Thursday, 28 May 2015

Vestry House Museum

Vestry Road
London E17 9NH

Wednesday May 27h 2015

Partly a nostalgia for the wonderful Walthamstow Bus Station and partly a need to include the museums with names near the end of the alphabet led Jo and Linda to plan a visit to the Vestry House Museum . The Victoria Line has maintained its early promise and delivered us on time for a quiet visit with only a few other keen half-term visitors. Like most local museums this one is supported by the local council and the building also houses the archives for said borough – Waltham Forest. As they are one of the few local authorities to put up their own blue plaques,  it is not surprising that they support and promote their museum.

One of the joys of small museums is that the staff, be they employed or volunteer, are friendly and keen to chat, unlike the ├╝ber busy and remote national Museum bodies. Also the range of exhibits is delightfully eclectic, at times seemingly random.   First a word about Vestry which I took to be a church adjunct kind of place (as in ‘born in the vestry’) where you might get dressed for performing the weekly rituals, but I gather from our in-house historian that it was in fact more like the administrative offices for the money side of the church, so offices is what this building clearly once was. They would have run the local alms houses (nearly opposite) set up for the ‘decayed tradesmens’ widows’ a misplaced adjective leaving us unsure as to which lot were decayed…and the National School fore-runner of a more public education system (see the blog entry for the ragged Schools for more detail on this).

Their star exhibit, which gets a room to itself, is the Bremer car, which looks more like a dog-cart sitting on some risky looking machinery. Its claim to fame is that it is thought to be the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine and the ‘inventor’ was a local lad, but as it never quite made into production it was hard to get excited. After nearly decaying the museum rescued it in 1933, restored it in1962 and entered into the London to Brighton run in 1963 – if I tell you it took 8 hours plus to complete the run you will get some idea of its efficiency.

The next two rooms seem to be for temporary exhibitions – one wall had a very fine display of photographs from the Contact the Elderly charity celebrating 50 years in 50 portraits of users of their service, so not specifically pertaining to Walthamstow. Still any reminder of how easy it is to get lonely and any attempt to counteract this is worthwhile. Adjacent to this was a display of 150 years of Polish migration, which most people see has occurred in four distinct phases:

1830-34   Influx of intellectuals and middle class exiles  following a revolution
1881-1920   Jewish refugees from the various eastern European pogroms or persecutions
1939-1945 World war 2 refugees of all sorts
1898 – to present day.

There are some very interesting stories and photos covering the excellent contributions and enrichment made over the centuries by this one group of migrants to the general well-being of Walthamstow, and the UK overall. The contribution from local  migrant groups includes some of the businesses they founded including  Lebus Furniture with factories locally and in nearby Tottenham – I can still remember their items being bought before the advent of MFI and the demise of furniture being ‘real wood’. Their factory also built  Mosquito planes and Horsa glider fuselages – woodwork is woodwork after all.

After these stark reminders of war time the next room had more soothing exhibits – some fashion items from early Victorian calico through to a Sixties bikini by way of a war time bridal gown – I said things were eclectic. Rather incongruously in the corner of this room, where the fine linenfold panelling has come from elsewhere, is the police lock-up for when Vestry House was home to the local police,  established earlier by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.

If downstairs was a nostalgic nod to working and leisure time in olden days Walthamstow,  the upstairs contains a wealth of interest for children, or more likely those reminiscing about their childhood.   Two local firms were hugely popular, especially perhaps in the post war era of children now firmly established as being ‘in need of play’ a big bulge in the birth rate and before the advent of TV and other electronic games. Britains, the manufacturer, in spite of the name eventually  moved production to the Far East and the company is now American-owned but we all remember both the toy soldiers and the farm animals they produced.

To recall the domestic side of life there is a reconstruction of a Victorian parlour, much reference to the ‘servant problem’ and the fairly commonly seen displays of cooking and baking utensils across the years.

Tucked away in a corner upstairs, alongside the borough’s Roll of Honour, is another reminder that Jack Cornwell was one of the youngest recipients of the VC and very much a local lad. Like many local museums these also contain the local archives which need to be viewed by appointment. Staff seemed a bit surprised that we weren't actually from Waltham Forest but we felt this little Museum did merit a visit in its own right. And the garden was a peaceful plot. 

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