Hackney is now one of London’s most desirable neighbourhoods. It is home to a vibrant diaspora of people from all over the world, bustling and lively, replete with everything from coffee shops and boutiques, from hole-in-the-wall diners to some of the best restaurants in the country. Seeing Hackney as it exists today, It’s hard to imagine that this area was a quiet pastoral village in the 16th century.
It was in this bucolic setting that Sutton House was built in 1535 from bricks fired from clay pulled from the now subterranean Hackney brook. Known as ‘Bryck Place’ at the time, the home has lived through almost half a millenia of change, revolution and turmoil to stand today as Sutton House, and is a must see for any visitors to North East London in the mood for a lazy Sunday stroll through London’s rich tapestry of historic transformations.
Tours for Sutton House currently run on Wednesdays and Fridays twice a day, at 11am and 2pm respectively. My tour ran for about an hour and fifteen minutes, but they are meant to run a little shorter.
On Sundays, Sutton House and the Breaker’s Yard open up for self-guided visits between 11am and 1pm. Two tours also run on Sunday at 2:00 pm and at 3:30 pm.
Getting to Sutton House & Breaker’s Yard
Sutton House is located at 2 and 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London, E9 6JQ.
I cycled there, and although there aren’t any cycle racks provided onsite that I could see, it was fairly easy to find a place to safely lock up nearby.
If you want to arrive by car, your options are a little more limited. There isn’t any onsite parking and there is limited metered parking available on the nearby streets. There are some paid private garages in the area as well though, so driving is definitely feasible, though I would recommend public transport given how centrally located it is.
For public transport – If you decide to take the bus, there are over 20 routes with frequent buses that operate within about a 10 minute walk of Sutton House. Hackney Central, and Hackney Downs stations provide access to the TFL train network via the overground and are a quarter mile and a half mile away, respectively.
Tickets don’t need to be booked in advance, although if you’re concerned about securing a place you can book a tour by calling (+44) 020 898 62264 or by emailing reception at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prices are as follows:
- Standard Adult Admission – £8.00
- Standard Child Admission – £4.00
- Concession – £0.00
- Under 5s go free
- Trail Entry (all) – optional donation of £1
Hackney residents receive 50% off admission under the Hello Again Hackney scheme.
Members of the National Trust receive free admission.
Fun Stuff for Kids
The breaker’s yard is a great place for kids to play, and hang out. Sutton House also offers a range of activities for kids as well.
Rather than simply reflecting on the history of Sutton House like boring adults, kids are invited to join a member of the conservation staff on the mini-bugs trail and meet some of the current occupants of Sutton House, the bugs and critters that live in the Garden (and the walls) of the home.
The front reception area also has a bunch of games such as giant-block jenga among others to keep the young among us entertained.
There are also baby changing facilities on site.
Sutton House features a designated drop-off point for mobility impaired visitors.
There are accessible toilets on the ground floor.
There is full wheelchair access to the ground floor, but access to upper floors is by staircase only.
The Breaker’s Yard
Like the rest of the property, the breaker’s yard has a fascinating history and has been through a myriad of changes since the home was first erected in the 1500s. Originally the space was part of a Tudor garden, and remained a green space for much of its history until it was repurposed into a scrapyard for old cars. Eventually the scrapyard was reclaimed and repurposed yet again into a community garden and remains so to this day.
A recent update to the community garden project is the platinum garden, which was done in conjunction with Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee in 2022. The Platinum Garden is inspired by the work of filmmaker Derek Jarman, whose work juxtaposes idyllic themes of Englishness and aristocratic Britain with imagery of industrial maximalism.
Jarman was a queer writer, director and visual artist who lived between 1942 and 1994. In 1986 he was diagnosed as HIV positive, something he courageously discussed openly in a time of serious shame and fear among the LGBTQIA+ community. Not long after his diagnosis, Jarman moved out to a small wooden cottage on the Kent coast in Dungeness.
There in his waning years, on the threadbare coastal plane he set upon creating an extraordinary garden that grew renowned for its stunning colour. Replete with lavender, irises, red poppies and sea kale the garden thrived under his careful cultivation, and he punctuated it with sculptures made from reclaimed driftwood, scrap and whatever other baubles and treasures the sea presented. The platinum garden at breaker’s yard takes direct inspiration from Jarman’s life and work, and of course from his garden at Prospect Cottage.
In the Tudor era, the master of the home would likely have used the linenfold parlour to conduct business. Ralph Sadler, the first owner of Sutton house was a prominent member of King Henry VIII’s court and had close ties to Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister and one of the most important political influencers in English history.
Sadlier began his career as a secretary to Cromwell but was eventually promoted and ended up a knight, and a diplomat among other things. He was deeply involved in political machinations and decision making that went on during the chaotic period of the dissolution of the monasteries and the creation of the Anglican church, and it is likely that many secretive meetings and delicate negotiations pertaining to these matters would have taken place in this very room.
The linenfold parlour is so named because of the panels that line its walls, each is unique and hand-carved to look like a skein of folded cloth.
These linenfold panels are a rare example of a type of panelling that would have been extremely trendy in the Tudor era. The incredibly intricate detail in the relief wood carving is something that, at the time, would have been reserved for only the wealthiest families, and was very much a symbol of high stature and luxury. These panels line the entire room and the cost of doing so is hard to imagine.
It is thought that these linenfold panels might even date back even further than the house itself, and were carved prior to its construction and then resold. Because of their cost, it was common for families to strip rooms of their linenfold panelling when they moved home. Due to their high value, they were often the first thing to be sold off during hard times, and very few examples of original linenfold remain today.
These panels have a rich history. Analysis shows that the panels were painted some time in the 1750s. The cloth would have been a corn yellow colour, with an emerald green background behind. The frames were painted mahogany red and the entire thing was lined with stencilled floral gold motifs.
The panels were stripped and varnished back to their original colour in early 1904 when the home was taken over by the St John’s Church Institute and repurposed as a committee room. In the 1980s, when the house was being used as a squat, thieves managed to get inside the building under the pretence of being council workers looking for asbestos.
They managed to strip and steal of the panels, and resold them to an antique dealer in Shoreditch. The dealer recognised the panels for what they were, and where they were from, and returned them to Sutton House where they have been restored to their rightful place.
As you can see from the picture above, there is also a linenfold pattern painted beneath the panels. There is some speculation as to why this might be. It may have been a holdover measure to keep the linenfold theme while the rest of the panels were being carved.
It’s possible that there were originally not enough panels to cover the walls from floor to ceiling so a strip of painted linenfold may have been used instead.
The Little Chamber
This was likely originally used as a bedroom, and serves as a reminder of why this place was built in the first place: to be a family home. It’s most likely that this room was used by Sir Ralph’s wife Ellen, who was the cousin of Thomas Cromwell. Ellen raised her and Ralph’s children and took charge of the home’s affairs while Ralph was away in court or sent abroad on diplomatic missions to Scotland and France.
In the original construction of the building, the entrance to this room would have been from a steep, cloistered staircase that led directly from the Linenfold Parlour below.
In the 17th century, the home was owned by Captain Milward, an agent of the East India Tea Company who specialised in the trade of silks. He repurposed the Little Chamber as a drawing room, blocking the original doorway and installing a new one that fed people from his newly constructed painted staircase into the little chamber. Here they would wait before being invited to the Great Chamber, to which Milward installed another door.
The oak panelling in this room dates to the mid-16th century and were likely painted red when they were first installed, although we know that by the 1890s the room had been painted a cream colour.
The Sadler Marriage
Unusually for the times, Ralph was Ellen’s second husband. She had been married previously to a man (unknown name) who was sent off to war as a soldier in the English army during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The man never returned, leaving Ellen in a difficult position as a dowager with two children to raise.
Out of pity or responsibility, Thomas Cromwell took her into his home as a laundress. It’s not clear whether this position would have been nominal or whether she was actually put to work, but either way it was in this capacity that she met Ralph Sadler. While not much is written about their private lives, we know that Tudor England -and this would be especially true among circles adjacent to the court- was a place where marriage was usually political and seldom out of love.
Ellen and Ralph however seem to have bucked the trend, their marriage was not remotely to Ralph’s political advantage, and as a courtier marrying a dowager would have been close to unthinkable, so we can infer that there was likely a real romantic bond between the two. They were married quietly, and everything seemed to be going fine until -several years after the marriage- Ellen’s first husband showed up back in London, and was apparently making quite the scene of himself at local taverns wailing about Ellen and Ralph’s illegitimate marriage.
Ralph, who was away on a diplomatic mission, returned immediately to England to deal with the situation. Since divorces weren’t easy to come by at the time (just look at what Henry was up to), this would have been a nightmare for the Sadler family. Proving his mettle and cunning as a political operator, Sir Ralph managed to pass an act of parliament specifically for Ellen’s case, and her first marriage was annulled – creating the very first case of divorce by abandonment in English history and securing the family’s honour and standing once more.
The Great Chamber
Befitting its lofty sounding name, the high ceilinged Great Chamber is one of the largest and most opulent rooms in the house and would have been an important room for banquets, revelry and whatever other pretence occasioned the use of a grand luxurious space. The floor of this room is about 3 times the thickness of any other room in the house, and was reinforced to allow for dancing and rambunctiousness without fear of collapse.
In Tudor times, banquets would have been held in the Great Hall which is on the ground floor. Invitation up to the Great Chamber would have been an honour reserved for only the most esteemed guests, and a second course of rare delicacies would have been reserved for consumption here by the innermost circle. Sweetmeats, pastilles, marzipans and other rare treats would have been served to these guests, as sugar was extremely expensive at the time and had to be imported from Africa and the West Indies.
The panelling on the walls is oak, and dates back to the early 1600s. This degree of panelling would have been a very costly addition and denotes the importance of the room. Each end of the room features Stuart era portraits of Ralph Sadler’s relatives.
Portraits such as these would have been painted to show off the wealth and prosperity of the subject or to commemorate a wedding or some other major occasion.
In later years the Great Chamber continued to be used as a gathering place. During several periods in history the house was used as a school, the longest tenancy of which was that of Mrs. Freeman’s Girls’ School which held a lease from 1657 to 1741. Books, hair ties, and little notes have been found beneath the floorboards and its thought the room was used for lectures and assemblies.
At the beginning of the 1900s the home was taken over by the St. John’s Church Institute, an organisation spearheading the temperance movement. The house was used as a space to encourage men to fraternise together without the help.
In the early 18th century, Hackney was still a small country village that was centred around a single street, now Mare Street (then known as Church Street). Everything around it was farmland, forest and bucolic countryside, which made the area popular with the landed gentry of the court, who began constructing ornate, sprawling townhouses to flaunt their wealth in a way that would have been impossible within the city of London itself.
This room is decorated to mimic the way it would likely have looked shortly after Mary Tooke, a wealthy Huguenot widow moved into the home in 1743. Tooke would be the first of many Huguenot refugees to live in the house over the following century, and was the last tenant of the home to occupy the entire grounds of the place before it was split into two separate homes.
During the Georgian era the room would have been used for crochet, singing, knitting, painting and other hobby-work, as well as to entertain guests. Tea was a new craze in England (hard to believe there was an England before tea to be honest), and this room would have been a prime spot to bring visitors to enjoy a cuppa.
At the time, one pound of tea would have cost about the equivalent of a week’s wages for a skilled worker, and was kept in a locked caddy box in the parlour. In Tudor times, this same room served as the buttery for the home, and a pantry for food to be stored prior to being served up in the Great Hall.
The kitchen you see here has been outfitted to reflect how it would have looked during Tudor times. While their is ample evidence and historical record of most of the denizens of Sutton House over the years, there is a dearth of information about the staff who made the place operational. The only record of these people’s lives that remains is the kitchen, which bears the signs of being lived in and features etched signatures above the fireplace dating back to the 1600s.
Food at the time was cooked over an open fire in the grand fireplace, and a place in Sutton House’s kitchen staff would have offered workers the rare privilege of being well fed ans warm during the winter months. The fire was kept alive at all hours of the day regardless of the temperature outside, so in summer months the room would have been extremely hot.
The Tudor era was famed for its high crime rates. As a result the windows on ground floor rooms such as the kitchen were high up and very small. They had no glass to allow heat to escape.
The kitchen was overseen by a master cook, who took charge of all kitchen servants and the food they served. This master cook and the staff ate and slept here in the kitchen year round. Large houses such as this were equipped to be fully autonomous.
Herbs were grown in an adjoining garden, the home had its own dairy and buttery, and they baked their own bread in a specialised bread oven. Meats would have been roasted over a spit 24/7 in the grand fireplace by a watchful orphan according to my tour guide…
The penultimate transformation of Sutton House occurred in the mid 1980s. The home had fallen into disuse after being abandoned by a local union that had been using it as a base of operations. The garden was a scrap yard being used to dismantle old cars.
In 1985 a letter went out to homes in the neighbourhood, addressed from the abandoned home. Squatters had moved into the house and announced their intentions for Sutton house in a letter to local residents: “Hello! As you’ve probably noticed, something is happening at Sutton House – several of us have moved in and are hoping to convert it into a kind of community centre.”
London was in the midst of something of a squatter revival at the time, and North East London was a hotbed for activity of this sort. The squatters renamed the home “the Blue House” and opened up a vegetarian cafe, held musical soirees in the Wnlock Barn, and led free workshops in everything from leatherworking and clothes repair to figure drawing and oil painting.
Their tenancy was short lived, and they only lasted a few years before the National Trust issued an eviction notice. The squatters were given 6 weeks to evacuate the premises, as the Trust had announced their intention to sell the home to developers who intended to tear the place down and replace it with 5 luxury condos.
This caused a community uproar and campaign was formed to lobby the Trust to refurbish and restore the home to its former glory and open it up to the public. The Sutton House campaign succeeded (as you can see) and the results are the lovely curated home you see today.
This room in the attic of the home was recreated in 2015 with the help of former squatters who lived in the home at the time. It reflects what the room looked like in the mid-80s during the Blue House years, and features an original mural made by the squatters during their time at Sutton House.
I’ve covered only a small taste of what Sutton House and the Breaker’s Yard has on offer. This is a magnificent place, and a must see whether you live in the area or are coming from abroad. With 500 years of history under its belt, Sutton House and the Breaker’s Yard exemplifies the myriad of transformations and roles London’s buildings have taken on over the years.
It carries on the spirit of the community, just as it has since it was first built. If you’re lucky (or a good planner) your visit might just coincide with one of the many special events hosted there. There are after hours tours (with included cocktails), and this October Fright Nights London will be hosting the Ghost Hunt of Sutton House.
Take a look at the National Trust website to see what’s on offer if you or your family are planning a trip. Thanks to a staff that clearly cares deeply about the history of this home and continuing its legacy of community contribution, there’s never been a better time to visit Sutton House. With so much history in these walls, a visit here is guaranteed to have a little something for everyone.