When I first knew Dennis Severs in the 1970s, he was carting tourists ‘round West London in a decrepit, 100-year-old horsedrawn landau. Later, I sold him a house in then-slummy (now chic) inner-London Spitalfields, where he soon adopted a lifestyle no different from that of the Huguenot family he claimed had built the place in 1724.
And I do mean no different. No electricity. No central heating. No gas. Dennis relied on coal fires to warm the place, which they did to great effect. Lighting was by candle-power, literally. He heated water and cooked his meals on an old coal-fired range in the basement, and slept in a grubby four-poster bed in the attic.
Surrounding himself with suitably dilapidated 18th century furniture, pictures, rugs, cracked crockery, cutlery and glassware, he opened his new home to the public, who flocked to experience life as it was really lived 200 years ago. They paid handsomely for the experience, and still do. For when Dennis died in 2000 he left the house and all its contents to a local charity, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, which maintains everything exactly as he left it.
Dennis was the son of a gas station proprietor in Escondido, California. He came to London to study law but had to give up because he was dyslexic. He then discovered the novels of Charles Dickens, memorising lengthy chunks of the best of them and immersing himself in London’s past.
Leading people around that incredibly atmospheric house, with each room set up to represent an incident in the lives of his fictional family, the Jervises, he was an autocrat. Only native English speakers were allowed in, in case they missed the gentle, ironic humour of his commentary. No animals, and strictly no children. Complete silence was the rule: one word and you were out.
Passing by, I would see groups of visitors at the end of their hour-long tour with tears streaming down their faces, distraught at the thought of a way of life that had gone forever.
Today, the régime is slightly less rigorous but the atmosphere just the same. See for yourself at www.dennissevershouse.co.uk