What is thought to be London’s earliest prefab house was a grand affair, and stood on top of London Bridge as a massive gateway to the city.

H.W. & Alphege Brewer – 1908

Nonsuch House, possibly after King Henry VIII’s palace – as there was “none such” to be found anywhere else, was constructed in the Netherlands in kit form, and then shipped to London.

Erected in 1579, it was a four-storey house that sat astride the centre of London Bridge with its nominal front facing towards Southwark, and of necessity a large arch in the middle to allow traffic to pass through.

It was also sited right in front of the location of a drawbridge that used to be in the centre of the bridge that could be raised to defend the city if needed. That drawbridge seems to have been removed in some images that survive, and it’s possible that the reason for the construction of Nonsuch House was to replace the former drawbridge building. However, as the bridge earned a pretty penny from raising the drawbridge to let tall ships pass, it’s unlikely they would have lost that revenue earner. The drawings are unclear on this issue.

View of old London Bridge, the buildings and shops across the bridge still in place. 1723-4 Etching and engraving (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Old London Bridge 1746-1768 (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

It’s said that it was constructed using joiners techniques alone — which is to say, without any nails or mortar, just wooden pegs holding the prefab sections together.

Two Sun-dials, facing East and West, also crowned the top on the south side; on the former of which was painted the old and appropriate admonition of “Time and Tide stay for no man” though these do not appear to have been erected until 1681. The front was also decorated with the Arms of St. George, of the City of London, and those of Elizabeth, France and England.

Edward Hatton’s New View of London, described it as “Like most of those other buildings, this celebrated edifice also overhung the East and West sides of the Bridge; and there presented to the Thames two fronts, of scarcely less magnificence than it exhibited to Southwark and the City; the columns, windows, and carving, being similarly splendid; and, thus, equally curious and interesting, was the Nonesuch House on London Bridge, seen from the water.”

As with most houses built on the bridge, it overhung the sides so that it was slightly wider than the bridge itself. It was particularly noted for the heavy decoration on the outside, with Ditch stepped gables and was richly painted.

What’s unknown is who ordered the building, and why they bought it from Holland as a prefab design. Whatever the origins, it seems to have been accepted fairly readily by Londoners, but eventually, the interior was chopped up into tenements and rented out.

Their view would at times have been grim though, as just to the south was a tower, and it’s where the heads of traitors would be displayed as a warning to all who passed into the City. They were later moved to the southern end of the Bridge though, so the view from Nonsuch House got a bit better.

However, as with all the other buildings and a few churches on London Bridge, it was torn down in 1757, and sadly for such a grand building, hardly anything is known about it.

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4 comments
  1. John McIntyre says:

    According to the book Old London Bridge by Gordon Home (The Bodley Head, 1931):

    The drawbridge was already severely decayed in 1497 when the common council ordered that it not be raised except as a defensive measure against a foe. There was a flurry of work in 1500 to make it movable again to get Henry VII’s barques through. Carpenters worked day and night to repair “the full ruynous” structure. It was not being used in 1506, and 20 years later, vessels were still unable to pass through. The main difficulty reported in 1526 was the weakness of part of the masonry of the drawbridge gateway, for it is stated in that year that the drawbridge was likely to be immovable “till… the stonework of the drawbridge tower be amended”. There were a few attempts after that, but the other notes that the evidence available in the records of the Bridge House suggests that the bascule was very rarely raised after 1480 and went finally out of use about 1500 Demolition of the drawbridge gate started in April 1578. The works cost £28 16s 7d. Nonsuch House was built on the site of the original Drawbridge Gate.

  2. Keith says:

    Wonderful info and graphics..

  3. Barry White says:

    Greate article. What does that sum equate to in today’s money?

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