I meet many visitors to London who have never encountered the word ‘mews’ before, or indeed British people who, although familiar with the term in the lexicon alongside road, street or lane, don’t actually know what it means.
The word ‘mews’ originates from the French ‘muer’ (to moult) and refers to the confinement of hawks, often in a tower whilst they gained their adult plumage. Bruce Castle in Haringey has a tower that is thought was used for this exact purpose.
Mews became widely used to describe the confinement of animals in general and by the 16th century often described an area boasting a number of stables. The area we now call Trafalgar Square was, during the reign of Henry VIII, known as the King’s Mews and the name lingered on until the mid 19th century when the stables were relocated to Buckingham Palace. Although built 300 years after the King's Mews, the National Gallery stands on the site but incorporates architectural features from Henry VIII’s stables; the hollow pepperpots which would have acted as air vents to let the horse manure smell drift out of the roof.
Many of the more affluent areas of London such as Kensington, Chelsea and Mayfair have large houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The house entrances face the thoroughfare whilst threading along the back is the mews; a service street where the stables were located. Aside from housing horses and carriages, these mews also provided accommodation for stable boys, would be where tradesmen could enter, and deliveries were dropped off. In their day, these tiny streets would have been a hive of activity and pungent smells. Today these mews streets are much sought after and the stables have been converted into houses, allowing the residents to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of a street that has little or no traffic in an otherwise busy area.
In Brockley, south-east London there is a conservation area of Victorian housing which was developed as a suburb for the wealthy middle classes. South London already benefitted from a comprehensive rail network (one of the reasons that when the first Underground Line opened in 1863, and the others followed, they steered clear of south London). Residents in Brockley had easy access to central London (Brockley Station opened in 1871), and if needed would have hired a coach and horses, rather than have their own. For this reason, the mews in Brockley remained largely undeveloped, unlike other areas of London, and instead traverse the main roads like little country tracks. The stables which still do exist are therefore a rarity and add significant historic value to the area.
Over the last few months with lockdown measures in place and restrictions on travel and movement, Brockley’s mews have become little havens that children can explore, play games, pick blackberries or discover the latest street art on garage doors. On Breakspears Mews there is a community garden and Wickham Mews particularly, with mature trees, shrubs and overgrown hedges really makes you feel like you’re a long way from the traffic on Lewisham Way and almost transported to another time and place. That’s not to say you won’t encounter a number of abandoned vehicles or household objects left to be reclaimed by nature, but if you look carefully you can see the names of long forgotten businesses painted on to peeling timber and you might even come across the Royal Coat of Arms from one of the original gates to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
You don't really expect to find a Tudor mansion nestling amongst the suburbs and council estates of Tottenham, but there is one, and it's called the Bruce Castle Museum. There has been a house on the site since medieval times and in 1514, it became the property of William Compton, who held the position of 'groom of the bed chamber' to Henry VIII. This meant he had the dubious honour of assisting the King with going to the toilet, amongst other things.
Much of the house was rebuilt in the 17th century, but a curious Tudor hangover still survives to this day, a round tower situated just to the left of the main house as you enter. The exact use for the tower is not known, but one of theories is that it was a 'hawks mews' a place to rear birds for hunting and was made using local clay, at a time when the whole surrounding area would have been open space, something that is hard to imagine when you visit today.
In 1626 the house was owned by Hugh Hare, 1st Lord Coleraine, a man who suffered an unfortunate death in 1667 by choking on a turkey bone. His son, Henry Hare took over the building with his wife Constantia Lucy, whose death at the mansion is shrouded in mystery and is said to haunt Bruce Castle to this day. It was Henry Hare, who in the 1680's was responsible for the drastic re-modelling of the house, much of which survives to this day.
In 1827, Bruce Castle was bought by the Hill family who turned it in to a progressive private boarding school, adding an extra wing to house the school. Unusually for the time, Rowland Hill and his brother Arthur (who were joint headmasters) did not approve of corporal punishment to discipline their students. Rowland Hill is now remembered, not for his school, but for inventing the Penny Black postage stamp and the postal system which occurred later, when he left to join the Post Office.
The school closed in 1891 and was sold to Tottenham Urban District Council. The grounds became the first public park in the area, and the building, Tottenham's first public museum, which opened in 1906.
Bruce Castle is now a Grade I listed building and houses a small local history museum, the London Borough of Haringey archives, permanent and temporary exhibitions and a small cafe. It perhaps doesn't boast the splendour of a National Trust property, but never-the-less is a wonderful historical gem that has somehow survived through so much change and development in the area, and is also free to look around. If you do visit, you might like to nip across to All Hallow's church behind Bruce Castle. It was first founded in 1150 and the earliest parts of the current church date from the early 14th century.
Bruce Castle Museum is open Wed - Sun (1pm - 5pm), Lordship Lane, London, N17 8NU.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.