The Mystery of Clapham’s Roman Stone

Clapham is the kind of place where you can find a pond associated with Benjamin Franklin, an eighteenth-century Orangery in the middle of a housing estate, and an old library, now a theatre, which is home to a 2,000-year old Roman stone. Standard.

First of all, the theatre. The Omnibus Theatre has been open since 2013 and amongst their patrons, they include such acting royalty as Judi Dench and Michael Gambon. It is proud to be a platform for new writing, particularly from underrepresented voices, and is a firm believer that theatre is an exceptional resource which should be affordable and accessible to all. Hear, hear. It’s worth checking out their stuff, from a reassessment of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, to the struggles of balancing the female biological clock in a twenty-first-century world, to a “true crime rom com” – the variety is amazing.

Long before it was a theatre, however, it was a library. A purpose-built library, opened in 1889. Now, are you ready to get super-nerdy about libraries? I don’t think you are.
At this point, in 1889, it would have looked very different to libraries as we know them today. Notably, you wouldn’t have been able to look at the books. In between you and the books would have been the librarian, guarding his or her treasure from behind the counter. If you want a really thrilling fact to take away from this blog post today, Clapham Library was one of the first libraries in London to trial open access bookshelves in 1891. Imagine the adrenalin – being able to go in and look at the books for yourself! The building continued to serve this noble purpose until 2012 when it was closed and redeveloped as the theatre.

None of this seems to explain, however, why you will find this curious stone just outside the entrance. This is a Roman memorial stone dating back to possibly the first- or second-century. So it’s about 2,000 years old. Just let that settle in for a minute. No wonder it looks a bit worn and nondescript. I’m sure you would too after nearly two millennia. Despite that, it was still possible for some very clever people to work out the inscription from what’s left, so it’s amazing that after about 2,000 years, we still know that it was Vitus Ticinius Ascanius who erected this stone. Talk about leaving a lasting legacy… Sadly, we don’t really know anything else about him apart from his name, so arguably a tad short-sighted on his part.

For a bit of context, the Romans had arrived in Britain in 43AD and shortly afterwards founded London as the ancient Roman city of Londinium. Britain continued to be part of the Roman Empire until the early fifth-century.
There is a certain amount we can infer from the stone itself about Vitus. We know that he was either a freeborn or freedman of the Roman Empire, essentially not enslaved, because he has three Latinised names (rather than just one or two), known as the “tria nomina”. This also means he was most likely a Roman citizen, although we can’t know for sure, which would have granted him certain rights and privileges, such as the right to vote and own property (although this, as well, came with certain caveats). The vast majority of Britain’s inhabitants around 100AD would have been “peregrini”, or non-citizens, possibly as many as 97%, so if Vitus Ticinius Ascanius was a citizen, he would have been pretty important. Not quite the 1%, but it’s always good to have something to aim for, you know.

An approximation of London c.120AD
(Photo: Peter Froste in London: The Illustrated History)

And it does feel like there’s this aura of self-importance around Vitus’ memorial stone. What’s hilarious is that part of the inscription reads, “He erected it for himself, in his own life”. It was not and, you could argue, is still not, the norm to erect a monument to yourself while you’re still alive. Even if we never learn anything else about Mr. Ascanius, I think we can probably infer that he was just the tiniest bit vain.

So while we know who erected the stone, how did it end up in front of a Victorian library?

Well, working backwards, in the early twentieth-century, the librarian in Clapham was a man called J. Reed Welch, who apparently loved old things, specifically antiquities. Clearly, he was the kind of man to keep his ear to the ground about any exciting ancient discoveries, we can only imagine how excited he was when a Roman memorial stone turned up just round the corner during the demolition of Cavendish House (near modern Cavendish Road on Clapham Common South Side). He acquired the stone for the library and it was put on display in the entrance hall.

Cavendish House, Ordinance Survey Map – 1890s vs. 2022
(Photos: Layers of London and National Library of Scotland)

Reed Welch set about trying to work out where the stone had come from – not far off what we’re doing right now!

Lanthorn Tower, (Photo: Dirk Ingo Franke, Wikimedia Commons)

He probably wasn’t expecting it to be a near match with a stone which had popped up at the Tower of London in 1777, but had since disappeared…

It had been recovered in the rubble of a fire in 1774, which had gutted the Lanthorn Tower. All of my information about this comes from the Southwark & Lambeth Archaeological Society, who suggest that the stone had possibly been repurposed as masonry either during a Roman or Medieval building project. Possibly in the Lanthorn Tower itself? Construction of which began waaaay back in 1220, so could our Roman stone have been chilling in the walls of the Tower of London for over 550 years??

Whether Vitus’ memorial stone was originally erected at the site of the subsequent Tower of London or if it was relocated at some point, we don’t know. The theory for how it then ended up in Clapham is that it came via banker Henton Brown, an eighteenth-century resident of Cavendish House. He worked in the City of London, was very rich, and like many rich people throughout history, liked to show how rich he was by having lots of nice and rare stuff. A 2,000-year old Roman stone definitely fits into this category.

Sadly, much of the tale of this Roman memorial stone is conjecture, although I think this just adds to the sense of mystery. Even the text linking the Clapham stone to the Tower of London stone, which librarian Reed Welch inspected at the British Museum is unknown. I love the idea that he was actually just on a desperate mission to aggrandise his special new stone and invented the whole story himself. We’ll possibly never know.

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Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

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