In 1823, Anne Arundel County moved its almshouse from downtown Annapolis to site on the South River about eight miles south of town. On the site there already existed a large Georgian house, built between 1758 and 1764 by businessman William Brown. It was in this building that they housed the county’s poor, mentally ill and noncriminal but otherwise undesirable for the next 142 years.
The property where the Brown house was located was once a thriving town called London. In the late 17th century, it was an important port and trading center but by 1758, when William Brown started building his showcase of a house, the town was on the decline. One of the enduring mysteries of the Brown house is why Mr. Brown decided to invest in a dying town.
Whatever his reason, he did. His four- square Georgian house was made of header-bond brick, meaning that it was the smaller ends of the brick that showed, not the long side. It took more bricks to build a house this way, making it sturdier but much more expensive. Mr. Brown ran a tavern in the house, as well as a ferry just outside. George Washington had dinner there in 1783, as he waited for the ferry after resigning his commission at the Annapolis State House.
His decision to build in London was a bad one and Mr. Brown found himself in debt. In 1782, unable to pay for the land on which he had built the house, he returned the land, with the house, to the estate of the man from whom he had bought it. The county bought it in 1823 and, until national welfare reform came about in 1965, it housed the poor.
In the 1970s, the house and the rest of what was once London became part of the Anne Arundel County park system and named Historic London Town and Gardens. Excavations began to find 18th century London, of which only the Brown house still exists. The digs at London Town are conducted by the Anne Arundel County Lost Towns Project, an archeological program that locates and studies colonial sites throughout the county.
Access to the Brown House is only by tour. The Brown family lived upstairs, which was not on the tour. We saw the first floor, interpreted as a late 18th century tavern, and the basement. The basement was the servants’ hall during the Brown era, the men’s living area during the almshouse era, and classroom space today. It’s populated by creepy manikins – the boy in the area teaching about sea life is William – guaranteed to give children nightmares.
I would have been more interested in seeing the Brown house as it was in its almshouse days. There are pictures of the kitchen, with 1950s appliances, before they restored it to its 18th century look. It was an integrated almshouse until 1830, when they decided to move blacks into their own building. The black dormitory was beyond substandard and even the 19th century oh so charmingly named Maryland Lunacy Commission recommended that it be condemned. It was torn down in 1910 but not before there were pictures taken of it and its inhabitants, which are in the exhibit. They then decided to segregate by sex instead. The men’s domitory still exists as the administrative offices of Historic London Town.
It’s still early in Historic London Town’s development and there was only one reconstruction with an exhibit inside. That was the Lord Mayor’s Tenement, furnished to show how 18th century servants or slaves would have lived.
They’re currently working on rebuilding a carpenter shop, owned by William Brown in the late 1700s. Before it was Brown’s carpenter shop, however, it belonged to Stephen West, who owned the town tavern and ferry before the advent of Mr. Brown. West had it built in 1730 to house his supplies and his laborers – indentured servants, convicts and slaves.
When digging first began on the carpenter shop site in 2002, archeologists found the body of a young child buried there. His body lay under where there would have been, during his life, floor boards and between the floor joists. The artifacts in the grave suggest that the child was a slave and had been buried under his mother’s bed, a West African custom of the time. The child was reburied, in a public ceremony, in the location where he had been found.
The site is called Historic London Town and Gardens and a great deal of the property is taken up by gardens. There are historic gardens, an ornamental garden, an environmental garden and an eight acre woodland garden. There’s also a small museum at the visitors center. One of the museum exhibits shows the local television news coverage of the reburial of the slave child in May 2003. There are special event days with costumed interpreters and activities but on a regular day, it took us about two hours to see the entire site.