Archive documents are dirty. They are especially so around the edges. Historians love the phrase “patina of history” and it is this you can see in the years of dust, dirt from fingers, smoke (fire places, tobacco) and from just being in a room where they were stored. Archive documents are also imperfect. There are the quirks and eccentricities in the handwriting, splodges of ink, imperfections in the paper, folds, creases and tears. Like a knitter (my mother is a knitter), when your eye is in you spot these details, the mistakes and the out of place. Your eye is drawn to the unusual.
A few years ago, I was working on a collection from the water companies of London in the 19th century. The collection is known as the Thames Water Predecessors. In particular, I was looking into the cleaning up of the Metropolitan water supply in the 1840s and 50s, a time when the water companies were forced into providing customers with clean water. I opened a box of miscellaneous material from the Chelsea Water Company across an 80-year period, looking at documents first hand rather than via the catalogue. Chelsea was one of the oldest water companies in London, stretching back to the early 18th century. I was expecting ephemera from the mid-19th century, such as cut-out articles from newspapers, plans, the odd letter from disgruntled customers and pamphlets detailing the dangers of contaminated foul air, the conveyor of cholera. But I wasn’t expecting what I stumbled on.
My eye was drawn to a letter pretty quickly. The handwriting looked 18th century rather than the mid-19th century I was looking for. The paper was the good stuff, good quality. I didn’t look at the content, simply picked it up, perused, turned over and there, at the bottom, the signature. “N. Hawksmoor.” Hawksmoor… Nicholas Hawksmoor. I froze on the spot. It was probably for half a second or so, but it could have been for anytime. I shook myself out of the paralysis and looked again. There was his signature, at the bottom of the letter. I had no doubt it was his. It had to be. Then my rational brain kicked in. Obviously, this was the signature of someone else called N. Hawksmoor. But my gut feeling knew it wasn’t. The signature isn’t a great one. It looks rushed, a bit scatty. The letter itself is written in another hand, neater writing and quite legible.
Why was I so excited? From Wikipedia: “Hawksmoor was an English architect. He was a leading figure of the English Baroque style of architecture in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. Hawksmoor worked alongside the principal architects of the time, Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, and contributed to the design of some of the most notable buildings of the period, including St Paul’s Cathedral, Wren’s City of London churches, Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.” An impressive man and one I had followed for around 10 years.
Peter Ackroyd made him central to one of his novels, Hawksmoor. I really enjoyed the book, which probably added to my excitement. There is also a myriad of conspiracy theories about his work, aligned with secret societies steeped in alchemy and Kabbalah. His buildings have hermetic geometrical qualities about them. I don’t buy into this, although I understand why there are such theories when looking at his work, eg Christ Church in Spitalfields (above).
Getting back to reality and my excitement, is it his signature? The letter to the Chelsea Water Company dates form 1734, reporting from the Whitehall Office of his Majesties Works. Hawksmoor held several roles here, including Clerk of the Works, over a number of years. The letter is to the Chelsea Water Company and refers to the laying of canals, pipes and waste water in Hyde Park, which is where the company had their main reservoir that supplied their well-healed customers. The letter wasn’t actually written by him, as the hand writing is very different to that of the signature. Presumably it was written by a clerk and at the end of the day and Hawksmoor signed it off along with all the day’s correspondence. I put it in the box in quiet excitement and returned to the job in hand.
A few months later, the archives held a conference on the St Paul’s collection. I had kept this letter and signature in the back of my head and thought, perhaps the material on show from the St Paul’s collections could contain a signature of Hawksmoor. After all, Hawksmoor worked alongside Wren in the design of St Paul’s, as well as numerous other great schemes of Wren, such as Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. This would have been an exciting time in Hawksmoor’s career, although he went on to design a number of churches in the City of London, including six of his own.
During the conference there was an opportunity to view some of the St. Paul’s Cathedral material up close. My optimism paid off. On display was Hawksmoor’s signature on an official document detailing a purchase. I took a quick snap for reference, called the Chelsea Water Company box up from the stores and compared. It was the same. A chilling feeling runs through you when you make such a connection. These signatures must have been 30 years apart. They are not identical, but they are both his. Hawksmoor would have been 72 at the time when he signed the letter to the Chelsea Water Company. This is only 2 years before his death. He had suffered poor health for the last twenty years of his life and was often confined to bed and, I have read, hardly able to sign his name. The latter signature looks frail, wobbly and by someone who is faltering in energy or strength. Perhaps this is why he did not write the letter. Perhaps he dictated to his assistant.
What struck me was vicinity of history. It was the closeness and an intimate feeling gained by simply perusing through a box of material. Whilst staring at his signature, I felt very near that point in Hawksmoor’s office when he signed that letter off, holding the pen, dipping into the ink, reading the daily business and inhaling the same dust.
Thames Water Predecessors at the London Metropolitan Archives can be found under the reference ACC/2558, and contain the records of 15 companies that existed before being combined into the Metropolitan Water Board. They contain corporate records and minutes, staff records, clerk’s papers, records relating to water supply and distribution, technical reports, purchase records, property records, legal papers, plans, photographs and financial accounts and ledgers. It’s a jolly good read.
Nicholas Hawksmoor, Letter to the company about waste water from the Serpentine. Reference Code ACC/2558/MW/C/15/310/002
Ackroyd, Peter, 1985, Hawksmoor, Hamish Hamilton.