1 The Sanctuary – A History

Westminster Abbey and 1 The Sanctuary in 1892

The building currently known as The Sanctuary was once within the precincts of Westminster Abbey.

The Sanctuary takes its name from the right of sanctuary offered to anyone passing within its confines, a right founded by Edward the Confessor. This invitation was not extended to traitors, ‘infidels’, or those who committed sacrilege; nor was it extended to those of the Jewish faith. The nobler refugees resided within the walls, while the commoner sort lived in tenements forming small colonies.

The wall bordering the two precincts held the gatehouse, one of two entrances to the Abbey.  It also formed Gatehouse Prison.  Convicts being transported to the prison could therefore easily gain access to the Abbey and resultant safety.  The refugees were primarily bankrupts, debtors and common thieves – offenders against property therefore especially hated by the trading community.

The area immediately at the West Door of the Abbey (our precise location) was the laundry area for the monks’ dirty washing.  How ironic that the future occupants should be solicitors and bankers.

Elizabeth Woodville depicted in a Victorian engraving kissing goodbye to her son Edward V

The most famous of those seeking sanctuary was Queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV.She took sanctuary twice; on the first occasion in 1470 she gave birth to the future Edward V who was baptised in the Abbey.  On the second occasion, when Edward V was deposed, she took refuge at the Abbey with her younger son Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, and it is from here that he was taken to the Tower of London in 1483.  The young Edward and Richard became known as ‘The Princes in the Tower’, the remains of whom may well be buried in a small box in the Abbey.

Although James I abolished the right of sanctuary, the slums it fostered remained for many years.

The gatehouses, walls and the original Sanctuary church were dismantled bit by bit by people wanting to reuse the beautiful white stone, some of which was used for the Government buildings of the neighbourhood, which is perhaps where Whitehall got its name.  There are no records of the foundations being removed, and it is thought that these still remain under the extensive development of the area.

In the early 1800s it was decided to pass the properties of abbeys and cathedrals to the Church Commissioners, so that the land could be developed, and the rental income used to equalise the stipends of the clergy.

The Sanctuary buildings today

The Church Commissioners redeveloped the area immediately outside the Abbey’s West Door. Gilbert Scott, then Surveyor of the Fabric of the Abbey, was commissioned to design a block of eight houses.  Gilbert Scott’s intention was that these houses should not appear as one block and so he incorporated into his design subtle differences between each house.  If the houses had not been adjacent to the Abbey, he would no doubt have been freer with his design. “A picturesque pile of houses” was how they were described in the Illustrated London News of 1854.  When they were built the entire terrace of eight houses cost some £20,000.  The design, based on features of St John’s College, Cambridge, is very much in keeping with Scott’s gothic style as illustrated in the former Midland Grand Hotel (now the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel) adjacent to St Pancras station and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens.  Scott’s grandson followed in his grandfather’s footsteps becoming a famous architect, responsible for designs such as Battersea Power Station and the once ubiquitous red telephone boxes.

Although originally built as houses The Sanctuary almost immediately became used as offices.  While the censuses show that people did live there, domestic staff, housekeepers etc tended to the permanent residents.

No. 1’s original occupant was Bonamy Dobree, a merchant banker, whose coat of arms is depicted in the stained-glass window retained in No. 1. Mr Dobree continued to live at No. 1 with his widowed daughter, granddaughter, and resident staff of five, comprising butler, cook, housemaid, kitchen maid and lady’s maid until 1865 when Samuel Noyes moved in.  Mr Noyes was amongst other things Clerk to the Woking Railway Co.  Thomas Bolton set up his practice in 1855 at No.2 The Sanctuary.  In 1855 John Benjamin Lee joined, but it wasn’t until 1874, when John Lee’s eldest son, Harold Wilmot Lee, became a partner that the firm of Lee Bolton & Lee came into being.  In 1877 Lee Bolton & Lee expanded from No. 2, where they had been since they went into partnership in 1855, into No. 1, with Samuel Noyes. Lee Bolton & Lee have been at No.1 ever since, now known as Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, with whom we share this fascinating building.

Being a neighbour of Westminster Abbey, the Sanctuary and its occupants have witnessed a number of historical events first hand: royal coronations, including Edward VII in 1902, George V in 1911, George VI in 1937 and Elizabeth II in 1953; royal weddings, including that of George VI in 1923, the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947, and her grandson Prince William in 2011; and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations in Westminster Abbey in 1887.

Many funerals have also been held at the Abbey, including Lord Mountbatten in 1978, Princess Diana in 1997 and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002.  The Sanctuary is certainly an interesting place to work!

With thanks to Susie Hust and Lee Bolton Monier Williams