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At 195 Mare St

September 3, 2023
by the gentle author

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195 Mare St


I remember the moment I first caught a glimpse of 195 Mare St through the steamed-up window on the top deck of a bus going up to Hackney one rainy day years ago. In a split second it had passed, an astonishing vision of grand seventeenth century country mansion, marooned amidst the ramshackle urban accretions of subsequent centuries. Had I imagined it or was it real?

How frustrated I was to discover it was indeed real, a Dutch City merchant’s house of 1697, yet mired in long-standing disputes that rendered it unreachable in recent years. How delighted I am to report to you now that – unlike too many heritage battles of recent years – this story has a positive outcome, thanks to the astonishing tenacity and perseverance of a local couple who managed to prise the house away from developers, buying it as their family home to repair it sympathetically and open the lower floors as a community arts space.

After all these years, what a joy it was to visit at last and photograph this extraordinary house just at the moment when its new life begins. Twenty-first century Hackney dissolves as you step over the threshhold of 195 Mare St. Note the curiously-abstracted seventeenth century woodgraining in the hallway and experience the sense of elevation imparted by these lofty reception rooms where the intangible past still lingers, before you descend to the warren of kitchens below. In these low-ceilinged rooms, the presence of the past grows more vivid, evoked by the survival of so many original fixtures and fittings, and dense layers of patina evidencing centuries of hard work down here, below stairs.

At the head of the stairs, a warden’s booth remains with just enough room for a person to sleep, whilst keeping an eye on the nocturnal activities of the ex-prisoners in the dormitories that filled the top floor when this was the Elizabeth Fry Women’s Refuge. A rumour lingers that there were once shackles attached to a wall in one of the windowless basement rooms, where ‘miscreants’ were punished.

As I walked through the house and learnt of its mixed history, I recognised a longing to see the gardens replanted front and back, and growing up to maturity with trees and hedges to enfold it as a benign haven where life can flourish anew.

195 Mare Street was built in 1697 for Abraham Dolins, a wealthy merchant from Holland, as a grand country retreat from the City of London. Paintings by mayor European artists, including Rembrandt and van Dyck, were displayed in the house, and generations of Dolins lived here until 1800. Later it was owned by Thomas Wilson, Tory MP for the City of London, who was a supporter of the slave trade and argued for reparations for slave owners.

In 1860, the house was sold to the Elizabeth Fry Society and became the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for female ex-prisoners, with thousands of women and girls passing through after serving short prison sentences.

In the twentieth century, the house became the New Lansdowne Working Men’s Club and an important part of Hackney’s social life until it closed in 2004 and the house was abandoned before being squatted and then sold to a local developer for office space.

On the summer afternoon of my visit, there was just me and the new owner alone in the empty rooms. Yet the house was crowded with people – parties of avaricious City merchants, congregations of ‘fallen’ women struggling to regain their lives, hordes of working men of Hackney enjoying a night out, gangs of squatters shivering through the long winters, and crowds of other folk, indiscernible.


Click here to learn about visiting times at 195 Mare St between 8th -18th September as part of the Open House festival

Looking out towards Mare St

Residual seventeenth century wood-graining in the hallway

Warden’s night booth at the head of the stairwell dating from the time of the refuge for ex-prisoners

The warden slept in here to monitor night-time activity of the residents

Top half of a seventeenth century dresser in the kitchen

Pantry door

Winder for the spit above the range

Seventeenth century dairy and food preparation area

195 Mare St

11 Responses leave one →
  1. September 3, 2023

    What a wonderful post! It is fantastic when history is preserved. It seems that the main fabric of the house is very well preserved which is incredible considering its multiple past lives. I think I will be in London for the Open House weekend so this house will be definitely be on my list. I may also pop into the Cock Inn, also in Mare St, where my maternal grandparents both worked and met around 1911.

  2. September 3, 2023

    Thank you so much Gentle Author for this wonderfully evocative article. We were delighted to show you the house. We will be open all September for events and exhibitions: Please visit us again.

  3. Sally permalink
    September 3, 2023

    The world needs people like you. Artistic people who can see and appreciate old buildings and all the things that make life beautiful to look at.

  4. Milo permalink
    September 3, 2023

    What a beautiful building and what a joy to hear that it has landed happily in the hands of this couple. I hope i get to have a squizz.

  5. Jane Beckett permalink
    September 3, 2023

    What an exquisite house… the surviving detail is amazing.
    Thank you Gentle Author a great great post

  6. Lydia Deane permalink
    September 3, 2023

    I’m wishing the new owners well in an extraordinary adventure! The building looks so sound it will be well worth the effort and costs of restoration. I look forward to seeing photos of that progression! Amazing vision on the part of the new custodians of such history! Well done!
    Lydia Deane

    Eugene, Oregon USA

  7. Eve permalink
    September 3, 2023

    what varied & colourful past lives 195 Mare Street conceals beneath a very proper Town & Country style look – good to know it’s now destined for the next reincarnation as a family home & arts centre..

  8. Jo N permalink
    September 3, 2023

    Was this house, or the outside of it at least, used in the TV series, Taboo?

  9. Ros permalink
    September 4, 2023

    What a heartening and uplifting article – a real antidote to worrying trends all around. And what a varied history the house already has. I hope to go and have a look at it in September.

  10. Joyce Hampton permalink
    September 4, 2023

    What an oasis of history in the midst of modern life. Reading this article has gladdened my heart. I wish the new owners all the luck in the future.


  11. Bill permalink
    September 4, 2023

    Posts such as this are pure food for the soul! Thank you for the nourishment.

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