Monday, 5 October 2015

A spot of time-travel: Visit Dennis Severs’ House

Taking kids somewhere where you have to walk round in silence and you aren’t allowed to touch anything doesn’t sound like a great idea, does it? But at Dennis Severs’ House the fun is all inside your head. 

Messy museum, 3D still life painting, historical drama without actors, time capsule … ? Dennis Severs’ House is difficult to categorise. 

This five-storey Georgian terrace in the East end of London was bought in 1979 by a Californian called (yes, you’ve guessed it) Dennis Severs. He moved in, ripped out the electricity and all mod cons and set to work re-creating it as if an imaginary 18th-century family was still living there: eating, sleeping, breathing, playing, partying there. He even filled the chamber pots with real wee.
by Roelof Bakker
Today the house is owned by the Spitalfields Trust and the chamber pots are empty, but other than that, it’s pretty much as Dennis Severs arranged it. 

“It wasn’t like ‘Ooh, guests are coming, we must make it clean and tidy’,” said my daughter after our visit. “It was like the family had just popped out. And we were snooping around, secretly.” 

Which is exactly as Dennis Severs intended us to experience it. As you approach, they depart, as you depart, they re-enter says a sign.
by Roelof Bakker
Evidence of the family’s ‘presence’ is everywhere: unmade beds, half-drunk cups of tea, lit candles, bread toasting by the fire, piles of dirty laundry, a tower of playing cards, reading glasses on an open bible, a nightshirt draped over a chair, ticking clocks, an apple core, shoes under the bed, a stained recipe, washing lines of bloomers and corsetry hung in the stairwell ... And did I just hear a gentleman cough behind me? Was that a horse and carriage passing by outside? And what’s that smell … is it pineapple?

Little reminders here and there prod you to play detective, use all your senses, absorb the atmosphere … In this house it is not what you see, but what you have only just missed and are being asked to imagine, says one. What? You’re still looking at ‘things’ instead of what ‘things’ are doing? ribs another.
by Roelof Bakker
The house is nevertheless a feast for the eyes. It is absolutely full of things. Dennis Severs, an obsessive collector from childhood, bought them for bargain prices from local markets – before vintage became trendy. They suck you into the minutiae of the family’s lives and lifestyle. 

“The way the objects are all put together like that, you can really feel how they lived,” said my daughter afterwards. “It's much better than a museum.”

Her favourite bit was the attic, set up as if it was rented out to a much poorer family. The contrast was striking: a threadbare armchair, filthy pillows, peeling walls, broken floorboards, holes in the ceiling, and the noise of the wind howling outside, rain dripping on the roof. 
by Roelof Bakker
“It was like in A Little Princess when she suddenly goes from rich girl to servant and is sent to sleep in the attic with the rats,” she said.

I was especially fascinated by the ‘order of duties’ pinned up on the wall for the domestic servants. After lighting the fire, they were instructed to ‘Allow one quarter of an hour for dust to settle which time is to be employed elsewhere.’ I was suddenly overwhelmed by gratefulness for central heating, hoovers and Cillit Bang.
by Roelof Bakker
In the enforced silence, my daughter became expert at mime and precise pointing to communicate with me. But she told me afterwards that she didn’t mind having to be quiet.

“Because instead of saying ‘Look, mummy, look, there’s a dead rabbit on the kitchen table’, I had to keep it in my head and if you keep it in your head you think about it more. Your imagination makes it real."

“So how would you fancy living in the 18th century?” I ask her.

“I’d hate it because it’s be so cold and dark and dusty and grubby and you don’t get proper duvets. I wouldn’t be able to put up with all that grub,” she says, pulling a face. “And I think I’d be bored. I’d probably have to spend all day playing cards.”
by Roelof Bakker
Dennis Severs, however, chose to live in the house the rest of his life, in 18th-century conditions, leaky roof and all, until he died of cancer at age 51 in 1999. He felt he had been born in the wrong place, in the wrong century.

“I think he was mad,” says my daughter. “He did the house really well though,” she adds.

Visit the website of Dennis Severs' House here.


  1. What a fantastic and fascinating place. I bet it really felt real and very enlightening, especially for children to see.
    Thanks for sharing #LetKidsBeKids

  2. Yes, I think my daughter's 'historical imagination' is more developed than mine!

  3. It seems like a great place. I was always interested in the real life and the everyday of an average family. So much easier to relate to than kings and queens from history books.
    I think I'll have to wait a little while before going. I can't rely on my two-year old to stay quiet...

    1. Yes, two might be a bit young! I know what you mean - the 'average' person's life in history is much more interesting... then you can really see the differences with your own life.