History of 1-2 Laurence Pountney Hill

1 & 2 Laurence Pountney Hill are the finest surviving merchants’ houses in the City of London. Built in 1703 during a high point in the history of English craftsmanship, they boast doorcases and cornices of exceptionally rich carving. Inside, No. 1 still retains original panelling and an elegant staircase with spiral balusters. They are the work of Thomas Denning, a master carpenter and builder who worked for both Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

History

Laurence Pountney Hill is named from the church of St Laurence Pountney, one of 34 churches burnt in the Great Fire never to be rebuilt. Its churchyard continued in use as a burial ground and survives today as a secluded garden. The name Pountney derives from Sir John Pulteney, a wealthy merchant who in the fourteenth century endowed the church with a college of priests and built a great mansion nearby. In Tudor times this large rambling house was known as the Manor of the Rose and housed the Merchant Taylors’ School where the poet Spenser was educated.

In 1666 the Great Fire consumed the church of St Laurence Pountney, the Manor of the Rose and scores of timber-framed houses in the vicinity. After the Fire, the Rebuilding Act (1667) ruled that ‘all the outsides of buildings be henceforth made of brick or stone’ as a precaution against fire. In addition, woodwork was confined to doorcases, cornices and window frames, which thus became the chief focus of the carpenter’s art. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at 1 & 2 Laurence Pountney Hill, which to this day possess two of the most sumptuously carved doorcases in England.

The doorcases are thick with undulating foliage work and are flanked by lion head console brackets. These support beautiful shell hoods, the left one bearing the date 1703 and the right with a relief of cherubs playing bowls. The cornice at the top of the building is similarly elaborate, with thickly carved brackets grouped in threes between the windows. This richness of effect is carried through to the interior, where an open well staircase rises through three stories, elaborately finished with spiral balusters and newel posts.

The virtuosity of the woodwork is explained by the fact that the houses were built by a master carpenter, Thomas Denning. He had worked on Wren’s church of St Michael Paternoster Royal nearby and would later contribute to Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth. Like other ambitious craftsmen, Denning branched out into the cut throat world of speculative building. At Laurence Pountney Hill he appealed to the market by ingeniously contriving two basements beneath the houses. This created an abundance of storage space that would appeal to the London merchants, whose houses doubled as business premises. Denning’s speculation paid off; on 15 July 1704 he sold both houses to Mr John Harris for £3,190, a tidy sum.   

The houses have survived the vicissitudes of three centuries. When they were first built, the City was still a thriving residential area, with about 8,000 houses packed into the Square Mile. Later, during the Victorian period, the population fell dramatically as the City became increasingly devoted to commerce. In 1855 No. 2 was altered when converted to commercial use, and both houses eventually fell into multiple ownership. Fortunately, they survived the Blitz unscathed and were refurbished as offices in the 1970s when many of the Victorian alterations were undone.

Today, they have a new lease of life as chambers for QEB Hollis Whiteman.