Thomas Seckford


Words George Upton Photography Jasper Fry


This month the Journal traces the origins of the Sekford name from a quiet street in central London to the courts of Queen Elizabeth I, capturing a snapshot of five centuries of history in the British capital.


Sekford takes its name from Sekforde Street, a gently curving road of elegant Georgian terraced houses in Clerkenwell, London. Though today the area’s history is marked by only a handful of watch repair shops, from the 18th century Clerkenwell had been the centre of British horology – producing in 1800 around 200,000 watches – half the world’s output for that year.


Clerkenwell was an extraordinary meeting place of skilled craftsmen, specialising in everything from the ever-greater miniaturisation of watch movements to delicate case making, and it has been estimated that 60-70% of the innovations that comprise the modern mechanical wristwatch were developed in Britain. The history of the Sekford name, however, has a much longer lineage.


This month marks 430 years since the death of Thomas Seckford, an Elizabethan court official and lawyer born in Suffolk in 1515. Seckford had studied at Cambridge and practiced law at Gray’s Inn in London before he was appointed as an official at the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

As a Master in Ordinary of the Court of Requests, Seckford was responsible for small claims made by the poor. It is likely that this role gave him considerable access to the Queen, accompanying her as she travelled around her realm and, in 1564, she sold him the manor of Woodbridge – the Suffolk town in which he was born and where he built his home, the stately Seckford Hall. It is perhaps his experience travelling throughout the country with Elizabeth that led him in 1574 to commission the cartographer Christopher Saxton to produce the first atlas of England.


The Finsbury Savings Bank on Sekforde Street, built in 1840, was frequented by Charles Dickens who set part of Oliver Twist in nearby Clerkenwell Green

Though little of Seckford’s thoughts and opinions has been recorded, it appears that his role at court, giving a voice to grievances of those less fortunate, would come to inform his actions throughout his life. A lifelong benefactor to the church and town of Woodbridge, he was also a Member of Parliament for various regions and in 1586, the year before his death at the age of 72, he founded seven almshouses in his birth town, financed through the land he owned in Clerkenwell.

Seckford would die childless, but the considerable fortune he amassed during his life continues to benefit Woodbridge today through care homes (still based in the 16thcentury almshouses), the Woodbridge Free School and various bursaries. Though in London, the Seckford estate would gradually be transformed from fields on the edge of the city to a haphazard arrangement of warehouses, slums and alleys – described in 1820 as ‘one of the least desirable parts of Clerkenwell’ – its redevelopment from 1827, seeing the creation of Sekforde and Woodbridge Streets, has formed a fitting testament to the enduring charity of a remarkable man.


Today Clerkenwell is no longer known as a centre of horology but design still plays an important role in the area. As well as the annual Clerkenwell Design Week, it is home to many of London’s top style and design firms, including the studios of Zaha Hadid and Alexander McQueen.


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