesting.

Hammonds Place, in Burgess Hill, Sussex, was described by Nikolaus Pevsner in his book Buildings of England, as “The Best Building in Burgess Hill”.

The untold story of Hammonds Place was scattered far and wide, in the form of maps, deeds, letters, drawings and photographs. My research took me to both the West and East Sussex Archives, local government records and libraries, as well as the Royal Institute of British Architects Library, the National Archives and the National Monuments Record in Swindon. Using these sources, combined with a personal inspection of the house and grounds, I was able to bring the full story of Hammonds Place together for the first time.

Hammonds Place was built in the 1400s as a hall house on a north-south axis. It was virtually rebuilt in about 1500 on a west-east axis, retaining some elements of the original hall, creating a larger timber-framed structure.

By 1566 the house was in the possession of the Michelbornes, an influential and well-to-do local family. The Michelbornes made some extensive home improvements to “Hamonds”. They added to the timber-framed structure three further additions in brick, to the east, south and west, to create a fashionable Elizabethan quadrangle. The house became a manor house befitting an estate of over 200 acres.

During the house’s Elizabethan heyday, its owner Edward Michelborne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and was one of the founders of the East India Company. It was only when Sir Edward was accused of abusing his position by carrying out acts of piracy in the Pacific that his star waned. He was forced to leave Court and he retreated to Hammonds Place to live out the last years of his life.

My research found that the Michelborne family was associated with Hammonds Place until the 18th century and by the 1780s the house was considered to be one of the finest in the county and was drawn by the notable artist and engraver Samuel Hieronymous Grimm (see picture below).

By the 1820s the new owner, Robert Podmore, decided to build a new manor house on the estate called Clayton Priory, just south of Hammonds Place. It is thought that bricks and other materials were taken from Hammonds to help with the new construction and subsequently the old manor house fell into disrepair. It was occupied by tenant farmers during the latter half of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that a new tenant restored and repaired the house adding a contemporary extension to the 16th century timber-frame and brickwork. My research revealed this tenant to be Thomas Arrowsmith Meautys, a local JP, who is remembered locally for the fact that he lost all three of his sons in World War I. The house bears a small memorial to them on the wall of the 16th century porch of the house.

By1933 the Dutch Ambassador, Jonkeer Marinus Van Der Goes had taken a lease on the house, following extensive improvements in 1930. He lived at the house for about 5 years. In 1930 this part-medieval, part-Elizabethan, part-Victorian house was augmented with an Art Deco single-storey extension. The house is an unusual combination of eras but one that it seems to have grown into with ease.

Today Hammonds Place is no longer the manor house of a 200 acre estate. Over the centuries plots of land have been sold or reapportioned and now the house and gardens are a virtual island in a sea of 20th and 21st century developments. But it is a fine and beautiful building and it acts as an echo of times past, as every historic building does.