A hidden gem
Hidden in the heart of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is one of the very few surviving Elizabethan gentry houses. With a history of over 450 years, Eastbury Manor House is set in tranquil gardens on land that once belonged to Barking Abbey, established in 666 CE. Today, it is a peaceful place for visitors to explore, enjoy a snack in the Kitchen and discover an extraordinary history.
Records of Eastbury date back to the twelfth century in which the land was recorded as a demesne of Barking Abbey. The Manor House, however, was not built until after Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) Second Suppression Act in 1539, which dissolved all large monasteries and religious houses. Initially, the Crown sold the land to Sir William Denham in 1545, however, it was later sold in 1556 to Clement Sysley (d.1578), the man responsible for the construction of the house.
Eastbury Manor is set up as a museum with information boards, photos, illustrations and hands-on activities aimed at younger visitors. The majority of this, which can be found in the East and Central Attics, tells the story of Eastbury Manor’s development, beginning with Sysley’s purchase until the present day. Unfortunately, no portraits – if there ever were any – have survived of Clement Sysley or Sisley, and the only information about the man has been gathered from legal documents.
Sysley, who was granted a coat of arms in circa 1566, appears to have been a wealthy man of Yorkshire descent who obtained the majority of his money from two wealthy marriages. His second wife, Maud, died in 1562 before work on the manor house could begin but, almost immediately, Sysley entered marriage with Anne Argall (c.1545-1610), the only daughter of a royal tax and land administrator, Thomas Argall – yet another wealthy connection.
Work on the Eastbury Manor, or “Estbery Hall” as Sysley called it, began in 1566 but was not completed until 1573. Sysley moved in with his third wife and children whilst leasing other parts of the estate to farmers. The Sysley family also owned their own cattle and horses and employed at least eight servants to help with the running of the house. Unfortunately, Sysley could only enjoy his new home for five years because he died in 1578, leaving the manor and his debts to his wife and four children.
During the Tudor period, women had very little rights, therefore, Sysley had left the manor to his son Thomas for when he came of age. Meanwhile, Anne remarried in order to resolve the growing debt problem with which she had been lumbered. Her new husband Augustine Steward’s (d.1597) wealth brought the family financial security as well as a guardian for Thomas who was only 14 at the time. Unfortunately, Clement Sysley had so many debts; some were still outstanding on Thomas’ 21st birthday. After much persuasion, Augustine Steward took charge of Eastbury in return for paying substantial debts and annuities.
After Steward’s death, the house passed to Anne and Augustine’s youngest surviving child, also called Augustine (b.1584). Like his step-brother Thomas, he was only a teenager at the time and had to wait until he reached the age of 21 or got married to gain his full inheritance. At the age of 19, Augustine married Elizabeth Barnham (d.1620) and thus became the wealthy owner of Eastbury Manor.
The Steward claim to fame is the connection with Augustine’s cousin on his mother’s side, Samuel Argall (c1572-1626). Argall, the Deputy Governor of Virginia, was also the naval officer who commanded the ship that sailed the kidnapped Pocahontas (1596-1617) to England. Augustine eventually moved to Virginia to join his cousin, leaving his wife and children behind.
In 1629, Eastbury Manor was sold to William Knightly who then sold it onto the goldsmith Sir Thomas Vyner (1588-1665) in 1650. Vyner was a wealthy businessman and politician who served as the Lord Mayor of London between the years 1653 and 1654. The manor was then passed down the Vyner Baronetcy followed by a range of different families. Not all the owners lived at the manor and various tenants looked after the land. By the time World War One broke out in 1914, Eastbury Manor House was in a derelict condition.
In danger of demolition, the National Trust bought Eastbury Manor House in 1918 and, after Barking became a borough in 1931, the council turned it into a museum.
”It is the earnest wish of the Council of the Borough of Barking that the opening of Eastbury Manor House as a Museum will further stimulate the interest of the people of Barking in the history of their town and increase, by the gift of greater knowledge, the pride that is engendered in the hearts of all of us who live within its boundaries.
We are proud of Barking. We hope that the preservation of its records in our museum, records that will give us an intimate picture of those who lived and worked here before us, may prove an inspiration.”
– Mr. W.J James, Mayor of Barking
During the Second World War, the manor was used as an ARP platform and a nursery for children whose mother’s were involved in war work, something that also continued for a few years afterwards. Eventually, on 28th May 1954, Eastbury Manor House received a Grade 1 listing from Historic England for its exceptional historical and architectural interest, an honour that is only bestowed upon 2.5% of buildings.
After extensive restoration work between 2001 and 2006, Eastbury Manor House reopened as a museum once again, also becoming an idyllic venue for weddings, corporate functions and special events.
Whilst the name Clement Sysley may not mean anything to people today, Eastbury Manor may have had a significant role in a major event in English history.
“A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was first contriv’d …”
– Daniel Defoe, 1724
The house referred to by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), an English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy, famous for writing Robinson Crusoe, is none other than Eastbury Manor House. At this time, the Seward’s were the owners of the house but they had rented it out to Alderman John Moore (1620-1702) and his Catholic wife Maria. Despite John’s death, Maria remained at Eastbury with her daughter, also called Maria, who married Lewis Tresham, the cousin of the infamous Robert Catesby (1572-1605), the leader of a group of English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Most people know the story about Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) who was discovered under the Houses of Parliament with several barrels of gunpowder but what cannot be proved is whether or not the plotters met at Eastbury Manor to discuss their plans. The plot was discovered after Lewis Tresham’s sister Mary received a letter about the scheme. Mary was married to William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (1575-1622) who was able to inform Parliament “they shall receive a terrible blow … and yet they shall not see who hurts them”. Thus, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled.
Whether or not Eastbury was the meeting place of the plotters, it makes a good story, which can be read in more detail in the East Attic. Also in the attic rooms are the histories of the Manor’s owners, information about life in Tudor times, a series of maps that show how the land has developed over time, and the opportunity for children to dress up as Tudor ladies and gentlemen.
Very little remains of the original furnishing of Eastbury Manor, however, elements of Tudor architecture still remain. The East Chamber, for example, which would have once been divided into bedrooms and dressing rooms, contains the only fireplace in the manor with its original stone surround. Now painted white, the fireplace is decorated with Tudor roses and acanthus leaves.
Described by the twentieth-century architectural scholar, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), Eastbury Manor is a ‘very valuable medium-sized Elizabethan Manor House’, built according to an H-shaped compact plan, with a small inner courtyard. The facade has a striking gabled roofline and more chimneys than fireplaces. Whilst this appears similar to the original building, the interior has changed somewhat over the years.
The Great Hall on the first floor at the front of the house was once much longer than it is today. In the nineteenth century, part of the hall was partitioned off to make a space, now the reception area, where a modern staircase could be added. Originally, the hall’s fireplace would have been the central feature, however, it is now further towards the east side of the room. The original fireplace surround was sold in 1840 to the owner of Parsloes Hall, Reverend Thomas Lewis Fanshawe (1792-1858), therefore, the Great Hall is only a shadow of its former self.
Eastbury Manor House had two parlours, which were separated by a small vestibule. Appropriately named “Summer Parlour” and “Winter Parlour”, these were used by the family at different times of the year; presumably, the Winter Parlour at the rear of the house was warmer. Parlours were a typical feature in Tudor buildings and were used for a range of activities. The Sisley family and subsequent owners may have used these rooms to entertain guests, however, they may have also used them for more private purposes, such as writing letters, reading, embroidering or playing musical instruments. Similarly to the Great Hall, the fireplaces of both parlours were sold to Reverend Fanshawe.
Upstairs in the “Painted Chamber”, the fireplaces have also been sold, however, remains of paintwork on the walls are being carefully preserved. The paintings were not part of Clement Sysley’s original plan and were added later by John Moore at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Whilst only a fragment of the frescoes survive, their presence helps visitors to imagine what living in the manor may have felt like.
The tea room “Eastbury Kitchen”, which serves freshly prepared lunches, homemade cakes, scones and refreshments during the house’s opening times, is set in Eastbury Manor’s original kitchen. Situated in the western wing of the house along with the buttery where barrels of food and drink were stored, the kitchen was easily accessible from the servant quarter. Meals would have been cooked over the huge hearth but, unfortunately, the room has lost all its other original fittings.
The two turrets at Eastbury Manor contain staircases, which would have been the only means of getting to the upper floors of the house – the front staircase and lift being installed much later. The spiral staircase on the east side of the building was for the Sysley family’s private use, however, the original stairs had completely collapsed by 1834. On the west side of the house, the servants’ staircase is still fully intact. Built from Tudor oak, the creaky stairs were constructed around a central newel post, which itself was made from three tree trunks so that it could stretch from the ground floor to the roof, thus providing access to all floors of the house. Visitors are welcome to climb the twisting staircase to the observation tower at the very top, approximately 16.5 metres or 52 feet above the ground. From here, the original family would have been able to see for miles, however, today the slightly murky windows reveal a view blocked by modern houses.
Although Eastbury would have been a sizeable portion of land, Sysley included two private gardens for his family on either side of the house. On the west side of the house near the kitchen is the vegetable and herb garden. Not only were herbs used in cooking as they are today, but they were also important ingredients in Tudor medicine. Most women knew how to make these remedies and in the 17th century, the physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) wrote The Complete Herbal, which explained the common usages of plants.
Whereas modern medicine is based on science, Tudor medicine was approached on a more spiritual level. Many believed God had placed every plant on Earth for human benefit. Each plant supposedly had a signature clue on its leaves, roots or flowers to reveal how it ought to be used. Ginger root, for example, was thought to look like intestines and was therefore used to cure ailments of the stomach.
Ginger is not among the plants in the garden today, however, a number of the current herbs had distinct purposes in the past. Lavender, for example, was used for curing headaches, and mint for stomach aches. Yarrow was used in ointments to reduce inflammation and comfrey was believed to “knit” wounds closed.
On the east side is a walled garden, which supposedly increased the temperature of the soil slightly, making a microclimate where a range of unusual plants could grow. As well as growing plants, the walled garden was the perfect place to keep bees. Still visible today are a number of bee boles (recesses in the wall) in which skeps (straw or wicker beehives) were placed. Beekeeping was a popular Tudor pastime, which provided the family with honey to eat and wax for candles.
“The octopus, spreading it’s tentacles across the countryside…”
– England and the Octopus, 1928
Since October 2018, a new exhibition Eastbury Saved tells the story of the house between 1883 and 1918, when it was purchased by the National Trust. Due to its derelict state, Eastbury Manor House was at risk of being condemend; the building was uninhabitable and the farms were gradually being sold to develop new houses.
Politicans and locals held differing opinions about Eastbury’s future. Some saw it as a vital part of local heritage, whereas, others thought the money needed to restore the house was better off being used for something else.
Newly developed associations, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) as well as the National Trust, were determined to campaign for heritage and landscape. Eventually, funds were raised for the building to be purchased and saved from demolition.
Formed in 1927, the Ferguson Gang was formed who helped to raise funds for the National Trust. Influenced by British architect Clough Williams-Ellis’ (1883-1978) publication England and the Octopus, which denounced insensitive building and ugly developments, the Gang raised £4500 to help the National Trust preserve many buildings, including Eastbury Manor House. A little bit of information is provided in the exhibition about the anonymous gang of women who took on unusual, mock-Cockney pseudonyms, such as, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Kate O’Brien the Nark, Red Biddy, The Bloody Beershop, and Shot Biddy.
Eastbury Manor House is open to visitors on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays between February and December. National Trust and SPAB members can visit for free, as can people living in the borough, otherwise, a small fee is required (£5.20 adults, £2.60 concessions). As well as being an historical place of interest, the National Trust provides various events throughout the year, such as Easter egg hunts, Shakespeare plays, Christmas crafts and carol concerts, such as one given annually by the Kingsley Choral Group.
Having been saved from demolition, it is worth taking the time to visit Eastbury Manor House, one of the only surviving buildings constructed during the Elizabethan-era. Although it may not have a significant past, it helps to shape the history of an area on the outskirts of London and explores the lives of the people who once lived there.
More information about visiting can be found on their website: http://eastburymanorhouse.org.uk/visit-us