Having been in London the other day for domestic and familial purposes, I thought I would get a cultural fix from visiting the Geffrye Museum, on Kingsland Road in the Hoxton/Shoreditch area. I understand from my more metrosexual acquaintances that this area is (as they say) achingly hip, but it looks like most other dusty, dirty, traffic-filled bits of London to me (and the bewildering maze of exit opportunities from Old Street Underground station, with signage that doesn’t tell anyone not already knowing where they’re going anything useful, would not be out of place in a circle of Hell).
The USP of the neighbourhood seems to be the large number of Vietnamese restaurants, though Shoreditch Town Hall has been partly taken over by ‘The Clove Club’, which I suspect may be a bit aching, and the Magistrates’ Court on the other side of the road is surrounded by hoardings and is destined to become the luxury ‘Old Street Courthouse Hotel’, with pool, bowling alley and cinema (justice has presumably been relocated rather than actually denied). This picture of the corner of Old Street and Kingsland Road seems to summarise quite nicely 300 years of London social history.
Anyway: the Geffrye Museum is a delight. For those who (like me until today) know nothing about its origins as a museum, the excellent History of the Geffrye Almshouses, by Kathy Haslam, reveals that in the first decade of the twentieth century, the almshouses were in danger of demolition and replacement by an electricity generating plant.
The surroundings had deteriorated in the almost 200 years since the buildings were erected at the expense of Sir Robert Geffrye, merchant and member of the Ironmongers’ Company, in a semi-rural area, close to the city, but not too close, and surrounded by market gardens and nurseries (including that of the great Thomas Fairchild).
The old people living in the almshouses were subject to noise, mockery, and even assault if they ventured out, and the environment was degraded by the constant road traffic and the presence of a nearly refuse incinerator. Moreover, the pensioners could be relocated to somewhere leafier, and the considerable value of the site for development be realised.
The Geffrye pensioners went first to Mottingham in Kent, where (ironically) the 1912 almshouses were damaged by bombing in the Second World War, and finally to Hook and Basingstoke in Hampshire, where the institution still flourishes.
But the planned sale and demolition of the original site aroused great opposition, from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (of which William Morris was one of the founders), the National Trust (Octavia Hill et al.), the Kyrle Society (also Octavia Hill), and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, founded in 1882 by Lord Brabazon (later the 12th earl of Meath), diplomat and philanthropist, and first chairman of the parks committee of the London County Council. (Remarkably, one argument for preserving the site was that its gardens (which are not extensive) made up 13% of the open space in the borough of Shoreditch.)
The fate of the building hung in the balance until 1909, when the L.C.C. (under pressure from such notables as Walter Crane, William de Morgan and Edwin Lutyens) decided to purchase it and use it as a museum of furniture and woodwork: this opened in January 1914, and is now primarily a sequence of reconstructed ‘rooms’, using furniture and artefacts to show the lifestyle of the urban ‘middling sort’ from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. (It was disconcerting to see how closely the Edwardian living room resembled that of my grandparents in the 1950s and 60s: their house was built in the 1930s, but most of the furniture was of an earlier epoch.)
There is a formal garden at the front, as well as beautiful herb and flower gardens at the rear, and an ace caff (as that embarrassing 1980s advert for the Victoria and Albert Museum had it). But the icing on the cake at the moment (and this is a seriously inappropriate phrase to use, almost worthy of poor Marie Antoinette), is the exhibition in the new gallery: ‘Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London’. (Be quick: it ends on 12 July!)
Disappointingly, there isn’t a catalogue, but the paintings, artefacts, early photographs and extracts from written accounts furnish a haunting and uncomfortable account of utter deprivation, cheered occasionally by glimpses of humanity among the stern rules and rulers of the workhouses, common lodging houses and Salvation Army shelters which were the only recourse of the poor and desperate.
I wasn’t surprised to see William Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out, and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, frequently cited, but there was also a quotation from Charlie Chaplin, who had as a child been placed in the Central London District Poor Law School, founded in Hanwell in 1856, describing his great unhappiness there.
Hanwell was of course also the site of the Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum, in which John Conolly carried out reforms including the abolition of restraints upon the insane – was the pushing of social problems out into the countryside as much a way of hiding such issues as it was of providing fresh air?
And to remind us that the issue of homelessness – and the deeply anti-social ‘solution’ of sending homeless people to live miles away from their own community – is still very much with us, portraits and words of contemporary homeless people line the entrance to the gallery.
I haven’t devoted anything like enough time to the fascinating permanent exhibition of urban lifestyles over five centuries – but I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to visit this wonderful (and free!) museum for yourselves.