Wardrobe Place

Down a side street in the City – blink and you’d miss it! – is Wardrobe Place.

Wardrobe Place Fanlights

The history is interesting in itself, but when I last visited I was also intrigued by a particular architectural detail – the Fanlights.

History of Wardrobe Place

The unusual name does indeed come from an actual wardrobe. Not just any wardrobe though, but the King’s wardrobe!

Established under Kind Edward III (1312-1377) it’s where the King would keep his best outfits but also important household items, a bit like a hotel room safe.

The Wardrobe was originally based at the Tower of London and you can still see its ruined tower inside today!

Wardrobe Place Fanlights

Image from Wiki Commons

The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the King’s Wardrobe and in 1782 the institution of the wardrobe was absorbed into the Treasury.

Wardrobe Place Fanlights

3-5 Wardrobe Place

But, let’s return to the buildings that are our focus today, Historic England describes Nos. 3-5 as late 17th or early 18th century.

They’re delightful little houses -today offices – made even nicer by their brightly coloured doors.

However, it’s what’s above the doors that is our subject today.

History of the Fanlight

Fanlights are a decorative and functional feature, usually above a front door. They allow natural light into a windowless hallway and are often decorated with cast iron. Later architects would use lead and occasionally bronze.

Wardrobe Place Fanlights

The first examples can be seen from the early 1700s, but the really fancy ones usually date from between 1760-1810, with designers and architects trying to out do one another with elaborate patterns.

Wardrobe Place Fanlights

Another influence on the designs was the architect; Robert Adam. You can see the semi-circular shapes and fine details in the ceilings of his buildings like Kenwood House (1767-9).

Kenwood House

Used as an Address?

Something that I’ve often heard repeated is this idea that because there were no house numbers in Georgian London, letter writers would draw the individual patterns of fanlights on envelopes so messengers could identify the right house.

As much as I wish this were true, this has a whiff of the urban myth about it and I wanted to investigate.

Wardrobe Place Fanlights

London House Numbering

After falling down a bit of a research wormhole on house numbers I found the following.

In the 1760s Acts of Parliament were passed that compelled the removal of overhanging shop signs and in 1765 a Postage Act was passed but this was mainly all about pricing. Full regulation only came about in 1855 with control handed to the Metropolitan Board of Works.

However evidence that standard street numbers were in use earlier can be found in Edward Hatton’s ‘A New View of London’ (published 1708). His book contains the passage;

“Prescot Street [in Spitalfields], a spacious and regular built street on the south side of the Tenter Ground in goodman’s Fields. Instead of signs the houses here are distinguished by number, as the staircases in the Inns of Court and Chancery”

Is this a one-off – an example of early adopters in the East End?

Possibly. In looking at Fire Insurance Policies between 1721 and 1727 a columnist for the marvellously pedantic Journal ‘Notes and Queries’ in 1942 only came across two cases where street numbers were used.

Mostly, people described the hanging signs in lieu of a house number. For example;

“Which bank is yours?”

“You’ll find me at the sign of the three squirrels on Fleet Street”

Isn’t that wonderful?!

Hanging Signs Lombard Street

Personally I haven’t found any historic reference to people drawing fanlights in the place of an address. It’s a lovely idea though!

At least we can simply admire them as decorative elements today.

More London Inspiration

27 Comments

  • jill bale

    Reply

    Really love your articles, so interesting and great research as well, I love all these quirky details, as others we would miss them in our busy lives, also street names and how they got them can really throw some interesting loght on things, I have a book about how villages got named from Northampton area,. Stay safe.
    Jill Bale

    April 8, 2020 at 7:22 am
  • Judith Wigley

    Reply

    I love your research and fact finding missions …. just fascinating! I was hoping to be in London now and participating in some of your local walks. Oh well……….next time!
    Just love reading your blog. Keep ’em coming!

    April 8, 2020 at 7:40 am
  • Kim Pragnell

    Reply

    Hello Katie, Thank you for a wonderful article. So very interesting.
    If I had a sign to represent were I live it would be three badgers and a Fox.
    I love the different fan lights. There are some lovely fan lights here on the island, which I will take another look at with a different view. The idea of people drawing the design on the mail sounds lovely ( if not completely correct, but I would like to think it is ).
    Take great care of yourself, in this difficult time. Keep safe.
    From Kim
    On the Isle of Wight.

    April 8, 2020 at 7:45 am
  • Patricia Lillian Taylor

    Reply

    Always look forward to Wednesday morning ! Before this troubling time started I had planned to
    follow thru’ as many places you had told me about but those excursions will have to wait until
    this is all over. Thank you so much for your post which mean I can at least explore hidden London
    sitting at my computer ! Keep safe x

    April 8, 2020 at 8:37 am
  • Jackie Loveridge

    Reply

    Making my day with more look up loveliness. There’s lots of planning going on for London visits – meanwhile keep posting you’re inspiring tours Katie 💙

    April 8, 2020 at 9:46 am
  • Karen Myers

    Reply

    I was told by a Blue Badge guide about the fanlights being used to indicate address. Seemed a bit far fetched but nicely quirky. Bit disappointed it’s unlikely to be true!

    April 8, 2020 at 10:23 am
  • Eli Wongraven

    Reply

    Just to thank you for another glimpse into interesting London history! As for the Wardrobe name, it is also there in the church name – link here: https://www.standrewbythewardrobe.org/history/
    Kind regards!

    April 8, 2020 at 10:48 am
  • Wendy Johnson

    Reply

    Your stories each week give me something to look for the next time I’m in London. I had also heard that the fanlights were used to direct drunken husbands to the correct home!

    April 8, 2020 at 1:27 pm
  • Stewart Francis

    Reply

    Thanks for this weekly letter and the articles, Katie – a great brightener of our days! I love the different, elegant designs of these fanlights. I knew nothing about them till today! I immediately linked them to ‘art nouveau’; but I don’t know if there is any connection. I also like the tastefully painted front doors. Stay well and safe, Katie.

    April 8, 2020 at 3:11 pm
  • Simon Foley

    Reply

    Presumably if you had to draw the fanlight on an envelope because you were illiterate, you wouldn’t be able to write the street name either 🙂

    April 8, 2020 at 5:34 pm
  • Ian Platt

    Reply

    Missing visiting sights and sounds of the city due to the current climate, but your continuing “Look up London” site Katie keeps us all stimulated and prepared to investigate when all back to normal.
    Kind regards and thankyou again for all your brilliant work !!!

    Ian . West Midlands.

    April 8, 2020 at 5:53 pm
  • Robert McMurry

    Reply

    I’m seen many Sherlock Holmes movies/tv series. Most of them label Mrs. Hudson’s house as 221b. I realize the b means the upstairs room that is let out to Holmes. But wouldn’t the correct number for her doorway be just 221?

    April 9, 2020 at 4:55 pm
  • Adrian Butters

    Reply

    Yes, very good interesting about fan lights, but just a thought, were numbers adopted by the wealthy as a visible sign of their wealth and status ? Keep up the good interesting work Katie in these sad and dangerous times

    Adrian Butters.

    April 9, 2020 at 5:48 pm
  • Wardrobe Place is home to one of the finest ghost sightings of Stuart times, when King James I saw 3 witches there.

    May 20, 2020 at 10:28 pm

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