International Tourist Guide Day 2021

Today is 21st February, International Tourist Guide Day and my colleagues, qualified tourist guides all over the world are writing blogs, offering tours and virtual tours today. We are all looking forward to showing visitors the famous and the little-known sites where we guide. We tell the stories of these places, these buildings and statues, without us they are beautiful but silent. For example, this red post-box and the timber frame building behind it look quaint. If you want to know more about them read on.

The post box was one of the first in Britain and was designed by a surveyor and architect called John Penfold (1828-1909).  The idea of a post box was very new here at the time, it was introduced to the UK in 1853 by the writer Anthony Trollope who had seen them in France and Belgium. They varied in size and shape. Soon designers were working on improving them and the post office wanted more standardisation. Penfold designed the hexagonal box decorated with Queen Victoria’s cipher and acanthus leaves in 1866. It is known a Penfold pillar box and was in production up to 1879. It was modified so Penfold boxes are not all the same. The very first ones were painted green but the colour was changed to red in 1874 to make them easier to spot. This Grade II listed pillar box dates from 1869. It has been sealed up as it is no longer in use.

The timber frame building behind the pillar box is called Ancient House and believe it or not, it is in Walthamstow, a London suburb. It began as a single storey hall house around 1435. A hall house is one large room where the family would have entertained and slept. It was an important house but we don’t know who lived here. An upstairs was inserted later.  Either side of the hall are gabled wings, one of which has C18th weatherboarding and a large shop window underneath that was made in C20th.

About a thousand years ago Walthamstow was divided into estates each with a manor house. This area on a hill belonged to Tony manor, the largest one which was named after its C12th owner, Ralph de Tony II. He married the heiress of the manor, Alice of Northumberland in 1103. His family came from Conches in Normandy and were also known Tosny or Toeni. His father, Ralph de Tony I, fought alongside William the Conqueror as his standard bearer and was given an estate at Flamsted, Hertfordshire as a reward.

The population of all the manors put together was tiny in those early days, only 82 parishioners most of whom lived in the present-day Hale End and Higham Hill parts of Walthamstow, not here. This area was known as Church End. Exactly when a church was built is not known but there has been one here since at least early 1100s. The parish population grew very slowly to 386 in 1796 but only 5 years later it had leapt to 3,006 with a mixture of labourers and City businessmen. The arrival of the railway in 1870 led to more development and a change in the demography of the area. The well-to-do moved out and terraces of working-class homes were built. Luckily for Church End, the railway station is at the bottom of the hill and the network of narrow streets here kept its village atmosphere and its now known as Walthamstow Village.

St Mary’s church faces the Ancient House. Nothing survives from the first building and the oldest parts are C13th although it does not look historical because of a rendering that covers the stonework. It had been altered and enlarged many times as the population grew then it was badly damaged by bombing during WWII. The render was put on after the post-war repairs. Many of the parishioners buried in the churchyard worked in the City or at the Port of London, among them was William Matthew Raikes who was High Sheriff of Essex in 1807.

Nearby is Vestry House. Built in 1730 as the parish workhouse it was later used as a police station with a lock up nicknamed the Cage. Originally it only had eight rooms but it was greatly enlarged and it became a private residence. The entrance was taken from another building (Church Hill House built 1784-5) which was demolished in 1932. In 1931 the Vestry House Museum opened here and it’s great. I was very impressed when I visited and saw a small car with an internal combustion engine that ran on paraffin made in 1892 by a local enthusiast, Frederick Bremer. This was in the early days of motor cars, Karl Benz built the first one with an internal combustion engine in 1885. Vestry House has a large garden. When it was built this was an area of common land. The common was enclosed (fenced off) in 1853 then divided into plots for building.

Near Vestry House are some cute cottages and Squires Almshouses. If you can read the plaque on my photo of it you will see they were built in 1795 for six decayed tradesmen’s widows, that is respectable women who have fallen on hard times due to frailty and widowhood. Mary Squires who ordered them to be built was herself a widow. At the time this was a field belonging to John Conyers of Copped Hall near Epping. Until 1975 the houses had no bathroom. There are now 4 homes, not 6 lodgings and today they are rented to elderly local men or women at reasonable rents.

Behind the church are more almshouses built with money given by George Monoux in 1527. His story is especially interesting for me as I guide in Bordeaux as well as London. He was born in Bristol and began trading English cloth for wine from Bordeaux as well as oil, salt and sugar from southern Spain and Lisbon in Portugal. He was an important man in Bristol then he expanded the business by moving to London and trading from here as well. He invested in property buying land in ten counties of England. In the City of London he bought several houses plus two pubs, the Popes Head in Lombard Street and the Swan in Newgate. He was a member of the Drapers guild and was Lord Mayor of London in 1514 and he was Member of Parliament for the City. Monoux lived in Walthamstow and was buried in St Marys. His own children had died so the rest of his estate passed to his two great-nephews.

There was also a school in the almhouse complex but it moved out in 1819. The almshouses were built to Monoux’ specification of 13 ground floor homes each with two rooms, a fireplace and a back garden. In the middle of the block was a gabled house for the schoolmaster/almshouse priest. It had two rooms upstairs as well as the two on the ground floor. Either side of it on the upper floor were long rooms, one was the schoolroom and the other was for church and almshouse business. Dinner could be served to the inmates there. The cookhouse was a separate building that has now gone. Monoux left land whose rent funded these charities. The almshouses were largely rebuilt in the C18th and repaired after WWII bombing. They are still lived in with 13 one or two bedroomed flats for elderly people run by the same charity as the Squires almshouses.

Around the corner in Orford Road are lots of small cafés and shops as well as the old town hall building which reminds us that this was the civic centre of Walthamstow in the C19th and early C20th. Now it is traffic free and really pleasant yet just ten minutes walk away is the underground train that will get you to Oxford Circus in less than 20 minutes.   

About the author: Gail Jones