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.
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.
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.