Heart of Hackney: tour guide Sean walks us through our hidden history

PUBLISHED: 12:00 16 April 2016

Tour guide Sean Gubbins

Tour guide Sean Gubbins


Every now and then, it’s important to stop and appreciate the history that surrounds you – that’s the belief of tour guide Sean Gubbins from Walk Hackney. So on a sunny(ish) Friday, Sean gives Victoria Ibitoye a sneak preview of his Heart of Hackney tour

Sylvester Path, complete with the Old Ship Inn - too narrow for houses but perfect for thirsty wanderersSylvester Path, complete with the Old Ship Inn - too narrow for houses but perfect for thirsty wanderers

The Gazette spots tour guide Sean Gubbins outside Hackney Town Hall – just as well, because the first stop on his Heart of Hackney tour would have been easy to miss had we been asked to meet him there.

Sylvester Path is an ancient track leading in and out of Hackney that dates back to the early 18th century. It’s home to the Old Ship Inn, just off Mare Street, which can only be accessed from the pathway.

That’s because its original owners expected most of its business to come that way. At just a few metres wide, Sylvester Path would only have had foot traffic, no horses and carriages, so it would have been easy for a thirsty traveller to pop in for refreshment.

A little further down is number 13, one of the oldest houses in Hackney.

St Augustine's TowerSt Augustine's Tower

“I was told it had been a Jewish Working Men’s club,” Sean tells the Gazette, “but that’s not totally correct. It does have an association with a Jewish organisation that formed at the beginning of the 20th century to provide welfare to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who were bombed out during the war.”

We venture down the footpath and are confronted by the old St Augustine’s Tower – more than 700 years old and still open to the public on the last Sunday of every month. Much to our displeasure, being afraid of heights, the Gazette realises Sean is planning a trip up the steps as part of our preview.

“As the population of Hackney grew, the church wasn’t big enough to take all the people,” he says, as we climb, “so they decided to build a new church at the end of the 19th century – which we now know as St John’s.

“But when they completed St John’s they didn’t have enough money to put up a tower for the bells so they kept St Augustine’s Tower.

St Augustine's offers impressive views of HackneySt Augustine's offers impressive views of Hackney

“When they eventually got enough money to build a tower they moved the bells, though one still remains in St Augustine’s Tower to strike the time.”

The tower is a Grade I listed building and affords stunning views of Hackney. The roof, in fact, is regularly used to host events and poetry gatherings.

As we venture a look, Sean shows us where banker Thomas Briggs was found murdered on the nearby railway.

“He was coming back from a meal with his niece in south London,” says Sean. “On his train journey back to Hackney Central he was attacked by a German tailor called Franz Muller who beat him and robbed him of his gold watch and spectacles.

The plaque for The plaque for "Blind Fred." Braille underneath it reads, "One thing I know is where I was blind, now I can see."

“His body was found on the line between Victoria Park railway station and Hackney Wick and he died a few hours later.”

By the time the warrant for Franz Muller was issued, he had set sail for New York, but justice came for him in the end. He was extradited, convicted and hanged.

The Gazette decides the vertiginous views and historic murder have provided enough terror for the afternoon and makes the trip back down the ancient steps. Sean, however, still has a few more stories up his sleeve.

We venture into the churchyard, where he shows us a plaque dedicated to “Blind Fred”. Blind Fred was a man from south Hackney who was born without sight and spent most of his time selling matches to people on their way to catch buses or trains.

Actor Colin Firth once lived in Sutton PlaceActor Colin Firth once lived in Sutton Place

“When I started my walk there was a lady who was older than me who’d had it pointed out by her mum who remembered him,” says Sean. “He was a key staple of the community.”

Just off the churchyard is Sutton Place, one of the oldest urban terraces in Hackney. It links Homerton High Street with St John’s Churchyard and Gardens. Sean tells us the road takes its name from Thomas Sutton, who died one of the wealthiest men in England around the beginning of the 17th century, and was originally occupied by wealthy merchants and gentry.

In more modern times, a notable former resident is actor Colin Firth.

Visit to book a place on one of Sean’s tours

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