Carving Hackney History London

Sutton House, Hackney

Windows at Sutton House
Windows at Sutton House

At the end of our high street, rather in contrast to the second hand shops, estate agents and fried chicken shops, you will find Sutton House.
It is a Tudor House, built in 1535 by prominent courtier of Henry VIII, Sir Ralph Sadleir. It has been home to merchants, Huguenot silkweavers, and squatters. Such is the history of Hackney.

Sutton House, located between 2 and 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London
Sutton House, located between 2 and 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London

The following story is written by Michael Shingfield. I got to know Michael when he enquired about some Griffiths memorabilia I had chanced upon. Michael has written an excellent book, (details at the end of the post), which is well worth buying if you are interested in Norwich’s history of tool makers.

I worked for the National Trust in their main Building Department in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, working my way up to be joinery workshop foreman.

One morning in 1990 a lorry pulled into our yard with a large load of oak panelling and tipped it all into a heap. This was our introduction to Sutton House.

Sutton House is the oldest house in the East End of London; an extremely rare example of a merchant’s brick house dating from Tudor times, round about 1530. The earliest recorded owner was Sir Ralph Sadleir, an important statesman in the service of Henry VIII.

The amazing brick chimneys at Sutton House, Hackney
The amazing brick chimneys at Sutton House, Hackney

When the last tenant left the property in the 1980s, the house was taken over by squatters who robbed the building of many architectural materials, including the panelling from four rooms, the main fireplaces and also the front door. These items were recognised in a salvage yard, which led to the recovery of much of the rest.

A group of local Hackney residents formed the Sutton House Society, and objected to plans to turn the house into flats and said the house should be for community use. The National Trust backed this idea and so then started on the task of restoring the house. The firm of Julian Harrap Architects, an East End practice were given the job and their architect Richard Griffiths was selected as project leader.

I met Richard on site and was given plans of the four panelled rooms that had been draw up before the squatters had moved in, along with new plans of the changes they wanted to make, such as new windows seats and radiator covers. We also had to repair or replace the window shutters and a few of the oak doors. The biggest job was the massive jigsaw puzzle of the panelling for the rooms, working out which panels rescued from the skip went where, looking for different moulding and design for clues.

My colleagues Keith Lambert, Den Bubb and I took on the task while the rest of the workshop kept the other joinery on the move. All the old oak was rubbed down and cleaned with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine applied with steel wool. Where an old panel was too damaged to reuse or missing altogether, new panels of quarter sawn and through & through English oak were made and carved. The wood was then stained and polished to match the original panels.

The Great Chamber, where the carved panels done by Michael and his team now sit above the fireplace
The Great Chamber, where the carved panels done by Michael and his team now sit above the fireplace

The Great Chamber had lost all ten panels from over the fireplace and these consisted of a motif of roses and fleur-de-lys, luckily the house had been recorded and plans drawn up when it used to be known as Milford House, and we was fortunate enough to have a drawing to go by.

The drawing from the original plans of the missing carving made from when the house was known as Milford House. These proved to be invaluable for Michael and his team when they had to restore the panels.
The drawing from the original plans of the missing carving made from when the house was known as Milford House. These proved to be invaluable for Michael and his team when they had to restore the panels.

Another picture showing the panels with motifs of roses and fleur-de-lys
Another picture showing the panels with motifs of roses and fleur-de-lys

The National Trust paid for us to do evening classes in the winter at the local carving school, as remember joiners are not artyfarty, but Keith was a natural and did a lot of the intricate panels in the Great Chamber. Den and I also did a few, while we all worked on the linen fold panels that had to be created new.

We were fortunate as that Den was also an expert in staining wood. He had served his National Service aboard the Ark Royal and in his spare time would make and stain picture frames for sailors, who had had their photos taken by the ships photographer to send home to Mum.

Although the architect had requested that all the new panels were installed at ground level so that they could be hidden by the furniture, we actually mixed them in at all levels. Any of the best quality older panels were moved to eye level and the bad ones moved down to the floor, with our replacements filling the spaces. No one could tell the difference!

After sorting out the first room, off we went to fit on site leaving at six in the morning and retuning home at eight, this was done for a week before I could get the others to go into lodgings. On the first morning we arrived around eight in the morning and found our landlady who showed us the rooms and made a cup of tea, on returning to our van only to find it broken into and all our tools gone, a rude awakening to us old country boys.

Oak panelling over original painted friezes are now hinged with glass inside, allowing you to open them up and see what the walls once looked like
Oak panelling over original painted friezes are now hinged with glass inside, allowing you to open them up and see what the walls once looked like

On cleaning one room it was found that very thin panels had been pinned over early painted ones that resembled linen fold, these were cleaned and left on show. In all the oak rooms you will find hinged panels that you can open to look and see the history of the old building.

English Heritage surveyed the house and it was very interesting to watch them work out the hidden features of the house. In the Georgian room they asked me to cut out some of the pine panelling only to find a Tudor fireplace as they suspected. A lot of lovely original fireplaces and window openings were opened up this way.

We were all very pleased to have been involved with Sutton House and after serving twenty five years with the National Trust I took early retirement. I look back with pride at some of the work I have left behind.

Sutton House 8

The fine city of Norwich has had a rich history of planemakers and dealers. Michael Shingfield’s in-depth study has resulted in this well researched book which reveals much hitherto unknown information on the makers and journeymen employed in this important trade, and especially of the noted planemaking family of Griffiths who were in business for over 150 years.

Priced £10 + p.p £1.50, £3.50 overseas.
The book is A5 size consisting of over 100 pages with many of the pages having coloured photographs.

Available from;
Michael Shingfield, 61 High Street, Heacham, Norfolk, PE31 7DW

Hackney London Practical techniques

Built to last.

Like many cities and towns in many parts of the world, Hackney in east London is seeing a fair amount of change, as property developers move in, snapping up every disused building and ‘brown field’ site.

Our local council seem to be agreeing to every whim of these developers, and many people (including myself) are up arms about the loss of some of Hackney’s best vernacular architecture, usually to some poorly thought out, bland, brick box.

Money talks. Often the excuse is that Hackney needs more affordable homes, but in reality, what’s delivered is not affordable homes, but more homes for the lucky few who have manage to stay one step ahead.

So far, so bad. On the other side of Hackney we are fighting to keep our beloved green spaces. Hackney Marshes, a delightful area for walks, wildlife, football pitches (well-known as a place where football stars of the future are found), is also under threat. Developers are desperate to start chopping up their parts of the bounty, with some illegal car parks already being planted on the site.

It’s not a unique problem I know. Who are we to expect to live in a city that never expands? London has always expanded. Back in 1500 this whole area was pasture land, a few stagecoaches and wagons coming through. Now every square metre is premium rental space.

1. People aren’t stopping having babies.
2. We all need to get to work.


Of course, the problem with all this is that the developers rip stuff down that we like, build cheap stuff we don’t like and know that people will have to buy the stuff we don’t like, because they also know about (1) and (2). Which in many ways I think is true. They are businesses after all. But recently I’ve seen a change in the way people are objecting to developers. They aren’t questioning the developers’ motives, they are questioning the quality of their proposals.

The locals want to leave buildings behind that their families will be proud to see, just as we adore those architectural treasures we find in London now. The rallying cry for those opposing the QEII development (link above), was not that it particularly shouldn’t happen, (we all knew it would one day), but that such a cheap appalling design had been approved by our council, Tower Hamlets.

And again, what does this do? Hundreds of people sign a petition to try and stop it and the council raise no objection, they don’t even ask for a review, or a single alteration. Where’s the quality? Where’s the thought? Where is the response to situation, surroundings, sympathetic materials? Where are the details that say in a building, ‘we didn’t have to do it like this, it’s quite expensive, but we thought we would do it because after all, this is built for future generations. Of course it isn’t anymore. A development round the corner from me has pretty much gone up in two months. Concrete pilings, poured concrete floors, metal window frames banged in, first fit on it’s way. First-time buyers already calling about completion dates. Not made to last, made as cheaply as possible and easy to knock down and replace in another decade.

We mistrust the council. We mistrust the developers. Locals don’t understand the new people moving in. The new people moving like the locals, (but really, they want to buy their houses, ‘have you seen those Victorian period details?!’). The people who have been here for years give in, sell up, maybe get a great deal on their house, but ultimately, they leave, diluting what was once a great community, leaving it to others to make their bit of money. Walking away.

It got me thinking.

What’s the opposite of all this? What inspires the people in a community? What draws them together. What sort of building would they all help to build in a common, universally admired form? A building put together buy a team, used for all different activities, but something that would sit in a green space and say to the developers, yes, ‘we know it’s not for you, but it IS for us. We live here and this is worth a thousand of your brick boxes’.

Then I thought you know what? Those Amish have it right. It would be great to raise a barn. It wouldn’t solve much, but it might bring back a little of the spirit of doing something for the community. Stripped back to an empty barn, we would be forced to think of what a space like this would be, could be, used for. Birthday parties, celebrations, a place to learn about nature. A place to learn how to make things. A place for the young to meet the old. A place for the young around here, to just enjoy being young.

(This post was inspired by looking at the woodwork of Tom Arrigo (he makes timber frames), and reading the books of Jack Sobon, (also recommended to me by Tom Arrigo).

I also thought the following paragraph from Wikipedia on ‘barn raising’ was substantially more exciting than any proposal I’ve seen from a London developer in the past decade.

A barn raising, also historically called a “raising bee” or “rearing” in the U.K., describes a collective action of a community, in which a barn for one of the members is built or rebuilt collectively by members of the community. Barn raising was particularly common in 18th- and 19th-century rural North America. A barn was a necessary structure for any farmer, for example for storage of cereals and hay and keeping of animals. Yet a barn was also a large and costly structure, the assembly of which required more labor than a typical family could provide. Barn raising addressed the need by enlisting members of the community, unpaid, to assist in the building of their neighbors’ barns. Because each member was entitled to recruit others for help, the favor would eventually return to each participant.

Hackney London Practical techniques Restoration Slideshow

Bridgewood & Neitzert

Bridgewood & Neitzert Ltd, Violin Repairers, Dealers and Makers, 146 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0JU.
I had such a nice reponse to the first photoset about London makers I made, that I wanted to do another one. I was therefore delighted that Gary Bridgewood of Bridgewood & Neitzert Ltd took me up on my offer to photograph inside his building. My brief visit to the shop in London confirmed to me that this must be one of the most intriguing and skilled crafts still in demand today.
I asked Gary for a few brief lines about the history of how the business came about for my intro on the photoset. His story was so interesting I thought I’d reproduce it fully in the post instead. The business is owned by Gary and his business partner, Tom Neitzert.

Tom and I met whilst students studying at the London College of furniture. We were in an amazing workshop in Henriques street (I think formerly Berniers Street) renamed as one of Jack the Rippers attacks happened here!
We were on the first floor of an old Victorian school building overlooking a primary school with a theatrical company hiring the floor above for prop storage. What was so brilliant about this place was we all had keys and so the workshop was nearly always open until the early hours and often never closed at the weekend. We were a very small group, each year had 4 students and there were 4 years with a total of 10 students. I guess we all thrived on this time and the positive shared knowledge and competition between one another. I flitted between this department, Early Musical bowed string instruments e.g. baroque violins, viola da gambas and lutes and the modern office style building across the road where I learned violin making from William Luff.
Before the end of college I and three others started our own workshop in Dalston at 2 Crossway above an old East end gambling office called Sid Kikki jnr. This was quite an experience, we were on the second floor above a bespoke furniture maker called Kirk, in fact this was smoke screen for his rather more insalubrious activities as a drug dealer and pimp. On a Saturday morning we would be visited by one of Sid Kikki’s associates, a bovver boy called Mark, who collected the rent. We always felt relieved that we could pay the rent!
I shared a workshop with Robert Louis Baille (French), who is now a successful violin maker/dealer working in Seville and Tom shared a workshop with Craig Ryder (South African) who is a very fine bow maker working now in Paris.
We moved from here, our friends Robert and Craig moved to France, to Ilex Works in Northwold Road. Our Landlord, Mr Schwarz, had been in Auschwitz. He used to bring a few dolls house toys which they had somehow saved from this horror which I repaired for him; they were made from Olive wood, extremely hard. We had a good relationship with him, and would carry out repairs to the building for an occasional subsidy to our rent. Sadly this all turned sour when he mortgaged this property to improve his other Covent Garden ones. Strettons Estate Agents came in and very quickly we no longer could afford to stay.
We moved to Stoke Newington Church street after this and have been very fortunate to have a very suitable building for our needs.

College Hackney Practical techniques

CASS College dates

And so, we have a drawer! I checked the drawer for squareness, using a rule across the diagonals, and they measure the same. Things should be square and the drawer should fit. The rear of the cabinet has it's top rounded over, the traditional way to finish this. I'm still not sure why this is. By the way, the rear and sides of the drawer are oak, which is nice and strong in these relatively thin pieces and it gives a nice contrast to the dark walnut on the lapped dovetail joints at the front.
The CASS College have announced new dates for several of their short courses, including dates for the Intermediate Furniture Making Course I did last summer. (Disclaimer: The big top pic on the CASS college page is a photograph of me, paring a tenon!)
I thoroughly recommend the CASS if you can get to east London’s ‘London Metropolitan University’. Kate Payne, the tutor, is an excellent and patient teacher and certainly knows her stuff. I’d like to follow up with an advanced furniture course this year, but unfortunately don’t have the same flexibility with time.

Andre Jacob Roubo Hackney London Practical techniques

On Workbenches, London, and space being relative…

There’s an interesting project going on over at Wyatt Childs Inc in Georgia, USA, which I think most people interested in woodworking would describe as the last word in workbench builds.
roubo 1
Roubo 4
Roubo 5
If you read many woodworking blogs, you’d find it hard to avoid the trend for making one’s own bench in ever-more expensive materials. Chris Schwarz in particular has done an excellent job of promoting the work of the French cabinet maker and author André Jacob Roubo, including editing a re-print of his seminal volume The Art of The Joiner. And given all the interest in traditional technique, Roubo and ‘slow woodworking‘, it was perhaps inevitable someone would raise the bar sooner or later. That workbench build has now arrived.

Six of the world’s best-known woodworkers have come together to create the French Oak Roubo Project. It certainly looks like the last word to me. With bench hardware from the excellent Benchcrafted, and French oak from Versailles, (possibly even from the same trees that Roubo himself would have walked past), it’s going to be epic.Click this link for the project description. I’m wondering when I can hijack the next shipment of this oak from France to the US. (A Benchcrafted video is now online showing the whole build).
Roubo build 1
Roubo build 2
Roubo build 3
When I look at the acres of space in the Wyatt Childs workshop, I have to admit my heart sinks a little. Never does space seem to be so freely available and cheap, as when you look at ‘Pics of the New Shop!!’ from the likes of US woodworkers such as The Wood Whisperer, Marc Spagnuolo!

In London however, space is at a premium, and Hackney in east London, is terribly fashionable right now, with what seems like every square inch rented out to another graphic designer/music producer. Any commercial space that might have been utilised for workshops is usually converted into something good enough to fill with a few desks, high-speed internet and let out as ‘deskspace’. Anyway, my search for a small, cheap space continues as I look further east.

Which brings me to the subject of ‘making do – how much space do you really need to make things anyway?’.

My friend Joe recently visited the beautifully restored Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London. Restored after the blaze that destroyed much of the vessel, (while it was already undergoing restoration), the finished ship is now housed in an amazing cocoon of glass and metal and open to the public.
Joe sent me a picture of a tiny room used by the ship’s carpenter, Henry Henderson (who incidentally would have also been a petty officer on the ship). He would have undertaken repairs to parts of the ship on what looks like a small shelf?! As much as I’d love to be making a French oak Roubo bench, I think I’m very much more impressed by Henry.

Henderson came from Kincardine in Firth and was a master shipwright on the construction of the Cutty Sark. It was he who selected the timbers that went into her construction. He then sailed in the ship as ship’s carpenter and served under the first three captains. He was a firm favourite of old John Willis. The jury rudder was made up of spare spars and iron stanchions in conditions which were severe. The gale was still blowing and heavy seas were still sweeping the decks but at the end of six days the job was completed but not without drama. On one occasion, while working the bellows on the brazier needed for forging the ironwork, the captain’s son was covered in embers when the brazier was overturned in the force of the gale. On another occasion the sailmaker narrowly missed having his face burned by a red hot bar when the blacksmith was swept off his feet. The rudder was worked by chains linked to the ship’s wheel and the whole operation was an amazing feat of seamanship. For his achievement Henry Henderson was awarded a testimonial and a cheque for £50 by the owner who recognised his genius. However, the owners had ample reason to reward Henderson’s achievement. It later transpired that both the ship and the freight were uninsured. When the ship arrived home Captain Moodie, who was still furious with the owner’s brother, resigned his command and transferred to steam.