Devonshire Square | Fisher’s Folly to the East India Company
Devonshire Square is a fairly uninspiring square a short walk from Liverpool Street Station. However, you can uncover some remarkable layers of London history – stretching right back to the 16th century!
Today it’s a jumble of 18th century former residences, warehouses and modern office blocks but the name Devonshire reminds us of a more genteel, wealthy private address.
It sits on the garden of Devonshire House, belonging to the Cavendish family who were Earls (later Dukes) of Devonshire. Not to be confused with their Piccadilly mansion, it was only occupied between 1620-1675 and survives on the J. Ogilby and W. Morgan map from 1676.
It was then sold to one of London’s more interesting property developers Nicholas Barbon.
An early pioneer of fire insurance following the 1666 Great Fire of London, Barbon (whose devout parents had given him the full name of “Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thoust-would-Be-Damned Barbon”) seems to have happily shaken off his puritan upbringing to fully immerse himself in the more profitable London career of property development.
He rebuilt the square between 1678 and 1708. On the map below you can see how the landscape has changed since 1676 and this 1799 map shows the post-Barbon development.
Two early visible survivors are no.s 12 and 13.
No.12 was under scaffolding when I visited but no.13 is home to the Worshipful Company of Coopers.
The Coopers purchased the freehold from another City company, the Salters, in 1957 but the property itself is mid-18th century and is Grade II listed. You can see inside on the Coopers website here.
The character of the square would change in the late 18th century as storage needs – driven by increasing international trade from the River Thames – led to huge brick warehouses appearing.
The first wasn’t in Devonshire Square itself, rather along New Street to the north. Known as the Old Bengal Warehouse, it was built by the East India Company 1769-1771 and designed by their surveyor, Richard Jupp.
Founded in 1600, the East India Company had a monopoly on all trade with the East Indies until 1813 and these warehouses would store tobacco, port and spices.
More buildings arrived in 1792-1800 and then in 1820 the warehouse encroached directly onto Devonshire Square.
In 1836 all the warehouses were bought by the St Katharine’s Dock Company – evident on the Charles Booth map below.
They were refurbished 1978-82 by Richard Seifert and Partners but still retain some of the industrial charm from the outside, particularly the Old Bengal Warehouse on New Street.
Today the ground floor site has been transformed into the Old Bengal Bar but under the blue clock at the entrance you can see a plaque from the occupier during the 1970s, The Standard Life Assurance Company.
Today Devonshire Square represents a much larger chunk of the area and is marketed as DSQ who have further refurbishment afoot.
Hunting Ancient Remains
Another big change in the 19th century was the tunnelling under the square by the Metropolitan Railway in 1870.
On the OS Map below I’ve circled the intriguing ‘tunnel’ in yellow and you can follow the dotted lines under the path of Devonshire Street (Devonshire Row today).
At 4-18 Devonshire Row are some late 19th century warehouses but looking again at the OS map above, you can see a hint at something far older and a thin, archaic font proclaims ‘site of Fisher’s Folly’.
The ancient secret lies out of public view, contained within the rear wall of these buildings on Devonshire Row.
In a reprint of John Stow’s survey of the Bishopsgate ward in 1603 he describes a house that was “large and beautiful … with gardens of pleasure, bowling alleys, and such like”.
On the copperplate map of London from 1559, its supposed location is highlighted in red here along Bishopsgate.
It was built by Jasper Fisher, a freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company, one of the six Clerks of Chancery and a Justice of the Peace. However, it seems that Jasper rather stretched himself financially on this project, dying in debt in 1579 and so his grand house became known as Fisher’s Folly.
The house passed through several hands before being incorporated into Devonshire House which – as discussed above – was then demolished by Nicholas Barbon.
But not all of it…
Such is the delight of London that the Grade II listed remains of the 16th century wall are protected and though they’re not accessible to the public I thought I’d take a chance and try to hunt them down.
After asking in a few shops along Devonshire Row, someone said that I needed to go into the Tesco Express on Bishopsgate.*
So I popped in and some incredibly kind staff were keen to help me on my quest! They found a key and down we went through the underground storage facility and after trying 6 different keys they found the right one.
The door opened and I squealed with excitement as they looked on somewhat bemused but happily enjoying the whole scenario and there it was, a genuine piece of late 16th century English bonded brick.
You could even make out the old windows, now bricked up and with layers of further London building built on top.
So, what do you think? Thoroughly exciting or am I going a bit overboard for a bit of old wall?!
*Incidentally the Tesco Express on Bishopsgate has its own fascinating history as a former Fire Station which you can read about here.
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