31 Wood Street
London EN5 4BE
Wednesday April 27 2016
Jo and I had remembered our various bus trips to Barnet well enough to be able to find the Museum fairly effortlessly after the long climb uphill from the Northern Line terminus. The first thing to say is that the staff are very welcoming and they greeted us personally, asking where we had come from. So we explained the Project to them and as mainly Freedom Pass holders they were also familiar with the London Buses Project and part of the blog. The volunteers, for such they were, were all engaged in different aspects of looking and arranging the exhibits.
The Museum is on three floors with a table on the ground floor providing the working space for the volunteers and a most impressive shop with all manner of booklets of local history and ancient crafts on display. The main display here features the Battle of Barnet – ‘Ah, the Civil War,’ said Linda – ‘No,’ said Jo, ever the history teacher, ‘the ‘Wars of the Roses’, I may need to draw you a family tree’, but the Museum already has one with its handy notes so I was instructed as to how, as Richard II had died without heir, two competing branches of his predecessor’s family assumed they were the rightful heirs… So – I think this is right – Edward (later IV) raised arms against Henry VI ( parts 1-3) and it was the Battle of Barnet that decided the victory. Last October a new ‘dig’ and exploration started at an alternative local site – it had always been assumed the battle was at Monken Hadley but that may not prove to be the case. This is very much a work in progress but the long standing displays show a diorama of the battle positions and examples of weaponry/armoury used at the time.
From this it became clear that the Museum focuses only on the area where it is situated, namely Chipping Barnet, East Barnet, New Barnet and Hadley, whereas I had thought it would cover the London Borough of Barnet which stretches of course from Hertfordshire down to Camden and when formed in 1965 took in the local councils of Friern Barnet, Hendon and Finchley not to mention chunks of Middlesex and Hertfordshire as well. Small but beautiful is the phrase which springs to mind and the plentiful exhibits are lovingly and sensibly displayed covering different aspects of life within the locality.
Also on the ground floor is the collection of old kitchen appliances arranged in the fireplace cum range and including items from hand turned spits to early models of cleaners and vacuums; we were lamenting the demise of the quiet and quietly efficient carpet sweeper which I then Googled and found is still available to buy! Some misplaced nostalgia there. More locally specific were the posters advocating the abolition of Barnet Fair – a long standing horse fair, once the largest in England , now just an amusement fair. Barnet Fair is of course rhyming slang for ‘head of hair’…but I digress.
Upstairs the display cases give a clear picture of Barnet through both World Wars. The Museum has been given a collection of (very readable and legible) letters from a Sergeant Cyril Smith who started his service life in Quetta India and finished as part of the post-1918 occupying force in Germany. Focussing on one combatant brings the display alive. Lest we forget how many died there is a plaque from just one school listing the many young men who never returned.
The Second World War exhibits include the bomb damage maps and pictures and testaments from local evacuees and the auxiliary fire defence folk. This reminded me of the time we were changing buses down at Barnet Station (the railway one not the Northern Line) and another passenger told us his father had been on ‘fire watch’ during the war up the tower of St John the Baptist Church, the very fine 1420 church added to by William Butterfield which stands practically opposite the Museum.
Another memory from bussing days was the display about the former Friern Barnet Hospital - as I later gathered from the custodian, technically Friern lies outside the remit of the Museum but was included because of its huge significance. The original hospital for the Insane opened as Colney Hatch in 1851 located well into the country for the benefit of its inmates and doubtless to have them ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for the rest of the population, which is why London was ringed by its huge institutions. By 1890 it had 2248 patients and within 20 years this had increased to 2505 in number. With more enlightened attitudes and legislation by 1965 the farm had closed and the 1983 Mental Health Act, which promoted ‘care in the community’, led to its eventual closure ten years later. Now of course it is a prestigious housing development called Princess Park Manor. Up on the wall straightjackets remind us what ‘care’ used to mean though the instructions that ‘patients should not be left unsupervised in the bath’ could do with being adhered to today...
The most impressive display on this level is on the evolution (or some might call it decline) of the High Street where pictures and lists of former businesses are displayed alongside the current tenants so the local Boots was once a pub…We have visited several local museums where the remnants of local commerce are displayed – old signs, shop fittings, photos etc – but Barnet has managed to pinpoint the old and the new most effectively and vividly.
Another lively display is the recreation of a Victorian drawing room complete with modesty frills on all the furniture and even more lace to keep clean over the mantelpiece.
There are several cabinets devoted to local leisure which includes the Barnet Bowls club and the ‘High Barnet Foresters Brass band’ (and we thought brass banding was a northern thing.) now just the local band with its badge displaying both the red and white roses of Lancashire and Yorkshire to commemorate the battle of Barnet. Mementoes of the local cinema and of early electric lights replacing the candle power that was so dangerous – remembered in the examples of Fire Insurance marks that houses had to display. Most charming were some consummate paper sculptures recalling the Townswomen’s Guild meetings – note the hats!!
Then it was back down to the basement where the most recent finds from the Battle of Barnet excavations were awaiting variously washing/identifying and listing. One of the volunteers pointed to a triangular metal object, apparently a ‘chape’ which fits on the end of a scabbard to stop the sword poking through… She was also kind enough to offer us refreshments while we finished our visit.
There used to be a museum in Hendon (this piece recalls and laments its passing) and Barnet has absorbed some of the domestic items – so children’s toys and some clothes and shoes and beauty aids. On chatting with the staff they told us they had wanted to take on more objects but are running out of space and their applications to extend behind the ground floor have been turned down at a high level – it seems they have been described thus by the former council leader: ‘Barnet libraries are staffed by white middle class left wing activists’ which coming from the disgraced Brian Coleman I take to be something of a compliment.
Said ‘activists’ were very hospitable to us and spent some time lamenting their lack of space and so their inability both to expand or look at some more inclusive exhibitions. We had greatly enjoyed our visit to this museum and the chance to learn more about this small corner of North London and its historic links to a key battle in the Wars of the Roses amongst