John Embree – Sergeant Plumber and Surveyor of the King’s Works

Company News

Who has been the most eminent member of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers? It would be difficult to argue against John Embree, who was the Sergeant Plumber from 1639 -1661, and Surveyor of the King’s Works from 1653 – 1660. This year marks the four hundredth anniversary his binding as an apprentice.

Past Steward John Carnaby and Past Master Peter Brunner have written this interesting article on this eminent plumber, who was installed as our Master in 1647.


Sergeant Plumber and Surveyor of the King’s Works

by Past Steward John Carnaby and Past Master Peter Brunner

Early years

He is recorded as being the son of John Embree, a yeoman from Sudbury, and the date of the binding (24th June 1620) would indicate that Embree was born around the middle of the first decade of the century. This tallies with a record of the baptism of a John Embry, son of John Embry (there were several different spellings of the name) on 18th October 1607 at St.Giles, Cripplegate. (This was coincidentally the year in which the Company took a further lease from the Vintners’ Company for their hall in Anker Lane, Thames Street).

It is likely that Embree’s family had good connections, as he was apprenticed to Joseph Day, who later became Master of the Company four times. The apprenticeship was to last eight years, as was customary at the time. It is therefore surprising to find Embree’s name on the quarterage register in 1626 and 1627.

The Company’s records do not reveal when Embree was made free, but by 1631 he was already a householder.

After having one daughter out of wedlock in early 1630 Embree and Grace Kirridge were married in April at St. Mary, Islington. Several further children were to die in childbirth or soon afterwards. For example, his son John was baptised at St. Mary, Somerset on 6th January 1631 and died three weeks later.

The first engagement of which a record exists is that Embree was working together with William George and Thomas Charley on the Duke of Bedford’s “Piazza howse”, being three houses on the east side of the Piazza in Covent Garden, in 1633. This suggests that Embree had already made some useful contacts, as George was Master of the Company in 1632 and again in 1636 and 1637.

His relations with other luminaries of the Company were not always so amicable. In May 1633 Master Lawes informed the Court that Embree had enticed his journeyman and set him to work. At the October Court Master Lawes repeated this complaint, and added a further complaint that Embree had supplanted him in some work, to which Embree replied rather airily that he was in the country when a servant of his did some work that Master Lawes pretended was due to him to have done. Embree offered to pay whatever fine the Court deemed fit.

The servant referred to here may have been John Hardwick, who had been turned over to Embree to complete his apprenticeship, and who was made free in December 1635.

Embree cannot be said to have displayed unswerving deference to his superiors at the Company. On 17th April 1635 he was late in attending a meeting of the Court, and a fine was duly imposed upon him. He refused to pay it, whereupon the Court ordered that the Lord Mayor’s officer, in attendance, should carry him to prison. History does not record whether Embree relented.

On 16th October 1637 Embree, being “ one of six youngmen housekeepers of the Company “ was admitted to the clothing of the Company, on payment of the customary admission fine of £5.

By 1638 Embree was living in the parish of St. Mary Somerset, as shown by the land tax records. His property was valued at £14. This parish lay conveniently close to the Company’s leased hall.

Was Embree showing his political sympathies too openly at this time ? At the Court meeting on 23rd November 1638 he alleged that a fellow liveryman, Henry Speed, had come to his house “ and in a railing mannor hath called him knave puritan knave and such like “. As there was a witness the offence was proved and Speed was fined 40s.

Sergeant Plumber

On 8th January 1639 Embree was appointed Sergeant Plumber. The office was “void by the death of Hugh Justice, with a fee of 12d by the day and an annual livery or 40s in money for the same at Christmas”. Quite why he was appointed to the post is unclear.

Shortly beforehand Embree had been appointed by the Lord Mayor to the office of Constable in his parish. It was obvious that this was going to cause difficulties, and he petitioned Charles 1 in these terms: “Being your majesties Sergeant Plumber his time is wholly taken up in attendance at your majesties houses to execute repairs. Notwithstanding his employment he has been chosen Constable for the parish where he lives (St. Mary Somerset) which duty will enforce him to neglect his place, and furnish a precedent prejudicial to others your servants in like places, and contrary to that privilege which all his Predecessors have enjoyed. Prays his Majestie to signify his pleasure to the Lord Mayor, that he may be free from the said office”. The petition found favour with the King, and on 31st January 1639 Embree was released from the office of Constable.

Less than four weeks later, on 27th February 1639, Embree was appointed an Assistant of the Company. The Court minutes record his recent appointment as Sergeant Plumber, and confirm that he should take his place next to those who had already served the office of Renter Warden.

It did not take long before Embree was elected Renter Warden, but three days later, on 24th September 1639, he was fined £20 for not taking up that office. (We are tempted to wonder whether the Company on occasion elected people to office in the confident knowledge that they would prefer to pay a fine rather than fulfil the office.)

On 8th November 1639 Lawrence Stephens was apprenticed to Embree for eight years and on 24th January 1640 Thomas Browne for a similar term.

As Sergeant Plumber Embree’s voice clearly carried weight at Court. Although he was not present at the meeting on 5th October 1641 it is recorded that he, and the Master, entreated the Court to be lenient to Master Lingard, whose fine for not attending Court was duly remitted.

How many apprentices did Embree have at this time ? On 16th January 1642 Denis Kestion, one of his apprentices, was admitted to the freedom, and then on 13th June in the same year another apprentice, John Briggs, followed suit.

At the Court on 14th September 1642, which Embree did not attend, he was elected Renter Warden. Master Day proposed he be dispensed with, on payment of a fine of £7, as he had already paid a fine once before. Embree was then elected Upper Warden, after which he was fined 6/8d for not attending Court. The Master and Wardens were to hold a discussion with Embree in case he should refuse to take up the office. They must have exercised their powers of persuasion, for on 11th October 1642 Embree was sworn in as Upper Warden.

On 29th December that year Lewes Moore, the son of a draper, was apprenticed to Embree for eight years.

Embree undoubtedly took his duties as Upper Warden seriously, as he attended most of the Court meetings during that year.

By 1642 a certificate of residence shows Embree to be liable for taxation in the Royal Household.

Somewhat embarrassingly for him as Sergeant Plumber, on 30th December 1644 Embree was fined for using unmarked solder at Somerset House. His fine of £3 was reduced to 20s after Assistant Cox said that the solder was very good.

Relations between the most senior craftsmen in the various crafts of the day may well have been quite cordial. Nicholas Stone, the Master Mason, left a bequest in his will for a ring for Embree and other craftsmen.

After being elected, and serving, as Upper Warden for the second time in 1645/6 Embree was on 21st September 1647 elected Master, and on 5th October he was “sworn in the Parlour publiquely”. Rather oddly the Court minutes between November 1647 and October 1648 are missing. It is likely that, as in previous years, his mastership was taken up with apprentice bindings and the resolution of disputes among members of the Company. One apprentice, John Dison, was bound to Embree himself during the year.

In the following year Peter Brent, who was in due course to supplant Embree as Sergeant Plumber, was bound as an apprentice.

By the time Charles 1 was beheaded, in January 1649, Embree had probably performed a decade of loyal, but seemingly unpaid, service as Sergeant Plumber. In that position he was quartered in Scotland Yard, where one of his neighbours was the architect Edward Carter, then Surveyor of the King’s Works. Embree had already worked under Carter at Northumberland House.

Just two days after the execution the Commons appointed a special committee to look after the monarch’s possessions, and The Sale of the Late King’s Goods began, at Somerset House. The sale was not a conspicuous success. It was decided to utilise the Royal collection in order to discharge the outstanding debts. Among these was £903 owed to Embree, in return for which he was given Persian and Turkish carpets, green velvet canopies, pewter dishes, stools and beds, as well as pictures by Titian, Tintoretto and others. It is not the purpose of this article to dwell on the works of art that Embree received; those interested are advised to refer to Jerry Brotton’s book “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles 1 and his Art Collection”.

However, Embree may well have been short of liquid assets. In about 1652 he petitioned the Council of State, complaining of the desperate situation arising from his debts as surveyor of the houses belonging to the Commonwealth, and describing how he was being besieged in his own home by those to whom he owed money which he could not pay as he had not been paid.

On 15th March 1652 , when Embree made one of his increasingly infrequent appearances at Court, Abraham Hall was apprenticed to him for eight years.

Later in the year, on election day in September, Embree was elected Master for the second time. A week after his election it was recorded that he had held a private meeting with the Master and Wardens, and other Assistants and Liverymen, and had asked to be acquitted, on payment of a fine, from service in the office. The request was granted. (Until quite recently the Company’s abbreviated histories stated that Embree had served as Master in 1652/3; that was wrong).

Surveyor of the King’s Works

In March 1653, or in January as he himself would have it, Embree was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works, to succeed Edward Carter. Why he replaced Carter is wholly unclear; Carter had done nothing wrong. What is however so significant about this appointment was that he was the only craftsman ever to be appointed to the office. For example, other appointees included architects such as Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren, and indeed Carter, who was himself no mean architect.

On 25th April 1653 Embree was again present at Court, where he paid 5s for the presentment of his apprentice Abraham Hall the previous year, and 15s towards his arrears of quarterage.

At the end of the year Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector, and this led to an enormous volume of work for Embree, because Hampton Court and other palaces were reserved “ for the maintenance of [Cromwell’s] state and dignity”.

The records detailing Embree’s works are in some respects meagre. Hampton Court, where the leaking roofs were a priority, and Whitehall were the sites where he was chiefly occupied. For example, in order to enrich Hampton Court a marble fountain, with all its pipework, was brought from Somerset House. He was also active elsewhere. In 1655 Embree received instructions to alter the old Court of Chancery at Westminster in order to make a High Court of Justice.

Embree’s summary accounts show that, notwithstanding an attempt in 1654 to bring an abrupt end to the expenditure, between 1653 and 1658 he spent about £55,000, with the bulk of the spending, around £30,000, between November 1654 and November 1656. These are truly breathtaking sums (the latter being equivalent to the cost of building Whitehall, the Queen’s House at Greenwich and Hampton Court Palace) especially when it is borne in mind that the expenditure was not on any new building, but was spent entirely on refurbishment and repairs.

What cannot be gainsaid is that Embree was a persistent and persuasive petitioner for funds, not only for works of repair but also for sums allegedly due to himself and others. For example, in May 1654 Embree petitioned the Council of State, in terms that he had had his books ready for audit of thirteen months and there was due to him £1500 which he needed to fulfil his contracts for materials delivered towards repairing Whitehall and other houses belonging to his highness (i.e. Cromwell) and to pay his poor workmen.  In the light of the government’s chronic shortage of funds, it is quite remarkable that his petitions succeeded to such an extent.

In response to one of his petitions a report in November 1654 recommended a salary of £300 per annum, with three years’ back pay, as well as his fee as Sergeant Plumber back to 1642. As to disbursements on the late King’s behalf he was allowed £6000, which however he was to earn on the basis of one half of any discoveries of concealed lands or goods which he was able to bring in.

During this period Embree maintained contact with the Company, usually attending one Court meeting each year. On 16th December 1655 two of his apprentices, Lewes Moore and John Dison, were made free by servitude. Elected Master again in September 1656, he desired to be excused for sundry reasons and employments for the Commonwealth not permitting him; he promised to pay a fine of £5, and was freed from the obligation to serve.

In 1657/8 Embree was responsible for “taking up and relaying the leads” at Syon House, for the Earl of Northumberland, for which he was paid £130 15s 7d. This was, exceptionally, a private commission.

On Cromwell’s death in 1658 Embree took part in the funeral procession. After Richard, Cromwell’s son, succeeded his father as Lord Protector Embree’s hectic programme did not slacken. In June 1659 he, together with Edward Denely, the Sergeant at Arms, were sent to Hampton Court Palace to take account of the goods in the houses “so as there bee noe Imbezillment of them”, and to state what servants were fit to be continued to look after the house. They produced a 30 page inventory of items in each room and in the gardens – a monumental task. In the same month Embree was also instructed to prevent the removal of goods and the defacing of lodgings in Whitehall.

Embree’s last apprentice, William Carredge, was bound to him on 4th October 1659.

Parliamentary papers in 1660 record: “to Mr. Embree, Surveyor-General, for the State’s houses etc, to divers others for materials, workmanship in the repair of Westminster Hall, etc, Whitehall, St. James’s, Hampton Court, Windsor, Somerset House, Greenwich and in repairing and Building several Guards [houses] for horse and foot from 1656 November 30th to 1659 October 15th: £11,676.10s.5d.”

The late years

The restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 brought an immediate end to Embree’s time in office as the Surveyor of the King’s Works. He was replaced within two weeks of the King’s arrival in England by Sir John Denham, not because Denham had any conspicuous talent for the post, but rather because he reminded Charles 11 that he had promised him the post in the event of the restoration. Embree was not formally dismissed; in the eyes of the Monarchy he had never been Surveyor.

It is doubtful that Embree carried out any further work as Sergeant Plumber, but in 1661 Denham dismissed him from the post, stating in a certificate that not only had Embree served “the Usurping powers as Surveyor”, but had bought some of the King’s land at Whitehall and had “sold and demolished the Cloysters, and divers Chappells belonging to the Cathedral church at Exeter, to a very great value”. There was little genuine substance to this charge; Embree had indeed worked for both Lords Protector, and had purchased a “little, old and ruinous” property, probably Walsingham House, from the trustees of the King’s property; however Embree was, or at least had been, in the wrong camp. Embree was replaced as Sergeant Plumber by Peter Brent.

Embree’s last appearance at Court was on 29th December 1660. (The Court records state 1661, but we believe that to be an error.) is probable that he was at the time a relatively wealthy man, although his assets were substantially reduced when a Colonel Hawes, who had already recovered from others some 6oo pictures and 203 statues that were the King’s property, by means fair or foul, also confiscated twenty-three of Embree’s pictures in 1662.

The records between 1660 and 1664 of Court members who failed to answer a summons to attend Court are scanty. The last occasion when Embree was noted to have failed to attend was in November 1664.  At the Court meeting on 29th March 1665 William Carredge, “the late apprentice to John Embree“, was turned over to Master Hobbs.

John Embree was buried on 6th April 1665 at St. Giles, Cripplegate. He died some four months before the Great Plague affected the Cripplegate area.