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Remembering Dennis Severs

July 8, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my walking tour this weekend and throughout July.

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Reflections at Dennis Severs’ House


Over recent months, Contributing Photographer Lucinda Douglas Menzies has begun a series of portraits of those who knew and remember Dennis Severs (1948-99), while I have undertaken the accompanying interviews which reveal different aspects of his multi-facetted personality.



Martin Lane

‘I was his good friend and neighbour. Dennis often came round for coffee or I would come here and sit in the kitchen. Mostly this was in the morning, seldom in the evening. Though, if I was giving a dinner party, I would invite Dennis to make up numbers.

I recall he told stories of his youth in America, coming over to London and meeting people who were interested in old houses and restoration. But details of our frivolous conversation at these drink-fuelled parties are now beyond me to remember.

One was very excited that Dennis had taken a wreck and was recreating it. He was operating on a shoestring and he needed to earn the money to keep it going and he ploughed it back in. It was an endless string of botched rescue jobs with minimal money.

As a member of the public, one was mesmerised by Dennis’ tours. You left the parlour with a tear in your eye at the death of Queen Victoria. Eventually he achieved such a high profile that if anyone interrupted and he did not like them, he simply threw them out of the house.

Dennis slotted in anywhere and could mix with anyone from a dustman to a duke. I liked his style and imagination. I think it took an American to appreciate our local history.

When he first arrived, he was going through his English stage, clean shaven with flowing hair, in a Harris tweed sports jacket. Then there came a time when he grew sufficiently relaxed with his sexuality and became himself, with t-shirt and jeans – the butch look.

Why, once he got the credit for being an American who rescued a bit of British history, should he act any other than as an American? Until the day he died, his bomber jacket hung in Mrs Jervis’ bedroom where he slept with his typewriter.’



Anna Skrine, former secretary of Spitalfields Trust

‘My sister Fiona & I moved into a derelict Georgian house in Wilkes St in the seventies when the houses had been uninhabited for a long time. Bengali people saw us and asked, ‘What are you doing? You’re mad!’

Of course, we met Dennis very quickly. At that time, he was slowly doing up his house and collecting pallets from the old fruit and vegetable market – it was in full swing then – and making panelling out of them. We often saw each other at the Brick Lane junk market too.

We became good mates. Dennis was the most vital person you could meet – effusive, full-on, generous and kind – and with such an interesting take on life, history and imagination. It was incredible what he did, collecting all these chipped bits and pieces, he knew exactly what he needed and would take them back to his house and slot them in.

Of course, his tours were just amazing – magical from the moment you walked in the door. I loved the stories he told about the house. But it was not just the stories, he explained how particular words came into the language too.

There was a side of him that was very intolerant of anyone that did not ‘get’ what he was on about, so occasionally he would tell someone, ‘Off you go, out the door!’ I came on quite a few tours and brought quite a few people because I did love them.

My most special memories are of his Christmas parties. The beauty of the Drawing Room hung with red apples and, on the landing outside, a beautiful piece of china full of the most elegant looking sweets and candied fruits.

Occasionally, we would all dress up in eighteenth century things we found in flea markets and have a get-together here. Once I said something that would have been quite of place in the eighteenth century and Dennis told me later, ‘That was the end of it when you said that!!’

We were great friends for quite a number of years. I was studying nutrition because I wanted to sing and, when he became ill, I used to bring him over healthy salads.’



Stephen Furniss, Antiques Dealer

‘I worked at Bonhams and Dennis turned up one day in 1973 to work as a porter and we became good chums. We were porters together in the picture department.

I understood that his grandfather had built a petrol station in Pasadena and the city grew up around it so they made a large amount of money as the only petrol station.

Most Saturdays, he and I would go to Portobello together. We started off at the Westway and walked the entire length of the market. He would buy damaged items because they were fine for display and I would buy perfect things to sell. He was particularly fond of an English porcelain called ‘Amherst Japan,’ and you have it all downstairs in the kitchen today.

Then he started up his carriage tours and I remember seeing him doing the tours around South Kensington. He was friendly with a lady called Jane Seabrook who ran a florists and one day she looked out of her shop and there was Dennis with the coach going by. She thought he was so marvellous that they became good friends. I remember the three of us went fly-pitching in Brick Lane Market. She was selling flowerpots while Dennis was buying more than he was selling.

One day, Dennis came into Bonhams and said, ‘I’ve just bought this house in Spitalfields.’ I said, ‘Where on earth is that?’ and he explained ‘It’s right out in the East End of London, I’d like you to come and see it.’ So one lunch break, a number of us from Bonhams trooped over here and we had never seen anything like it, it was unbelievable. Firstly, the whole experience of the East End was very Dickensian. Dennis had bought the house with a sitting tenant, an elderly Jewish gentleman, and on the day Dennis signed the lease, the tenant died so he got freehold possession.

Dennis worked on the house room by room and we would come back to see how he was getting on. He invited us for meals, consisting of vegetables that he had picked out of the gutter in the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market. All the walnuts for the Grinling Gibbons style swags came out of the gutter too!’



Ricardo Cinalli, Artist

‘Dennis & I met in Gloucester Rd once, accidentally. I saw this man with a coach and horses, and a grand hat, formally dressed. I said to myself, ‘This is fantastic, this is London – what a crazy, eccentric person!’

A couple of years later, when I was restoring the door case on Eric Elstob’s house, 14 Fournier St, I saw Dennis standing on the other side of the road. I asked myself, ‘What is he doing in Spitalfields?’ because in the late seventies very few people walked around here. Then I went to the Market Cafe and there he was. And we ate roast beef together and got on like wildfire. We became very close because we were both in the same boat.

I followed his project from the very beginning. The house Eric & I lived in was much grander and Dennis’ house more compact, but it had this atmosphere.

I visited his house for parties – a million parties – they were amazing because you were transported to another time and another life, especially in the Smoking Room where Dennis prepared his delicious punch. They were parties for ‘gentlemen’ in the Smoking Room.

Dennis had a lavish life, a day life and a night life. I always asked ‘Dennis, please take me out at night,’ but he told me ‘You are too soft…’ Except one day, he said, ‘Let’s go to a party’ and we went just around the corner from here. I could not believe it because the place was completely ‘Sodom & Gomorrah,’ full of people and machines. It was a sex dungeon. I was not uncomfortable, but at some point I left.

Dennis was one of the most peculiar characters I ever encountered. He had the most extraordinary life and he was a celebrity too because everybody knew about his house.

He was one of the first men I knew to get HIV and then life was different once he knew he was ill. It was very sad. What happened to Simon Pettet was a tragedy because he was adored by everybody and so talented. The house was a great inspiration to Simon and he made the wonderful fireplace of Delft tiles with all the portraits. Simon was very much loved by Dennis and it was a big blow to him when Simon died.’



Fiona Skrine

‘You could never take California out of Dennis. He was passionate, enthusiastic and very opinionated. It was refreshing. He was a Californian in his use of language, his cutting through stuffiness or fustiness, his enthusiasm – being round the markets collecting all the bits and pieces – and his appreciation of this country. Growing up in California there were not the historic houses that we have, so he just loved it here.

I met Dennis when my sister Anna and I restored an eighteenth century house in Wilkes St. She was the secretary of the Spitalfields Trust, so we knew everybody. The Market Cafe in Fournier St was key for us because we had no windows and barely any floors – a decent lunch was vital – and Dennis would there at the cafe. There would be bickering and gossiping, ‘Have you seen the colour that so-and-so has painted their walls, isn’t it awful?!’ We all fed off each other’s enthusiasm and it was great fun.

I loved his Christmas parties, everyone who had an old house locally was invited. It was great fun, the darkness and the gossip – it was a great opportunity to get into a huddle with somebody and have a really good conversation.

I was a mother with three small children at the time but I used to pop round. I remember he had a couple of assistants who helped him with tours, scurrying around organising sound effects and making sure the smells were just right. I used to hear a lot from other people about doing the tours and who had been thrown for being a Guardian reader or sniggering or not taking Dennis seriously enough. He was pretty brutal in this respect.

I met someone in Ireland the other day who said, ‘I went on one of those tours and I was derogatory because I like things to be authentic and it was not, so we got thrown out.’ ‘They just didn’t get it!’ was what Dennis would say.’



Simon de Courcy-Wheeler, Photographer

‘Dennis was an absolute true eccentric. I did not see a great deal of him but, whenever I did, I thoroughly enjoyed him.

He was a sort of genius and he was in the middle of creating this house. He did most of it through Brick Lane which was full of junk markets them. So he was a real inspiration and the centre of the Spitalfields movement for everybody.

I am a photographer and I was looking for free accommodation because I had very little money. My uncle said, ‘I can help you, you can look after 17 Princelet St.’ And lived there for a couple of years.

At that time, Fiona Skrine (my future wife) lived nearby in Wilkes with her sister Anna who was secretary of the Spitalfields Trust. In those days, everyone knew everyone else – friends one day then falling out the next day and friends again the next!

Dennis, in particular, had a very fiery relationship with all sorts of people, but then he always seemed to make it up again.

Of course, the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market was still here. There were working girls on the street, and tramps sitting around the bonfire and peeing into your basement. We knew them all by name. It was dirty and there were rats on the street, but everybody was passionate about saving these old houses.

Fiona and her sister fell in love with the idea of doing up a Georgian house – I think they paid fourteen thousand for 14 Wilkes St. It did not have windows or a great many original features but it had enough to be seductive.

Dennis was always organising parties and they were a good craic. There was a lot of drinking and hilarity. It is a sort of environment you do not find anymore. Old Dublin where I come from was like that – a very informal way of entertaining. You just turned up and Dennis’ parties were heaving.

He was a real mover and shaker, and it was tragedy that he and his boyfriend, Simon, both died. Looking back on it now, it was such a loss.’



Grant Burnside

‘I met Dennis in a leather bar, The Coleherne in Earls Court, when I was twenty-two. I was a pretty boy and he liked me because I was cute and had an East London accent. He thought I was rough trade, I was the East End ginger boy and he liked that.

We had a kiss and I found him very attractive. He was a handsome man with a close-shaved beard – a good-looking fella and different to all the other guys. They were dressed in an eighties clone style with vests, leather jackets, moustaches and caps, it was all very Tom of Finland.

Dennis stood out because he was wearing a coloured baseball jacket and cap, and he was American and I had just come back from a trip to New York. I was an Essex boy living with my parents, but itching to discover and explore life.

Then I bumped into him one day in Bishopsgate. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked me and I explained, ‘I work up the road.’ I was working in a bank in Basinghall St as a messenger boy. We often went for a cup of tea in the City Corner Cafe in Middlesex St during my lunch hour.

I didn’t see Dennis again for ten years but then I met him again at the Copacabana in Earls Court Rd which was one of the first bear bars in London. By then I had a boyfriend and there is a photograph of us chatting with Dennis which was published in the ‘Out on the Scene’ section of ‘Boyz’ magazine. He was trying to get us both to come back with him but we were not into that kind of thing.

He was interesting and sexy, and every time we met we had a nice little snog. When he first invited me back to his house, I said, ‘I can’t go back to a house that doesn’t have any lights or hot water! I have to get up in the morning and wash and go to work in a suit.’ I was not so daring in those days but, had I come back here, it might have spoiled a nice connection that we had.

I first visited his house not long after he died and it filled my senses, I thought ‘I can do this,’ and I renovated a grade II listed Georgian cottage in Walmer outside Deal.

I was really sad when I found out he had died.’



Patrick Handscombe, Friend of Simon Pettet & Dennis Severs

“I met Dennis first in the seventies when he was tousle-haired Californian surfing boy.

In 1989 at The Market Tavern, a gay pub at Nine Elms, I met Simon Pettet who came to stand beside me, eating cheese and onion crisps. ‘They smell dreadful,’ I said and he replied, ‘I’m only eating them to stand next to you. Do you want to come back to my place in Spitalfields?’ So we go out to my Rolls Royce and he said, ‘Is this your car?’ and I said, ‘It’s not the most usual car!’ and he said, ‘I live in a very unusual house.’ I replied, ‘I guess you live in Dennis Severs’ House?’

We spent a night of passion, it was wonderful. Dennis was in America but when he returned Simon rang and asked me to dinner. Dennis was delighted Simon had found someone he already knew and Simon was pleased that Dennis approved. I spent a lot of nights here and then I lived here for about nine months, until Simon switched me off. I was floored.

Dennis put me onto Rodney Archer so I lived at 31 Fournier St for four years. Then one morning the phone rang and it was Simon. He said, ‘Don’t panic, I’m in hospital.’ He had pneumonia and the question was where would he live. He knew already that he had HIV but now he had AIDS.

Dennis said Simon could not live in his house any more. He had HIV himself. Deep down, I think he was frightened. Dennis was the love of Simon’s life but, in the end, Dennis was a loner and one of the most promiscuous men in London.

Marianna Kennedy arranged for Simon to live at 27 Fournier St and he lasted a couple of years there until he died at twenty-eight years old. He opened up to me again and I looked after him. There was no treatment then and Simon got ill with different things, but he was terrifically brave.

Late one night, I lost my leg driving Simon’s motorbike – I left it in Lewisham High St. I swerved and caught my leg on an unlit skip, and it ripped my leg off. The bike was undamaged but I lay with my leg hanging off.

I got out of hospital and went back to Simon. The doctor said, ‘If you had not had Simon to look after, you would have wallowed.’’

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

Tickets are available for Dennis Severs’ Tour at Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate St, London, E1 6BX

7 Responses leave one →
  1. July 8, 2022

    Dennis Severs was truly a person to have met. The typical London eccentric, as you know him from stories. His house is a fantastic reminder!

    Love & Peace

  2. July 8, 2022

    Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful, honest and heart wrenching accounts of a great but very human man. Truly moving. And so important to remember people and a time that so many still sweep under the carpet.

  3. Milo permalink
    July 8, 2022

    I always managed to end up consorting with some of the most eccentric people you could wish to meet in London; it was a knack i had as a young man and i thrived on it. One minute i’d be minding my own business and the next i’d be swept up by some character out of Dickens and end up in the most odd situations.

    Reading about Mr Severs and his friends and the parties makes me wish i’d met him but it was not to be alas.

    I fervently hope there’s at least the odd one or two of these personalities still left in these dour, straitened times and that i get to bump into them before the world becomes completely bland.

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 9, 2022

    A fascinating insight, but a sad one too

  5. July 10, 2022

    Superb article and photographs! So pleased you’ve brilliantly captured such an important part of LGBTQ history in Spitalfields! For me all these characters were on the ‘other side of the tracks’ so it was a fascinating read. However I must observe there was a lot more going on over the road, on Brick Lane, and on the Holland and Chicksand Estates! Not sure if Dennis ever explored the other side of the tracks. If he had he might have been impressed ….

  6. Dave Phillips permalink
    July 11, 2022

    I am only able to hope that one day I might visit.

  7. Bill permalink
    July 14, 2022

    “…the place was completely ‘Sodom & Gomorrah,’ full of people and machines…”


    They never occurred to me. Machines?

    I knew the Grinling Gibbons swags had to real walnuts, and I knew something about the Baroque fireplace and how it was made, but I never knew he made paneling from old skids.

    Thank you for another fascinating journey. Anything about this house and its master is always welcomed here.

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