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At Sutton House

June 20, 2021
by the gentle author

I love to visit dark old houses on bright summer days. There is something delicious about stepping from the heat of the day into the cool of the interior, almost as if the transition from one temperature to another was that of time travel, from the present into another era.

I wonder if this notion is a residue of my childhood, when my parents took me on summer trips to visit stately homes, so that now I associate these charismatically crumbling old piles of architecture with warm English afternoons.

Such were my feelings when visiting Sutton House, the oldest house in the East End, recently. It made me think of the country mansions of city burghers that once filled Spitalfields before the streets were laid out and the terraces built up.

Built between 1534-5 by Ralph Sadleir, an associate of Thomas Cromwell, Sutton House employed oak beams from the royal forest of Enfield given to Cromwell by Henry VIII. In 1550, Sadleir sold his house to John Machell who became Sheriff Of London, acquiring wealth as a City merchant. Overreaching himself in debt, the house was repossessed by Sir James Deane, a money-lender.

By 1627, it was in the ownership of Captain John Milward, a silk merchant and member of the East India Company, who furnished it with oriental carpets and commissioned elaborate strapwork murals upon the staircase that survive in fragments to this day.

Sarah Freeman leased the house in 1657 for a girls’ school which ran for nearly a century until it was divided into two dwellings in the mid-eighteenth century, Ivy House and Milford House. Only at the end of the nineteenth century were the two halves reunited when Canon Evelyn Gardner created St John’s Institute as a recreational club for ‘men of all classes.’ Within ten years the building was condemned as unsafe, but thanks to a public appeal which raised £3000 it was extensively renovated with additions in the Arts & Crafts style.

After the Institute left, a failed attempt was made to buy Sutton House for the nation before the National Trust stepped in to save it in 1938. For decades, rooms were let as offices to voluntary organisations until squatters occupied the house in the eighties. Then developers were prevented from converting it into luxury flats by a successful local campaign to Save Sutton House which eventually opened to the public in 1991.

Thus history passed through Sutton House like a whirlwind yet, despite all the changes, the atmosphere of past ages still lingers, especially in the shadowy panelled rooms that enfold the overwhelming mystery of numberless untold stories.

Tudor door and Georgian fanlight

Original transom window dating from the Tudor era

In the Linenfold Parlour

Looking downstairs from the Great Chamber

Looking from the Little Chamber into the Great Chamber

The Great Chamber

Cabinet in the Little Chamber

Tudor kitchen

Cellar stairs

Looking through the courtyard

Looking up from the courtyard

Known as the ‘Armada Window,’ this is the oldest window in the East End

Sutton House can be visited as part of a guided tour. Tickets go on sale every Friday for tours on the following Wednesday, Friday & Sunday.

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Guy M permalink
    June 20, 2021

    There is another tale to tell of Sutton House around 1989, just before it was “saved”. I was living in Hackney at the time, just around the corner from Sutton House, and it is my clear memory that the timber linenfold panelling was stolen / removed / “mislaid” from the house around then. I remember reading in the local paper about what a tragedy it was that this old house had been saved, and yet the oak panelling had disappeared.

    How then are these photos of the building now complete with linenfold oak panelling, looking like it had never been away? Is this the original panelling, or is it, as rumour would have it, oak panels of a similar era, but from somewhere else? Or are they cunningly good reproductions instead? Can anyone enlighten us of the true fate of the oak?

  2. David Gooding permalink
    June 20, 2021

    Wonderful, that so much of the interior’s architectural detailing has endured, despite the building’s chequered history. The ‘Armada’ window, Tudor door and wooden wall panelling are all excellent examples.

  3. Peter Hart permalink
    June 20, 2021

    Wonderful photos of a lovely old building. Thank you.

  4. June 20, 2021

    Having lived all my younger life in the East End, and passed Sutton House on many occasions, I have never been inside until today.
    Such atmospheric photographs GA, thank you, good to know that some of the original features have survived despite the many varied custodians of the house.

  5. June 20, 2021

    Wonderful photos of a fascinating and rare old house. I remember reading that the linenfold panelling was stolen but amazingly was tracked down soon after and put back. The National Trust’s early ownership was a bit lackadaisical – I rather suspect because of the house’s East End location. Osterley House in an unfashionable London suburb also suffered from meagre investment and security.

  6. bernie permalink
    June 20, 2021

    How did I never before hear of this old house despite being born & brought up until my twenties in the East End and Hackney?

    Where exactly is it? Did I pass it by in my youth?

  7. Bill Wright permalink
    June 20, 2021

    As well as the pictured memorial of Sutton House to the Robertson brothers ( there is also the war memorial to members of the Institue killed in the Great War (

  8. Jo N permalink
    June 20, 2021

    It’s indeed correct that the Linenfold panelling was stolen in the 1980s, but quickly recovered when the salvage dealer it was offered to recognised it and contacted the National Trust. Today it’s one of a handful of examples in London, along with those at Hampton Court palace and Westminster Abbey.

  9. keithb permalink
    June 20, 2021

    Interesting of a very subdued colour palette for the photographs. Is it pure monochrome or very muted colours in the Tudor kitchen? gives a 19th C feel to the images, especially the courtyard.

    In Birmingham, my old building fix is Aston Hall – although it is an easy ball kick from the M6 and the traffic noise can occasionally impede reveries.

  10. Adele Lester permalink
    June 20, 2021

    Here is another EastEnder who never knew of the existence of Sutton House. Can’t wait to visit on a future trip ‘home’.

  11. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    June 20, 2021

    Your posts like this are some of my favourites. Despite my obsession with history and historic buildings, I had never before heard of Sutton House (and I will confess with some embarrassment that I only know of Ralph Sadleir because of Hillary Mantel). What a treat to get to look inside! Had I walked past this building on an ordinary day, I would probably have had no idea that it was built in 1534, unless I happened to get a glimpse of the chimneys from the proper angle, or was particularly observant on that day… it is very subtle in its provenance!

    The interior details are nothing short of amazing; I am astonished that they still exist after all the house has endured.

    Thank you, G.A., for sharing it with us.

  12. Bernie (again) permalink
    June 20, 2021

    Happy to find that other readers also find Sutton House is new to them.

    Now that I have found it on a map an explanation for my earlier ignorance is to hand. My Hackney upbringing was on the other side of the Downs and I was, therefore, relatively unfamiliar with the relevant locality. So grateful thanks to the GA for this (and much other) enlightenment.

  13. June 22, 2021

    My old friend Mike Gray took a leading role in saving Sutton House from luxury flats and the negelct of the NT. He was a great photographer; you should show some of his work.

  14. June 22, 2021

    Yet another fabulous building, rich in history, to add to my growing list of ‘places to visit’

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