The Last Derelict House In Spitalfields
This is the view of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s spire upon Christ Church seen from the weaver’s loft at the top of 2 Wilkes St, the last derelict house in Spitalfields. Once upon a time people used to wander among the streets surrounding the shabby old church, savouring the romance of these ancient Huguenot houses that had seen better days and were then used as workplaces or left derelict. Those days are long gone, since Spitalfields got toshed up, the church was scrubbed behind the ears, the sweatshops moved out, skips appeared as renovations began and the value of these dwellings went through the roof.
Today, that process is almost complete, as I visited the last house in Spitalfields to be rescued from decay, where I met Peter Sinden who is overseeing the repairs on behalf of Anisur Rahman who bought the building in the nineteen seventies as a warehouse for his cash and carry business, Star Wholesale. When he bought it, the house had been a workplace for generations with boards nailed over panelling, false ceilings added and layers of flooring concealing the original floorboards. Behind all these accretions, the old structure remained intact and when the additions were removed, along with some of the fabric, in a former restoration attempt no-one bothered to dispose of any of the timber from the house. While elsewhere in Spitalfields, properties were being turned upside down, removing all evidence of the previous occupants, Mr Rahman did nothing and, as a consequence of his benign neglect, 2 Wilkes St exists today as an eighteenth century time capsule.
Stepping through the door, I was amazed by the multilayered textures that are the result of human activity throughout the long history of the building, especially the flaking paint that reveals every single coat taking you back three centuries. The house has a presence that halts you in your step. It grabs you and you lower your voice without knowing why. You stand and gaze. The reflected light from the street falls upon dusty old floorboards, visibly worn beside the windows where people have stood in the same spot to look down upon Wilkes St since the seventeen twenties – when the house was built by Henry Taylor who was responsible for the house next door and several others in the vicinity. Of all the old houses in Spitalfields I have been inside, this is the one that has best retained its atmosphere. All of its history remains present in the dense patina, that speaks of everyone who has passed through. The house retains its own silence and the din of the contemporary world is drowned out by it.
Peter Sinden is the proprietor of the Market Coffee House and has brought the expertise that he acquired in the work he did there. His first realisation in Wilkes St was that no timber should leave the house, because all the piles that lay around comprised the missing pieces of an enormous three dimensional jigsaw waiting to be put back together.
The central staircase of the house had collapsed but he rebuilt it with the original treads, on wooden bearers that support each step, in the traditional method, starting at the bottom and working his way up – just as a joiner would have done in the eighteenth century when all carpenters did their work on site. Today, a staircase would be manufactured offsite on “strings”(which are the side panels used to support the treads) and then reassembled in situ but, by reconstructing the staircase in the old manner, Peter was able to refit it in the way that was most complementary to both the irregularities of the building and the staircase. I was fascinated by the few surviving hand-turned stair rods, one sole example with a barley sugar twist for the first flight and others with a simpler profile for the upper flights. These will now be copied to complete the staircase.
I could see my own breath in the air as we descended into the dark musty cellar by torchlight, to enter a kitchen where the beam of light fell upon eighteenth century matchboarding and a flag floor, just as I have seen newly installed in other houses at great expense. The torchlight caught portions of an old dresser and a stone sink, beneath layers of dust, grit and filth – presumably abandoned in the nineteenth century – again similar to those I have seen in recreations of period kitchens. Any of Charles Dickens’ characters would recognise this space.
Peter explained that the floorboards above our heads had partly collapsed in the nineteenth century and been shored up, with another floor laid on top to level it up. Inserting new supports, he had lifted the ground floor eight to ten inches back to its original level. Elsewhere he has removed warped panelling and steamed it flat before replacing it. On the first floor, he took me into an intermediary space off the stairwell that linked to the rooms on either side, divided from them by partitions. This was a rare example of a powder room. Any of Henry Fielding’s characters would recognise this space.
You will never see a skip outside 2 Wilkes St because Peter’s approach is that of minimum intervention, he speaks of sympathetic repair rather than renovation. Always reusing the original timbers wherever possible, he is treating the project as you would the restoration a piece of fine old furniture. With an open-ended timescale and a sympathetic owner, work can progress slowly. “You take stock, be patient and you let the house speak for itself,” explained Peter, who is undertaking the painstaking work for Mr Rahman without remuneration. “He is a friend and I am trying to help him,” said Peter, talking plainly. Casting my eyes around the house, it was also easy to understand how this project could become compulsively engaging.
At the recent Annual General Meeting of the Spitalfields Trust, held in the building next door, Douglas Blain, chairman of the trust, spoke of the threat to these old houses in Spitalfields that he sees coming from new money today. Where once in Spitalfields a few enthusiasts renovated their houses, mostly doing the work themselves, now these buildings are a magnet for the super rich who may expect to strip out interiors according to their whims and, in doing so, bear no regard for the subtleties that make them special in the first place. In this context, 2 Wilkes St serves as a timely reminder of the authentic atmosphere of old London that Fielding and Dickens knew, which is incarnated here, witnessing the presence of all our forebears, and which can too easily be destroyed forever.