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The History of Essex Hall

by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D.

Lindsey Press © 1959

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Preface  Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3   Chapter 4   Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 7   Chapter 8
Essex Hall

Chapter 1 - The Beginnings

Down at the bottom of Essex Street, London, there is a picturesque relic of bygone centuries-the only such relic in the street, which is otherwise made up of a miscellany of far later office and similar premises, of various comparatively modern dates. At first sight the street appears to be a cul-de-sac, failing to link the busy Strand with the equally busy Thames Embank­ment; but for pedestrians only there is a through route, for the street ends with a lofty narrow archway of ancient ornamental stonework, closely hemmed in by modem brick buildings left and right; [ See Frontispiece ] and a couple of dozen stone steps lead downward beneath it to Temple Gardens and the broad Victoria Embankment humming with omnibuses and every other kind of motor transport. Further beyond, old Father Thames flows calmly by, now geographically restricted within tidy limits. But pause before reaching the foot of the steps, close your eyes and go back in imagination to the days of Good Queen Bess, and you can hear the wavelets of the river lapping at your feet; for when the Thames was unconfined this archway was the Water Gate at the lower end of the gardens of Essex House, the palatial residence of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, the Queen's favourite; and his luxurious river-barge would often be moored below the steps to await his lordly pleasure. This fascinating old archway was seriously damaged when the adjoining buildings were shattered by one of the numerous bombs that descended hereabouts during the Second World War; but it has since been adroitly restored.

The ill-fated Earl fell from power and favour through his own folly, and was beheaded at the Tower in 1601. The size of Essex House may be judged from the fact that 300 of his misguided followers could assemble there shortly before his fall. It was described by Pepys in his Diary (1669) as "a large but ugly house ". In 1666 it survived the Great Fire of London, and this piece of good fortune brings a very remarkable person into the story: one Nicholas Barbon, M.D., [ Dictionary of National Biography, Art. Barbon, N. ] son of Praisegod Barebones or Barbon, the Anabaptist. Either the father or the son effected the improvement in this curious surname. After the Great Fire, Nicholas, we learn, "was one of the first and most considerable builders in the city of London, and first instituted fire insurance in this country". A contemporary of his recorded that he "hash sett up an office for it and is likely to gets vastly by it". Nicholas was borne about 1640 and died in 1698. Whether he did "gets vastly by it" or not, in his will he directed that none of his debts should be paid! Quoting from an unpublished document, the D.N.B. likewise records that Essex House was still standing after 1666, and that it retained its name until "one Dr. Barbone, the son, I am told, of honest prays God [Praisegod], bought it of the executors of the late Duchess of Somerset, daughter of the Earl of Essex, not to restore it to the right owner, the Bishop of Exeter; but converted it into houses and tenements for tavernes, ale houses, cooks-shoppes and vaulting schooles, and the garden adjoining the river into wharfes for brewers and wood-mongers The writer does not seem to have admired Dr. Barbon.

Thus was Essex Street brought into existence by its planner and creator, towards the year 1680. His entrance from the Strand was a narrow passage, and though afterwards widened, it is still today a 'bottle-neck' which provokes busy van-drivers to profanity. Incidentally, we may presume that Dr. Barbon's purchase had included the freehold of the land, which long before had been owned by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, and which the Bishop of Exeter would appear to have laid some claim to inherit. From another source [ Kent, Encyclopaedias of London. ] we further learn that this father of all fire-insurance companies, speculative builders and town planners "demolished the [Essex] House, leaving only the pillars and cornice of the Water Gate ... and parts of the premises near the Strand"-the latter doubtless adapted and recon ­ structed to some extent as separate buildings.

One of these buildings, occupying the very site of our present Essex Hall and its predecessors, enjoyed the exclusive privilege, for some reason unknown, of inheriting the title 'Essex House'; and this title it retained, as we shall see, throughout the best part of the following two centuries. It was certainly a building of some size, for when the street came to be numbered for postal purposes, it was given no less than four units, Nos. 2-5. As far back as Barbon's own time it is almost certainly to be identified with a "Musick School in Essex Buildings, over against St. Clement's Church", where "concerts of Vocal and Instrumental Musick" were given, as advertised in the London Gazette of 1678 [ Dispose, St. Clement Danes, Vol. II. ] Later, from 1712 to 1730, it is definitely named as housing the famous and extensive library of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), which was Crown property, but remained in a sad state of neglect until 1753, when the British Museum Library was founded and received it as its nucleus. [ Dictionary of National Biography, Art. Cotton. ] Essex House next appears as an auction room occupied by a well-known book-auctioneer of high repute, Samuel Paterson, for some twenty years prior to 1774, at which date it passes into Unitarian hands, and the auction room becomes the natural starting-point of our next chapter.

Thus far we have been recounting plain prosaic and established facts about Essex House and Essex Street, from Elizabethan days to those of George III. But interwoven with the factual narrative is an even more interesting and indeed fascinating story which begins with a verifiable basis in the twelfth century, passes quickly into obscure tradition, and ends in delightful uncertainty to-day.

Long before 'The Temple' became, as we now know it, one of the Inns of Court (in which the Temple Church still stands), the area was occupied by a settlement of the Knights Templars, ending westward at Milford Lane, just beyond what is now Essex Street. The portion outside the city boundary at Temple Bar was named the 'Outer Temple'. It is conjectured that it might possibly have had a small chapel of its own. Edward II dissolved the Order of Knights Templars in the thirteenth century, and in the following century the Outer Temple area passed into the ownership of Walter Stapleton, Lord Treasurer and Bishop of Exeter, "who settled this property upon his successors in that See and built a large house which was called Exeter Inn", - or sometimes Exeter House. Newton, London in the Olden Time (1855) This was the house which changed its name with successive non-ecclesiastical but aristocratic occupants, until it became 'Essex House' in the occupation of the Earl of Essex, as already related.

Now for the tradition - "The most accurate and business-like of English annalists or chroniclers of the sixteenth century", John Stow (d. 1605), author of A Survey of London, after referring to Essex House and its history, continues - "Then west was a Chapple dedicated to the Holy Ghost, called saint Spirit, uppon what occasion founded I have not read. Next is Milford Lane, down to the Thames. . . " Quoting this, the late Rev. W. G. Tarrant, was inspired to compose a poem, [ Supreme Hours (1928) p. 144. ] with some verses will of which we wipresently conclude; but so far as we are aware he did not speculate upon the precise location of the chapel. It is reasonable to suppose that the Bishop of Exeter, in clearing the site and erecting his "large house", might include a chapel therein, or would certainly preserve and embody a consecrated building of former days, if such existed. Did the Protestant Earl of Essex, or one of the aristocratic Leicesters or Pagers who preceded him in the tenancy of the house, do away with the chapel when improving their ample dwelling? We have not been able to find a ray of light upon this, except that the Protestant Lord Paget is stated to have "rebuilt parts of the mansion". But the tradition of such a chapel hereabouts seems reliable enough.

Finally, there is the acceptance of the tradition by later antiquarians and makers of maps. William Newton, whom we have already quoted, author of London in the Olden Time, a bulky tome with a large-scale pictorial map accompanying it, is satisfied to state that the chapel "certainly stood between Essex Street and Milford Lane, upon the spot now occupied by a Unitarian Chapel" - which (let us be honest!) is pretty obviously jumping to a conclusion; and he indicates it so upon his map. That may be the reason why Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Ordnance Surveyors, when preparing in 1874 the first large-scale Ordnance Survey map of London, no less than 6o inches to the mile, honoured us with a tiny detailed plan of Essex Street Chapel (further enlarged and here reproduced), amid a commonplace area of empty squares representing the surrounding premises, and they inscribed within our plan "On site of Holy Spirit Chapel", as shown; and also it may be why, on the second and revised survey (1948), the more sceptical modem surveyors

indicated nothing but our outline site, and spread that inscription to apply vaguely to somewhere within the four-square block of buildings from Essex Street to Milford Lane and from the Strand to Little Essex Street below.

Plans 1874

In the next chapter we shall read of the building of the Unitarian chapel on this site. The theme of its founder's dedica­ tory sermon was that in our Unitarian faith God himself, and not merely one of three persons in a mysterious Trinity, is the omnipresent Spirit of holiness, truth and love. And since this chapel, and the Essex Hall that succeeded it, occupied the largest single share in the very centre of that four-square block, we are determined to cherish the conviction that we do indeed stand to-day upon the site of the ancient, long-lost ' Chapel of the Holy Spirit.'

Church of the Spirit, long ago
The fathers to thy shelter came,
And all their purest joys below
Were clustered round thy sacred name.

Days come and go-the walls decay
That love doth rear so white and fair;
Where art thou now, and where are they
That sang the hymn and said the prayer?

The shrine is gone, and they are dumb;
Howe'er we listen, nevermore
Shall echo of their music come
Through pillared aisle and open door.

And yet across the waste of years,
The changing world, the deeps of death,
The spirit born within us hears
The word the Holy Spirit saith.

W. G. Tarrant



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