On my short exploration of the parts of England that I don’t usually reach I eventually arrived at Hackney, and Sutton House. Now Hackney is not just a place-name, without the capitalisation it is defined here as
Middle English: probably from Hackney in East London, where horses were pastured. The term originally denoted an ordinary riding horse (as opposed to a war horse or draught horse), especially one available for hire: hence hackney carriage or coach, and the archaic verb hackney meaning ‘use (a horse) for ordinary riding’, later ‘make commonplace by overuse’ (see hackneyed).
As a Tudor mansion standing in modern London’s East End, there is nothing commonplace about Sutton House, but it has certainly seen a lot of varied use over its lifetime, as evidenced by the varying decor as you pass through the Tudor kitchen and onto rooms decorated in Jacobean and Georgian Styles.
Head below street level and on one side of the property you’ll find a cellar with medieval foundations, and on the other an Edwardian chapel. Lift trapdoors in the floor to see original beams, slide moving panels to reveal a patterned wall decoration whose design anticipated the panelling that now conceals it. Some of the most informative staff I’ve encountered in a National Trust property are keen that you should miss nothing (including London’s oldest loo!).
The house was originally built for Henry VIII’s Secretary of State, Ralph Sadleir, (known to fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as Rafe Sadler) in 1535 at a time when the majority of buildings had the familiar Tudor timber construction of a frame of beams with the spaces between filled with wattle and daub. Sadler’s choice of a different material marked this out as a grander building; one that was referred to as “the bryk place”, though a decade later he upgraded again and moved to an estate in Hertfordshire where on his death he was claimed to be “the richest commoner in England”. I wonder what he would have made of some of the later inhabitants of his brick mansion.
Though bequeathed to the National Trust in 1938, the house’s location in one of London’s less than leafy suburbs left them unsure as to its viability, and so over the years it was rented out, abandoned, considered for conversion into apartments, and occupied by squatters. This last fact produces another surprise for in the loft space you come upon a graffiti’d room that represents this period; as valid a historical record as any other.
One of the ways in which the Trust run’s Sutton House in an area where fewer history buffs are likely to visit is to use the property for community events and exhibitions, often in the former scrubland to the side of the property now restored as The Breakers Yard. When I was there though the Trust were creating controversy with an installation of their own. A number of Trust properties around the country hosted LGBTQ events and exhibits and a building as fluid as Sutton House played host to a series of beautiful photographs by Sarah Moore of black trans activist Munroe Bergdorf. Perhaps Sadler would have been less surprised by this; he lived in a period when every female role on the stages of London’s theatres would have been played by a man.
Plenty of surprises then, and far from hackneyed.