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History of Sutton House

A black and white photo of Sutton House from 1948 showing pollarded trees.
Sutton House in 1948 | © NT/A.F. Kersting

Built in the 16th century, Sutton House has a long and varied history. From Tudor courtiers to Victorian schoolchildren and music-loving squatters in the 1980s, the rooms of this atmospheric home have many stories to tell.

A Tudor connection

Sutton House was built by Ralph Sadleir, a close aide of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. At the age of 14 Ralph had been placed in Cromwell's household, where he learned Latin, Greek, and French, and developed many other skills he would later put to good use in his political career.

Sadleir often worked on diplomatic missions. In 1537 he was sent to Scotland to improve Anglo-Scottish relations and defend the interests of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's sister.

At Cromwell's house Sadleir met his wife Helen Barre, who was working there as a laundress. By 1535 he had built his family a three-storey, brick house in semi-rural Hackney, which became known as 'the bryk place'.

The silk merchant

In 1627 the house was bought by silk merchant Captain John Milward, of the East India Company. Milward’s brother, Humphrey, was one of the 214 founders of the East India Company, which was granted a Royal Charter in 1599. Many of its merchants had houses in Hackney.

Captain Milward traded in silks with Iran, and quickly became very wealthy. By 1625 he had joined the governing body of the East India Company, which by 1628 was transporting enslaved people from East Africa to Indonesia.

Milward and his wife Anne filled Sutton House with imported furnishings and silks, and probably commissioned the painted ‘trompe l’oeil’ (optical illusion) staircase to impress their guests. He also had important roles in the community, including being captain of a marching band. In the 1630s the value of silk dropped as the popularity of American cotton grew, and Milward had to mortgage the house to a colleague.

Trompe l'oeil detail on the west staircase landing at Sutton House
Trompe l'oeil detail at Sutton House | © National Trust

A house divided

By 1751 Sutton House was owned by John Cox, who divided it into two self-contained homes: Ivy House and Milford House. The former was later lived in by Victorian solicitor Charles Pulley for around 40 years, while the latter was an academy for girls.

From 1891 the whole house was once again in use as St John’s Church Institute, which provided skills-training and pastimes for young men from the parish church. The men’s club of St John at Hackney was affectionately known as ‘the 'Tute'. It remained here for over 40 years and brought together men of all ages and classes. The club was mostly a social place, and the mission of the institution was ' promote the Spiritual, Mental, Social and Physical welfare of young men'.

The Institute used the building until the National Trust took ownership, just before the Second World War, and revived or reinstated many of the Tudor features.

The Exhibition Room at Sutton House showing a large red and black wall painting of an eye
'Squatter's Eye' wall painting in the Exhibition Room | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Trade Unions at Sutton House

During the spring of 1953, the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians (ASSET), a trade union organisation, took up tenancy of Sutton House. ASSET merged with the Association of Scientific Workers in 1968 to form the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS). Its leader was Clive Jenkins, and Sutton House remained its administrative offices for almost 30 years; the union left in the early 1980s, and the house soon fell into disrepair.

The Blue House

From 1985 the house was occupied by squatters and was re-named the ‘Blue House'. A range of community activities were held here, including a café and cultural workshops – and rock concerts and club nights in the barn.

Portrait paintings on the wood-panelled walls of the Great Chamber, Sutton House, London

Sutton House's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Sutton House on the National Trust Collections website.

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