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Last Updated: Monday, 6 March 2006, 13:02 GMT
Christopher Wren never slept here
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News

View of St Paul's from the window of Cardinal's Wharf
Right place, wrong time: The house is younger than St Paul's
Sandwiched between two of London's best-known tourist attractions is a house so humble in appearance it is overlooked by the mass of passing sightseers. Its fascinating history is the subject of a new book.

"Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul's cathedral," proclaims an ornate ceramic plaque on the house on the south bank of the river Thames.

"Here also, in 1502, Catherine Infanta of Castile and Aragon, afterwards first queen of Henry VIII, took shelter on her first landing in London," it adds proudly.

Rubbish, Gillian Tindall responds.

Wren stayed a few houses up the road.

And Spanish princesses, let alone future queens, do not stay in waterfront inns, she observes tartly.

The author ought to know.

Her new book, The House by the Thames and the People who Lived There, traces the 300-year history of the building labelled Cardinal's Wharf, sandwiched between the Tate Modern art gallery and the reconstructed Globe theatre, where Shakespeare's plays are once again performed.

Saved by dreamer

The house was built about 1710, the year St Paul's was completed, making it unlikely Wren, the cathedral's architect, stayed on the site to watch his masterpiece take shape directly across the river.

Wren plaque on Cardinal's Wharf
The deception may have saved the house from destruction
The plaque probably originally stood on a now-destroyed building a few houses down the river, Tindall speculates, and was put up by Malcolm Munthe, who owned the house in 1945.

Tindall describes Munthe as a fantasist and a dreamer - but she admits she cannot unreservedly condemn his deception.

The presence of the plaque on Cardinal's Wharf "made the Southwark authorities think they had better not tear it down" after the war, when numerous schemes were being hatched to raze the area's historic - but often bomb-damaged - buildings.

The result?

Tall and narrow, as if being squeezed by the mass of the monuments on either side, the house is the lone survivor of a late 17th-Century building boom: "Bankside's brief period as a genteel suburb", as Tindall puts it.

Rising fortunes

The site has history coursing through its foundations. The house was built "in the footprint of an Elizabethan house" - one mentioned as an inn by Samuel Pepys, among other notables.

Tindall has not been able to identify the first owner of the brick and timber house that now stands on the site, but she has established a remarkably thorough record of owners and occupants from about 1750 to the present.

Gillian Tindall
Tindall uncovers history by focusing on individual lives and locations
Two families in succession bought the house as their fortunes were on the rise.

Edward Sells was the first, taking possession some time around the middle of the 18th Century, as London was undergoing a dramatic change.

He was a waterman, ferrying people across the Thames from London to the south bank - which was not then part of the city.

Thousands of people made their living as he did in the days when London Bridge, crowded with houses and shops, was the only walkable route across the river.

But Westminster Bridge went up in 1750 and Blackfriars followed just under 20 years later, leading to a sharp drop in ferry traffic across the river.

As luck would have it, London's importance as a port was growing at the same time, and the city was becoming ever more hungry for coal.

"Edward Sells, not being stupid, saw the writing on the wall," Tindall says.

He got into the coal business, living and working at the house on Bankside. The family did well for generations, buying and selling shiploads of coal and spreading into a number of houses along the river.

Changing neighbourhood

By a century later, though, Bankside was changing.

"Up into the middle of the 19th Century, even well-to-do middle class families lived cheek by jowl with their businesses, but by the 1850s, you get the great move out," Tindall says.

The House by the Thames, with Tate Modern in the background
Cardinal's Wharf has remained as all around has changed
Better roads and the new omnibus service made it possible to commute to work from more salubrious neighbourhoods, while the arrival of the railways in the 1860s made Bankside a dirtier and less desirable place to live.

The Sells family sold up en masse to a scrap iron merchant called Moss Isaacs, "and the cycle started all over again" - with his descendants in turn moving to more prosperous places.

In the 20th Century the building housed working-class tenants "roosting in odd corners" amidst the bustling wharves of Bankside before an up-and-coming film director called Robert Stevenson bought it.

"It was very eccentric to be living here in the only private house at the time," Tindall says.

He went out to America for work, taking his actress wife Anna Lee and their child and nursemaid with them for what was to have been a six-week visit - in August 1939.

The war broke out, and the couple never returned to London. (Stevenson had a prolific career as a director, making a number of Disney films late in his life, while Lee did several pictures with John Ford before taking a long-running role on the daytime television soap General Hospital.)

Eccentrics and rakes

A "mildly eccentric" civil servant called Sir William Montagu-Pollock owned the house next, and, having befriended the Swedish writer Axel Munthe when posted to Sweden as ambassador, passed the house to him.

It was his son Malcolm who put up the Wren plaque and let it to a family until the 1970s, after which the house fell into disrepair and was used as a squat.

But luckily, Malcolm's son Guy - known as an "escort" of Princess Margaret, and a charismatic if dissolute figure - took an interest in the house in the 1980s.

He restored it with furnishings from other houses that were being destroyed - thus perhaps becoming the second member of his family to rescue the house.

"He had very good taste," Tindall says. "He always said he'd never done anything in his life, but this house is his memorial."

The House by the Thames and the People who Lived There, by Gillian Tindall, is published by Chatto and Windus. The house is privately owned and not open to the public.


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