Fiona Rule writes books about the physical history of London. I particularly enjoyed her book The Worst Street in London which told the story of the capital’s poor in the Victorian era by looking at one street and its inhabitants. I was, therefore, interested to read this book The Oldest House in London to see what else she could tell me about the social history of our greatest city.
She starts by identifying that she wants to look at a house which has been lived in without a gap as a residential property for the longest time – and she means a residential property lived in by ordinary people rather than a palace. The house she identifies is near Smithfield and is still inhabited today and has been since medieval times. I actually think that the author cheats a bit as the house (which is sometimes two houses and at other times one property) is usually operated as a business with people living above it and she mentions more than one occasion when there are no regular human residents. Nevertheless the history of the house and the surrounding area is fascinating.
As part of the story of this one house the author also tells us about the church, the graveyard and the other buildings in the vicinity. The property was used as a brewhouse, for example, so she explains the importance of ale at the time and details how it was sold. As there is a shortage of dead bodies for surgeons and anatomists to study the graveyard was targeted by “body snatchers”. The Great Fire of London and the Plague of the seventeenth century missed the property but were important in the area. In the nineteenth century the house became a hostel for people without homes so the book explains the issues of the time and how people had to live. The author also talks about the move of people away from London as a place to live and how areas such as this are trying to rejuvenate. There is also discussion about how old buildings have been at risk in the past and how we might preserve them for the future. As a fan of social history I enjoyed reading about all this and it is fascinating to see how much history one area can encompass.
Where the book is weaker is on detail about the human inhabitants of the property. Often we just know their names and occupations. I am positive that the author has gathered all the information available about them but it would have been nice to have known more.
An interesting read.