By Haydn Brown.
From the moment he was christened, or baptised – whatever you prefer, Onesiphorus Randall was destined to succeed in this world; it may appear to some that, as far as money was concerned, his destiny was pre-ordained – for ‘Onesiphorus’ means “bringing profits”! This is certainly how the future turned out for this splendidly named Norfolk lad who, almost from the moment he moved from the County to London, began his journey towards amassing a fortune.
From an almost relatively inconspicuous start of becoming a publican within a year of his arrival in Poplar, in east London, he soon began dabbling in the building trade thereabouts. He must have realised, even then, that there was money to be made as a fully-fledged property speculator there for the Poplar district was ripe for development. It so happened that he was ‘in the right place at the right time’ and clearly took full advantage of a growing situation. Later, as an increasingly rich man, he was to find time to regularly return to Norfolk and spend some of his wealth on ‘indulgences’ in the County of his birth.
Onesiphorus Randall was born in Cley, Norfolk on August 11, 1798, the youngest of five children. If ‘Ancestry’ records are to be believed then it would appear that his parents were John Randall and Elizabeth, nee Hook. The family were considered to be natives of Holt and, again, it would appear that Onesiphorus’s father, John, was born there in 1756; however, nothing further is known about Onesiphorus’s mother, Elizabeth. The boy’s upbringing and education is also unknown but in 1819, three years after the death of his father, Onesiphorus moved to the Poplar district of London; he was 21-years old. One can only speculate as to why he felt compelled to move, and why he chose Poplar, one of the poorest districts in the capital. Did he strike out blindly when he moved, or did he simply believe that opportunity lay waiting in such a place?
It is known that events moved rather quickly after he arrived in Poplar. Within one year, and barely 22 years old, he was settled as a publican of the Silver Lion in Pennyfields, and ran it until 1831 when he followed a William Blundell to become the licensee of the Globe Tavern at 33 Brunswick Street in Blackwall – that was until 1835. However, in between and sometime around 1825 whilst at the Silver Lion, he became involved in building speculation in the area and he was not alone in doing this. Maybe, over the flowing pints, the word was out that real money was to be made from the land that was increasingly becoming available for house building. Clearly, the area was desperate for cheap houses for rent, to at least those on the bottom of the ladder and the lower middle classes. Here, it should be borne in mind that the opening of the West India Docks in 1802 stimulated a rapid growth in housing development of predominately ‘mean terraces of rented cottages’. Poplar Fields, of which we speak, was the area north of East India Dock Road, and was developed as Poplar New Town from the 1830s to the mid-1850s – see below. By the late 19th century, poverty and overcrowding were rife and firmly established.
Onesiphorus’s initial scheme begun rather modestly in 1827 when he took a lease of land to the south of East India Dock Road. There he built a terrace of four houses, numbered 179–185 East India Dock Road, but known from 1832 as Randall’s Terrace. Onesiphorus occupied the then No. 185 (it later became No. 4) for himself in 1831, and where he was to remain until his death in 1873 at the age of 75.
Then, apart from building ‘modest houses in the adjacent parish of St Leonard’s, Bromley’, Onesiphorus’s began to build his ‘Randall’s Estate’ as part of Poplar’s ‘New Town’ to the north of the East India Dock Road, commonly known as ‘Poplar Fields’ until it was renamed ‘Poplar New Town’ in the 1830s. This land had previously been given over to market gardening and pasture, apart from a potash factory between Upper North Street and the ‘common sewer’ which drained the area. Development of the district east of the sewer began during the 1820s, but the major phase followed the release of the remainder of the area for building from the mid-1840s – this was when Onesiphorus became seriously involved, along with a series of other speculators who had leased areas of land which made up the whole. Within three to four years building of the whole area was ‘carried on with rapidity, equalled, perhaps, by no other suburban district of the metropolis’. The name ‘New Town’ was in use by 1836 and was applied generally to all the developments north of the East India Dock Road.
Onesiphorus ‘Randall’s Estate’ was in the centre of New Town, on a seven-acre field called The Grove. The southern section of this land had been held as copyhold of the manor of Stepney by the Smith family. In 1847 Richard Smith, junior, leased the land to Onesiphorus, having obtained a licence to demise the land for 90 years from Midsummer 1846. To the east of The Grove ran the ancient Black Ditch or common sewer, which formed the eastern boundary of the estate, while its western edge was along Upper North Street. Those boundaries merged at the north and south to form a lozenge-shaped area developed by Randall between 1850 and 1857.
Randall’s Estate was developed in the usual manner of building leases, most of them on terms of 80 years. A variety of local builders and craftsmen were involved in the construction of his estate. Among the most important were George Lester, carpenter; James Harpley Leake, joiner – who later ran the Estate Office for Randall; John Banbury and William Wickes, both bricklayers of Poplar; and Henry Clarke, a local builder. When finished, the development comprised 188 dwelling houses, 42 shops and houses, 49 lock-up shops in Randall’s Market and a large premise, formerly known as the Market House Tavern.
The southern portion of Randall’s Estate was built first, with the Market, which Randall also built, in the centre; streets ran from the market on an east-west axis. But from the outset, the standards of the new buildings were criticised. Randall himself was accused by the district surveyor of building a:
“fourth-rate dwelling house in Market Street of unsound materials and not in a manner to produce solid work, and on insufficient foundations”.
One wall was said to contain a large number of brickbats, and Randall was ordered to rebuild it. Despite this, he seemed to have little intention of making improvements; why should he when there was more money to be made by keeping the cost of his materials as low as was practical – he ‘got away with it’ and was not alone. In 1857, when the Estate was well advanced, the Building News still expressed concern when stating:
“a great number of new streets are in progress, but we regret to observe that they are anything but what they ought to be as regards design, materials and workmanship, being run up in a very paltry style”.
By means fair or foul, the whole estate was completed by the end of 1857. Grove (later Bygrove) Street was developed between 1849 and 1855, with 21 houses erected. Richard (later Ricardo) Street was built between 1851 and 1853, and Randall (later Augusta) Street between 1848 and 1854, with 24 houses constructed. On the south side of the Estate was a terrace of 11 houses, known as King’s Terrace, which was built by 1851 and named after Thomas Henry King, an architect and civil engineer of Spitalfields, who leased the site from Randall in 1851. Market Street included a terrace of nine two storey houses.
All the houses were similar in style and building materials. They were built of greyish brick, two storeys high and enriched with compo dressings which the ‘Building News’ again thought ‘preposterously too heavy in their proportions’. Towards the end of the 19th century, after Onesiphorus Randall had died, the streets of his Estate were described as “mostly straight dull rows of two-storied houses with a frontage of from 14-16 feet containing 6–8 rooms … most of them rise straight from the pavement in their grimy ugliness. There is generally a back yard of varying size and capabilities behind”. It was also self-evident that gardens did not flourish in this part of the east End!
On the north side of Market Street was a terrace of nine houses. The three houses at the centre of the terrace were built beneath a high pediment on which a market clock was placed. Both the pediment and the cupola of unusual shape on the roof were Classical in design. The northern vista of Randall’s Market was close by these houses.
At the centre of the development was Randall’s Market. It consisted of a north-south street of lock-up shops with a circus in the middle, where it was bisected by an east-west street. It was an ambitious scheme to establish a shopping area north of East India Dock Road. Costermongers, who were felt to lower the social standing of the area – as if the area had any more ‘slack’ to fall further, were prohibited from trading there. In some of the early deeds, the scheme was called Trinity Market, no doubt on account of its close proximity to the recently built Trinity Chapel in East India Dock Road. But this name was never adopted, and from its first appearance in the Post Office Directories in 1854, it was called Randall’s Market.
(Randall’s Market, built 1851-52, looking north in the 1920s.)
The Market was showy in style but, again, constructed of cheap materials. An ugly cement drinking-fountain was erected at the centre of the market and was surrounded by a punched-metal and glass canopy. Above the fountain was a gas lamp supported by dolphin brackets. The fountain was said to be in a state of rapid decomposition as early as 1857. Despite its architectural pretension, it was a market in a very humble area. The shops were a series of lock-ups with frontages with double-doors and a facade constructed mostly of wood. The roof of the single-storey shops was finished with a low parapet decorated with pierced stucco-work and concrete statues. In the centre of the market stood the Market House Tavern. This was a three-storey brick building with rendered walls. Italianate in style, the Market House had pedimented and embellished windows and the façade was decorated with a niche containing a statue.
Onesiphorus and his Excursions Back to Norfolk:
Almost nothing is known of the man himself, except that Onesiphorus Randall was ‘the most eccentric of men’ who, from the very beginning of his property exploits in London, certainly lived up to the meaning of his name. He was said to have married an Anna Pattenden, who was born somewhere in Middlesex in 1780, and was therefore some eighteen years older than Onesiphorus. Again, this calls into question ‘Ancestry’ records which show that a son was born in 1861, also named Onesiphorus – this fact, if that’s what it is, also calls into question the impression that Anna was the mother. Impossible one would say since, in 1861, Anna would have been at least 80 years old! It would seem therefore that Onesiphorus married for a second time – and the best fit here seems to be a Mary Anne Vousley, who was born in Bermondsey in 1839; making her 22 years old when Onesiphorus junior was born at No.4 Randall’s Terrace, Poplar – the father, Onesiphorus Sen. was 63 years of age – some catch with his money!
During this period of a probable re-marriage and birth, Onesiphorus’s wealth continued to grow substantially and he was able to begin his return trips to Norfolk; whether he made these trips alone or with his wife we just do not know. However, it was again during this period that something happened for which he later became long-remembered in the County. Firstly, he bought Woodlands House in Holt (now part of Gresham’s School), before acquiring the ruined Kelling Old Hall and with it, the associated title Lord of the Manor.
The truth is that, while still Lord of the Manor, Onesiphorus’s local ‘fame’ found its root when he built himself a ‘castle-styled folly’ at Salthouse, on the North Norfolk coast. Unusually perhaps, the Folly was located on a mound of land called the ‘Great Eye’, right on the beach rather than in or even near the village. The square two-storey stone structure was named, and always referred to thereafter, as “Randall’s Folly”. and was connected to a large expanse of grass called the ‘Flat Eye’ on which the village cows often grazed. The Folly was fitted with large double carriage doors front and back on the lower floor.
A member of the public, writing to a local paper in 1922, said:
“The familiar square-built stone house standing alone on the beach at Salthouse has been responsible for numerous questions as to its origin, and so many enquiries have been made regarding its association with smugglers and such romantic enterprises – one is sorry to destroy the illusion”
Just why Onesiphorus fitted double carriage doors front and back on the lower floor remained unclear. Although, his reputed penchant for entertaining the ladies, as spread by local gossip, has been suggested as one reason! As one local lady once put it – long after such rumoured events happened:
“I shouldn’t say this perhaps, but – Randall was very fond of women – that’s what that house was built for! It had a big door either end, and he used to drive up in his carriage and round into the house and right through the house with his coach and horses. The coach used to stop in the house till he was ready to go” …. Nod Nod, Wink Wink perhaps!
Certainly, those doors were real and enabled Onesiphorus to drive straight through in order to turn his horses and carriage round ready to return through the house and out over a bridge connecting ‘Flat Eye’ with ‘Great Eye’ and on to join Beach Road. He could bring the ladies into the house in his carriage and on leaving, open the seaward door, drive over the bridge and turn the carriage around on Flat Eye and depart back through the house! One may well wonder where Onesiphorus’s wife was while these alleged romantic dalliances were taking place in that remote Folly – and for which locals had a much saucier and descriptive name! Had anyone, at any time, given thought to the possibility, remote as may have been, that these ladies were images of no other that his wife?
With that thought, fast forward towards the end of the 19th century after Onesiphorus had died. This was when the Folly was bought by the Board of Trade and used as a coastguard station, housing the village life-saving brigade’s rocket cart and associated equipment. The rocket itself was launched from a cannon firing a Breeches Buoy to those in distress; in fact, saving many lives around the turn of the century. These duties gave the Randall’s Folly a new name of the “Rocket House”. By the early 1920’s however, the property had been sold off to become a holiday home, ending its life as a Rocket Brigade House. Nevertheless, the “Rocket House” name stuck until 1937 when it was privately purchased and renamed ‘Great Eye Folly’. The novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) rented the Great Eye Folly from 1950 to 1951 while working on her final novel ‘The Flint Anchor’ published in 1954. She did not live at the Folly alone; Valentine Ackland, her lover, also stayed with her.
Sylvia Townsend Warner described her first impressions of the Folly in a letter to Alyse Gregory – written in 1950:
“…. I think Valentine will have told you about the Great Eye Folly. I have the oddest impressions of it, since we were only there for about fifteen minutes, and conversing all the time with its owners. But the first five of those minutes were enough to enchant me. It is the sort of house one tells oneself to sleep with, and sometimes I almost suppose that it is really one of my dream-houses, and no such solid little assertion of the rectangle breaks the long sky-line of salt-marsh and sea.”
However, by 1937, the great expanse of “Flat Eye” had been lost to the sea but the folly remained, until seriously damaged in the 1953 flood. Surging water way above any normal height, removed half the building. Deemed unsafe, what remained was demolished. Subsequent storms and surges gradually removed all but a small mound of earth of the “Great Eye”, leaving “Little Eye” to the west as a former memory. In the 1600’s, Little Eye was about two thirds of the distance between the coast road and the shingle ridge and from Little Eye to Great Eye. Great Eye merged with Flat Eye which in turn merged with the shingle ridge, this forming a continuous barrier from near the Dun Cow pub, which didn’t open until 1786.
For nearly 100 years, Randall’s Folly had been a well-known landmark between Little Eye and the Beach Road car park. For many years, some local folk could still remember the iconic building rising high above the shingle on the horizon but, the former folly has not been entirely forgotten. That’s because locally, one local tradition still continues. Today, the local Holt Sea Angling Club holds an event at Salthouse Beach on the day after Boxing Day. Conceived by local fisherman and boat-owners, the annual ‘Rocket House Open’ fishing match is held in memory of the Folly which once stood on the “Great Eye” mound, facing seaward.
Onesiphorus died at No. 4 (previously No.185) Randall Terrace Poplar in November 1873 at the age of 75 years. At the time of his death, his income from leasehold houses in the East End of London was said to have amounted to £3,000 per annum. His young son, also Onesiphorus jnr, eventually inherited the estate (for he was only 12 years old at the time of his father’s death – and 14 years when his mother died) after a protracted Chancery case; he died in 1913 at the age of 52 years.
Christopher Weston (Norfolk Achive).