History and Research
Though surveyed and patented by the English in the 1650s, the land that would become London Town does not appear to have been built upon until London Town was created by legislation in 1683. This legislation, “An Act for Advancement of Trade,” created many towns and ports throughout Maryland. Not only was London Town legislated into existence at this time, it also became the county seat of Anne Arundel County.
Archaeology and historical documents such as land records, probate inventories, and other sources indicate that London Town, paradoxically, did not begin to thrive until after Annapolis became both Maryland’s capital and Anne Arundel’s county seat in 1694. However, once the 18th century began, London Town grew and thrived before fading away at the end of the century.
Shipping records, court cases, land deeds, probate inventories, newspaper advertisements, and the archaeological record all indicate that London Town met many needs during the 18th century. Many trans-Atlantic tobacco ships would gather tobacco at London Town before sailing to England and Europe where the tobacco was traded for manufactured items, spices, and other goods from around the globe. When these ships returned to the Chesapeake, merchants based in London Town would advertise these wares in the Maryland Gazette.
Additionally, London Town’s placement on the South River and on the main route between Boston, Massachusetts and Charleston, South Carolina, meant that the public ferry crossing was quite busy with travelers. Because all of these travelers needed someplace to eat, drink, spend the night, and get caught up on the latest news, London Town had between three and five public houses during its heyday.
However, as the 18th century progressed, the tobacco trade, merchants, and travelers that had been so important to London Town’s existence slowly became decoupled from London Town. In 1747, legislation concerned with the quality of Maryland’s exported tobacco set up a system of inspection stations throughout the colony. Because London Town was not on the list of approved sites, it could no longer participate in the tobacco trade. As for the merchants, as Annapolis grew in prominence and London Town faded, the merchants moved their main stores to Annapolis and eventually closed their old ones in London Town. And finally, as the main north-south route shifted farther west due to the increased colonization of the colonies’ western reaches, less travelers through London Town caused a corresponding decrease in the number of public houses.
By the end of the American Revolution, only the William Brown House, a few wooden structures, and the ferry remained as a testament to what had once been a thriving Chesapeake town and port.
History of the Anne Arundel County Almshouse
In 1768, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring several counties, including Anne Arundel, to establish almshouses. The purpose of the almshouse was to give shelter and work to the county’s poor. The funds to run the almshouse came from taxes that were levied on the citizens of the county. This was a common method of dealing with the poor, the mentally ill, and those people who needed to be reformed. The county almshouse was located near Annapolis (which burned in 1800) and then on Strawberry Hill (where the Naval Academy is) until 1823 when it moved the property on the South River.
James Larrimore, the owner of the William Brown House at London Town, sold the building and surrounding 10 acres to the county for $2,500 for use as an almshouse. The site of the new almshouse was perfect because it was out in the country away from the “temptations” of the city, yet it was still close enough to Annapolis to get supplies. Also, removing the almshouse to a country location separated it from the growing city of Annapolis. Out of sight, out of mind ring a bell?
The population of the Almshouse was diverse. All men, women, and children lived in the large brick structure (known as the William Brown House). Women lived on the 3rd floor, while the men inhabited the rooms in the basement. In 1830, on the suggestion of the almshouse doctor, a structure was built on the grounds to house the African Americans who lived in the almshouse. The doctor felt that conditions would be healthier if there was more room for the almshouse residents. He stated:
“[There is a] great necessity and importance for additional room. In order to remedy this inconvenience, as well as for the promotion of health, it appears necessary that a house should be erected as soon as practical for the accommodation of the Blacks—a log house with earthen floor will answer every purpose.” (Anne Arundel County Almshouse Minute Books, 10 July 1830)
The new building called the Black Dormitory was constructed of chestnut logs and measured forty by thirty feet. Very quickly, it became apparent that conditions in the Black Dormitory were not adequate. In Lunacy Commission Reports dating from 1887 through 1908, the dormitory is repeatedly called “a disgrace” and “should be condemned.” Finally, the building was torn down in 1910.
Another building was built circa1910 to house male residents of the almshouse, and was known as the Men’s Dormitory. It still stands today and serves as the Pavilion and offices for Historic London Town and Gardens.
To support the almshouse, the superintendent along with residents maintained gardens surrounding the building. The secretary of the Maryland State Board of Health reported, “There are 10 acres of land connected with the institution, a part of which is cultivated as a garden spot and yields a supply of vegetables for the house. The principal dietary supply, however, is the fish, oysters, and crabs taken from the South river by such of the inmates as are able to dish and dredge.”
In 1906, a law was passed that changed the name and the purpose of the almshouse. The almshouse became the County Home. This law made it illegal to keep children for more than ninety days. The county institution was no longer a place for the mentally ill and indigent, rather it became a place to house the impoverished elderly population of the county. There were fourteen elderly people still living in the Anne Arundel County Home when it closed in 1965 when Social Security Act Amendments were passed, creating Medicare and Medicaid and homeless shelters as we now know them.
Archaeological Evidence of the Almshouse Period
In 2001, the London Town Foundation and the archaeologists of the Anne Arundel County Lost Town’s Project began to investigate the almshouse. This was the first archaeological excavation conducted at London Town to learn about the almshouse and its residents, both black and white. The first objective of the excavation was to find the foundation of the Black Dormitory (circa 1830 to 1910). A second objective was to learn, through the collection of artifacts, about the residents of the Black Dormitory.
Twelve units, each measuring five feet by five feet, were dug, one layer or strata at a time. This revealed a stratigraphy or layering of deposits. The soil from each strata was screened for artifacts, allowing the archaeologists to assign a time period to each strata. The units also exposed some of the brick and stone foundation of the Black Dormitory. However, much of the foundation was destroyed when the building was torn down in 1910 and the Men’s Dormitory was built nearby. Sherds of ceramics (pearlware and whiteware), bone, and personal artifacts were found in the foundation. A great deal of coal was found as well, indicating the building was heated by coal fired stoves.
Additional artifacts, found outside the borders of the foundations of the Black Dormitory, supported the known practice that people disposed of their trash outside in the nineteenth century. Clothing, suspender pieces, buckles, shoe grommets, two blue beads, buttons, pieces of bone combs used to pull lice from someone’s hair, clay marbles, tobacco pipe fragments, a game token, and fragments of slate pencils were found.
A large number of buttons were found, made of bone, Prosser porcelain, copper alloy, iron, shell, and glass. Archaeologists wondered why there were so many buttons. One theory was that perhaps the black residents participated in ragpicking, which involved the removal of buttons from pieces of old clothing so that the fabric could be used in paper mills. Archaeologists also wondered why some of the buttons had hand worked holes added to the existing holes; this alteration suggests that the black residents reworked the buttons for other uses. It seems possible that these things were done to earn a bit of money or earn one’s keep. This gives us an idea of how the black residents lived from day to day.
Archaeologists were able to find out what the residents of the Black Dormitory ate and drank. Based on the number of oyster shell and fish bones found, they probably ate oysters and fish from the South River. Turtle, pig, and other animal bones were found, as well. Fragments from cooking pots, eating utensils, square and round bottles, table glass, dishes, crocks, and other pottery were excavated. Vessel reconstruction showed that dishes ranged from basic to very fine porcelain, and there were no matching sets. Indicating that the vessels used by residents were castoffs from the superintendent’s personal collection, or donated to the institution.
Historic London Town and Gardens is a twenty-three acre park featuring history, archaeology, and horticulture on the South River in Edgewater, Maryland. The park is owned by Anne Arundel County and managed by the London Town Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation. London Town has within its boundaries part of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century town of London, which is currently being excavated by archaeologists from the Lost Towns Project.
Established in 1683 as a 100-acre town, it became an important Chesapeake tobacco port and a key player in the transatlantic trade network. Strategically located on the major north-south route along the Atlantic seaboard, London Town served as a central transportation hub in the Chesapeake region. The town and its associated ferry landings was a bustling commercial center.
By the early nineteenth century, London Town was little more than a memory. Anne Arundel County purchased the William Brown House in the 1820s and turned it into the County Almshouse; housing and feeding the poor and homeless. Because the house was being used, it survived as a relic of the once vibrant community. When the 1965 National Welfare Act caused the county to close the Almshouse, the site started its current life as a history, horticulture, and archaeology museum.
After the county closed the Almshouse, a local, dedicated group of preservationists and gardeners convinced government officials to save the property and the William Brown House. In 1970 the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. An active group of volunteers, working with Anne Arundel County, worked to return the William Brown House to its 18th-century appearance while also furnishing it as a period inn and residence.
The Woodland Garden was also developed during this time as a collaborative effort between local garden clubs, the University of Maryland, county officials, and interested individuals. The garden was created as a showcase for unusual plants and as one of the finest botanical collections in the area. Windsor Great Park in the United Kingdom served as the inspiration for the Woodland Garden. Since the 1990s Anne Arundel County’s Lost Towns Project has focused much of its attention on learning more about the site’s history. Evidence of several buildings dating back to the late 17th and 18th centuries has been found. Through their work, the London Town Foundation has been able to reconstruct the Lord Mayor’s Tenement on its original location and the Foundation is in the process of reconstructing the Carpenter Shop and eventually the Rumney-West Tavern.
In July 2007, the new Visitor Center, Lost Towns Project Archaeology Lab, and Horticultural Complex were opened to the public. The 12,000 ft2 Visitor Center has a 3,500 ft2 exhibition space, the largest in Anne Arundel County. The Archaeology Lab houses various artifacts found by the Lost Towns Project. And the Horticultural Complex includes a Green House, Cold Frame, and Lathe House for plant sales, propagation, and research.
Today, visitors may take a self-guided tour of the site or a guided tour of the Historic Area and William Brown House. Thousands of school children enjoy a wide variety of historical and horticultural programs. Wedding parties, families, and businesses use the Ornamental Gardens and the Pavilion as the setting for their special day or corporate needs.
Within the next ten years Historic London Town and Gardens hopes to complete its three reconstruction projects in the Historic Area (Lord Mayor’s Tenement, Carpenter Shop, and Rumney-West Tavern), utilize the Horticultural Complex to sustain London Town-grown plants, and continue its archaeological and historical research of the tidewater Chesapeake.