SEEN FROM ACROSS THE THAMES at Battersea Park, it looks like a Tudor palace in immaculate condition on the opposite bank of the river. But do not be fooled because much of Crosby Hall, the edifice you can see from the riverside at Battersea, was built between 1910 and about 1926. Part of the building is far older, dating back to mediaeval times and it was moved from the heart of the City to its present location in Chelsea in 1910. Let me explain, please.
In 1466, Sir John Crosby, alderman and a sheriff of London, built his mansion, Crosby Place, on land just east of Bishopsgate, leased to him by the Prioress St Helens Bishopsgate, a church nearby. After Crosby died in 1475/6, Crosby Place was owned by the Duke of Gloucester (1452-1485), who was to become King Richard III, of Shakespearian fame. John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published in 1855) suggests that in 1598, Shakespeare had lodgings close to Crosby Place. In Act 1, scene 2 of his play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester says:
“And presently repair to Crosby House;
Where (after I have solemnly interr’d
At Chertsey monast’ry this noble king,
And wet his grave with my repentant tears)
I will with all expedient duty see you.
For diverse unknown reasons, I beseech you,
Grant me this boon.”
Writing in 1603 in his “The Survey of London”, John Stow (1524/25-1605) noted:
“Then you have one great house called Crosby place, because the same was built by Sir John Crosby, grocer and Woolman … This house he built of stone and timber, very large and beautiful, and the highest at that time in London … he was buried in St Helen’s, the parish church…”
Stow also recorded that in the late 16th century several ambassadors lived in the house.
The fourth owner of Crosby Place was the senior government official, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), whose head was removed at the Tower of London after disagreements with his ‘boss’, King Henry VIII. It has been suggested by Timbs that More wrote his books “Utopia” (1516) and “History of Richard the Third” (1512-1519) whilst residing at Crosby Place. In 1523, More sold Crosby Place to his friend, the banker and merchant Antonio Bonvisi (died 1558) from Lucca in Italy. Interestingly, More moved to his house in Chelsea after leaving Crosby Place. His riverside home, the former Beaufort House was a few yards away from the present Crosby Hall.
The ownership of Crosby Place changed several times after More sold it. Sir Walter Raleigh lived there in 1601. Between 1621 and 1638, the Place was home to the East India Company (founded 1600). Soon after 1642, fire struck the property, and it was never again used as a residence. The conflagration spared the great hall, which became known as Crosby Hall. During the Civil War, it was used as a prison for Royalists. In 1672, it was converted into a Presbyterian meeting house, and was used as such until 1769. Next, the hall was used as a packer’s warehouse. The packer’s lease expired in 1831. Following that and public concern about its condition, the hall was restored in about 1836. Timbs noted that it was:
“… the finest example in the metropolis of the domestic mansion Perpendicular work … The glory of the place is, however, the roof which is an elaborate architectural study, and decidedly one of the finest examples of timber-work in existence. It differs from many other examples in being an inner roof…”
From Timbs’s detailed description, it sounds as if it was a spectacular creation.
Following its restoration, Crosby Hall became used for musical performances and as a meeting place for literary societies. In 1868, Crosby Hall became a restaurant. The Hall was sold to the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China in 1907. The bank wanted to destroy what was one of the oldest buildings in the City of London, one of the few survivors of the Great Fire of 1666. These plans caused a public outcry. In 1910, the Hall was dismantled and moved stone by stone to its present site in Chelsea, opposite Battersea Park. There, it was reassembled and Tudor-style additions, designed by the architect Walter Godfrey (1881-1961) were constructed.
During WW1, the relocated and enlarged Crosby Hall was used to house refugees from war-torn Belgium. Between 1925 and 1968, the Hall was leased by the British Federation of University Women. Following the anti-Jewish laws passed by the Nazis in 1933, Crosby Hall provided residential fellowships for Jewish women academics who had fled from Hitler’s Germany. After 1988, Crosby Hall became a private residence (www.christophermoran.org/news/crosby-hall-the-most-important-surviving-domestic-medieval-building-in-london/).
Close to the relocated Crosby Hall there is a statue of Sir Thomas More, seated and looking across the Thames. This statue is appropriately located between what is left of his old home, which used to be in Bishopsgate, and the land on which his Chelsea mansion used to stand. One day, I hope that I will be able to see the superb hammer beam roof in Crosby Hall. I wonder how it compares with the wonderful example that can be seen in Middle Temple Hall, in which Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was first performed in 1602.