Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images
In the shadow of the Barbican’s pugnacious fingers sprawls an ancient oasis – an eclectic copse of weathered stone arches, dusty brick gables and leafy cloisters overlooked by clock towers. This temple to tranquility is nestled against the chaos of the Square Mile, its outer walls licked by the throbbing fumes of a million commuters. This is ‘The Charterhouse’ – a 7.5 acre smorgasbord of historic buildings that have paid witness to a greedy portion of the last 700 years of British history, and whose doors opened earlier this year for the first time.
Over the course of the last millenium it has endured an impressive share of identity crises: founded in 1371 atop a burial pit for the victims of the Black Death, it soon grew into Europe’s largest Carthusian monastery before its inevitable dissolution. The ruins were subsequently recast as the elegant Tudor mansion in which Elizabeth I convened her Privy Council nights before her coronation. And by 1611, in the hands (and funds) of inordinately wealthy benefactor Thomas Sutton, the Charterhouse had been rebranded as a sanctuary for eighty ‘decrepit or old captaynes either at sea or at land, maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck of other calamity’ – a place of solace for those whose fortunes had run dry.
Four hundred years later and Sutton’s legacy continues to putter away in this clandestine corner of Islington. Ann Kenrick, the complex’s incumbent ‘master’, is now responsible for 42 ‘brothers’. All must be over sixty and in turbulent financial situations. In reality, the vast majority are considerably older and formerly occupied a motley collection of vibrant careers. Development director Dominic Tickell explains that they try to find people who ‘made a contribution’ to society and strove for ‘the greater good’. Or as Ann elucidates, they can’t just be ‘losers’.
She likens her job to the running of a village, albeit one devoid of disillusioned youths lighting up in the disabled spaces outside Londis. For Ann, these unique and venerable surroundings are a serendipitous backdrop to a job that is ‘all about the people’. To this end, a museum (there is no admission charge) has opened on-site that elegantly charts the social history of The Charterhouse backwards through an impressive assembly of artefacts from the V&A, the Museum of London and the Charterhouse’s own collections. The most mundane are the most revealing: a 19th century chapel attendance list and a ticket to ‘Puss in Boots’ at the Hackney Empire attest to the ways in which the community has wriggled slyly into modernity.
In some ways, this enormously prestigious retirement home evokes a traditional English boarding school. Brothers have their own set places in the cavernous dining hall, and these never change so as to separate cliques of similarly-minded octogenarians. Tables operate instead as microcosms of the wider community – a family you don’t get to choose. Indeed, the public school spirit is hardly incongruous – Sutton conceived Charterhouse School in these corridors, an institute that grew from just 40 poor scholars in 1611 to over 800 today. And, like the lower years of the school itself , the almshouse experience has always been steadfastly unisex.
But now, for the first time in its 660 year history, the institute is on the cusp of admitting women. Dominic explains that, in an effort both to ‘respect Sutton’s wishes’ and conform to the 21st century zeitgeist, this decision was undertaken in accordance with what the directors believed he would have wanted had he been good enough to cling to life another few centuries. The first potential female ‘brother’ was invited to look round last Friday.
To the east, the City is vanishing under stretchy canvases of glass and steel. To the west lies an earthy pit ridden not only with plague bodies but also diggers and Crossrail rails. Very few vestiges of the kind of dignified tranquillity The Charterhouse embodies remain. Take advantage, not because Reaction’s Chairman, Lord Salisbury, is a Governor. It’s also free.