Robert Senecal of 37 Spital Sq
Claudia Hussain with a portrait of Robert Senecal, her great-great-grandfather, at 37 Spital Sq
37 Spital Sq is the last eighteenth-century house standing in what was once a fine square lined with similar buildings. Constructed upon the wealth of the silk industry that sustained Spitalfields for two centuries, it is an enigmatic reminder of that vanished world. Yet Claudia Hussain, the great-great-granddaughter of Robert Senecal, a silk manufacturer, came recently to 37 Spital Sq with photographs of her ancestors, revealing the faces of those who, more than a century ago, inhabited these panelled rooms which today house the offices of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
“We always knew our ancestors were Weavers,” admitted Claudia, “but my Aunt Dot corrected me, saying they were Silk Manufacturers.” Although Claudia’s great aunt died years ago, she had drawn a family tree that began with Peter Senecal, a Huguenot Weaver who came to Spitalfields in 1747, and she had annotated the family album, and left a written account of her ancestry too. Imagine Claudia’s surprise when she returned to Spital Sq out of curiosity last year and discovered that her great-great-grandfather’s house was still standing.
Recently, Claudia brought three heavily-bound albums containing the portraits of the former inhabitants of 37 Spital Sq to show me and it was a poignant experience to contemplate their faces as we sat in the old house they had known so well. These are the pictures of the last generation to be involved in silk manufacturing, the trade that had occupied the family for centuries until Robert Senecal oversaw the demise of the industry in the eighteen-eighties and closed the business. There are four portraits of him – dated between 1882, when he was still a Silk Manufacturer employing forty hands (as recorded in the census of 1881), and 1895 when he died at fifty-six, after relinquishing the trade and moving to Stoke Newington.
Robert was a handsome man with bold features and a confident nose, yet his short-sighted gaze peers out anxiously from eyes that became increasingly lined as time and mortality overcame him in his last years, when he was forced to sell up, witnessing the death of an industry which had defined the identity of his family for as long as he knew. There was a residual youthful fullness to his visage, at forty-five years old in 1881, that faded out to be replaced by the features of an old man in the final picture. Only his favourite jacket with its braided binding remained constant, even if it grew a little worn and, perhaps, was replaced with another cut to fit a fuller figure.
Claudia’s great aunt was Robert Senecal’s grand-daughter and, according to her history, he took over the business from his father who was also called Robert - “Robert & Ann Senecal lived at 37 Spital Sq and when he died his son Robert & Rosabel came from Hanbury St to live there. I do not know if my grandparents met through visiting when silk weaving was carried on, but by then work was taken out and done by the weavers in their homes. Later, owing to ‘Free Trade,’ my grandfather sold the business. They [my grandparents] told me of their childhood when there were at least five hundred master weavers in Spital Sq and thousands of people in the surrounding neighbourhood thus employed. Quilt weavers trundled their quaint machines through the streets after the fashion of tinkers and their familiar cry brought weavers hurrying from their houses with work to be done on the spot.”
Old Bailey records reveal Robert’s father as a silk winder living in Nicholl St, Bethnal Green, in 1833, when he had two rabbits stolen by an eighteen-year-old who sold them to a pork butcher at 8 Brick Lane, for which the youth was imprisoned for three months. The previous year, Robert’s father was knocked down and robbed in Pelham St (now Woodseer St) of his gold watch – while returning from a night out at The White Horse, Bethnal Green – by a twenty-four-year-old who was sentenced to death with a plea of mercy on account of good character. On this occasion, Senecal described himself as a silk cane spreader of Sclater St. Evidently, he prospered in his trade in the following decades to ascend to the ownership of 37 Spital Sq, at the centre of Spitalfields silk industry.
One other Senecal has stepped from the shadows, that of Robert Senecal’s son Harry Lawrence, a commercial traveller employed in Commercial St, who was convicted in 1891 of “administering noxious drugs to May Robson with intent to procure an abortion.” He and May Robson had lived together as a couple in Brighton, but he professed he was unable to marry until his father died. The child was stillborn and Harry emigrated to America in 1893 (two years before his father died), where he married Mina Van Winkle from Iowa and lived in Denver until 1943. It is not unlikely that Harry’s behaviour added a few more lines to his father’s troubled brow.
So far, Claudia’s research has revealed only these sparse tantalising facts about her antecedents from 37 Spital Sq, yet visiting the house they inhabited was an experience of a different calibre. “Very exciting and slightly surreal” was Claudia’s verdict on the day.
This was the door where Robert Senecal once walked in.
The census of 1881 lists Robert Senecal of 37 Spital Sq, Silk Manufacturer employing forty hands, born in the Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields (click image to enlarge)
Robert Senecal, Silk Manufacturer, 7th May 1838 – 7th April 1895
Rosabel Senecal, 16th January 1840 – 29th July 1908
Harry Lawrence Senecal, Commercial Traveller, born 17th January 1867 – emigrated to America, arrived at Ellis Island April 6th 1893, and died in Denver in 1943.
Rosabel Ann Senecal, born 1865 – married Joseph Daniels of Stamford Hill and bore fourteen children.
Robert John Senecal Jr, Builder’s Timekeeper. 20th June 19862 – 25th November 1928
The Senecals visited W.Wright for their portraits when they lived in Spital Sq..
The last portrait of Robert Senecal.
The last portrait of Rosabel Senecal.
The Senecals had their photographs taken by Augustus W. Wilson & Co when they moved to Stoke Newington.
Robert Senecal’s tomb in Abney Park Cemetery is on the far right.
The monument to Robert Senecal and his clan today – the urn has been replaced by a cross.
37 Spital Sq today
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