I was meandering through Soho on Saturday (I’m trying to teach myself the lay of the land – I’m sure the streets rearrange themselves before each visit) and I noticed a little chapel with its door swung open. I can’t resist an open church door so I wondered in to have a nose around. At the back of the chapel I found a peaceful, completely shielded courtyard, surrounded by 2 stories on all sides and shaded by tall trees. As I was snapping a few pics, an enthusiastically gesticulating gentleman with a European accent came running out and asked me not to take photographs.
“Please, not today! I’m so embarrassed at the mess!”
The man explained that the chapel is connected to The House of St Barnabas, a members’ club with an altruistic difference (more on that shortly). The club, housed in a Georgian town house, was in the midst of preparing for a day open to the public as part of Open House London and although I thought it looked stunning, the furniture was not in the right place, apparently. I was treated to a mini tour (he was such a proud custodian) which really whet my appetite and so I arranged to go back on Sunday and have a look once it had finished being dolled up.
When I arrived on Sunday afternoon the library was full of chatty, wide-eyed tourists waiting for a guide to show them the highlights of the house. I joined them and quickly blended in, being unable to hide my excitement. We weren’t disappointed; the house contained highlights at every turn. The staircase was lined with an original wrought iron banister and was home to the oldest artefact in the house: a Flemish wood carving of an angel created in the 1620s. The landing has a great mix of new and old. Fabulous, oversized modern paintings of Boxers by Peter Howsen (reminded me of the BFG) hung in panels which are examples of the oldest plaster work in London (the reason for the house’s Grade I listing). Our guide, Peter, explained how the improvements being made to Tottenham Court Road Underground Station were a source of worry and that tilt detectors had been fitted around the house so that TFL could monitor any potential movement in the house that could damage the plaster. I’m relieved that such thought and care is being invested into protecting the house but a little disappointed by the reminder that modern life will no doubt slowly erode remnants of the past.
Whilst gazing at the Drawing Room, Peter told us about the history of the house. In 1846, Henry Monro founded a charity to help homeless which moved into the house in 1862. Throughout the charity’s history, it has helped families where the husband went into a Victorian workhouse, people who were emigrating to Australia, sick people who travelled to London for operations and servants and nannies who had lost their jobs. Henry Monro is depicted around the house including in a bust in the Drawing Room and a painting in the Dickens Room. We were lucky enough to meet David Monro, the current reverend of the chapel and great great grandson of Henry Monro.
Although the members’ club has a plethora of celebrity names in its books, they’re not the first famous people to visit the house. Charles Dickens is said to have used the house and its courtyard as the basis for the imaginary accommodation of Dr. Manette and Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities. And one of the upstairs rooms was once the office of the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who designed London’s sewage system. One wall of the office is now lined with a print by Gilbert and George said to be worth a whopping £140,000!
Continuing the work of the charity, the club currently supports London’s homeless through their Life Skills Program. The 12 week courses equip the volunteers with practical skills and experience to help them enter the world of work. The charity also provides coaching and therapies to focus on mental and physical well-being of the people that work there. 100% of the membership fees are invested into the charity so it seems less like an extravagant spend and more like a sensible donation. For £100 a quarter, a member can visit the house whenever they please with up to three friends at a time. The house hosts lunch, afternoon tea and dinner each day and frequent events. As you can tell, I’ve been hugely inspired after a single visit and so am very tempted to join the club. It would make a perfect base from which to explore the area so that finally the streets might sit still for me!