From Bromley by Bow to Milwaukee

The lady of the house proudly showed the reporters around her ancestral pile, perfect in every 17th century detail, from the stone-lined fireplace with overmantel bearning the arms of James I, to the ornamented plaster ceiling (a marvel of intersecting squares and quatrefoils). Everything, in fact, was as James I himself had commissioned it.

But this was no drawing room in England (Olde or otherwise). Rather, the elaborate confection dubbed ‘the Bromley Room’ stood within a house in a residential street in Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan. How this copy of a reconstruction of a real room is a bizarre tale, perhaps even odder than the shipping of London Bridge to Lake Havasu City in Arizona.

With no disrespect to the citizens of Bromley, it’s not a part of London to which tourists in search of ‘ye olde Englande’ immediately head. Yet this often overlooked part of the East End, with most of its built environment dating from the last century or so, crops up again and again in London history.

It boasts what is generally reckoned to be the oldest brick house in London in the early Tudor manor house of Bromley Hall. Constructed by Holy Trinity Priory in 1485, the hall stood on the earlier foundations of the twelfth century Lower Bramerley Manor (so old that Bromley wasn’t even called Bromley yet). It now stands in Gillender Street, which certainly wasn’t around when it was built. The award-winning restoration of the hall in 2006 safeguarded the building for a few centuries more.

Centuries before that, the area was called Bromley-St Leonards, after St Leonard’s Priory, built in the reign of William the Conqueror. The Benedictine Priory even crops up in the Canterbury Tales. That son of Aldgate Geoffrey Chaucer mocks the prioress’s cockney-accented French, saying: “And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, after the scole of stratford atte bowe, For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe”. The priory, like so many others, was destroyed by Henry VIII, and its site is now somewhere beneath the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. The only reminder of the old abbey today is in the name of St Leonard’s Street.

But one of the grandest lost buildings of Old Bromley was a palace built for James I in 1606. Its construction says much about the area as it was in the 17th century. Just as the Isle of Dogs was (perhaps) so named because Kings of England kept their hunting dogs there, so Bromley Old Palace was primarily a hunting lodge for the Scottish king. Partly built from stone salvaged from the demolished priory, it was still a royal palace into the reign of James II, with stables being added.

Its history holds up an interesting mirror to the development of this part of Middlesex as it slowly became subsumed into London and headed steadily downhill. During the 18th century it was subdivided into two merchants’ houses, in 1750 it became ‘The Old Palace School’ and then a factory. In 1894, universal education and the need for new schools sounded its death knell. What had once been a royal palace would now be demolished, with the a new London Board school raised in its place.

A few years before nobody would have cared: the fine wood panelling would have been tossed on a fire, the stonework smashed and recycled into a new building. But the Victorians had fallen in love with the past – albeit an often romanticised and sylvan version of Old England before the Fall of industrialisation. They had even invented a new type of building in which to put the past – the museum. There was an outcry over the loss of such a precious piece of London, and the artist and designer CR Ashbee led a campaign to save the building. Before the demolition men moved in, the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased the house – lock, stock and state room – for £250, and rebuilt what became known as ‘the Bromley Room’, but this time in Kensington..

Miraculously, the interior of the palace had survived largely unscathed through 300 years, and the V&A curators of today give a loving description of what was found. This was the original parlour of the house, with “exuberant classical ornament typical of the period…a doorway opposite the chimney-piece, which led into a passage…the panelling divided by six Doric pilasters, or rectangular columns. These and the frieze that encircles the room at ceiling height decorated with strapwork ornament…the elaborate overmantel contains a variety of carved decoration. At the room’s heart the stone chimney-piece features a frieze of carved birds and monsters, which were probably originally picked out in gold and colours”.

Fifty years later, Wisconsin housewife, Mrs Dake, visited the V&A on a tourist jaunt to London and was entranced by what she saw. So was born the third version of the Bromley Room, an exact replica with all the carving done by the local woodworking firm Matthews Brothers abetted by a team of skilled masons. Unicorns and lions danced across the stonework, just as James I had decreed, 360 years before.

It wasn’t quite Old England. In an admirably eclectic approach, the Dakes also plundered medieval tapestries from an impoverished French count, and created a ‘tavern’ (think Hollywood does Robin Hood) using oak beams ‘rescued’ from old barns in the Wisconsin countryside. Alongside was ‘The Tent’, a room featuring a full-size Italianate fountain.

2344 East Back Bay Street in Milwaukee may be an improbable place to find a complete slice of early modern England, but the house survives to this day and is currently up for sale (a shade under $1m should you be interested). One can only wonder: does the Bromley room survive? And what an earth will prospective buyers make of it when they walk through the door?

* You can see the State Room at the V&A, http://www.vam.ac.uk/

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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