18 Folgate Street may look like an ordinary old house on a historic street in Spitalfields, but once inside, it’s quite extraordinary.
The house is a Noah’s Ark of historic objects, a mirror to a lost period in history. It’s like being stuck inside a Charles Dickens novel with each room peeling back a hidden layer of history.
This is not your average tourist attraction with a long winding queue of tourists, carefully curated rooms, manicured gardens, and a glitzy gift shop with charming knick-knacks.
It’s like entering the Tardis, a time machine, which propels you back two centuries into a different place, a different dimension. It’s as if the inhabitants had just left everything as it was, and nothing has ever been altered…
Another Time, Another Place
Knock on the door of 18 Folgate Street with its flickering gas light and weird Egyptian knocker, and you’ll be ushered inside. It’s as if you’d been called upon to undertake a historic detective mission.
Dennis Severs, who restored the house in the 1980s, aimed to take the visitor on “a carousel ride” and bombard their senses. He wanted them to leave the bustling outside world behind and transport them to another time and place.
As the door bangs closed behind you, you’re plunged into a strange and mysterious world. The words of Dennis Severs appear on signs dotted around the house. He suggests that visitors “close your eyes to see”.
On the street – Dennis Severs’ House (left) and its neighbourhood (right).
Artist David Hockney once described 18 Folgate Street as “the greatest opera ever created” and “one of the world’s five great experiences”.
He’s absolutely spot on – the theatrical presentation of the house is epic in scale. It’s an art work in its own right.
A visit to the house is an immersive experience in which the visitor becomes “a character” in its story. It’s a compelling journey, worthy of any time travellers’ attention.
The past comes barrelling towards you, ‘room by room’, and unfolds in minute detail, right down to the smells and sounds.
Discover the hidden past – photographs by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
I took the ‘silent tour’ with only candle light to guide my journey. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, the smallest details and nuances of sound emerged.
Descending the stairway down to the basement, I entered a dark, damp place, worn by time’s passages. A solitary candle flickered as I tried to make sense of what once took place here.
The tick tock of an old clock broke the heavy silence. The forgotten world of the late 1700s emerged as I moved through the gloomy interior. One thing was certain – I had landed in another time, another place.
Dennis Severs’ House was built in 1724 at a time when Spitalfields was expanding into a bustling quarter of London.
The journey through the house chronicles the changing fortunes of Spitalfields as it moved from being an affluent merchants’ quarter to an overcrowded Victorian slum.
The house’s story is told through the lens of several generations of an imaginary family including Huguenot silk weavers. The Huguenots came to London’s Spitalfields from the late 17th Century to the early 1800s, fleeing religious persecution in France.
These immigrants were skilled workers, trying to create a foothold in a new country. We learn how they lived, worked and spent time in the house through a myriad of objects.
House of Mysteries
The house comes alive – photographs by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
Severs spent 20 years creating this “still-life drama” which looks like a film set or lavish theatre production for an immersive drama company.
Each room in the Dennis Severs’ House is presented like a painting, a still life stuffed with the minutiae of life.
But I wondered how much of this is real or ‘created’ for the visitor, a simulacrum of the original. There was only one way I could find out… by immersing myself in the self-guided, candelit tour.
The first room I entered was the kitchen which is dominated by a large dresser overflowing with old crockery and a wooden table crammed with bowls and baskets of fruit and vegetables.
The smell of strawberries, fresh baked bread and pastries was overwhelming, as if the cook had just taken a quick break.
It’s an atmospheric experience right down to the strange, geometric sugar cone hidden underneath a cloth which teases you to pick it up.
Each room unfolds in a similar way as you explore its contents, breathe in the smells, and listen to the house’s creaks and echoes.
A Passion for the Past
Photographs – Dennis Severs arrives in a horse-drawn carriage (left) and the unrestored house (centre).
Dennis Severs (right) photographed by Barbara and René Stoeltie.
As I wandered around the house, I became intrigued about the story of its owner – and I wanted to discover why he’d restored the house and recreated its ambience in such intricate detail.
Dennis Severs was an American artist who came to Spitalfields in 1979, and fell in love with the largely derelict house. For him, it was more than a restoration project, it represented his life’s work, a labour of love, a passion for the past.
He also became fascinated by the history of the neighbourhood and the Huguenots who lived here, many of whom were silk weavers.
Severs moved in with just a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll. As the house took shape and he filled it with period pieces, Dennis started inviting visitors to enjoy its history.
“I worked inside out to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages.”Dennis Severs – Owner and Folgate Street ‘Animateur‘
“As an artist, my canvas is your imagination,” he wrote. His vision was to make 18 Folgate Street “an adventure of the imagination” with no boundaries.
Today’s visitors can his enjoy his legacy – and immerse themselves in the house in all its operatic glory.
Walking up the creaky, dog-legged staircase, we’re taken into another dimension as we turn into the main bedroom, one of the most atmospheric rooms in the house.
The faded drapery and decoration conjure up images of Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” with the jilted spinster lurking in the dimly lit shadows.
A blood red crimson bedspread and night clothes lie dishevelled at the end of the bed, as if its occupant had recently leapt up, soon to return. I felt like I was snooping around in this most private of rooms.
In a small corner, a screened area hides Dennis Severs’ old ‘office’ with his ancient computer, a jolt back to another earlier time. It’s as if Dennis has popped out for his lunch.
A house clothed in mystery. Photograph (right) by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
On the stairwell, washing lines stretch across rafters with period clothes, whilst the flakey wall surface is peeling, creating a backdrop which shouts ‘faded times’.
A ladder reaches up to the attic where you can just about glimpse a peek into a bedroom, probably used by a servant.
The endless detail provides a wealth of stories which emerge over time.
It’s important to let your imagination wander. Dennis Severs suggested that you immerse yourself – “you either see it or you don’t”.
The last bedroom is more opulent, stuffed with slightly eccentric blue and white ceramics, portraits and elegant furnishings. It’s one of my favourite rooms, perhaps because I can imagine this being my own personal boudoir.
Inside the boudoir – photograph by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
What the Dickens?
At this point, I felt like I was disappearing through the looking glass in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”.
I’d certainly left the modern world a long way behind. I flinched when briefly I glimpsed a dark silhouette next to a window. Perhaps it was simply an illusion of past times colliding with the present… or a strange apparition?
Everywhere in this house, there are shades of Dickens. There are hints of Scrooge’s house from “A Christmas Carol” including a bowl of gruel, a threadbare armchair, crumpled bed chamber sheets, and authentic cobwebs.
On the top floor you’ll discover the “Dickens Room”, complete with the story of ‘former resident’, Mr Jervis. You can explore his desk and letters whilst musing over the room’s many objects and portraits.
Curios and curiosities – photographs by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
Shadows of the Past
As my journey came to an end, I retraced my footsteps down the stairs and headed towards the front door. It was hard to tear myself away from this house of curiosities… but my time machine had landed back in 2022.
As I departed, the heavy front door of the Severs’ House slammed shut behind me, and I found myself back in the noisy street.
I turned right towards Brick Lane where I looked up and discovered a plaque on the front of the former Protestant chapel built by the Huguenots in 1743.
It bears the Latin words ‘Umbra Sumus’’ on a sundial which translates as “we are but shadows”.
This moniker seemed highly appropriate after spending my time inside one of London’s most mysterious houses where ghosts lurk in the shadows, mingling with its visitors.
More than 20 years after Dennis Severs death, his house continues to cast its spell on those who set foot inside.
Severs feared that his creation would be ephemeral and wouldn’t survive him. But on his death in 1999, the house was sold to the Spitalfields Trust who continue to maintain it.
Today it’s like walking through a portal into another time. Just close your eyes and imagine you’re being transported to a different place and era.
This is a magical, mystery tour… a dizzying visual experience which lasts long in the memory.
Dennis Severs House – Discover the Magical Mystery Tour
The Dennis Severs House is open from Thursday to Sunday with a staggered entry system. It’s best to book in advance although I managed to buy a ‘walk-up’ on the day.
It’s best to book your tickets online in advance because walk-ups are very limited and are subject to availability.
I’d recommend the self guided Silent Tour, made without speaking. It enables you to explore at your own pace. Without distractions, visitors become aware of sounds and smells – perfumes, wood, smoke, cloves, bread and fruit.
The higher priced “Dennis Severs Tour” recreates the famous tours that Dennis gave after he opened his house in 1980. It’s more personal in style and takes place with an expert guide.
The nearest Tube station is Liverpool Street, about 12 minutes walk. The house is also a short walk from Shoreditch High Street Station.
Due to the architecture of the building and the different floor levels, there is no wheelchair access. Visitors with special access requirements should contact the house – firstname.lastname@example.org
Home is where the hearth is. Photograph by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies.
Also in the Neighbourhood…
Whilst you’re in Spitalfields, why not take a look at some of its many interesting buildings and historic streets?
Spitalfields takes its name from the Priory and Hospital of St Mary’s Spittel which was founded in 1197. Today the area is perhaps best known for its vibrant, historic market.
The area around Folgate Street, Gun Street and Fournier Street is one of the most important historic areas in London. It boasts the largest collection of cobbled streets with early Georgian terraced houses in London.
Many served as workshops and warehouses for the weavers who once lived in the area. Find out more about the buildings on the Spitalfields Trust website.
Photo and Other Credits
All interior photographs of the Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street are copyright and courtesy of Lucinda Douglas-Menzies. Exterior imagery is by Tammy Tour Guide.
It’s well worth reading Dennis Severs well-illustrated book, “18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields”.
Categories: Architecture, Arts, Heritage, London, Travel
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