From Tudor moated mansion to city farm, the story of Worcester House - found by archaeologists at Stepney Green - is a piece of East End history
The late medieval and Tudor moated mansion in the London borough of Tower Hamlets was variously called King John’s Palace, King John’s Court, Worcester House and (possibly) John Fenne’s Great Place.
One of a number of medieval and later mansions between Whitechapel and Stepney, it revealed a large ditch or outer moat and a second, much broader moat, creating an “island” containing a courtyard mansion.
Unsurprisingly, the people who lived here seem to have lived a swish lifestyle. A wooden ball would have seen use for bowls or skittles.
A goblet was made with clear and cobalt-blue glass and gold foil, suspiciously similar to those made by the elite Italian glassmakers of Murano, was the sort of thing business leaders might have swapped as diplomatic gifts.
Wide-toed shoes with decorative slits would have belonged to the men of the new national merchant class, one of whom was an aristocrat, the 1st Baron Darcy of Darcy, Privy Councillor and Knight of the Garter.
He was executed for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace – a rebellion against Henry VIII in 1536.
Cooking and storage vessels and tableware, found in the moat which was demolished or filled in more than 300 years ago, were accompanied by facon de venise fine glass vessels.
Their dates suggest these might have been around when the mansion was owned by Henry Somerset, the 1st Marquis of Worcester, from whom the property was seized in 1645, during the Commonwealth period.
Maurice Thompson, a Puritan and wealthy colonial merchant, owned the main house during the later 1640s and 1650s, although by 1663 he’d leased it to Matthew Mead, a radical Nonconformist minister and the second pastor of the Stepney Meeting, which the estate was transferred to during the 1670s.
No remains of the 17th century meeting house, built in the grounds to the south of Worcester House, have ever been found.
During the early 19th century the place was converted to a Baptist college, giving rise to a new Congregational church, constructed in 1841 to replace the earlier meeting house.
Several 19th century cesspits and 19th and early 20th century houses and small factories were excavated.
They’d been totally destroyed by bombing campaigns during World War Two.
Stepney is part of a low-lying area of marshland on a river terrace above the Thames flood plain.
The earliest remains from the area, dating from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, came from excavations on Stepney High Street during the 1970s, when fragments of a hook-rimmed and a shouldered jar were found in the shallow base of a pit.
Brickmaking in Stepney has a long history. The accounts of the episcopal manor show that, between 1462 and 1463, the bishop received £12 2s 10d for the rents of brickfields.
Manufacturers could outbid rivals who wanted the land for architecture.
Each master of the house during the 15th and 16th centuries would have commandeered servants, footmen, grooms and apprentices wearing their uniform across two or three similar residencies.
A Shakespearean playhouse was built at the Red Lion for the summer of 1567, between Stepney village and the city.
The finds from the cesspit fills – black pepper from the Indian subcontinent, pumpkin or marrow from the Americas but cultivated locally from Tudor times – allude to the remote reach of emergent capitalism.
Small numbers of hops show the blessedly increasing prevalence of all-conquering beer.
Small beer, which was low in alcohol, accompanied meals and snacks. Stronger “old ales” were drunk on social occasions.
What people drank from depended on status: glass beakers were a level above the multi-handled mugs passed around ale houses and dinner tables, although they didn’t compare to the fine glass vessels of posh dining and gifts.
The people who lived at Worcester House had a varied diet. Fruit stones and pips came from figs, plums, cherries and apples.
Bits of walnut and hazelnut shell, the remains of marrow and pumpkin and plenty of black mustard and pepper were also found, some of which could have been grown in orchards and gardens surrounding the house.
Pumpkins were being sold in London’s street markets by the end of the 16th century.
They were eaten stuffed and baked or made into pies, used to bulk up bread or eaten boiled and buttered.
Plants such as marigold, rose and violet would have been valuable in a garden of this period for their attractive flowers and medicinal uses.
The aromatic leaves and bright orange flowers of marigolds were used as a flavouring, a vegetable dye in cheese and butter making and in herb teas.
There are no house numbers in the 1841 census, but ten years later number 10 Garden Street was occupied by a 55-year-old carpenter born in Surrey, his teenage son, his daughter – a labourer and seamstress – and a possible lodger named Elizabeth, a 30-year-old married Scottish schoolmistress.
Twenty-seven clay tobacco pipe bowls, as well as lots of smoking paraphernalia, were recovered.
Two of the pipes were heavily smoked, bearing the tree ostrich feathres of the Prince of Wales. They were probably made for a pub called The Feathers or The Prince of Wales.
© Faith Vardy
- The book, Stepney Green: moated manor house to City Farm, is available now from Museum of London Archaeology.
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