The Gunmakers’ Company’s Proof House complex, 46–50 Commercial Road, Whitechapel
By the Survey of London, on 21 February 2020
An irregular group of buildings on the south side of Commercial Road near its west end is a unique survival. Here a City Livery Company continues to exercise an original regulatory function on a site it has occupied for nearly 350 years. The buildings are the Gunmakers’ Company’s proof master’s house, proof house and receiving house (alternatively shop, office or room), all largely of the 1820s, and, to the west, the Company’s former Livery Hall, built in 1871, possibly incorporating earlier fabric from an East India Company storehouse of 1808.
The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers was instituted by charter in 1637, nearly fifty years after a group of gunmakers drew up draft procedures for proving the safety of firearms. Opposition from other interested parties – the Blacksmiths and Armourers – delayed the creation and adoption of the Company until a Royal Commission of 1631 recommended its institution. It received its charter from Charles I, but the proving of guns did not start until the charter was enrolled in 1656. This enabled the Company to test all new hand guns, great and small, pistols and daggs (heavy pistols), produced in London and for ten miles around, or imported, to search for the same, and to ensure that gunmakers had served a seven-year apprenticeship and produced a proof piece to the satisfaction of the Company. The Company’s first proof house, for testing the security of gun barrels by subjecting them to firing loads a quarter to a third heavier than normal, was built in 1657 near Aldgate on land owned by John Silke, a gunmaker. An explosion that damaged Silke’s premises may have encouraged the Company to take a new site in 1663, probably in the Minories or East Smithfield, the centre of the London gunmaking industry.
In 1676 the Company moved to its current site. This appealed, no doubt, because it was then in an open field and had no neighbours to disturb or damage. The site formed part of a larger holding bounded north and east by Church Lane, west by Goodman’s Fields, and extending south as far as present-day Hooper Street. This property was held in 1691 by John Nicoll, probably a Holborn soapmaker who had a family connection with Whitechapel through the Darnelly family, and from 1692 to 1703 by John Skinner, an apothecary with property in Whitechapel High Street. Skinner’s profession may account for the land being denominated the Physick Garden, though the name Jackson’s Garden was also in use. Skinner sold the entire property freehold in 1703 to Benjamin Masters, a mariner, and part was leased to Jonathan Keeling, a gardener, in 1720.
The Gunmakers’ site was at the north-west corner of the Physick Garden. It was an irregular rectangle of ground, approximately 85ft wide by 58ft deep, bounded north by a ‘mudd wall’ and ‘a passage made by and through the mud wall’, west by a ditch and a ropewalk, east by ‘the hedge next to the dung road’,1 and south by another ditch separating it from the rest of Masters’ land. The proof house of 1676 was built by Michael Pratt, a carpenter, who held a lease on the ground.
That proof house had to be rebuilt in 1713, this done by one John Rogers on a new sixty-one-year lease from Masters. Thereafter the Gunmakers acquired the freehold of the site. A proof master’s house was present by 1733 when the master, Humphrey Pickfatt, was taxed for the proof house and a dwelling.
In 1752 a boundary dispute arose with Sir Samuel Gower, who had become the freeholder of land adjoining to the south and west. A plan accompanying the agreement that resolved this dispute reveals that the Gunmakers’ site did not extend eastwards quite to what had become Gower’s Walk, from which it was separated by a long 10ft-wide strip of land, occupied by a greengrocer’s shop with a small house behind. At this stage the Gunmakers’ premises included the proof house, roughly 20ft square, to the east adjoining the greengrocer’s, a privy at the south-east corner of the yard, the 35ft-wide (so double fronted) proof master’s house to the west (on the site of No. 46), the charging house (for charging weapons prior to proof), a shallow building about 20ft wide on Church Lane, with a smaller marking room (for stamping proofed weapons with the Gunmakers’ proof mark) on its east side abutting a narrow yard intruding into the greengrocer’s site on the Gower’s Walk corner.
Thus lay the Gunmakers shortly before a major rebuilding, prompted because the proof house was once again ‘ruinous’. It was reconstructed in 1757–8 ‘on a more beneficial and useful plan’,2 with the proof master’s house adjoining. A date-stone survives, reset on an inner wall of the receiving house (see above). In 1760 the charging house, marking house and counting house, also ‘ruinous’, were rebuilt on the same sites.3 Contention arose in 1781 when Joel Johnson and others complained that the proof house damaged their investment in houses they had built nearby on Gower’s Walk, but the Gunmakers reasonably pointed out that the proof house had been in that location for more than a hundred years, builders must have been aware of this before they chose to build nearby. Further additions and improvements were made, though Johnson refused to sell the easterly strip of land he then held.
Further development happened on the establishment’s west side in the early nineteenth century. The East India Company had been acquiring arms from London gunmakers since 1664. From 1709 to 1766 and again from 1778 it used the Gunmakers’ Company’s facilities to prove its arms. The East India Company built a storehouse and inspection room in 1807–8 on a westerly strip of the Gunmakers’ site, of which it took a ninety-nine-year lease in 1815. A door gave access to the Gunmakers’ yard through which barrels were transferred to the proof house. Beyond, the westernmost end of the Gunmakers’ holding was also developed, with two street-side houses with rear workshops, built in 1812 by John Williams, a bricklayer, on a fifty-seven-year lease. These properties were occupied over the next thirty years by a hairdresser, a bootmaker and a watchmaker, and were together gradually taken over by George Story (1805–1874), a scale-maker and the leaseholder from 1839.
By 1823 the proof house was again dilapidated, and the master’s house ‘likely to endanger the lives of the proof master and his family’.4 Hereafter the site was rearranged much as it is today. The freehold of the easterly strip of land between the proof house and Gower’s Walk was acquired from George Waller, more amenable to a sale than his father-in-law, Joel Johnson. The new proof house and proof master’s house were built in 1826–7 at the north-east corner of the enlarged site, with a single-storey and basement receiving or entrance building adjoining to the west. These buildings were designed by the Company’s surveyor, Robert Turner Cotton (1773–1850), perhaps with input from his son, Henry Charles Cotton (1804–73). John Hill was the bricklayer, and James Bridger of Aldgate the carpenter. Foundations for the proof house, dug and redug, were five bricks thick and more than 12ft deep.
The proof house itself, up against Gower’s Walk behind the proof master’s house, is outwardly entirely utilitarian, a rectangular stock-brick building with segmental-headed windows at upper levels, of a height necessary to cope with the pressures and gases generated by proving. Most of the windows are blind, though some at least originally had iron louvres to dispel the smoke and pressure. The interior was essentially one space under a cast-iron framed roof, though subdivided in its lower half into two unequal open-topped proving chambers, one the main ‘proof hole’, containing a bed of sand where multiple barrels could be tested at once, the charges set off by a trail of gunpowder. In 1835 the upper part of the proof room was lined with cast-iron plates by Graham & Sons to protect the structure from damage from exploding gun barrels. The original cast-iron roof frame and these plates survived until 1994.
The proof master’s house on the corner is of conventional three-storeyed design, also in stock brick, with a round-headed ground-floor window, gauged-brick arch heads and a stuccoed door architrave and cornice. The single-storey receiving house, possibly incorporating fabric from the marking house of 1760, originally had a copper-lined gunpowder magazine within its attic. Its three-bay façade, again stock brick but heavily stucco-framed, makes a stronger if entirely conventional classical statement. Four pilasters frame openings, including a central entrance with consoles to a segmental pediment. A rectangular panel atop the entablature announces: ‘THE PROOF HOUSE OF THE GUNMAKERS COMPANY OF THE CITY OF LONDON. ESTABLISHED BY CHARTER ANNO DOMINI 1637’.
By 1857 the East India Company building was unoccupied as small arms for India had come to be supplied by the War Office. The Company surrendered its lease in 1860 and, following a report by the local architect G. H. Simmonds, the building was converted in 1863 to be a committee room for the Gunmakers’ Company. This room seems to have been largely incorporated, rather than rebuilt, when the Gunmakers redeveloped the west side of their property in 1871, extinguishing Story’s lease. Gunmakers’ Hall went up to designs provided by John Jacobs, the builder, but possibly the work of Simmonds. It included the old committee room and a new court room to its west with a new two-storey stock-brick front range in a lumpen Italianate manner. Portland stone dressings, now painted, include an arch-headed central door surround and a pierced cornice balustrade. The impressive panelled court room, with a slightly canted south end, has a bracketed coved ceiling with a central lantern. A heavy court room table was grandly set off on the east wall by a huge trophy of arms, a starburst of more than 1,000 bayonets, military swords, hammers, ramrods etc. In 1893 a further room was created above the committee room, with a staircase inserted at the front of the east side of the entrance lobby, this to designs by W. J. Lambert.
The persistence of the Gunmakers on the increasingly urban site had been challenged since Joel Johnson took issue in 1781. In 1802 the Gunmakers successfully resisted the trustees of the new Commercial Road’s plan to acquire the site, though an Act of Parliament limited the hours of the day when guns could be proved. The Gunmakers succeeded in keeping the site from the Commercial Road trustees once again in 1824, and also saw off further limitation on the hours of proving. In 1882 the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway Company pressed to acquire the site for a vast warehouse that went up to the south, but the Gunmakers had only to relinquish a small strip with sheds. Even so, the south walls of the proof house and court room had to be heavily buttressed following excavations for the railway warehouse’s north yard and extensive vaults.
Piecemeal repairs and improvements were made from time to time, mostly reflecting changes in the requirements of proof. The shift from muzzle-loading to breech-loading guns and the consequent need for more complex proving accounted for additions in the yard, a small proof house for testing breech-loading guns in 1866, by when secondary proofing could be conducted with a gun fixed in a frame firing into a bed of sand, and other proving-chamber sheds thereafter. By 1920 low-level viewing shops and proofing rooms snaked around the southern boundary including behind the court room, and a loading shop opened off the receiving room. The Company endured lean years in the 1920s and was obliged to sell Gunmakers’ Hall in 1927, the trophy of arms transferred to the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House.
The buyers were Israel Eichenbaum (1874–1935), the owner of a wholesale drapery at 20 Commercial Road, and his son-in-law, Pinkus Segalov (1902–1959), and the building was let to the Order Achei Brith and Shield of Abraham Friendly Society. Jewish friendly societies were similar to other such societies, operating a subscription on which members could call in times of sickness. Mainstream societies sometimes excluded Jews, so specifically Jewish societies came into being from the 1790s. The Order Achei Brith (‘Brethren of the Covenant’), founded in 1894 out of a friendly society founded in 1888, was the first fully to embrace a Masonic character, operating as a Lodge with ceremonies, elaborate regalia and rituals. It merged with the Shield of Abraham Society in 1911 and, in common with other registered friendly societies, was empowered to administer the National Health Insurance Act of that year. It was one of the largest such societies by 1928 when alterations were made by Bovis Ltd to close up the connections between Gunmakers’ Hall and the courtyard of the proof house. The building, now called Absa House, was opened as the Order’s headquarters by Lord Rothschild on 14 October 1928, the consecration conducted by the Chief Rabbi. In 1933 the Order had around 25,000 members. What had been proofing rooms in the yard behind the court room were then rebuilt as an office, reached from a door formed from one of the court room windows. The new room was fully lined in modish vaguely art-deco wooden panelling.
The creation of the welfare state and the loss of the powers bestowed in 1911 reduced the practical need for friendly societies. Meanwhile the Order’s membership dispersed and failed to rejuvenate. By 1948 it was down to around 5,000 members. Amalgamation with the Order Achei Ameth in 1949 formed the United Jewish Friendly Society. From 1955 to 1958 what was now 46 Commercial Road was let to the St Louis Club, a social club, with alterations made by H. J. F. Urquhart, architect, for a restaurant in the former court room, a lounge in the former committee room, and a first-floor billiard room. Thereafter the basement was relet to the Gunmakers for arms storage, with alterations for access through the party wall overseen by Morris de Metz, architect. No. 46 reverted to being offices for the Friendly Society, part let off to Joseph Textiles Ltd, until 1976, shortly before the society’s dissolution in 1979.
To return to the east part of the site, in 1927 the imminent loss of Gunmakers’ Hall caused the Gunmakers’ Company to knock the first-floor rooms of the proof master’s house together to form a new court room, tie-rods being inserted; R. Hewett was the builder. Following war damage, the Company made further alterations in 1952 to designs by Albert Robert Fox, architect, with Wilton & Burgess, builders, to convert the receiving house basement into the court room, the proof master’s house altered back to form a first- and second-floor maisonette. In 1959 glazed timber-framed lean-tos for workshops and rifle storage were added on the south and east sides of the courtyard by Morris de Metz and James Jennings & Son Ltd, builders.
The only major modernisation of the proof house itself took place in 1993–5 when Thomas & Thomas, surveyors, and E. F. Whitlam, engineers, oversaw works by W. M. Glendinning Ltd, builders. Two floors and a reinforced-concrete ring beam and lateral (spreader) beams were inserted, with a light steel-truss roof replacing late-Georgian cast iron. The extra floors, reached by a new staircase at the north end of the building, allowed for four smaller proofing chambers on the ground floor, equipped with ‘snail-catchers’ to contain the fired bullets, depleting their energy in complex bending lengths of metal tubing, in place of the traditional sandbanks, with ammunition storage, loading rooms, a testing laboratory, gun-mounting room and instrument room on the first floor. The second floor was reserved for storage.
The former hall at No. 46 was sold by the United Jewish Friendly Society in 1976 to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), a private bank based in Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, founded in 1972 and rapidly expanding to become the world’s seventh largest private bank. It closed in 1991 when it was revealed to be a giant money-laundering scheme. The former court room became a banking hall with desks and cashiers, the floor in the canted bay removed to create a double-height space, connecting to the basement by a spiral staircase, with a vast window filling most of the south wall. Six new openings were made on the north and east sides, connecting east to the former committee room, now subdivided into a manager’s office and corridor, and north to the lobby. The one-time first-floor billiard room became a conference room. The architect was Harry S. Fairhurst. After the winding up of BCCI, the Gunmakers’ Company offered the liquidators £80,000 for the building. This was rejected and the building sold at auction for £120,000 to Itzik and Adrienne Robin and Robert and Stephanie Itzcovitz. The Gunmakers finally reacquired the building for £1.1m in 2007. After the departure of BCCI No. 46 was used as a textile showroom until conversion to educational use in 2002, first as an outpost of the City of London College at 71 Whitechapel High Street, and since 2009 as the London College of Christian Revival Church Bible School, founded in South Africa in 1944.
Following the closure of branch proof houses in Manchester and Nottingham in 1996 and 2000, Gunmakers’ Company proofing of military weapons in Whitechapel has increased. By 2008 the proof master’s house was no longer residential, being reserved entirely for offices.
A hundred years ago, the Builder observed of the Gunmakers that ‘[t]he history of the Company is devoid of the romantic and historical associations connected with most of the misteries (sic), and is that of a well-organized and managed commercial undertaking, doing much useful work and deriving the necessary income from the fees charged for testing and proving weapons’.5 That still holds true.
1. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), CLC/L/GI/G/001/MS05231
2. LMA, CLC/L/GI/G/001/MS05227/001
3. LMA, CLC/L/GI/G/001/MS05220/009
4. LMA, CLC/L/GI/G/001/MS05227/001
5. The Builder, 8 October 1920, pp. 400–1