Happy Birthday, Uncle

Today is my uncle’s birthday, so let me tell you about him. Dennis Severs was born in 1948, just two days after Prince Charles, in Escondido, California. When he was in high school, he saved up his money and traveled to England. He loved it so much, he moved to London the minute he graduated. He was supposed to be studying law, but he was really collecting anecdotes, history, and furniture. He would use this collection to create a unique career and a lasting legacy.

Dennis had severe dyslexia, so reading and academics were a real challenge. In spite of this obstacle, or perhaps because of it, he became a brilliant storyteller, weaving together personal stories with historical facts and fascinating details about the way people once lived. He made dry history come alive. In the early 1970s, he bought a landau carriage and a horse, and he gave history tours through the back streets of Chelsea. Main thoroughfares change with the times, but he put together a route through streets that had remained relatively unchanged through the centuries. His tour was a journey through time, and he counted it a success when the tour ended with everyone in tears. The only other open landau in London belonged to the Queen, so they were often mistaken for each other. The carriage tour was a big success, but then Dennis lost the mews where he stabled his horse. Winter and bad weather meant that he couldn’t conduct his tours year round, so Dennis moved the tour inside, ensuring that he would always have a roof over his head.

Cratchit Corner watermarkDennis bought a derelict Georgian house in Spitalfields, so named because it once adjoined the medieval St Mary’s Spittal, a hospital and priory. In the early 1980s, this East End neighborhood was being restored and revived, attracting artists, writers, and musicians who formed a thriving creative community. Dennis renovated the house at 18 Folgate Street on a shoestring budget, often using wood pallets from the nearby wholesale vegetable market. He told me that he found a fire laid on the top floor that had never been lit, with crumpled newspaper that was dated the day of his birth. (I didn’t know whether to believe him, since his motto was “if it isn’t true, it ought to be.”) He filled the house with all the furniture, silver, art, and other treasures that he’d collected over the years, which his friends had been keeping for him in attics all over England.

Each room reflected a different period from early Georgian to late Victorian, so a walk through the house was another journey through time. The only electricity in the house was for his sound system, so when you were in a room, you could hear horses clip clopping outside, the rise and fall of conversations in other rooms, spoons clinking against cups of tea. Each room had its own scent, too. The kitchen was cookies baking, the dining room was roast beef, the drawing room was lavender used to freshen the rug, the smoking room was tobacco, and the poor apprentice’s room on the top floor was rotting cabbage and stale urine.

There were no red velvet ropes, so visitors could enter the rooms, sit on the chairs, and, if they dared, they could pick up objects and examine them. If they did, they faced my uncle’s wrath. Opening cupboards to search for signs of modern life was also frowned upon. Dennis would say, these visitors have been invited into my home, and I expect them to behave like proper guests. If he didn’t like their behavior, he would simply toss them out. He wouldn’t collect any money until the end of a visit, so he felt free to eject anyone without having to give a refund. And woe to anyone who asked what an object was worth. These people had obviously missed the whole point of his life’s work, which was to create a series of atmospheres that allowed you to truly go back into the past. It wasn’t about expensive antiques, and the key to his technique was mixing valuable pieces with junk scrounged from the Brick Lane market.

When the house tours first began, Dennis would do the entire three hour performance live, but he wanted visitors to focus on the rooms and not on him. Eventually he would start off in each room talking, then leave his visitors on their own listening to recordings of his narration mixed with sound effects. The “tour” was a concoction of English history and social customs interwoven with the story of the Jervis family, prosperous Huguenot silk weavers who set up their looms in Spitalfields after fleeing religious persecution in France. (There really was a Jervis family in Spitalfields, but the story Dennis told sprang from his imagination.)  By the time the tour ended in the Victorian morning room, the last two Jervis boys were dead on the battlefields of Flanders, and spinster Isabel Jervis had died alone in the old family house. On nights when I assisted behind the scenes, I would sit in the kitchen below, listening to the tape by the fading fire, and it was impossible not to cry.

I was sixteen the first time I came to 18 Folgate Street, traveling alone without my parents. I was unprepared for 18th century life. I fell down the stairs, cut my thumb slicing bread, stumbled around by candlelight, and couldn’t light a fire to save my life. Dennis didn’t have a bath in those early days, so in between trips to the neighbor’s to wash, I was covered in soot. Dennis never let me forget that my first question upon entering the house was “are there bugs?”  He tolerated me, probably counting the days until my departure. Then he had to endure my numerous visits over the years until his death in 1999. He died surrounded by close friends, and me, and his funeral was held at Christ Church Spitalfields, just a few days into the new millennium.

dennis-simon-dominic-and-me-3 copy

(back) Dennis Severs & me, (front) Dominic O’Ceallaigh & Simon Pettet 1991

Dennis complained that I was more interested in the people the house attracted than the house itself, and he also said I was a “conversation magnet” who distracted him from his work. I certainly grew very fond of Dominic the Footman and Simon the Lodger. I would sit by the kitchen stove in “my” chair, observing the endless variety of characters who dropped in. Maj the cat (short for Majesty, but officially named Whitechapel) would sit on my knee, digging her claws in deep whenever I got too comfortable. Still, I took enough interest in the house to take some photographs. Some of these were eventually used for the book he wrote, published two years after his death by Chatto & Windus. Dennis left the house to the Spitalfields Trust, and it is maintained by loyal friends as a private museum. It doesn’t have quite the same lived-in feel now, since he’s no longer there inhabiting the rooms, entertaining guests and torturing uninvited relatives. Keeping the house open to the public was his dream, and it is where his spirit lives on.

“And, dear visitor, take this as the motto of the house:  AUT VISUM, AUT NON! (Oh, for God’s sake!)  You either see it or you don’t.”  — Dennis Severs, 18 Folgate Street



Filed under Literature, Photography, Real Life, Travel

8 responses to “Happy Birthday, Uncle

  1. Kat

    A lovely tribute.

  2. Katelyn

    Excellent post, very interesting and I love the photos. It certainly sounds like your uncle led quite a life, I’ll be thinking happy birthday thoughts for him today.

  3. Dominic

    I always feel sorry that there weren’t more informal pictures taken in those days (like this lovely doorstep one). So much was posed for “The World” and it would be lovely to have more of ordinary things like foraging in the market or cleaning the house.

    Happy Birthday Dennis!

    • I regret not having taken more informal photos, but the ones I do have will soon be added to these pages. I’ve been having fun going back through all the old albums and memories.

  4. Great post! Wish I could have seen the place in full swing. Happy birthday, Dennis!

  5. What a lovely post – and a wonderful insight to the man himself! I achieved my wish to visit this marvellous house last year – and was not disappointed with what I found. The atmosphere in the place has to be experienced to be believed. A lot of love and care has been woven into the fabric of the house and each room really does exude its own personality. It is the nearest I have come to time travel and I shall never forget the experience thanks to your uncle!

  6. VeraVenus

    I have just booked yet another visit to the house in December and was looking at pictures of the rooms on the internet and happened across this post… very interesting and lovely to read about it from your perspective. Thank you!

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