An important street in the history of London
The Landmark Trust bought Nos 39-45 Cloth Fair in 1970 from Mr Paul Paget. Mr Paget had bought and restored No 41/42 in 1930, to serve both as a home for himself and John Seely (later Lord Mottistone) and as an office for their architectural practice. It is reputedly the only house in the City to date from before the Great Fire of London, the last survivor of many such houses that stood in the street until the early 20th century, and it might well have been demolished too had Seely and Paget not come to its rescue.
He told the story of how it came about in an interview that he gave to Clive Aslet shortly before his death in 1985, which appeared in the Thirties Society Journal for 1987
When the practice was going reasonably well the partner said:
"You know I think we ought to be in the City". He gave the word, and every weekend was spent in hunting round for a possible property in the City. And there again it was quite incredible luck because we chanced across this ancient little street with a pre-Fire of London house for sale for £3,000 freehold. It's unbelievable. We persuaded the parents to provide the necessary cash, and of course it did prove to be wildly rewarding - a wonderful shop window. We spent blissfully happy years there.
We went there in 1930. Then my father, who was on the point of retiring from being Bishop of Chester, was like most bishops and had got nowhere to go. He got rather miserable about the thought of retiring. We were able to buy the next door property, so I had some very beautifully engraved notepaper with the heading 39 Cloth Fair; and I wrote to him and said "Here is your new address".
My father was very, very reluctant, so I employed an artist [Roland Pym] to do a decoration for the bathroom. I remember offering an illustration of this to the then very popular weekly glossy called The Tatler and this was published as the frontispiece of that week's issue under the caption "Bathroom for a Bishop". You can imagine that my father found it of some embarrassment when facing his other bishops at the Athenaeum Club."
Most of the other houses in Cloth Fair had been demolished during the First World War and afterwards, leaving only this small group of houses at the western end; it is possible that Nos 43-45 would have gone as well, if they too had not been bought by Mr Paget:
In the end we bought the street. John Betjeman,with whom we had come into contact over a battle about a television mast in the Isle of Wight, came down to lunch and said: "But of course I've got to live here". So in he moved next door [in 1954]. We really had very pleasant neighbours. The houses were so close that the neighbours across the alleyway could see us carving the Sunday joint - it was so close that you almost felt as though you should hand a plate across. So when eventually we got possession of the house on the other side of the alleyway, we decided that this should never happen again and we blocked up the window. This was such a terribly gloomy aspect that we got Brian Thomas to paint a scene of the Sailor's Return. This was a lovely thing to look out at. I used to hear the tourists being conducted round the City and the guide would stop and say: "Here is a very interesting case of a window that was blocked up at the time of the window tax". Brian Thomas was a mural and stained glass painter, some of whose work can be seen in St Paul's.
At No 40, underneath No 39, the cloth warehouse of Mitchell, Inman & Co, served as a reminder of the traditional trade of the area, but in general by 197O the tenor of the street was more literary and professional. An antiquarian bookseller, Frank Hollings, occupied No 45, Sir John Betjeman still lived on the upper floors of 43, with the quantity surveyors Godfrey Smith in the offices below, and the firm of Seely and Paget continued to occupy No 41. The nurses of St Bartholomew's Hospital had a hostel at No 39.
Changes have occurred since then, as tenants have come and gone, and the Landmark restoration work has been carried out. For a time the Landmark Trust itself occupied the office at No 43. The firm of Seely and Paget moved to Christchurch Tower in 1976, and after failing to attract a City Livery Company or some such institution to take their place, it was decided in 1980 that the buildings in this block - the Jacobean
house and the warehouse - should be sold.
In 1974-75 No 45 was restored and refurbished - the only change in appearance being the restoration of glazing bars to the windows. The rest of the work was stuctural - rebuilding parapets and chimneys, strengthening the front of the building over the shop front and repairing the roof; while inside the kitchen and bathroom were improved but otherwise the existing arrangement of rooms was kept to. When the work was completed Mr Heath of Priory Antiques moved in on the ground floor and the flat above was let to Miss Jean Imray, who worked for the Mercers Company and who had lived at No 44 (now 46) for many years. When she left in 1981 the flat became a Landmark.
After much thought and many changes of plan work started on the remaining buildings in 1986. These included No 43a - now 8, Cloth Court - which had been a butcher's shop since before 1900, and was bought by Landmark after the last owner, Sivier's, moved out in 1973. The idea was to convert the whole of the ground floor area into a wine bar, while making three flats on the floors above. This meant extending the single storey extension behind No 43 to run right across behind the two houses (which may originally have been one), at the same time creating a flat area which could become a roof garden for the flats.
As with No 45, the main work was structural; a number of steel ties and joists had to be inserted to strengthen the floors and in particular to give extra support to the wall above the shop front; and the parapets of both houses had to be taken down and rebuilt, along with the gable end of No 43, which was bulging badly.
A new door and a second window were made at the back of 43, to give access to the roof garden and to allow the bathroom a window of its own. Otherwise everything was left as little disturbed as possible, all original fittings being retained. The flat was redecorated, but still looks much as it did when lived in by Sir John Betjeman. To achieve this some problems had to be overcome: the wallpaper in the sitting room, for
example, a William Morris design called Acorn, was no longer made in exactly the same colour, but Sandersons agreed to print it specially.
The wine bar windows are new, but the facia (apart from some of the brackets which had to be replaced) is original, dating from around 1800, as does the back entrance to Sivier's in the passage. Sivier's front entrance in Cloth Court was also left as it was, although it is of later date than the other shop fronts, probably dating from the 1890s, when Maples & Co, Meat Contractors, set up business there.