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Within these walls: the secret history of Cloth Fair

Built in 1614, 41-42 Cloth Fair is, a new book claims, London’s oldest house. Jane Clinton reports

08 March, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Cloth Fair looking west, showing Markham’s workshop at 41-42, 1920. Photo: London Metropolitan Archives

IT escaped the Great Fire of London, played host to the founders of a religious movement and bore witness to the devastation of the plague.

At first glance 41-42 Cloth Fair, which is a stone’s throw from Smithfield Market, may appear unremarkable but it is in fact the oldest house in London.

Author and historian Fiona Rule was researching house histories when she began thinking of what house could hold such a title and this led to her book, The Oldest House in London.

The criteria were simple: the house had to have been built as a private residence in the precinct of the City of London and had to still be in private residence.

After some detective work, she landed on 41-42 Cloth Fair and she began unravelling the vivid history behind the walls.

Completed in 1614, the house was surrounded by “Bartholomew Fair”, an annual street market of fabric traders which was set up in 1133 to raise funds for the nearby St Bartholomew’s hospital.

Built by one Henry Rich, who was in great favour with the court, it was first occupied by William Chapman, who converted the ground floor and cellars into an alehouse and called it The Eagle & Child.

By now, however, St Bartholomew’s Fair had descended into a two-week festival of debauchery and crime. (It would stop completely in 1855). The fortunes of Henry Rich also took a turn. In 1649 King Charles I was executed and three months later the royalist Rich would suffer the same fate.

Meanwhile, the occupants of 42-42 Cloth Fair came and went.

One Henry Downing, a master tailor, inherited it as well as the role of local registrar, recording births, marriages and burials. Ostentatious displays were rejected by people during this time for fear of being branded a royalist sympathiser and Downing’s business suffered. This all changed in 1661, however, when Charles II was crowned King and thankfully for Downing, fashion flourished again.

John Wesley

But happiness would be shortlived as the great plague of 1665 took hold. As the registrar, Henry had the unenviable task of recording the deaths of his sister, his brother-in-law and his niece, all taken by the plague.

London would soon face yet more devastation when, in 1666, just a mile east of the Eagle & Child at Pudding Lane, London went up in flames.

The end came too for the Eagle & Child alehouse when after 70 years of trading it finally closed its doors.

Thomas and Elizabeth Witham transformed it into a woollen draper’s shop and it would prove another fascinating period for the house with guests including John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. While Elizabeth was an enthusiastic supporter of the Wesleys, Thomas was not. But when Thomas was gravely ill in 1743, Charles Wesley converted him on his deathbed.

While Methodism flourished, anti-Catholic sentiment remained and came to a head in the Gordon Riots of 1780. Damage to 41-42 Cloth Fair during those riots is believed to have led to its conversion into two separate dwellings.

By now the houses in the street were 150 years old and many were dilapidated. Indeed, three properties completely collapsed. Several properties were demolished but remarkably 41-42 escaped destruction.

Perhaps the golden period for the house came in 1927 when two young architects, John Seely and Paul Paget, restored 41-42 Cloth Fair to its former glory.

The pair were partners in life as well as in business, and along with their friend and neighbour John Betjeman, would help to save numerous buildings including St Mary’s Church, in Upper Street and St John’s Church, Clerkenwell. They were also responsible for converting and extending several houses at The Grove in Highgate Village, before the war.

Paget and Seely would rather eccentrically bathe side by side in tin baths discussing their latest project.

And it is said that when Seely died in 1963, Betjeman took up residence in the vacant tin bath next to Paget.

Paget remained at Cloth Fair for 12 years and on his departure the property became an estate agent’s and seemed past its best.

But fortune would turn again when private residents restored it winning a City Heritage Award for their efforts in 2000.

Cloth Fair’s worth was also acknowledged when it was given Grade II* status and is “of more than special interest”.

For Fiona Rule, it is the story of Seely and Paget, who did so much for London that she believes “deserves far more recognition”.

Today, the resident of 41-42 Cloth Fair insists his role is akin to a “caretaker” of the house. “Perhaps it was thought a 20th-century house would be easier to live in,” he observes. “But for my money there is none (from any century) better.”

The Oldest House in London. By Fiona Rule, The History Press, £20
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