Skip to content

How Paddy Handscombe Met Dennis Severs

May 14, 2023
by the gentle author

Click here to book for my Spitalfields walk next Saturday and beyond


Click here to book for my next City of London walk on 4th June


Dennis Severs dressed as a coachman in the seventies

During these last months at the end of winter, I have been travelling back and forth from Liverpool St Station to Wivenhoe to interview Paddy Handscombe who lived at Dennis Severs’ House for a spell in the eighties. These interviews were the basis for a new scripted tour that opened last week at the house, SIMON’S STORY that I devised and directed and which is performed by actor Joel Saxon who plays the role of Paddy.

My tour complements the current exhibition MAKING HISTORY: THE CERAMIC WORK OF SIMON PETTET.

Performed from Wednesday to Sunday at 8pm nightly by candlelight until 4th June for an audience of just eight people, this tour offers the opportunity to learn more of the personal lives of those who created Dennis Severs’ House in the last century.

Here is an excerpt to give you a flavour.


“When I first met Dennis in the seventies, he was this blonde Californian surfer boy who was sharing a flat in Kensington with some friends of mine from Bristol University.

Dennis was a free spirit. Of course he was not poor, not like us students and ex-students. When we first got jobs in London, we were just making our way, whereas Dennis was fairly comfortable. That’s how he was able to set up his tour with the carriage. He was studying for the bar and I don’t know how long that lasted, a year or maybe two, but he decided suddenly he would give it all up and take this carriage which he’d seen at the Royal Mews.

Of course Dennis rode because he was a Californian and, through a connection to Lord Denning, he got an introduction and was able to ride a horse from the Mews. That was how he saw this Victorian coach, so Dennis got permission to refurbish it and take it out.

I don’t think he needed the income, I think the whole thing was to do with Dennis being an actor. He had this side of him which was all about performing an act. I don’t mean an illicit act, I mean it was ‘a front’ – it was a thing that he did. Dennis was a showman and he loved doing his tours. According to him, his elder brother and sister were much older and more conventional, whereas he was the spoilt youngest child.

It was a big performance, when Dennis dressed up as a coachman, showing people London from an open landau. Starting at the Royal Mews, he used to pick tourists up in Victoria or Kensington and then come all the way along the Strand with his horse and carriage as far as the City. And I suppose he went up Bishopsgate into Middlesex Street and round Folgate Street, so he got to know Spitalfields and loved it.

Then I didn’t meet him for a long time, a number of years, and in that time he managed to pull off the trick of transforming himself into a gentleman dwelling in an old house in Spitalfields. It was a wonderful act, just like the carriage tours and everything else – all a performance really.

He was very clever Dennis, very perceptive. He got to know people here so when this house came up in 1979, he bought it from The Spitalfields Trust. It had a sitting tenant and he bought it for I think £18,000. Coincidentally, the day he signed the lease the old tenant died which meant he got the whole house.

He used to tell me how he slept in every room as soon as the old chap was carted away. And he imagined different periods in each of the rooms, so that’s what he decided to do, decorate each room in the style of a different period.

I had studied History of Art and, at that time, I ran James Bourlet, the oldest picture frame makers in London, founded in 1828, which was part of Sotheby’s then. So Dennis gave me a personal tour of his house and he was delighted that I ‘got it.’”

Dennis Severs giving a coach tour of London in 1977

Dennis the coachman

You may also like to read about

Making History at Dennis Severs’ House

Simon Pettet at  Dennis Severs’ House

Simon Pettet’s Tiles

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    May 14, 2023

    We saw Simon’s Story last night.
    It’s brilliant.

    We walked the house as the tale was told by Joel Saxon, each room relevant to lines in the monologue. It was so engrossing that I wanted to stay behind and talk to Paddy.

    Stepping into the street we came to our senses and shuffled off to the 26 bus, sad that it was over;
    like the best entertainment we left wanting more, so much more.
    Get a ticket if you can and spend a glorious time in their world.

  2. Bernie permalink
    May 14, 2023

    As an exiled Londoner (in Glasgow) I think I would have been alive to any report of such coach tours, but I am sure that notice of them failed to reach me at the time. I wonder why. A splendid undertaking!

  3. Saba permalink
    May 14, 2023

    Thank you, GA, for this article. At last, I understand Dennis Severs as a performance artist. There have been other California artists who had similar lifestyles, although, unfortunately, I cannot recall any names. I would love to see posts from any readers who can identify the California artists.

    I also put Dennis Severs in a line with the Japanese artists who used to change their names several times during a lifetime.

    And, why not? These folks brought magic to the rest of us.

  4. Saba permalink
    May 14, 2023

    Ref my earlier comment — here’s a link to a show at Columbia University in New York City about the multiple identities of performance artist Eleanor Antin during the latter part of the twentieth century. Fascinating and, I think, linked to Dennis Severs’ art.

  5. Catherine Morris permalink
    May 14, 2023

    What happened to the coach? He wouldn’t have been able to park it in Spitalfields. I wonder if he sold it or gave it away?

  6. May 15, 2023

    I love these stories. Oh to lead such an eccentric life! I would have loved to have met Dennis and taken a ride in his carriage. I imagine that he would have loved these articles too, and enjoyed that his work is still recognised and applauded. Visiting Dennis Sever’s house had a profound effect on me in visualising how my silk weaving ancestors lived ( although mine seemed to have been a bit more “top floor” if you have visited too. Thanks GA, I can’t wait to go back.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS