A Brief History of Clifton House

The Middle Ages

The town of Lynn was one of the most prosperous English ports of the Middle Ages, through its docks the huge wealth of East Anglia – mostly thanks to the production of wool – was traded with the wider world. The town was founded at the end of the 11th century by the Bishop of Norwich and within a matter of decades a flourshing settlement had grown up along the river’s edge. Within a century this included the buildings which would evolve into Clifton House. Remains of the earliest stone house on the site (probably late 12th century) can still be seen in the Wine Cellar, while the magnificent floor tiles in the kitchen and morning room testify to the great wealth of the house’s owners by the late 13th century.

The museum room

By around 1340 King’s Lynn had a population of nearly 6,000 tax-paying inhabitants and was one of the four wealthiest ports in all of England. The size and splendour of Clifton House’s wine cellar or undercroft (built c1350) suggests that by this time, if not before, the house belonged to a wealthy merchant. At this time the Great Ouse was much broader than today and the undercroft opened directly on the docks. By 1400 most of what is now Clifton House – other than the tower – had already been built: the timber structure which stood over the undercroft is still standing at attic level today.

Tudor Clifton House

In the Tudor period Lynn continued to be a wealthy and thriving town. At the reformation it abandoned its full medieval name ‘Bishop’s Lynn’ for ‘King’s Lynn’ as a gesture loyalty to Henry VIII. At Clifton House the period saw substantial changes. The formal rooms of the house moved from the south front (the modern-day kitchen and morning room), to the north side of the building, and the former parlour became the kitchen – which it has remained ever since. The new formal rooms included the current dining room, which was given its handsome oak panelling in around 1550.

The early years of Elizabeth I’s reign saw two important buildings added to Clifton House: the long warehouses (now in separate ownership), which reached down to the river, and the magnificent five-storey watch tower. The latter was almost certainly the work of the wine merchant George Walden, who owned Clifton House by 1575 at the latest. His sudden death in 1577 may well have halted building works before the completion of the tower. Walden’s son was an infant at the time of his father’s death, and so the building was not decorated for several decades.

In the early 17th century the huose was owned by a series of Lynn merchants, including Thomas Snelling, mayor of Lynn in the 1620s, whose tomb is in St Nicholas’s Church. It may have been for Snelling that the elaborate chimney piece sadly sold from the house in the 19th century was installed in the early years of the 17th century.

The chimney piece removed from the Library in 1889.

The Taylor family

The courtyard

The final major phase of remodelling Clifton House came around 1700. Since the Restoration the house had been occupied by the powerful Taylor family, also vitners. Simon Taylor (1633-89) was MP for Lynn from 1675 and in 1680 voted against the bill to exclude the King’s brother (the future James II) from the throne. For their loyalty Simon Taylor, and his fellow MP, vintner and friend John Turner, were knighted by Charles II in the presence chamber at WindsorCastle in 1684.

It seems it was this elevation in the family’s status that prompted an ambitious project to remodel Clifton House. The work would not be complete after Simon Taylor’s death, when the house passed to his son, Samuel. Almost certainly overseen by the Lynn architect Henry Bell (who built the Custom House for John Turner in 1682), the scheme saw Clifton House given a sheen of modernity. The street fronts were extensively remodelled with new sash windows (an early use in King’s Lynn) and the grand Solomonic doorcase.

Inside Bell created the handsome new staircase, cutting through the deep medieval spine wall to do so, and using the half storey of the undercroft to give it extra drama. It may be the mercantile palazzi of Italy inspired his approach. Internally a number of rooms were remodelled including the Green Bedroom and Music Room, reached from the stair through his bold doorcases with characteristic comical carved heads.

18th and 19th centuries

Clifton House passed through the hands of Taylor’s heirs, who participated in the lively Lynn society of the 18th century. In 1702 the household comprised Samuel Taylor and his wife, their four children, two of his business employees and six domestic servants.

From the 1830s the house belonged to the man to whom it owes its name: William Clifton. A merchant of several trades, dealing in corn, coal, wine and spirits, Clifton and his successors would live in Clifton House for the following half century. They did little to modernise the house, with only the Morning Room, with its large ceiling rose, dating to this period.

On William Clifton’s death the house was described as ‘large and old and in frequent need of repairs’ and was sold in 1888. It was immediately after this sale that the house lost two of its most splendid interiors: the carved panelling of the first floor of the tower (now the museum room) and the magnificent Elizabethan fireplace from the library being torn out and sold for export to the USA

In the 1920s the house was bought by Christopher Thomas Page who lived here with his family until his death in 1952. He had been curator of the King’s LynnMuseum, and was responsible for stuffing the large tiger in the collection there.

The view from the tower

A keen painter he used the Clifton House dining room, with its cool north light, as his painting studio, and displayed his paintings in the first floor gallery.

After Christopher Thomas Page’s death in 1952, Clifton House was acquired by the King’s Lynn Borough Council who repaired the house and for whom it served as offices until the early 1980s.

During the Council’s occupation, Clifton House served as the offices for the borough architect, surveyor and engineer. To heat the offices small stoves were installed, and a caretaker hauled the coal up the main stairs in bucket attached to a rope. It was from the historic splendour of Clifton House that George Holmes, the Borough Architect, oversaw the ambitious scheme for rehousing people from the east end of London that resulted in developments such as Hillington Square and the Hardwick Industrial Estate.

It was in laying new services for the Council’s use that the extraordinary discovery was made in 1960 of the medieval tiles pavements in the current Kitchen and Morning Room. Several subsequent floors had covered these (probably 13th century) tiles, and these later layers were removed to reveal the full extent of the early floors. After full excavation and assessment by the staff of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, the floors were left exposed and could be viewed by appointments.

In 1982 Clifton House was acquired by Ronald Foster and subsequently by Philip Catt who lived at Clifton House until his death in 1984.

Further Reading

Vanessa Parker The Making of King’s Lynn ( London and Chichester, 1971)

Ian M. Betts, Medieval ‘Westminster’ Floor Tiles (Museum of London Archaeology Service Monograph 11) (London, 2002)

Owners and Occupiers of Clifton House

Before 1557 William Cawse

Margery Bowsey

John Watter

1575 George Walden

1579 John Walden

1589 Heirs of John Walden

1600 John Spence

1605 John Wilson

1623 Thomas Snelling

1663 Simon Taylor

1702 Samuel Taylor

1729 Andrew Taylor

1760 Miss ffolkes

1763 Robert Freeman

1805 William Swatman

1822 Thomas Guy

1836 William Clifton

1879 William Clifton jnr

1888 H A Leake

1925 Christopher Thomas Page

1951 Kings Lynn Town Council

1982 Ronald Foster

1989 Colonel Philip Catt

1995 King’s Lynn Preservation Trust

2005 Simon and Anna Thurley

(Based on original research by Mr Peter Sykes)