House of St Barnabas

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The front of the House of St Barnabas
The House of St Barnabas as viewed from the garden

The House of St Barnabas, at 1 Greek Street, Soho, is a Grade I Listed Georgian building in London[1] notable for its rococo plasterwork interiors and for other architectural features.

Since 1862 the House has been run as a charity to support homeless people.[2] The name of the organisation was changed from the "House of Charity" to the "House of St Barnabas" in 1951.[3] The building functioned as a hostel for women until 2006.[4]

The club at The House of St Barnabas opened in October 2013.


In March 1679, Richard Frith and William Pym were developing Soho Square, then known as Fryths Square. A timber merchant, Cadogon Thomas of Lambeth, held a lease for a great corner house, coach house and stables. Aristocrats who lived in the Restoration House included the second Baron Crew, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish and the dowager Countess of Fingall but the longest residence was of William Archer MP from 1719 until 1738.[5]

In 1810 the House ceased to be a residential property and was let to the Westminster and Middlesex Sewer Board. In 1855 the House was used by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and became the office of Sir Joseph William Bazalgette. It was during this time that the Nineteenth century additions were made at the back of the House.[6]

Research published in The Dickensian in 1963[7] suggests that the rooms and gardens of the House of St Barnabas were the blueprint for the imagined lodgings of Dr. Manette and Lucy in the novel A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens, published in 1859, set between the turmoil of Paris during the French Revolution and the comparative tranquillity of London. Subsequently, the road on which is the Chapel entrance is now named Manette Street.

Charitable work[edit]

Behind the House of Charity was an ideal of practical Christianity, spurred on by the Oxford Movement.[3]

One of the original functions of the Charity was to keep families together when the husband of a family went into a workhouse. Between January 1847 and February 1851, 487 people were admitted. Of these, 103 were families ranging from a single mother to a family of ten with both parents and eight children. These families were a typical example of the way in which the House of Charity set out "to offer to those who are sunk in the depths of temporal, and frequently spiritual, wretchedness, the example of the discipline of a Christian family".[8]

The House of Charity describes itself as one of the few institutions in London where men, women and children of all walks of life, were able to 'apply for aid without a loss of self-respect'. Temporary guests of the House included 'all who found themselves in a condition of friendlessness and destitution that is not the manifest result of idleness or vice.' [3]

The Second World War and beyond[edit]

Between 1862 and the outbreak of the Second World War the Charity broadened its functions and over the years helped the homeless of London in many different ways: it helped people who were emigrating to Australia and were awaiting the long sea journey, people who had to come to London for surgery in hospitals, servants who had lost their jobs, teachers between positions and émigrés from Russia and the Balkans – an association which still continues to this day with the monthly services of the Macedonian community in the Chapel.[3]

After the outbreak of the Second World War, during the blitz, the nuns moved back to Clewer and the House was requisitioned for war duty. In November 1940 a bomb fell on the House, causing sufficient damage though fortunately no fatalities.[3] The Air Training Corps used the premises as a Headquarters during the war, having first applied to repair the bomb damage sufficiently to allow use of the building.[3] Following this the London County Council were granted use of the building for 'the purpose of training Students in Child Welfare'.[3]

After the war the House opened as a women's hostel, originally helping ex-service women, and at one time providing 'as many as 802 beds'.[3] The hostel had many supporters and friends, among them Joyce Grenfell, the comic actress, who was a constant visitor and fundraiser. The House closed as a women's hostel in 2006. All the residents were re-housed.

The individual stories of the people who made the House their home over this long period are recorded in the House archives, which are now kept in the Westminster Archive. Then, as now, the Charity was overseen by a Board of Trustees.

The House[edit]

The front door is original and the Charity still has the large key for the lock; 18th century London was a dangerous place, hence the enormous safety chain.

The simple decoration of the hall was a deliberate device to attract the visitor's eye to the decorated staircase leading to the rooms on the first floor.

The office for the Charity's Hostel Director and Personal Support Workers, who provided the one-to-one counselling, advice and support to the residents, was almost certainly the dining room, known as The Soho Room. This room, together with the Dickens room that leads from it, has plasterwork from the 1750s, although it is not quite as ornate as the decoration in the rooms above. This room is now used as the members' dining room or sometimes the members' lounge.

The Dickens Room has a fireplace with four roundel paintings of nuns. The painting hanging between the windows is an alleged depiction of Dr Henry Monro with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on either side.

The wrought-iron balustrades of the staircase are original. The original chandelier held candles and the mechanism for raising and lowering still exists. The Angel on the staircase is the oldest object in the house. It dates from the 1600s, is made of wood and is Flemish.

There is a galleried landing from which the plasterwork can be viewed more closely: there is a deep relief of female busts, a lion's head and scrollwork. In Richard Beckford's time, the panels would almost certainly have held oil paintings, probably of members of his large family. Their places are now occupied by paintings of boxers by Peter Howson.

The ceiling of The Drawing Room, originally the drawing room of the house, has in its corners heads representing the Four Seasons. The central oval medallion shows four putti, holding in their hands the symbols of the four classical elements: earth, water, fire and air.

At the top of the wall panel in the drawing room opposite the chimneypiece are two dragons made of papier-mâché. Richard Beckford's brother, William Beckford, permitted Richard to borrow them from his own coat of arms. When the House of Charity acquired the property three of the chimneypieces from the House, including the Council Room chimneypiece, were sold to fund the building of the Chapel. The overmantel is original but the present chimneypiece is a copy made in about 1960.

The Silk Room is a silk-lined room which also has its original plasterwork ceiling and carved wooden chimneypiece. It is also called the Withdrawing Room, because in Georgian times it was the room where ladies withdrew to.

At the rear of the House, The Bazalgette Room was the principal bedroom. The chimneypiece and overmantel are original and the entrance door is matched by a false door at the southern end of the same wall. This was to give the room symmetry, but the plain plasterwork indicates that the room has been reduced in size to provide storage space for the Metropolitan Board of Works. The room takes its name from being the offices of the civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who designed London's sewage system. The House of Charity used the Bazalgette room to house its archives, including all the records of those helped. On the false wall is a metal photo print by Gilbert and George, who are depicted on the print.

The Library has a Victorian fireplace with the badges of the House of Charity, inscribed with the Charity's founding date 1846 and 1862, the date the Charity moved into the House. Between the two badges is a text from the Gospel of Matthew "I was a stranger and ye took me in". The second feature is a tavern clock about four feet high and made entirely of black lacquered wood with gold painted numbers. The dial of these types of clocks was big and bold enabling them to be seen in dimly lit, smoke filled taverns. These clocks were also known as Act of Parliament clocks because they became popular after the British Parliament passed an Act in 1797 levying a tax on domestic clocks with the result that people relied on public clocks for their time-keeping.

The Monro Room and the Garden Room were created by the Charity out of an extension devised by the Metropolitan Board of works on part of the site of the stables that complimented the Georgian House. Today they are mostly used for events.

On the outside of the house is the Penny Chute attached to the railings in Soho Square. Coins fall down the pipe to the alms box in the kitchen. People today still donate to the Charity using this method.

The Chapel[edit]

The Chapel was built on the site of the Georgian stable yard between 1862 and 1864 by Edward Conder of Baltic Wharf, Kingsland Road. The architect was Joseph Clarke and the original plans for the site included a refectory with dormitories above and a cloister. The Annual Report of 1928 mentions that the plan of the Chapel "was suggested and partly designed from the plans of a Romanesque chapel attached to the Abbey of Montmajeur, Arles, France." The vision for the interior of the Chapel and for the cloistered dormitories are depicted in paintings situated in the corridor leading to the Chapel entrance.

The cost of building the chapel proved a financial strain to the Charity, and 'in 1864 three chimney pieces were sold from the House.'[9]

The Chapel is a reminder of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Church of England spearheaded by men like Newman, Pusey and Keble and the Tracts, 1833-1841, that earned them the name Tractarians. Their followers not only emphasised Catholic aspects of the Church of England but also a return to medieval Gothic architecture after neo-classical churches of the previous two hundred years. In 1848, the then Bishop of London, Archibald Tait, became Visitor to the charity and his successors continue to hold this office. The original plan included a throne for the Bishop behind the altar but, in 1865, Joseph Clarke proposed the mosaics by Harland and Fisher. The advice and support of the Visitor provide a living link between the House of St Barnabas and the Church of England in the Diocese of London.

During the Second World War, the original stained glass windows and roof of the Chapel suffered bomb damage. The apse above the altar was originally painted with the Passion of Christ and the windows commemorated the Charity's founders and supporters. The present windows behind the altar represent, from left to right, St Edward the Confessor; St Barnabas holding the Chapel in his arms; St Paul preaching and St John the Baptist holding the mother Chapel of Clewer in his arms; they were designed by John Hayward. The windows in the side apses, dating from 1958, represent the Stations of the Cross and the Annunciation. The organ was built by the firm of J. W. Walker & Sons Ltd in 1875 at a cost of £250 and was enlarged by them in 1884. At the west end of the South West apse is a memorial to Captain Henry Norman who died in 1925. He became a porter of the House after retiring as first mate of the Cutty Sark, the tea clipper now at Greenwich.

The Chapel remains a sacred space for prayer and worship. Although it is an Anglican Chapel, currently there are Roman Catholic services for the 11 o'clock congregation from St Patrick's Soho Square and for London's Macedonian Orthodox community and baptisms and services following civil weddings. The Chapel is also used for concerts and broadcasts — Paloma Faith has sung here — and for photography — The BBC filmed part of The Time Travellers Wife in the Chapel.


  1. ^ English Heritage. "Details from listed building database (209918)". Images of England .
  2. ^ Sheppard, F. H. W. (1966). "No. 1 Greek Street: The House of St. Barnabas-in-Soho". British History Online. University of London & History of Parliament Trust. Archived from the original on 3 July 2013. Retrieved 3 July 2013. "The House of Charity, now known as the House of St. Barnabas-in-Soho, was established in 1846 for the relief of the destitute and the houseless poor in London. Its two principal objects were 'to afford temporary relief to as many destitute cases as possible, and to have a Christian effect on the poor population'." 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h The House of Charity Annual Reports 79-122, 1925-1967. Brick St, Picadilly: The Women's Printing Society. 1951. p. 3. 
  4. ^ "The House of St Barnabas in Soho". Westminster City Council. Retrieved 4 June 2012. 
  5. ^ Sheppard, F. H. W. "No. 1 Greek Street: The House of St. Barnabas-in-Soho". British History Online. Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
  6. ^ Cornforth, John (6 July 1961). "The House of St Barnabas In Soho". Country Life 70 (3577): 19. 
  7. ^ Chesters & Hampshire, Graeme & David (2013). LONDON’S SECRET PLACES. Bath, England: Survival Books. pp. 22–23. 
  8. ^ Bignell, Peter (2010). The House of St Barnabas and its Georgian Setting. London. p. 44. 
  9. ^ Cornforth, John; n/a (6 July 1961). "The House of St Barnabas In Soho". Country Life. 3357 70: 20.