Milne: The Erber

The Erber: Tracing Global Trade through a London Building

Sarah Ann Milne

John Stow in his updated Survey of London of 1603 considered the city to be ‘the principall store house, and staple of all commodities within this realme’. In 1611 Edmund Howes went further declaring London to be ‘the choicest storehouse in the world’. More recently Dietz’s 1986 economic study of overseas trade showed that between 1561-7 and 1607-13 imports more than tripled. Goods poured into the city before being redistributed throughout England. In the context of the developing global city of trade, my paper on ‘The Erber’ set out to test whether traces of the new commercial ventures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the corresponding increase in international trade, could be read in the changing form and inhabitation of one urban property.

Located in Dowgate Ward in the City of London, the Erber primarily consisted of a stone mansion house with a gatehouse and courtyard towards Dowgate Hill, a backyard and a rear garden towards Bush Lane, alongside smaller tenements lining edges of Carter Lane and Bush Lane. Typically configured around a series of courtyards, the property’s aristocratic medieval origins have been briefly explored by C. L. Kingsford. In 1541 the Erber was purchased by the Worshipful Company of Drapers. The Drapers’ corporate building accounts formed the basis of my study and initial explorations of this material indicated that a series of leading city merchants were tenants of the principal house. Could this micro-history offer insights into the changing commercial landscape of London and how such shifts were registered in the built environment? More broadly, what are the implications of global trade to architectural histories of early modern London buildings? Reflecting on the Erber, it is this second question that I will now speculate on.

Taking a long view of the centrally-located property, my paper methodologically focussed on the wider theme of process in the urban environment. This priority was underpinned by the assumption that architecture is more than simply ‘what the architect does’.[1] Whilst the scholarship in the field of architectural history has significantly diversified in the last thirty years, the emergence of the figure of the architect in the early seventeenth century has proven to be an enduring preoccupation for architectural historians. This is of course a valuable and important area for research. Several studies in recent decades have illuminated the extent of design innovation prompted by intensified cultural negotiations with the continent.[2] In positioning elite country houses at the centre of architectural investigations into the early modern period, it seems that the ‘global exchange of ideas’ has become the dominant line through for historians of architecture.

In this context it is important to note that the sixteenth century city environment was primarily defined by mercantile, not courtly, activity and to date the spatial consequences of the city’s commercial character have largely escaped the gaze of scholars. A limited number of ‘extraordinary’ urban interventions attributed to recognizable designers such Inigo Jones have tended to attract intense attention and a clustering of disciplinary conversations around these fragments has contributed to a relative neglect of the everyday built environment – as produced by Londoners of all sorts. Therefore, utilising the Erber as a case study, my paper argued that the architecture of the city could usefully be examined through the global exchange of ‘things’ as a complement to the more canonical focus on the global exchange of ideas.

Such an approach might especially investigate the transportation and temporary enclosure of traded goods passing through the city. Evidence from the Erber supported the view that in sixteenth century London the ‘scaling-up’ of mercantile activity driven by new international initiatives necessitated a related upturn in the demand for spaces of storage within its walls. Archeologist John Schofield has suggested that the emergence of new larger-scale warehouses after the 1666 fire represented the beginning of a new, or at least ‘nearly-new’, building type for the city. Their functional singularity and locational independence marked them out against the complicated arrangements and integration that defined earlier storage places like the Erber. Although far less easily identifiable and visually impacting, the proliferation of small-scale adaptions to existing buildings was spatially no less significant. Embedded within the urban environment, the accumulation of such tweaks to earlier structures facilitated the operation of new trading ventures from the heart of the city. Therefore, surveying a century of construction work undertaken at the Erber revealed something of the incremental developments that characterized the expanded landscape of the city. Progressively built into and hewed out from the existing building stock, lofts, warehouses, garrets, cellars and storeyards were developed as extensions and re-appropriations of spaces already programmed. Like so much of the city, their form was often borne out of tangled spatial arrangements and property boundaries which picked their way through compacted urban blocks.

In this way an attention to the accretion of ‘everyday’ spaces of storage necessitates the adoption of a more inclusive approach to the making of the city. Treating the Erber as a cohesive entity, my study consciously moved beyond the occupants of the principal house and considered the diverse lives and exchanges which shaped less-prestigious spaces connected to the wider property. In following the requests, complaints and rental payments of inhabitants through the Drapers’ records it was possible to reconstruct particular fragments of the building in surprising detail, regardless of the size or nature of the property. Having identified several international merchants operating from and residing within the Erber, the substantial principal house could have easily have been singled out for exclusive attention. But to have done so would have been to misrepresent the integrated nature of the Erber as a whole and to dis-engage from the give-and-take reality of negotiations surrounding its configuration. For example, the records demonstrated that frequent adjustments to the built fabric were prompted and usually undertaken by pro-active tenants of the lower and middling sorts in conjunction with now anonymous craftsmen. In turn I considered the extent to which the development activity and recalibration of spaces across the site could be related to the commercial ambitions of individual residents and partly driven by the trickle-down effect of increasing flows of global goods through the city.

Tracing the implications of global trade through the Erber reinforced my hunch that, in investigating urban environments through the paradigm of the global, there is a distinct opportunity for architectural historians (from both architecture and art history departments) to contribute to inclusive discussions about the developing nature of city space. Supporting the need for a broader understanding of the spatial production of global cities, my study perhaps draws attention to the necessity of accounting for what Charles Jencks calls the “unselfconscious 80 percent” in the making of urban space – in this case driven by economic activity.[3] More specifically I take it that there is a great need to meaningfully engage with alternative conversations less concerned with the application of stylistic ‘-isms’ and more interested in situating buildings holistically within the implicit messiness of the city in flux. The Global Cities ‘Space’ workshop encouragingly offered a forum for such inter-disciplinary dialogues.

[1] For further discussion see Borden, Ian and Rendell, Jane (eds), Intersections: Architectural Histories and Critical Theories. London: Routledge, 2000

[2] For example, Ghent, Lucy (ed.), Albion’s Classicism: The Visual Arts in Britain, 1550-1660. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. And also Worsley, Giles, Inigo Jones and the European Classicist Tradition. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

[3] Jencks, Charles. Architecture 2000: predictions and methods. New York: Praeger, 1971