Daniel Defoe is arguably the most famous person who ever lived in Stoke Newington and this tells the story of an attempt to trace the actual position of his house and garden. No doubt this work has been done before but I could not find any coherent account of it and had to start again. Like all detective stories it is full of false theories and dead ends, but there is a decision in the end, which I hope it is now correct.
Defoe was a prolific writer. He was the author of over 370 known publications and one of the greatest journalists of all time. In his day being a journalist could be a dangerous profession, as it still is in some countries today.
He was an outsider, a Dissenter or Puritan, who did not agree with the official Church of England. The son of a butcher, he came from poor people, and was a suspected government spy (this suspicion was confirmed in the nineteenth century). Jonathan Swift regarded him with contempt:-
Because he was a dissenter and did not agree with the government, he was always worried that he might be arrested, so he made Stoke Newington his headquarters, away from the City of London. He lived in Church Street and for the last 20 years of his life (1709-1729) he lived in Sutton House. He had had a very mixed life. In his own words he had been ‘thirteen times rich and thirteen times poor'. He had a civet cat farm in Newington Green. He ran a tile factory which went bankrupt. He speculated in South Sea Bubble shares, and tried all sorts of business enterprises. At the end, with journalism and his books, including Robinson Crusoe and his Journal of the Plague Years to support him, he was able to live in this large house with its grounds and to have a carriage, but he never felt secure.
Built C. 1700 Demolished 1865
The house is shown on the left, with a wall and the entrance gate to the field, or to his garden, on the right. (This wall made the search for his house very difficult).
The house seems to have echoed his fear of arrest, for we read:-
Plaque on No. 95 Stoke Newington Church Street
|Use the scrollbar to see the buildings in more detail.
Of course the houses have been altered over the centuries. There were no betting shops and taxi offices in Defoe's day, but Nos. 89 and 91 look very much as the must have done when they were built in perhaps 1780. They are three-storey buildings and No. 91 has a triangular pediment. Perhaps this is the pediment of Defoe's house and the wings on either side have been turned into separate houses. The wall construction, with the roof safely hidden behind the walls in case of fire, and the triangular pediment seem very similar. Defoe's house was a red brick house of the Queen Anne Period (1707-1714). Perhaps this is Defoe's house extended and re-fronted in the Augustan style about 1780. If so, the inside of No. 91 will show the evidence.
At this period, only 40 years after the Fire of London, fire was in everyone's mind. Water still had to be fetched from wells or rivers in buckets. There was a very primitive fire engine but it could not pump water high even when there was water. In those days most fires had to be damped down to stop the fire from spreading sideways and to give time for people and goods to be cleared from neighbouring houses. Therefore the Fire of London Building Regulations insisted that all party walls between houses had to be thick enough to resist fire for several hours to give time for the neighbours to escape and also to isolate the fire. This means that the thick outside walls of Defoe's house would be inside Nos. 89 and 93, on either side of 91.
There is no evidence of this in No.91 and its staircase is very steep because it is fitted across the width of the 91 frontage. A passageway and the complete staircase have to fit into a narrow street frontage. The original Defoe house was much wider and this cramping would not have been necessary there.
An Early Theory
This is a panorama of 89-93 Church Street and a early of drawing of Defoe's house
The shape fits well enough but there is a real difficulty with this idea. Would any builder turn one house into three in this odd and expensive way? It could have been done but the builder would have gone bankrupt.
This was not absolute proof that the theory of Defoe's House was made into three is wrong, but then came proof comes from a surprising source.
During the Second World War a flying bomb fell on Defoe Road immediately behind the High Street, causing great damage. This is all described in detail in the Defoe Road Walk.
The blast spread over a wide area. Most was concentrated on the houses immediately surrounding the impact, which suffered very severely (Black - Total Destruction) but some blast rose at above them, at an angle. The Church Street houses were seriously damaged (Red) They were further away and high above Defoe Road, so that the blast blew down the back walls at the top of No 91 Church Street and its neighbours. Their lower back walls and the fronts were undamaged.
During the Second World War a Flying Bomb landed on Defoe Road and completely destroyed a large number of houses (Black).
The bomb blew down the top of the back walls in the Church Street houses. The lower stories were protected by the houses nearer to the centre of the bomb blast. The new repairs are in similar London Stock bricks to the originals, but they are slightly lighter in colour. Look closely and the darker brick colour continues in thin, dark lines on either side, right up to the roof. These are the party walls between 91 and the houses on either side. The blast hit the party walls edge on and they resisted stoutly. The tops of the back walls collapsed but the party walls and the facing bricks covering them survived and kept their original colour.
The theory that Defoe's house has been converted into three other houses seems to be wrong. Where then was Defoe's house?
Clues from different sources to Defoe's House and Garden
We need more clues to where Defoe's house could have been. Let us search the documents.
The' narrow pathway' was Hussy's Lane, shown on the OS map below.
We now have these clues to the position and size of Defoe's house and garden
Let us go back to the maps
There was an unbroken row of houses along Church Street with long gardens, but these were all much smaller than Defoe's four acre garden. Perhaps his house was not in Church Street but somewhere behind.
Next to No. 89 are the Tall Houses. They are the fine houses which Dan Cruikshank surveyed for his book ‘Eighteenth Century Houses. Architectural Press,ISBN 0 851 139 372 1. These drawings are well worth searching out.
Panorama of 81 - 87 Church Street
The houses in Church Street seem to be drawn inaccurately in the 1846 Estate Map above. There is something wrong with the number of houses and the garden divisions. This part of the Estate Map must have been inked in by an apprentice on a Friday afternoon and never checked. It is good enough to hang on the wall as a decoration but it is not accurate.
Let us look instead at the 1848 Tithe map (shown below) which will be more accurate because it was a legal document, to be consulted in disputes by all the copyholders. It must have been checked closely by hundreds of people over the years.
The houses were built for very wealthy people. There is still an arched coach entrance between Nos. 83 and 85. The Tithe Map shows that this led to a building behind. Let us look at this map. Perhaps Defoe's house was the building behind these four houses and the carriageway was the entrance to Defoe's house.
Finding Defoe's House on the Tithe Map of 1848
The 1848 Tithe Map
This is far more accurate than the Estate map as you will see if you compare the two. The Estate map was a pleasant thing to hang on the wall. The Tithe map was part of Stoke Newington Estate Rolls and was a legal document.
Below is the piece of the Tithe Map where Defoe's house seems to have been. Two sites seem possible.
The 1868 Ordnance Survey Map of the same area.
Where was his house?
Lot 542 on Church Street looks more likely. It had a wide view to the south, the sun on the back garden and room for the long garden wall beside the house. In 2010 there are still two large houses further along Church Street, which are set well back from the road and with magnificent views of the valley beyond. Imagine the vista when all that was open pasture land. However later research proved this to be wrong.
Clearly Lot 535 was not Defoe's house, but then a deciding clue was discovered.
On the Tithe Map the present archway and passage is lot 535, and lies between lots 534 and 536.
Counting westwards from the passage,
This means that Defoe's house would have been No. 95 Church Street but it has no lot number. Lot 542 is the garden behind and lot 543 is the U shaped building in Church Street. Presumably lot 541 was Defoe's house but is not numbered. It appears that the plaque is on the correct site.
The Final Clue
Sophia wrote a good deal and towards the end of her life her memoirs, ' Three Score Years and Ten', were published. They contain the final piece to our puzzle. Sophia had been born and grew up in Defoe's house and she remembered the house well. She says: -
In his book ‘Defoe in Stoke Newington ', 1889, E. Forbes Robinson says:-
Here we have Robinson describing how Defoe was liable to be arrested by his creditors and political enemies and how he tried to defend himself and Sophia de Morgan describing his escape route.
Here we have it. Defoe's house was next door to our modern No. 93 and Defoe could have escaped from his house to the adjoining No.93. (The words ‘partly adjoined ours' accounts for the position of the modern plaque, which is set a little down Defoe Road, away from the corner of No. 95, in the position of the modern Taxi Office.
The roof of 93 would not have changed much, although the use of the building has altered considerably. Today No. 93 is a Bookmaker's. This house (No. 95) was built by 1868, on the site of Defoe's house and has a completely different roof style. If this were all happening today, Defoe would have gone downstairs and found himself among people laying bets. What better way of escaping from his political enemies than going downstairs and mingling with the anonymous punters.
In 2009 it is amusing to think of Defoe hopping across from his roof to this one and climbing through the hatch into No. 93. The roof access to 93 was in the valley between the two roofs, so as Defoe escaped he would have been hidden from below.
It is very different from the real Sutton House, but can be explained, quite simply.
Let us compare the 1724 drawing of Defoe's house with the 1848 Tithe Map site.
The house is shown on the left, with the entrance to the field, or to his own yard, on the right.
Defoe's House and stable on the 1848 Tithe Map looking south.
(Move the mouse over the map to reveal the artist's possible view point)
The map has been turned upside down so that we are standing on the north side of the High Street and looking down the modern Defoe Road.
We know that there was a spacious coach house with stables. There are not shown in the 1724 drawing by T. Crawford. Presumably the stables were Lot 543, on the Tithe map, in Church Street. It is typical stable shape, with a central stable yard and buildings on three sides. The rear building extends backwards and was probably the stable cottage with entrances from both sides. I have drawn an imaginary building beside the house to show the artist's problem.
T. H. Crawford drew Defoe's house from an angle, to show the front and one side. To see this he must have stood on the other side of Stoke Newington Church Street, not far from the end of Hussey's Lane. The artist wanted to draw Defoe's house but from where he stood, the corner of the stables cut out his view of the side of the house. Therefore he left out the stables and stretched the garden wall right across the house and far beyond. This was very flattering, to Defoe, making his land appear much wider than it was. This is what many artists do to make their pictures attractive. Photographers cannot do it in the same way, which makes some buildings impossible to photograph properly.
At last we have proof that Defoe's house was in Church Street next to 93 Church Street. The plaque is in the correct position but on a house built about 1868, which Defoe could never have seen. But where was the garden? There seems to be no room for it. What clues do we have to the Garden? We need more clues to the house and the 4 acre estate.
The Search for the Garden
This map shows the neighbourhood in great detail. It is an early example of what is generally called the 1871 series of London maps. They took several years to create so the individual sheets vary slightly in date. Before this period the Ordnance Survey had not made maps of London because the private mapping companies, who had the ear of the government, regarded any suggestion of this as unfair competition. Towards the end of the 1860s this rule was relaxed and the Ordnance Survey pulled out all the stops to produce the most detailed series of London maps there has ever been. Every tree, garden path and outhouse was drawn. It took so much time and expense that no such detailed maps were ever made again until aerial photography became available.
Compare the two gardens on either side of Hussey's Lane.
The garden to the left was full of trees and garden beds, while the one on the right, behind Defoe's house has been clear felled. A huge area reaching almost to the High Street and into the next field to the south of Pawnbrokers Lane, is empty. Not only has it been cleared but it is numbered as building lots. The Ground Landlord was planning to attract builders.
In this piece of the map some of the Church Street houses, including Sutton House, have been demolished and entrance to the future Defoe Road entrance marked out. There is a short length of road and the Assembly Rooms built behind four of the houses.
Lot 88 on the 1868 map measures just over 1 acre yet we know that Defoe's garden, with orchard and lime wlak, measured 4 acres. Defoe's land must have stretched much further. Lots 88 and 95 add up to amost exactly 4 acres so his grounds must have stretched right up to backs of the houses in the High Street.
Why was the land clear felled?
The whole area to the backs of the High Street houses had been clear-felled. The landlord was planning to fill the whole space from Hussey's Lane to the back of the houses in the High Street with houses. A brickfield stretching south of Pawnbrokers Lane was already in operation, so development there was also planned. The area was to be transformed.
The Ground Landlord's Plan
For centuries the people who owned this land had grown crops or raised cattle. Now the Ground Landlord planned a crop of houses. They could be far more profitable than hay or milk.
First he would have to lay out a road pattern, with sewers and surface drainage. Then he would mark out building lots and let them, probably on a peppercorn rent for a few years and. Then the builder would sell the houses the houses and the Ground Landlord would charge a Ground rent to the tenants. Each quarter they would have to pay him a rent for living on his land. This rent would go on and on for hundreds of years. The Ground landlord was thinking long term.
For this the builders would need bricks, so that by 1868, the earth that Defoe had dug was already being burnt as bricks for future houses.
How would the Landlord finance it all?
To build houses the builders would need bricks, so first the landlord leased the ground to brick makers and by 1868, the earth that Defoe had dug was already being burnt as bricks. Gradually the brick makers would use up the topsoil, which contained Brickearth and organic matter and so would make better bricks than the London Clay below. The brick makers would sell their bricks to any builders nearby and pay the landlord for using his earth.
After a time the brick makers would release the land and the landlord would lay out his roads and sewers, using the money he had charged the brick makers for using his land.
Then he would mark out the ground as building lots.
Lot 505 was Defoe's Paddock and 542 was his garden.
Compare Lot 86 and 88 with the garden next door. Something drastic had happened. By the time the surveyors appeared to draw their new map, the whole of the corner behind Church Street and the High Street had been clear felled. Defoe's lime walk, his orchard, and the garden which is shown on the 1848 Tithe map, had disappeared. In their place was a brickfield which stretched down past Pawnbroker's Lane.
Houses were not only be built on Defoe's land: they would be built of his land. Defoe had walked on the Clay and Brickearth which became the bricks in the local houses. Thousands of bricks were burnt on the site so that the neighbourhood must have been filled for months with acrid smoke. Soot descended in clouds and local people had to close their windows and cover their mouths. Then came the armies of bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and decorators for month after month. At this period, the census shows that one man in ten in London was in the Building Trade. No machines. All the work done by hand. And still new tenants crowded into the area.
Why? Because between 1860 and 1880 the Cities of London and Westminster were so cut about with new roads new sewers, new railways, the Embankment of the Thames, and other works, that nine tenths of the inhabitants fled on the railways to the new suburbs of Stoke Newington, Camden Town, Peckham and a dozen more. For years London was surrounded by a ring of fire, where the bricks were being baked for the new houses and Defoe's Garden was part of this fiery furnace.
By 1894 the complete corner at the back of Church Street and the High Street had been filled with houses. Defoe Road, Dumont Road, Brodia Road, Kersley Road, the north side of Kynaston Road and the end of Dynevor Road had been filled with terraces of houses. Only a tiny corner of land right in the centre was not covered with houses and that appears to have been some sort of yard with buildings and an entrance from Dumont Road. Rather than giving some houses extra long gardens, the ground landlord saw a profitable use for this awkward patch.
Houses were not just built on Defoe's garden: they were built of his garden. The London Clay and Brickearth which Defoe walked on and cultivated are the material which was baked to form the house bricks. He walked on, and dug this earth as he thought out the plots for his stories. Today, each time people enter their own front doors in any new roads built near by at this time, they may walk into one chapter or another of Robinson Crusoe. Which house bricks was he standing on when he thought of that terrifying scene where Robinson Crusoe first saw the footprint of Man Friday? Would he have to run or fight? It is in one of the houses somewhere. These houses are literally made of stories.
The people who were moving in wanted a respectable, upward- moving district. They were the striving, progressing foremen and craftsmen. There had to be change of street names if these houses were to sell, so Pawnbrokers Lane became Kynaston Road. No doubt the pawnbrokers continues in business in the High Street, but the name was lost. Nearby Cut Throat Lane, which ran from Church Street to Newington Green, was renamed Wordsworth Road, a far more respectable name. The whole area was going up in the world.
The houses were not just built on Defoe's garden: they were built of his garden. The London Clay and Brickearth which Defoe walked on and cultivated are the material which was baked to form the house bricks. He walked on, and dug this earth as he thought out the plots for his stories. Today, each time people enter their own front doors in any of these new roads, they may walk into one chapter or another of Robinson Crusoe. Which house bricks was he standing on when he thought of that terrifying scene where Robinson Crusoe first saw the footprint of Man Friday? Would he have to run or fight? It is in one of the houses somewhere. These houses and the ones nearby, are literally made of stories.