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A Renovation in Fournier St

February 22, 2011
by the gentle author

This is the eighteenth century house in Fournier St that Jane Cumberbatch and her husband Alastair renovated in the nineteen eighties. Today its serene appearance belies the ambitious restoration that was undertaken to bring it back from the verge of collapse a quarter of a century ago.

“Neither of us really realised what we were taking on,” admitted Jane with a winsome smile to find herself standing outside the house she bought in 1985, more than ten years since she left it, “We didn’t realise how beautiful it was because all the panelling was hidden behind layers of hardboard – but we knew we had to do major work because there was a bow in the back wall and a dodgy roof in danger of collapse. Though we were so lucky to find some wonderful people, Richard Naylor was the architect who drew up the plans, Jimmy Brunton was the builder, Bodhan Antoniuw was the carpenter, Robert Davies carved the corbels and Jim Howett made the shutters and our bed, which we still sleep in today.”

Yet before she could achieve her dream, Jane had to suffer the nightmare of the back wall collapsing in the midst of the two year programme of work required before she could move in. “At one point you could look through the floor from the attic to the basement.” she recalled with a sentimental grin, “We had to take it back to the skeleton, but we tried to keep as much as we could and we used recycled boards where we couldn’t. One of the problems is how far do you go, we tried to make the house work for now but you have to retain its integrity. Dan Cruickshank was always around as a sounding board and everyone involved was very passionate.”

When Jane came to live in Spitalfields, the Fruit & Vegetable Market was still in operation and it was a more utilitarian place. “At first people would say, ‘Where is Spitalfields? Is it safe?” Jane informed me, wincing with retrospective irony, before giving in to her affectionate reminiscences, “I remember Nelly, the longest established resident of Fournier St at ninety years old, she had been born there. And Michael and David Gillingham opposite, who had the perfect Georgian house, with a poltergeist that had to be exorcised. And John, who once had a good job, but would stand and rant outside the church gates, yet stop to pat the children on their heads nicely. And there were hawks nesting on the church tower that ate the rats. And one night somebody dumped five hundred tins of used cooking oil outside our front door. And one night somebody set fire to a skip in the street. And there were bombs in the City and Brick Lane, and our windows shook. There was always something going on! And there were so many down and outs, I wonder what happened to them?”

Among Jane’s fond memories of Spitalfields, one night stands out above all others, 16th October 1987. “The night of the hurricane was very scary,” she announced, rolling her dark eyes, “We were woken by this howling wind and the lights went out in the City. All the trees came down in the churchyard and there was this huge gap because the planes opposite were not there any more. I couldn’t get to work next morning, so I went out into the churchyard and took pictures.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever got over leaving Spitalfields because it was magic, but we have all these tangible memories.” said Jane tenderly, thinking out loud and reconciling herself to her experiences, as we looked through her old photographs together, “I used to feel the houses were so old and an awful lot of misery had happened in them. It would have been a rooming house – so many people came through. And we were just another wave of immigrants, amongst all the waves and waves of of different people. Yet all the friends we made here, we still keep in touch, because there were lots of children then and they all used to play in each other’s houses.”

Over the passage of time, Jane Cumberbatch has come to recognise that no-one ever truly owns these old houses, the inhabitants are mere custodians. These photographs (selected from nearly three hundred that she took of the house she eventually left in 1997) record the transformation that she is proud to have supervised, as her personal contribution to the ongoing stewardship of these soulful edifices which have seen so much life over the centuries.

This is the house when Jane first saw in 1985 as U-Tex of London Ltd, Trouser Manufacturer.

The view from the weaver’s loft towards the market.

The derelict loft.

During the replacement of the roof and the floor.

After renovation.

Eighteenth century panelling uncovered on the ground floor.

Restoring the original position of a partition wall.

The dining room.

The facade with the signage removed.

The facade with new windows and shutters replicating those of the seventeen twenties.

The bedroom.

The banana merchant at number one Fournier St.

The rear elevation with the bowed back wall.

The absence of back wall after its collapse.

The reconstructed back wall using recycled bricks.

Jane contemplates the dereliction she bought into.

The living room.

Jim Howett, still renovating houses in Fournier St today, fits the new windows.

October 1987, the night of the hurricane in Spitalfields.

Plane trees in the churchyard brought down by the hurricane .

Photographs of renovations copyright © Jane Cumberbatch

Photographs of interiors after renovation copyright © Henry Bourne

Jane Cumberbatch’s book “Pure Style” is published by RPS and you can follow her work through her blog

You may also like to read my other Fournier St stories

Before & After in Fournier St

The Wallpapers of Spitalfields

All change at 27 Fournier St

Rodney Archer, Aesthete

Marianna Kennedy, Designer

Jim Howett, Designer

Hugo Glendinning, Photographer

Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church Spitalfields

5 Responses leave one →
  1. SamB permalink
    February 22, 2011

    La plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
    I imagine she regrets selling that house – it’s extraordinary

  2. February 22, 2011

    “no-one ever truly owns these old houses, the inhabitants are mere custodians”

    we are all just passing by; we do not have the right to stay forever, like these old houses do

  3. merzak permalink
    February 22, 2011

    invest in time.passion.great work.

  4. gina permalink
    May 15, 2013

    Jane’s house was a lovely place to be in and she had done a great job bringing it back to life. I didn’t know it’s history until today. Fournier St is a great place. I have fond memories of babysitting in this beautiful house and it was sad when they moved on.

  5. Jim permalink
    June 27, 2013

    Umbra Sumus.

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