For the past six weeks or so I’ve been living in Clapham, just a few minutes walk from the north side of the Common and a similar distance from Clapham Common tube station. Now my short-term sublet is ending and I’m moving to my next flat in Wimbledon. My time in this neighbourhood has been enjoyable, particularly the easy journey into town on the tube (17 minutes to Leicester Square!) and the joys of morning runs around the snow-flecked Common.
On one of my morning runs I took a detour and ended up passing through an area I’d not seen before: the triangular wedge of Clapham Old Town, which is perched at the northernmost tip of the Common. This is the heart of the original Clapham settlement, although it’s since been bypassed by the teeming development of housing and shops along the Underground line and the high street. The Old Town is now a bit of a backwater, with the former village green used as a bus halt, but the fringe of Georgian and Victorian brick buildings retain a certain charm.
Clapham, like many of the small semi-rural villages around London, didn’t really take off until the city started bursting its boundaries and expanding into the hinterland. A regular coach service is recorded as operating from Clapham at least as early as the 1690s, which would’ve made access easier for those who lacked their own carriage or horses. Despite the lack of transport links Clapham is still within walking distance of the centre of London. For example, on Boxing Day I walked from Clapham Common to Buckingham Palace via Chelsea Bridge in less than an hour.
At first Clapham was a place where London dwellers had their country homes, somewhere they could retreat to avoid the noise and clamour of the metropolis. One such resident was Denis Gouden (the spelling varies), a merchant who later became the Sheriff of the City of London, who built a fine brick house here in 1663. Here it is described by diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) on 25 July of that year:
…resolved to go to Clapham, to Mr. Gauden’s, who had sent his coach to their place for me because I was to have my horse of him to go to the race. So I went thither by coach and my Will by horse with me; Mr. Creed he went over back again to Westminster to fetch his horse. When I came to Mr. Gauden’s one first thing was to show me his house, which is almost built, wherein he and his family live. I find it very regular and finely contrived, and the gardens and offices about it as convenient and as full of good variety as ever I saw in my life. It is true he hath been censured for laying out so much money; but he tells me that he built it for his brother, who is since dead (the Bishop), who when he should come to be Bishop of Winchester, which he was promised (to which bishoprick at present there is no house), he did intend to dwell here. Besides, with the good husbandry in making his bricks and other things I do not think it costs him so much money as people think and discourse.
According to Gillian Clegg’s Clapham Past (London, 1998), when it was finished the house was a fine specimen:
The house formed three sides of a square with the principal front overlooking the Common. Some of the rooms were panelled in ‘japan’ (a glossy, black lacquer) and there was a spacious gallery along the whole length of the house, both above and below the stairs.
Clapham was still a tiny settlement at the time: in 1664 there were only 94 houses.
Gauden died in 1688, the year of the so-called Glorious Revolution and the coming to the throne of William and Mary. The house was then purchased by William Hewer, who had actually held the lease of the property since Gauden entered hard times in 1677 but had permitted Gauden to remain there in a portion of the house. Hewer’s occupancy of the house is where the aforementioned well-known diarist comes in.
Hewer, a former naval administrator and MP, was the protégée and life-long compatriot of the effervescent Pepys. Pepys is justly famed for both his commitment to building the Royal Navy into a powerful force and for writing one of history’s most compelling and honest personal diaries. He was a frequent visitor to the house in Clapham for the remainder of his life, and indeed he spent his last few years from 1700 to 1703 living in the house with Hewer to take advantage of the Clapham country air.
An acquaintance of Pepys, William Nicolson, visited the house in 1702 and gave this description in his own diary:
In the House mighty plenty of China-ware and other Indian Goods, vessels of a sort of past[e]; harden’d into a Substance like polish’d Marble. Pictures in full pains of wainscot; wch (by haveing one movable, painted on both sides) admits of three several Representations of the whole Room. Models of the Royal Sovereign & other Men of War, made by the most famous Master-Builders; very curious and exact, in glass Cases. Mr Pepys’ Library in 9 Classes [?Cases] , finely gilded and sash-glass’d; so deep as to carry two Rows… of Books on each footing. A pair of Globes hung up, by pullies. The Books so well-order’d that his Footman (after looking the Catalogue) could lay his finger on any of em blindfold. / Miscellanies of paintings, cutts, pamphlets, &c in large & lesser Volumes… A contracted Copy of Verrio’s Draught of King Ja. the II and the blew-coats at Christ-Church Hospital (with the Directors and Governours of the place, Lord Mayor & Aldermen &c) suppos’d to be one of the best Representations of the various Habits of the Times, postures, &c, that is an where extant.
The above quote appears in Claire Tomalin’s peerless biography, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (London, 2002), which describes the life and writing of Pepys in superb detail. Incidentally, Tomalin hypothesises that Pepys’ bookshelves might be the very first recorded description of a shelf designed specifically to carry books, which makes these shelves rather historic in themselves. They're still a prominent part of the Pepys collection at Magdalene College in Cambridge.
Sadly, the house in which Hewer and Pepys lived no longer exists, having been demolished in the mid-18th century. But visiting the site, which is now occupied by the Trinity Hospice buildings, one can still get a sense of the splendid location with views across the pretty Common, which is just as suitable for diary-fuelling strolls in the 21st century as it was in Pepys’ day. He would no doubt be pleased.
Pepys’ Diary: Daily entries from the diary in blog form.
Pepys’ Library: At Magdalene.
The Environs of London: Description of Clapham (1792)