Another seaport once vied with Annapolis to become the capital of Maryland. All that remains today is one man’s dream house, high on a bluff overlooking the South River.
One of the marvels of Annapolis is its mere existence after 350 years of starts and stops, flourishes and declines. It has always been a seaport, of course, so its wherewithal has always been connected in some way with the coming and going of ships. The boat shows that grace City Dock this month are themselves a cornerstone of her most recent spate of prosperity, when she shook herself awake in the 1960s, unshuttered her downtown storefronts, refurbished her historic dwellings and set out to become once more the jewel of the Chesapeake. Other Bay settlements weren’t so lucky.
“Edward Rumney built a tavern on this spot” reads the signboard planted on a lush stretch of lawn next to what amounts to a shallow hole in the ground. I’m standing on the site of London, a once-bustling seaport on the South River that long ago disappeared into the subsoil of the riverbank. Rumney’s tavern was one of several buildings that stood on the high ground overlooking the ferry landing at the foot of what was then called Scott Street. Today the vestiges of the Scott Street thoroughfare can barely be perceived in the deep ravine that cuts from the main road to the water’s edge.
“This was the main street of town,” my guide, Maxine Silber, tells me. “You can see that it leads directly to the river, and that it has sunk considerably over time. Heavy wagons would have worn it down. Also the hogsheads of tobacco being rolled down to the waiting ships. Rain would have continued to wash it out so that all we see now is a gully.”
The town of London, created as a ferry landing in 1683, quickly became a major crossroad and tobacco port for Anne Arundel County. Of the eight roads that ran through the county in the 1690s, seven wound through London, leading it to be considered as a potential site for Maryland’s capitol. The village itself hugged the high banks of the South River between Almshouse Creek and Glebe Bay. It was a vibrant community consisting of several taverns, a tailor shop, ship captains’ homes and, by 1765, the Georgian-style residence and public house that William Brown built overlooking the river.
“The town was already in decline when Brown decided to build his house,” Silber tells me. Much of the seagoing trade had left, due perhaps to the establishment of tobacco inspection ports elsewhere on the river or, quite possibly, to the development of a new deep-water port at Baltimore.
A master woodworker, Brown had operated a carpentry and joinery shop in London throughout the 1750s. Presumably, he had seen the prosperity of the town come and go. Still, he chose the spot to build his dream house, and, duplicating the lines of a home he had built in Annapolis (the Upton Scott house, still standing on Shipwright Street just a few blocks away from City Dock), he proceeded to erect a manor of his own. After all, the ferry remained, and Brown and his wife hoped to profit by offering food and lodging to affluent travelers wending their way north or south. Theirs was a classy joint, a substantial cut above the likes of Rumney’s bawdy tavern next door. Spacious and well lit, comfortably furnished, their public house offered a large and airy gathering space for the gentry, as well as private accommodations wherein they could transact their business. Even so, the Brown’s endeavor failed. It may have been the gathering storm of revolution that stymied their efforts by keeping well-to-do patrons off the roads. At any rate, their gathering debts finally forced them from their home. They may well have been the last to go; by the time of the American Revolution, the town of London had vanished.
Brown’s spacious home was subsequently acquired by the county in 1828 and used as an almshouse until 1965. Now beautifully restored and surrounded by eight acres of gardens and a patchwork of archaeological digs, the Brown house and grounds welcome visitors arriving by car or boat.