The Precinct of Well Close ~ Wellclose Square

The Tower Liberties

See here for the history of the areas that became part of the Liberties of the Tower of London. By Letters Patent of 1686, King James II included the areas of Minories, the Old Artillery Ground and Wellclose among the Tower Liberties, although the Tower held no land in the area. Right [b+w version is in higher resolution] is Stow / Strype's map of c1720 showing the areas involved (Wellclose Square, formerly known as Marine Square, is in the top right), and part of the 1878 Vestry map. The western edge of the Precinct of Wellclose was Well Street [now Ensign Street], its southern edge Neptune Street [now Wellclose Street], and to the north was Graces Alley, later home to Wilton's Music Hall.  See also Rosemary Lane [now Royal Mint Street].

What were the implications of this 'Liberty'? It meant that authority for the maintenance of law and order within the area lay with the Governor of the Tower, sitting with appointed magistrates. They dealt with all criminal charges, great and small, and those accused were committed to Newgate for safe custody. In civil matters, it served as a Court of Record and Request for the recovery of small debts (like a modern-day County Court), and had its own 'gaol of the Tower Royalty'. An example of this alternative jurisdiction is from 1798, when at the Middlesex sessions in July a group of men (including Lancelot Henry, later a churchwarden at St George-in-the-East) stood accused of crimes (which they denied), and were bailed, but claimed that as the alleged events occurred within the Liberty the quarter sessions had no authority to hear the case. (Click here for documents and transcript: we don't know the nature of the charges or the final verdict.)

The Court House, on the south side of Wellclose Square at the corner with Neptune Street was erected some time after 1687, and there are good records and pictures of the building before demolition, including Barbon's staircase to the first floor. (In its latter years it was used as a German club, and then became a paint works - the courtroom became a storeroom, and the staircase was painted in shiny cocoa brown.) The prison behind, on the corner of Neptune [later Wellclose] Street, was commonly known as the 'Sly House', because it was said that felons who entered it left by a subterranean passage to the Tower and the docks, from which the convict ship Success left. The reality may have been more prosaic: it was used mainly for debtors who were tried at the local court. Right is the Watch House in the Square, c1925, used in earlier times by the nightwatchmen.

The landlord of the adjacent King's Arms (33 Wellclose Square, linked to what later became 211 St George Street) was responsible for feeding the prisoners: a doorway beside its main entrance led up a stone staircase to the first floor of the Court House, and down to a courtyard and the prison. When the prison closed and the King's Arms took over the site, the landlord would open the cells, with their heavily-bolted doors, grilles, plank beds, fetters and straitjackets, to visitors. Some of these fixtures have now been preserved at the Museum of London, including inscriptions scratched with pine cones on the wooden panels [right]. Among them is one to Stockley, who invented the 'pitch plaster' which was clapped on victims' mouths to keep them silent; the optimistic verse The cupboard is empty, to our sorrow; let's hope it will be full to-morrow; and the pathetic plea Please to remember the poor debtors, 1758. As many advertisements in the Times show, in the 18th and early 19th centuries estate agents regularly left prospectuses for East London properties (often sold by auction at Garraway's Coffee House in the City) at the King's Arms. The freehold was sold in the 1880s, with Thomas Wasmuth as sitting tenant and licensee (at least one of his children was baptized at St George-in-the-East). It was demolished around 1912.

The Precinct's distinctive legal status gradually came to an end as new local government legislation took effect: from 1855 (or earlier) the area fell under the jurisdiction of the local Magistrates' Court. But the traditional triennial Beating of the Bounds, on Ascension Day, continued until 1897 for the Liberty of Wellclose. The Lieutenant of the Tower came, accompanied by an escort of Tower warders, followed by officials and schoolboys wearing ribbons red, white and blue on their bosoms, and carrying willow wands. These boys were the sons of soldiers quartered at the Tower. Many parish churches, including St George's, also used to beat the bounds, perambulating the borders with hymns and prayers - as this 1882 programme [left] shows: the event was also a farewell to Harry Jones as Rector. Right is a 1910 picture from the Tower's own ceremony from 1910. The tradition continues in some places, though with no legal significance; it was revived for a few years by Fr Aquinas at St Paul Dock Street in the 1970s.

Ill-fated theatres   [see also Goodman's Fields]

The Royalty Theatre [left] in Well Street was built by subscription in 1786 and run by John 'Plausible' Palmer - a man of the most versatile and eminent talents, but destitute of prudence - but was not licensed. After the opening performances of As You Like It and the farce Miss in her Teens, the profits given to the new London Hospital, it closed until a licence for the hybrid musical entertainments permitted by law - interludes, pantomimes and other species of the irregular drama  - was granted. Later it fell into the hands of various adventurers (Nightingale, London and Middlesex 1815). At some point a gasworks (with a 'gasometer') was built north of the theatre, next to the stage, to provide lighting both for the theatre (Palmer's brother Robert had taken part in a display of an 'Aeropyric Branch' at the Lyceum in 1789 which was probably a demonstration of gas lighting) and for the neighbourhood, a prosperous manufacturing district, at an annual profit of £1,000. The Chartered Gas, Light & Coke Co. bought this 'East London Gas Works' plus the theatre at auction in 1820. In April 1826 the scenery above the stage caught fire during a performance of Kendrick the Accursed, for which half a pound of powder was used to simulate the eruption of Mount Etna; apparently the gas lights beside the stage had not been turned off. The firemen could only stand at either end of the theatre and throw the water on the flames as well as they could; there was more concern about the two adjacent sugar refineries. All that survived was the grand piano snatched from the green room by an unknown sailor.  A replacement building, the Royal Brunswick [right], was erected in seven months, with a heavy iron roof. A few days after it opened on 28 February 1828, during a rehearsal of Guy Mannering, the roof fell in, crushing to death Mr Maurice, one of the proprietors, and twelve others. See here for the story of the acquisition of the site for the Sailors' Home.

An urban square

In a district where most building projects were piecemeal and chaotic, Wellclose Square (originally known as Marine Square) and the smaller Prince's Square to the east were the only planned developments of their time, and even here (as noted below) the houses were of various periods, and were constantly being modified, extended and rebuilt. Nicholas Barbon (c1640-98) was its principal developer. His full name was Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon, given by his Puritan father Praisegod Barbon (Barebone), leather-seller, MP, fanatical anti-monarchist and general nuisance. Returning from Holland in the 1670s, Nicholas was a major speculator in the West End, leasing plots from the Crown in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, seeing an opportunity to provide houses for well-to-do merchants. He also acquired three sites in East London, paying £3,200 for the freehold of Wellclose Square (though he was slow in making payment). In 1682-3 he cleared the site and laid out a square with diagonal passageways at each corner, to insulate it from the noise and dirt of the surrounding area and maximise the frontages. (Of these passageways, only Grace's Alley on the NW corner remains, plus the now un-named cut-through on the SW, variously known in the 19th century as Harrrod's, Harad's, Harrald's and Hard's Court or Place; Ship Alley on the SE corner and North East Passage have disappeared. Shorter [now Fletcher] and Neptune [now Wellclose] Streets connected the square respectively to Cable Street and The Highway.) 

On the south side Barbon built two-storey houses with attics, with good-sized rooms and staircases with twisted balusters. In 1680 Barbon opened a fire insurance office at the Royal Exchange, and in 1683 one of the first schemes was set up in the Square, with a permanent engine housed on the north side. His convoluted commercial practices - assigning or mortgaging leases to others - are described in detail by Elizabeth McKellar inThe Birth of Modern London: the Development & Design of the City 1660-1720 (1999). Barbon's contemporary Roger North, a lawyer and biographer, commented his house in the morning [is] like a court, crowded with suitors for money. And he kept state, coming down at his own time like a magnifico, in deshabille, and so to discourse with them. And having very much work, they were loath to break finally, and upon a new job taken they would follow and worship him like an idol, for then there was fresh money.

The houses on the north side were later and larger. At no.26 was a house with Venetian windows, with a five-bay boarded house behind. Despite the Fire, houses were built or rebuilt in timber, and Roger Guillery in The Small House in Eighteenth Century London: A Social and Architectural History (2004) comments these were not modest houses, and they incorporated fashionable classical embellishments, like the ground floor Serliana.

A number of the houses were originally occupied by Scandinavian timber merchants. In the chapter on Wellclose Square in their informative book Wapping 1600-1800: A Social History of an Early Modern London Maritime Suburb (East London Historical Society 2009) Derek Morris and Ken Cozens list a number of local families, identified from insurance policies, court records and wills, including
Georg [right] had become a Methodist - he accommodated John Wesley at his home during a period of illness, and was one of his executors - and was also one of the founders of the British & Foreign Bible Society. He was also the Danish-Norwegian consul from 1787 - run from the family home / workshop in the Square (though later he also had a house in Balham) - see here for the later fate of these premises.
References to Wolff in John Wesley's Journal: 1783: 28.02, 04.06, 17.12; 1784: 18.02; 1785: 04.08 (Balham); 1786: 04.01; 1787: 03.01,12.12 (Ballam) (Testament); 1788: 14.01 (Bal[h]am. sermon), 18.01 (Mrs Wolff), 21.02, (Bal[h]am (sermon), 13.11; 1789: 20.01 (letters), 01.12 (Bal[h]am); 1790: 20.01, 16.02 (Tuesday: I retired to Balham for a few days, in order to finish my sermons and put all my things in order), 18.02 (Thursday: 3 with Mrs Wolff, Wandswor[th], 8 Balham, supper), 02.10, 06.11(at Mr. Wolff's, christened), 29.12; 1791: 31.01.
Ernst produced a Danish-Norweigan dictionary, a ready reckoner for timber pricing, and a history of the Danish & Norwegian Church in the Square.
The next generation departed somewhat from Lutheran / Methodist piety, and were less fortunate in business. Georg's son Jens, who inherited the consulate from his father, has been described as a'virtually unrewarded' hero of the Danes - see Den Danske Kirke i London 1692-1992 - and was the last person to be interred in the vault below the Danish church, in 1845, then in the hands of Bo'sun Smith with whom he had been in conflict.  His wife Isabella had a long-standing affair with Sir Thomas Lawrence, from some time after he began his portrait of her in 1803 until her divorce in 1813; two years later his picture [left], depicting her as the Ethyrean Sibyl from the Sistine chapel, apparently examining a book of Michaelangelo's engravings, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and is now at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Some observers note that she appears to have no clavicle.) Georg's daughter Elizabeth married John Dorville, but had an equally nororious liasion with the noted naturalist George Montague, producing two children, who took her husband's surname - Henry and Elizabeth Dorville.
The firm of Wolffs & Dorville traded from New Bridge Street, near Blackfriars, and flourished until they went bankrupt in 1812, largely because Britain was at war with Denmark/Norway (having led the attack on Copenhagen in 1807) during the Dano-Swedish War of 1808-09, so they lost their access to the banks, though trade was still good. (See here for a legal case of 1817.)
The Norwegian art historian Ada Polak produced her doctoral thesis Wolffs og Dorville: Et norsk-engelsk handelshus i London under Napoleonskrigene: En kulturhistorisk skildring (Oslo 1968 - with English summary) on the history of the family, including their links with Methodism. Peder Borgen, George Wolff (1736-1828): Norwegian-born Merchant, Consul, Benevolent Methodist Layman, Close Friend of John Wesley in Methodist History 40:1 (2001), gives more detail of his life - longer version available in Norwegian!
The Danish & Norwegian Church was built in the centre of the Square in 1694 [on the site now occupied by St Paul's Whitechapel CE Primary School, next to which is now another primary school, Shapla, opened in 1987]. In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote, in A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, Well Close, now call'd Marine Square, was so remote from houses, that it used to be a very dangerous place to go over after it was dark, and many people have been robbed and abused in passing it; a well (also known as Goodman's Fields Well) standing in the middle, just where the Danish Church is now built, there the mischief was generally done. This remained true a century later, when G.C. (Bo'sun) Smith established several seafarers' institutions (described here) in connection with the church.

Left are detailed maps of the area by John Rocque (1742) and Horwood (1792). In 1815 Nightingale described it as a pretty little neat square. But it was not all housing: a sugar refinery was built in the square by 1794 (and by 1854 there were five). There premises, at no.48,  were used until 1851 in turn by Pritzler, Engell, Martineau, and Henrickson. It was still listed as a sugarhouse in the 1861 and 1871 censuses, but was taken over, together with no.49, as a pickle factory by George Whybrow and Sons, variously described as export oilmen, oil merchants and Italian warehousemen. The firm began trading around 1825 and had other premises at 4 Minories and 10 Royal Mint Street. In the 1830s Eliza Whybrow insured 1 Cannon Street Road as an oil warehouse keeper. One of their sites had a steam-powered lift between the floors. They manufactured pickles, sauces, bottled fruits and other goods, imported capers, salad oil and castor oil and exported to the colonies, especially Australia - detailed in this advertisement from the Australian Handbook of 1877, which pictures the Wellclose Square works and quotes from a testimonial in The Grocer of 22 May 1875:

All the rage being now for cheap and popular Sauces, we have little doubt that the "Relish" prepared by Mr. GEORGE WHYBROW, of 48, Wellclose Square, and sold in neatly got-up bottles at the price of 6d., will command a large sale. Any one who tastes the Sauce will perceive that in the matter of ingredients it has been carefully prepared, and it has a sharp piquant flavour, which will be found very agreeable. Like other similar Sauces, it may be used with almost any description of Cold Meats, &c., and in such cases it will be found a pleasant accessory.

Their pickle jars and bottles [right] are now collectors' items.

George died in 1873, and the 1881 census shows 48 & 49 Wellclose Square as uninhabited - they had moved to new premises at 290 Cable Street, between Bewley and Albert Streets, shown right on Goad's 1899 insurance map prior to closure. His relatives Francis and Henry took on the business for a time, but their partnership was dissolved in 1885. Francis continued to run it; an attempt to re-finance it failed in 1897.  It was wound up in 1899, and an order of the Chancery court was made the following March for the sale of the lease, goodwill, stock-in-trade and fixtures of the business of Pickle Manufacturers for many years carried on by George Whybrow Limited, and their predecessors at 290 Cable-street Shadwell together with trade marks, plant and machinery and the option of purchasing current book debts.

The Economist, commented in 1897 on the growing absence of financial particulars in prospectuses, and gave this company as an example. The reason why such figures were not included is presumably because the company had ceased to be profitable!
Or take the case of George Whybrow, Limited, where investors are asked to acquire, at a cost of £60,000, the business of a pickle, sauce, &c, manufacturer. As the business was established in the beginning of the present century, it would obviously be possible to show what the profits have been over a series of years; but instead of any particulars of the kind, we are treated to an estimate of what the company is going to earn in the future, and are asked to reflect upon the profitable natures of such joint-stock companies as Maple and Co., J. & P. Coats, Harrod's Stores,  A. and F. Pears, the leading drapery companies, Price's Candle Co., Bryant and May's, and Guinness. Could anything be more absurd?

George's son George Francis became a banker and speculator, based at the Cable Street address. He was the managing director of one of the first sawmills in Papua New Guinea,
owned by Pacific and Papua Produce Ltd., at Manu Manu, at the mouth of Galley Reach (near Port Moresby, where there was an Anglican mission station). The Pacific Island Monthly vol 26 (1956) describes how he arranged for the massive steam boiler to be delivered by sea.

As well as those linked to the Bo'sun Smith's church, the Square housed other hostels and other welfare organisations, including the Jewish Joel Emanuel Almshouse (a trust which continues to the present day, based in north London) - shown on 1868 map right in the south-west corner - an
d at no.32 the Hand in Hand Home for Aged and Decayed Tradesmen, founded in 1840 and previously based at 5 Duke's Place from 1843, and 22 Jewry Street from 1850 before moving to the Square in 1854, and again in 1878 to 23 Well Street, Hackney. This was one of a trio of organisations set up to protect members of the Jewish community, for whom care and respect for the elderly and needy is a core priority; the Poor Law system failed to meet their social, religious and dietary needs. The other two were the Widow's Home Asylum (founded 1843, and from 1857-1880 at 67 Great Prescott [Prescot] Street - more here) and the Jewish Workhouse or Home (1871). The three later came together in Hackney and Stepney Green and merged in 1894, moving to Nightingale Lane in Wandsworth Common in 1907. (Now known as Nightingale, in 2001 it was the largest Jewish residential and nursing home in Europe. Ted 'Kid' Lewis, a local Jewish boxer, whose story is noted here, was a resident from 1966 until his death in 1970.) See here for a Jewish orphanage elsewhere in the parish which also became the basis of a present-day trust elsewhere.

In the 19th century no.6 housed the office of the St George-in-the-East Poor Law Guardians. Two timber-framed buildings reflecting the 18th century maritime history of the area, and which remarkably survived later reconstruction, were the cottage at no.26, at the corner of Stable Yard (with a Venetian attic window) [pictures 1 & 2; 3 & 4 show front and rear in 1943], and no.27, in the yard behind, a 'colonial-style' house of four storeys and cellar [pictures 5 & 6 (1 Sept 1911) - the sign reads Everett & Co, though earlier the sugar bakers Ellerman had been based here].

Famous residents
Down the years Wellclose Square had a number of notable residents, and became something of a haven for free-thinkers, before it fell into decline. Indeed, from 1744-62 it housed a small dissenting academy, in the home of Dr Samuel Morton Savage (1721-91). Students boarded with families, and the library and lectures were in the house. Morton taught classics and mathematics, and Dr David Jennings, the Principal, taught theology. Other notable residents included:

In the 19th century, several printing presses were established in the area, including those of Samuel Braund Clouter at 39 Wellclose Square / 1 Ship Alley in 1825 (described as stationer, bookseller, dealer and chapman of Bristol, he had been declared bankrupt in Birmingham in 1815; he died as a wholesale stationer in the parish of St George Bloomsbury in 1833); Henry Catmur at 14 Ship Alley in 1825; and Henry Abraham at 8 Wellclose Square in 1835. No.6 became the base of the Poor Law Guardians and the Superintendent Registrar for St George's East District. Later years: decline and fall
1872: an article claimed that a notice at the entrance to the Prussian Eagle tavern, in Ship Alley (a meeting-place for Germans, with a well-used dance hall upstairs, with one of the various 4- or 6-piece German bands providing music) read All persons are requested, before entering the dancing saloon, to leave at the bar their pistols and knives, or any other weapon they may have about them. This may be a myth, but Melville McNaughton, later Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard, recalled visiting as a young constable, when dancing was carried on by German ladies, and sailors of all nationalities, and the sight of a drawn knife or two was not infrequent. [1872 map right shows the various institutions.]

1896: Herbet Elliott Hamblen, in On Many Seas - the Life and Exploits of a Yankee Sailor (1896) describes a boarding house in Ship Alley [Shipal Passage] as a little dingy hole ... kept by a German lady, Almena by name. She was a partially reformed denizen of The Highway who had taken to herself a Norwegian sailor for a consort ... her right hand grasped a quart pewter pot of 'arf an' 'arf (p118). Israel Zangwill, in Ghetto Comedies (1907), tells the tale of a man and his family who found lodging in the cellar of 25 Ship Alley, the home of Baruch Zezanski: It was pitch black. They say there is a hell. This may or may not be, but more of a hell than the night we passed in this cellar one does not require. Every vile thing in the world seemed to have taken up its abode therein. We sat the whole night sweeping the vermin from us (The Model of Sorrows, p20).

See here for 1911 and 1934 accounts of the Square.

is Ship Alley, then and now (with thanks to Alan Haymes for permission to use his 2010 photograph, which shows the tree on the right still standing; his great-grandfather lived on Ship Alley and his website has futher information); right is a picture of 1944. and two from the early 1960s.

1951: in The East End of London, when many of the old houses were still standing, but much-damaged in the war, Millicent Rose wrote
Wellclose Square was never designed as a whole, and the individuals who lived there were continually ornamenting the fronts of their houses or even rebuilding them entirely. To this day it is like a sampler of our domestic building, from the south side houses which date, some of them, from the 1690s, to those on the north, where there is a tall, warmly coloured group of the mid-18th century, while the houses to east and west are many of them somewhat later. One on the west side shows the weather-boarded country style which was once so common all over the East End, and which fire and decrepitude have so consistently destroyed. It is a graceful and sophisticated example of the style, with a pretty Venetian window, but having been allowed to fall derelict during the war, it cannot survive much longer. In the north-west corner there is another interesting house, whose façade has been dressed up with delightful reliefs; this too is derelict.  ..... In its heyday the square must have been a most agreeable place. The houses to the east were the largest, and with their gardens stretching behind them right to the back gardens of Prince's Square, and their big front windows looking onto the church with its bower of plane trees, they were considered the most desirable. ....  Prince's Square with its Swedes' Church was in every respect a smaller, less fashionable Wellclose, and here there are other pleasant houses, the oldest of them dating back to the first laying-out of thse square in the 1720's. .... A close juxtaposition of handsome square and wretched slum was usual all over Georgian London, but nowhere more striking than in this riverside region. From three sides and from the four corners of Wellclose Square run seven little alleys that keep their original contours and are still built chiefly with rows of humble cottages. All led directly into what was, for three centuries, one of the noisiest, dirtiest, and most disreputable quarters in London. Turn into Shipal Passage, and twenty paces will bring you to the Ratcliff Highway.

1967 & 1968: here are two wistful drawings showing the potential of the Square and what might have been saved. The first is by Noel Gibson, and the second by Geoffrey Fletcher who wrote The devastation of the square was pitiful to see. I only saw one man all the time I paced the square, and he had one foot in the grave. The April evening was chill and the sky overcast, but a blackbird warbled in the plane trees, introducing impromptu variations and evidently trying to keep his courage up. The half dozen Georgian terraced houses left on the north side looked indescribably weary and exhausted, their bricks crumbling and their stucco returning to sand. Grass was coming up on the pavement.

The story of the demolition of the remaining houses, and the 'redevelopment' of the area, is told here. In a shed at the rear of no.37 an oak carved sacrament cupboard or aumbry, dating from the early 16th century, possibly French in origin, was found. Right  is a still from 'Poppy', a 1975 episode of The Sweeney, showing St Paul's School in the background, and a view of the site between St Paul's School and The Highway where subterranean electrical cabling [far right] is under way. Public Projects, a local network, is campaigning for a creative use of this site when this work is completed, hoping to build on Tower Hamlets' new conservation area of 2008 centred on Wilton's Music Hall and Wellclose Square. For further comment, see Will Palin on 'This unfortunate and ignored locality' in Spitalfields Life (December 2012).

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