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A troublesome tenant, 1698
How did the three wheelbarrows get broken?
Last week we read 17th century diarist John Evelyn’s sad accounts of the deaths of two of his children. I mentioned in passing another story connected with him: that the Russian tsar Peter the Great had planted a mulberry tree in Evelyn’s garden at Sayes Court in Deptford, south-east London. I wanted to know more, and it turns out there’s rather more to the story, although Evelyn himself is only a minor character in it.
The manor house at Sayes Court has long gone now, but there were various incarnations of it from Norman times until the Victorian era. Part of the site has survived as a public park – home to that mulberry tree – and some of the foundations of the house have been excavated by archaeologists.
Previous illustrious owners of Sayes Court included Cardinal Wolsey, and in the Civil War it was seized by Parliament; Evelyn came to it via his wife’s family, the Brownes, and he settled there for 40 years from the early 1650s, nurturing his passion for horticulture by creating an extensive garden that people travelled across the country to see. In 1694, though, now in his 70s, he moved back to his home estate in Wotton, Surrey. In 1696 he signed a three-year lease (“with conditions to keep the garden”) with the controversial admiral John Benbow, and this was when the decline of Sayes Court began. In a latter of 18th January 1697, Evelyn wrote to his friend Ralph Bohun:
I have let my house to Captain Benbow, and have the mortification of seeing, every day, much of my former labours and expense there impairing, for want of a more polite tenant.
It would get worse. A year later, Peter I of Russia – at this point 25 years old – turned up in London to learn about British seamanship and shipbuilding. King William III lent him Sayes Court for three months (technically Evelyn had been leasing it from the Crown all along), which is presumably when the mulberry tree might have been planted – although given what happened next, it seems far more likely that Evelyn himself had planted the tree earlier, and it was a lucky survivor.
Peter brought a certain brand of chaos to his visit. In January, before he had moved to Sayes Court, his pet monkey jumped at the king, which wasn’t a great start. (And somewhat at odds with a note in the Calendar of State Papers which records that “The Czar is very much incognito here, and above all things desires to be so”– though this was borne out by his use of the pseudonym Peter Mikhailov on his visit in order to sightsee unrecognised.)
Here is what Evelyn’s bailiff, John Strickland, wrote to his employer about the visitor, in a letter of 16th February:
There is a house full of people, and right nasty. The Tsar lies next your library, and dines in the parlour next your study. He dines at ten o’clock and six at night, is very seldom at home a whole day, very often in the King’s yard, or by water, dressed in several dresses. The King is expected there this day, the best parlour is pretty clean for him to be entertained in. The King pays for all he has.
That best parlour didn’t stay “pretty clean” for long, it seems. Peter left on 21st April and not long after, on 6th May, Benbow submitted the following petition to the Treasury.
The humble Petition of John Benbow, shows: “That your petitioner did some time since take the house of John Evelyn Esquire, called Sayes Court at Deptford, and is bound by agreement to keep the same (together with the gardens), &c., in good and sufficient order and repair. And to leave them in the same at the expiration of his Term. And so it is (may it pleas your honours), that, his Czarish Majesty coming to your petitioner about three months ago, did request the use of his house, during the time of his stay in England, as also the furniture in it, as it stood. He freely consented thereto, and immediately removed his family out of it, and gave him possession. Soposing it might be a pleasure to his good master the King, and that he would have used his house, goods, and gardens otherwise than he finds he has; which are in so bad a condition that he can scarcely describe it to your honours; besides much of the furniture broke, lost, and destroy’d.
Your petitioner, therefore, humbly prays that your honours will please to order a survey upon the house, &c., to see what damage he has sustained and that reparation be made him, that so he may not be a sufferer for his kindness.
[That survey was indeed undertaken, by no less a figure than Sir Christopher Wren, aided by the king’s gardener, George London. They estimated the damages at £350 (at least £50,000 today) to be split between Benbow and Evelyn. Their survey included this table, as well as a long “Inventory of Admiral Benbow’s Goods that is Lost, Broake, and damage done to them”:]
[As for Evelyn’s beloved garden, George London reported “some observations made upon the gardens and plantations”:]
During the time the Tzar of Muscovy inhabited the said house, several disorders have been committed in the gardens and plantations, which are observed to be under two heads; one is what can be repaired again, and the other what cannot be repaired.
All the grass work is out of order, and broke into holes by their leaping and showing tricks upon it.
The bowling green is in the same condition.
All that ground which used to be cultivated for eatable plants is all overgrown with weeds, and is not manured nor cultivated, by reason the Tzar would not suffer any men to work when the season offered.
The wall fruit and standing fruit trees are unpruned and unnailed.
The hedges nor wilderness are not cut as they ought to be.
The gravel walks are all broke into holes and out of order.
… Great damages are done to the trees and plants, which cannot be repaired, as the breaking the branches of the wall fruit trees, spoiling two or three of the finest phillersas [probably phillyrea, a type of privet], breaking several hollies and other fine plants.
[Then on 9th June, Evelyn himself gives us this weary diary entry:]
I went to Deptford to view how miserably the Tzar of Moscovy had left my house after 3 months making it his court, having gotten Sir Christopher Wren, his Majesty’s Surveyor, & Mr London his gardener to go down & make an estimate of the repairs, for which they allowed 150 pounds in their report to the Lord of the Treasury.
A tale hangs on those “3 wheelbarrows broke and Lost”, too: the story goes that Evelyn’s neighbours reported that Peter was in the habit of racing in a wheelbarrow, crashing through John’s beloved hedges. I can’t find a source for this earlier than Victorian times, but it certainly makes for a compelling image. And Peter’s visit is commemorated to this day in the form of Czar Street in Deptford (adjoining Evelyn Street), various plaques around London, and a striking sculpture.
The best source I have found for all of these reports is The History of Deptford by Nathan Dews, 1884.