An Old House in Whitechapel
There is a magnificent old house in New Rd in Whitechapel, rich in patina and heavy with creepers, yet surrounded on either side by offices and workshops. It appears an untouched survival from an earlier age, and I half-expect to see an old, old man climbing the worn steps, the original resident of the house where nothing has changed. He is now over two hundred years old and oblivious to the transformation in the world around him. I shall call him Mr Redman.
New Rd follows the line of a rampart constructed as the Eastern defence of the City of London at the time of the English Civil War, and the Whitechapel Mound – which formerly stood upon the site of the Royal London Hospital and to which some infer mystical significance – was a bulwark attached to this earthwork. Around 1750, the rampart was flattened and laid out as New Rd where speculative builders constructed terraces and sold them to sea captains and merchants from the nearby docks. Gloucester Terrace, containing the old house in question, was built in 1797 – facing fields to the East and with mews to the rear, both gone long ago.
The first recorded owners in the early nineteenth century were the Redman family who made their living in the shipping business. They had three sons – a sea captain who became one of the elder brethren at Trinity House on Tower Hill, another who was a ship owner and a third who started a chandlery business in the basement kitchen, establishing independent premises for his enterprise in the 1840s. By the 1850s, the family had prospered and moved to Kentish Town, and by the 1880s the house was Jewish owned, as the surrounding streets became a ghetto for those fleeing for their lives from Eastern Europe. The ground floor was opened up as a tailoring shop and through the twentieth century the upper floors also became clothing workshops as Pakistanis and then Bengalis arrived, creating a reputation for New Rd as the prime location for the manufacture of school uniforms.
When Tim Whittaker, director of the Spitalfields Trust, bought the old house from a maker of twin sets, it had not been inhabited for more than thirty years. Tim took up the nineteenth century floorboards on the ground floor, laid down when it was converted to a shop, and he found the worn Georgian floor beneath, with lines that indicated the former position of the partition walls, allowing him to reinstate them in an arrangement close to the original. With a lifetime’s experience of working with old buildings, both for the National Trust and more recently in Spitalfields, Tim set out to make no impositions upon the house and, after ten years of renovations, his achievement is to have restored it as a seamless whole.
With a trained eye, Tim sought to replace the missing fireplaces with suitable examples of the period and where possible he used salvaged timbers to harmonise with the textures that two centuries of use have imparted to this dignified old edifice, which has been both workplace and dwelling. Offering interesting, idiosyncratic spaces and subtle eye-catching detail, this was never a grand house but an everyday living environment, full of charm.
Reflecting this utilitarian spirit, Tim has installed a bath in the first room on the ground floor and delights to sit here, soaking in hot water and peering out the window at the ceaseless parade of life, up and down New Rd. Yet step through into the room at the back and sounds of the street fade away. Here, fine eighteenth century plasterwork - with details of ears of corn and oak leaves – draws your eye, leading you to a drunken bay window, tilted to one side, and creating the distinct impression of being upon a ship. Only, instead of looking upon an expanse of ocean, you discover a dense garden where dahlias grow six feet high and oranges ripen in the climate protected between high walls.
Step down to the basement, where Tim lifted the flagstones that were laid directly upon earth in rooms just six feet high, digging deeper to lay a damp course and lower the floor, before relaying them and creating the cosiest spaces in the house. “When I started, I didn’t have much money, so I took my time and the house told me what it should be like – it led me, and I stopped telling it what it should be,” explained Tim with a bemused smile, as we sipped hot tea at the kitchen table whilst peering out to the dark clouds lowering over Whitechapel that morning. “I wanted the house to work as it did in the early years of its life in the first decades of the nineteenth century, because that was the period I felt romantic about,” he admitted to me with a blush at his own sentiment, casting his eyes around lovingly at his glorious collection of old china and portraits that fills the house.
Amidst the clatter of Whitechapel, the old house in New Rd stands as an enclave of peace where – thanks to Tim Whittaker – the world of two centuries ago still lingers and where, if old, old Mr Redman should return and climb the worn steps to put his key in the lock after a long, long voyage, he would discover his house shipshape and welcoming – just as he might expect it.
Photographs 3,4,5,9 & 10 © Tim Clinch
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