Sunday, 24 December 2017

Bromley Historical Collection

Central Library
High Street Bromley Kent BR1 1 EX
Tuesday December 19 2017

Bromley once had a free standing museum, located towards the south of the borough in Orpington , but in the way of many local authority resources, it has been vastly reduced and is now something of a side show in the Central Library. The library is next to the Churchill Theatre and both are rather tired looking Sixties concrete buildings, albeit very handy for the High Street, where I was ultimately headed. Bromley is of course something of a bus and train hub and I managed both modes to complete my trip.
(There is by the way an eloquent lament for the closure of the old Bromley Museum and the inadequacies of this replacement by a former Orpington volunteer in this blog post )

The first floor section is what I now recognise as ‘standard local Museum’ albeit in much truncated from and comprising three large showcases and a free-standing small ‘fire engine’ – in fact the  legally required water pump that each parish had to have according to Queen Anne. This is certainly an older model than some local authorities have, affectionately named the Squirt.
Bromley is that strange outer London hybrid – a proper London Borough but also in Kent for geographical and locational purposes if not for administrative ones. Kent having been known as ‘the Garden of England’ it is not surprising that most of Bromley was a mixture of agriculture, fruit growing, and small villages until really comparatively recently. There are significant Roman remains as we know from our visit to  Crofton Roman Villa
but little more than the usual pot shards are exhibited. Likewise for the Anglo-Saxon arrowheads.

According to the captions the Industrial Revolution barely touched this part of the world and the only industries of any note were mills on the River Cray.At its height employing 700 people and shaping the local community – a more detailed account can be seen here. Apparently there was also a mineral water company but I cannot find any more information on this. Keston Ponds, which lie within the Bromley borough, are apparently on the site of the Roman mineral springs and we did see people filling their bottles at ‘Caesar’s Well’ there when we were walking the London Loop.

A late arrival to the industrial landscape of the borough was the Morphy Richards factory, again at St Mary Cray, which was built in the late Thirties and thrived through the Fifties and Sixties but then closed in the recessive Seventies.

Another case looks at ‘community’ in the very loosest sense so an early etching of Bromley Market (? where held?) and various sporting memorabilia, and souvenirs from the last but one coronation. Kent County Cricket seems to divide itself between grounds in Canterbury and some newly refurbished in Beckenham, which falls firmly within the borough.

The last display focuses on famous people from the borough; these include Peggy Spencer who did ballroom dancing before the spray tan era of ‘Strictly’ and the undoubtedly more famous David Bowie who, while born in Brixton, did spend his school and teenage years in Beckenham. The museum has some age and location appropriate photos and a bright green jacket which David customised with blue black ink stripes! There is a wonderful patchwork coat in this display, which looks like an early Bowie garment but is in fact a ‘make do and mend’ artefact apparently from the Chislehurst Caves, which we have of course visited. 

Local authors include Enid Blyton, who taught in Bickley, HG Wells and Richmal Crompton (who has a large pub named after down the road from the library). Crompton both taught and lived In Bromley until her death in 1969. Give me ‘Just William’ over Noddy anytime….

The back of this case celebrates the arrival in Bromley of the famous Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park – the palace burned down in the Thirties (there is a conspiracy theory that ‘we’ demolished it before the Luftwaffe could use it to orientate themselves too well on their approach runs to London). 
Bromley is quite a wealthy borough but these displays came across as rather piecemeal and not altogether coherent. Some other less well-off local authorities have done better.  From travelling around the borough I get an impression of a series of villages – many still retain their village signs or ponds, and there is little attempt to capture what life must have been like for the many agricultural labourers, or come to that their wealthier landowners.

Up on the second floor there is an altogether better presented display featuring a local ‘worthy’ namely John Lubbock,1st Baron Avebury. There have been a long string of Lubbocks variously active in Public Life. From a family already ennobled to the Baronetcy he started life as a banker (the Lubbock family bank was eventually taken over or absorbed into Coutts)  but became a politician – among the bills he sponsored were:
·         The Bank Holidays Act’ 1871 (he thought his workers deserved some days off without having to do calculations, but also campaigned for shorter working hours for all)
·         The Ancient Monuments Act 1882 (thereby saving the threatened Avebury (arguably more interesting than Stonehenge) and taking its name when made a Baron)

·         The Libraries Act’ 1892 (the wall is adorned with his quote; ‘We may sit in a library but be in all quarters of the earth.
All things we now take for granted but important achievements in the day.
In other ways he was a typical Victorian gentlemen collector and interested in archaeology; he did not go on expeditions himself but tended to ‘buy in’ and there are cases with his artefacts which he used to keep at the family home at High Elms.
Even more importantly he was a keen scientist and naturalist; a close neighbour of Charles Darwin at Downehe was introduced to the thinker at an early age, and he obviously saw him as someone akin to a mentor. Throughout his life Lubbock was a staunch supporter of Darwin’s thinking and along with some other scientists of the age founded the ‘X Club’  to exchange ideas and help promote Darwin’s work too. The lifelong association only finished when Lubbock helped carry Darwin’s coffin at the Westminster Abbey funeral – the invitation is on show.

That the funeral took place in a religious setting comes as something of a surprise. Lubbock like Darwin was a great believer in adult and ongoing education and they wished to give and promote improving talks in the local school in Downe.  However the audience had a tendency to smoke and spit so the Reverend Ffinden objected to this extra-curricular use of his school, though one suspects his real objection was to letting someone whom he regarded as a ‘non-believer’ use his premises. Lubbock tried very hard to mediate with said vicar and the correspondence shows this.

Lubbock also clearly valued other people’s collections taking over one from an archaeologist in Copenhagen but even more importantly making sure that the artefacts collected by Pitt Rivers (actually his father in law) in Oxford were preserved for the nation.

I am not clear whether Lubbock made some kind of condition to his collections being displayed but I certainly found this section of the Bromley Historical Collections more absorbing than the more diffuse elements downstairs. .

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The College of Arms

130 Queen Victoria St,
 London EC4V 4BT

Thursday December 14 2017

Today’s visit was something of an aperitif before our main meal which was to be ‘Red Star Over Russia’ an excellent special exhibition at Tate Modern across the road and river. However as we do not usually review transient shows you will have to go for yourselves.

It was freezing outside so having admired the impressive courtyard and raised entrance – a grand single staircase which splits into two taking the visitor to the double doors (thus keeping out the worst of the weather) and into the one room open to the public.

Of our party I am the least qualified to talk about Heraldry – the alternative name for the College of Arms  is the College of Heralds – having never taught or learnt it.  To reduce it to its simplest when men (let’s face it women didn’t) wore top to toe armour facial recognition was impossible so designs (?logos) on the shield or breast plate and atop the helmets were the only way of telling one set of combatants from another. The herald was the household’s general factotum one of whose responsibilities was to recognise other insignia, make sure the home team was well presented and to arrange any suitable encounters including tournaments. As it were a role combing tour manager with football manager. Because the right to bear Arms was hereditary (as was pretty much everything in those days) the heralds also kept dynastic records making them additionally archivists and genealogists. One of the things that Richard III is not remembered for is that he organised the various heralds and their records from the different households together and offered them a house in the City of London. Some seventy years later they were offered a house on this site. Today’s  handsome building was a post-Great Fire rebuild and has continued in regular use withstanding both some war time damage and post-war road widening of the unlovely Queen Victoria Street. The splendidly appropriate gates were donated by American Associates, and we noticed low-key signs reserving courtyard parking spaces for ‘Garter’ and the other Kings of Arms.  

Evening tours which penetrate further into the building are available for groups but the  general public is allowed into the Earl Marshal’s Court, the large front room which is wood panelled and thus reminiscent of Ham House, being very much from the same era. (I suppose the post Great Fire architects thought that by replacing wooden exteriors with brick the buildings would be safer but then put a lot of wooden ‘cladding’ inside?). Portraits of previous Earl Marshals (the chief Herald) hang round the panelling, but there are displays as well.

There are beautifully calligraphied charters which are the written proof of your right to wear arms, or at least put them on your letter head (twitter handle?) and some light-hearted examples from more recent ennoblements.  Sir Edmund Hillary's insignia are shown – a blue Kiwi (because it was b****y cold as the curator said) with an ice-axe, two upright or in Heraldry speak  possibly ‘rampant’ penguins – this image you can unpick at your will. If you think I have made some bad jokes you need to see the shield for Sir Harry Secombe with a mermaid styling her hair near some emblematic waves (SEA COMB) and a motto reading “GO ON” where you are encouraged to lose the space….

The College of Arms is well supported in the United States – surprisingly in what is technically the world’s largest democracy the right to bear coats of arms is still recognised provided the college can validate the ancestry via its impressive archives and listings. An example of a US shield is that of Douglas Fairbanks Snr., though his was awarded in his own right. Any new honours are recorded by the College and they will help design an appropriate and correct coat of arms for such folk.

The other function of the combined Heralds (a hoot of heralds ?) is to arrange and officiate at various state occasions including coronations, State funerals and  the State Opening of Parliament.  

A windowsill display is dedicated to the script and photographs from the filming of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ in which James Bond was briefed in this very building so he could convincingly impersonate a herald at a meeting with the suddenly heraldry-struck Blofeld…

There is a comprehensive bookshop of postcards and additional reading materials – for anyone interested In Heraldry and the very long history of this exclusive group of men and their work over the years would enjoy peeping into the warm interior of this fine building. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

The London Mithraeum

 12 Walbrook, London EC4N 8AA

Thursday 7 December 2017

For the second week running, we have seen just what money can do for 'heritage'. Linda and I, accompanied by the person formerly know as 63 regular, visited the London Mithraeum, beneath the Bloomberg building.

The spacious entrance area is enhanced by three art works. Blind to the rays of the returning sun, by Isabel Nolan, is an interpretation of the key Mithraic symbol, the bull that the god slays. And around the wall is her tapestry (or possibly carpet, since it is tufted, though by whom is not clear). It's called Barely Perceptible Vibration of Everything, and is a response to the site.  We felt we could detect the curves of the river Walbrook, now buried beneath the building, as well as the fields which were once here, possibly the Tower of London.  It is certainly a vibrant and beautiful work.

The third art work is a  stunning wall displaying some of the thousands of artefacts found in the area by archeologists. What's that you say?  'Can't read the captions or see the detail?' Well, just borrow one of the tablets on offer, touch the item you are interested in and get a close up and a description.  We saw spear- and arrow- heads, writing wax-tablets, wooden patten-type shoes, buckles, harness brasses and lots more.

After a while, we were told that we could head downstairs, which we did, pausing only to take advantage of the handsome facilities. Above the taps was a sign which said 'towel, wave your hands here'.  And a roller towel emerged from behind the mirror.  Just as one wondered what would happen next, the towel was grabbed back into the wall.  Amazing.

The stairs down have a simplified form on time line to help you travel though the years, while giving you some events to focus on: the Queen's Coronation, the birth of the tube, the Norman conquest and so on. 

The stairs brought us to a large room, with sitting space and three interactive screens.  The emollient tones of Joanna Lumley told us some of the ideas that archeologists and historians have about the cult of Mithras.  Meanwhile, we looked at the screens about taurotony (the importance of the Bull in the religion;  the shape of the temple and its history; and the head of the God himself.  It seemed to us that it was probably similar to ,many mainly male organisations:  hierarchy with arcane names for the different ranks, initiation ceremonies, and possibly dressing up.  The Freemasons came to mind.  What is not clear is what they actually believed:  one suggestion is that it's a creation myth, with the blood of the bull providing the life force;  Mithras looks away as he slits the bull's throat:  perhaps he is making a sacrifice to the sun?  Rudyard Kipling, in his story The Church that was at Antioch, suggests a religion with much in common with Christianity. You can read the story by going to the link.

Then it was our turn to go down one more storey, to the temple itself.  At first it was dimly lit, then very dark, with mist swirling, and a certain amount of ritual shouting in Latin, purporting to be part of the worship.  There were shafts of light where the pillars had once been.

Then the lights came up and we had plenty of time to walk round the excavations themselves.  The central area was probably for the rituals, but may also have been for feasting and drinking. The two side aisles would have been for the different ranks of initiates to sit.

We then went back upstairs and were able to study the interactive screens again, to learn what the shouting was supposed to be about, but also lots of other interesting facts and guesses, including the titles of the different ranks

One programme showed where other Mithraic Temples have been found;  another described how and why the temple had been abandoned, reused as a Temple of Bacchus and then abandoned again.  We wondered if evidence of eating and particularly drinking might possibly have come from the Temple's Bacchic phase.  Since many depictions of Mithras include the signs of the Zodiac (our signs of the zodiac, that is, I had not known they were that old) it's thought that Mithras was closely linked with the heavens.

All in all, we had had a fascinating experience, and one that we hotly recommend to all. You can book your visit here. The fact that admission is free is of course a bonus.

But as we stepped out into the rain to go back to Bank Station, I could not avoid thinking of all the museums we have visited which don't have the benefit of the generous structure and production values of this splendid addition to the London museum scene.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Old Speech Room & Gallery

Harrow School
The Bursary
5 High St, Harrow
Thursday November 30 2017

Parts of today’s expedition felt quite nostalgic as we met at a very cold Baker Street Station (needing an agreed rendezvous for this multi-layered interchange) and took a newish swift Metropolitan Line train to Harrow on the Hill where all the lines divide/converge. The station staff recommended we took a bus so soon we were back in the familiar surroundings of Harrow Bus Station, now complete with a major bus countdown board so we could sprint to the  H 17, as ever a popular route, which delivered us to the crest of the hill, where this very famous public school stands proud. The Speech House is indicated by a brown sign.

 The gallery housed in a very imposing double fronted building atop a long flight of steps, was cosy after the cold journey and there are not many galleries which are carpeted, which this one is. The building was originally designed for the boys to practise their public speaking so there is a downstairs area suitable for talks and concerts and an upstairs gallery ready for hecklers. In its new role it is very proud that it has accredited museum status. The exhibits are on the underside of the gallery up the stairs and in the ‘overhang’. 

 The young woman on Reception, who was one of the permanent curatorial staff, was keen to tell us that what was on display was only a fraction of the collection. She was very enthusiastic about the gallery though today we seemed to be the only visitors. The collection also benefits from the similarly keen input of a few older pupils, presumably as part of their Art History modules. It has to be said that the standards of the displays must be a mark of the school’s wealth – in most schools the ‘archiving’ such as it is, is left to the History Department and a couple of shelves in a random cupboard.

This learning establishment has moved on from its original founder John Lyons leaving a legacy to educate seven local boys (and build a ten mile stretch of local road!) to one of the country’s more famous private schools. The accumulated wealth and privilege is visible in the museum.

Their most famous former pupils are Winston Churchill and Lord Byron, neither of whom shone academically. I suspect the museum alternate their ‘special exhibitions’ between these two and we visited when Byron was being foregrounded. To say he led a colourful life is an understatement but you can read about it briefly  here. The exhibits include sketches of several but by no means all the women in his life, including his daughters Augusta/Allegra and Ada, the latter better known as Ada Lovelace, whose life of serious study and sober application was the total opposite of the father she never knew. There is also his first watch (the one you get sent to school with but I suspect a pricier item in the early 19th century). The custodian advised us to visit St Mary’s Church across the road – formerly the school chapel – apparently Byron used to lie on the Peachey Stone and look at the sky thinking poetic and doubtless other adolescent thoughts…

If I were not careful this would become the Byron Blog, so on to others… Several of Churchill’s perfectly competent and pleasant watercolours are on the walls alongside portraits of other lesser known worthies. There is a Joseph Nollekens  bust of Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to be successfully assassinated, and of course a Harrovian.  

A number of former pupils have donated their own collections – there are several pull-out drawers of pinned moths and butterflies, Admiral Codrington (Battle of Navarino – during the Napoleonic Wars) gave some silver and Henry Blackwall Harris an extensive collection of Chinese ceramics dating from the late 16th century onwards. It is generally known as kraakware , this being a corruption of the Portuguese ‘carrack’ namely the vessels that traded with the Far East. Basically the Chinese, as ever, produced ceramics for the export market of a different calibre to home wares; these were characterized by the designs in segments round the plates and with rather fragile rims, though there are some fine pieces.

Another oriental collection was displayed downstairs – Japanese prints from the Hiroshige series of ’53 Stations on the Tokaido Road’ that some-one has uploaded to Youtube
There are also portraits of kabuki actors performing roles in the ‘Tales of Genji’.

Upstairs some items from Harrow School’s own archive are displayed – the inevitable paintings and score cards form the annual Eton v Harrow Cricket Match, photos of various mainly Shakespearean    productions and accounts of the war, including some ARP watching.  Of the 451 pupils on roll in 1939 43 died in active service…..

In order to give a more modern injection into the collections the curators have been round to speak with members of staff (‘Masters’ regardless of gender) and asked them to lend and describe the relevance of an artefact for them. The range is enormous – two have included memorabilia from their own families who served in World Wars I &II, others are more eclectic. These include an Irish club Rugby shirt ‘cut’ from the player who needed a year of rehabilitation following a serious sports injury, some soft toys, a four generation Christening robe, a Led Zeppelin concert programme and what our family call a cheese sniggler, namely a cheese slicer beloved in the Scandinavian countries for paring cheese for crispbreads, now of course available in most kitchen stores but part of this person’s heritage.

The gallery also includes a small browsing library of Art Books, a good range of postcards and some pamphlets so altogether a very professional experience. If they do not already know it the pupils should consider themselves privileged to have such an on-site collection though it is also open to the public.  

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Honeywood Museum

Carshalton, SM5 3NX

Thursday 16 November 2017

After major South Kensington Museums two weeks running, it was a pleasure to visit Sutton's Heritage Centre in its attractive listed building and its even more attractive setting.

Carshalton is very easy to get to, whether from St Pancras or one of the stops en route, and in fact Linda and I met when she boarded 'my' train at Tulse Hill.  

Then it's a short walk to the lovely ponds, and past the handsome War memorial to reach the House. The number of seagulls, as well as other water birds on the ponds was remarkable: we reminded each other that we had seen the scary Hitchcock film many years ago, and so viewed large numbers of birds somewhat askance. 

We admired the enormous London plane tree, whose girth suggests that it is at least two hundred years old.

Once inside the building, there were many pleasant surprises awaiting us. One room's wall was covered with a splendid poem in rhyming couplets about the pleasures of Carshalton.  
The poet was a patient at the hospital for incurables of whom nothing more than that is known, but his poem is entertaining and informative. There are descriptions of the many pubs, and of the water of the Wandle that pours and splutters everywhere, making the village a place of gutters. He was clearly writing at the time that Dickens was serialising Little Dorrit from a house nearby. He says that he doesn't 'care much for it' because there are too many characters!

He also mentions 'a station for peelers', reminding us that the Police force was about 20 years old at the time of his writing.  

The same room contained the Beadle's Hat and a ceramic bowl displaying a village cricket match.

The works of two local artists adorn some of the walls:  William Tatton White and Winifred Madder both wanted to remind people of the country feel of the place as the railways, tram and commuter dwellings encroached.

We entered a large reception room, overlooking the modest garden.  Here we found the dressing-up clothes which we have come to expect wherever we go, but also cases of the most wonderful wooden models of the delivery vehicles of the past:  the ancestors of Deliveroo, Uber-eat and Ocado. They included a removals van, with the crates and trunks half stacked and the coal, milk, greengrocer and bread vans. There were public service vehicles as well.  

And then in one corner was a tea set, complete with cake stand, also of wood: we were charmed!  We think the models were made by a Mr Clark of Sutton, but if he has a website, I can't find it.  They are lovely, and worth visiting the museum for on their own.

The walls were covered with photos of the streets as they were, and of the industries which lined the banks of the Wandle, including the snuff mill and the iron and paper works.

Many large houses were built in this rural spot, mostly by nouveau riche London merchants: the museum is in one of them, and St Philomena's school occupies another, but several were demolished to make space for more modest housing.

The history of the house was outlined for visitors as well. It changed hands often, until the 1990s when Sutton Council took it over and began the process of converting it.  One of the families, the Kirks, had enlarged the house considerably in the 1880s.

This meant that we went down a few steps and then back up again, passing an area of possibly original wall from the 17th century, as well as rather a handsome clock, before reaching the area which had the bathroom and pretty lavatory, as well as a bedroom.  Here we saw some more charming toys, including a handsome miniature kitchen range and small washing equipment for some dolls' house servants to use.
The only area which we found a little strange was a shelf with a few fossils, and Brownie box camera and a small statuette of Parvati.  We thought this might be the Community's 'bring your own treasures' area, but it did not detain us long.
Next we came to the room where the World Wars and their impact on the area were explained.  A range of objects and leaflets were arranged on a Morrison Shelter.  As well as information about the bombing raids which came too close for comfort, there was an account of having pancakes in early 1940 and. there being no lemons, using concentrated lemonade on them. Yuk...  
Honeywood House was the headquarters of the air raid precautions service for the area, as well as being the recreation centre for the wardens

Finally we learned about the impact of the railways;  Carshalton was late in  getting a station because local landowners were reluctant, but in due course the station, which Linda and I had used, was established, and commuters came to be the bulk of the residents.
We particularly enjoyed seeing those baords which used to be inserted and removed on the platforms before electronic displays became the norm

This is a charming museum, in a very pleasant setting, where information about the history of the area and life in the past is interestingly and attractively displayed:  and, as I said, so easy to get to!

You can check it out here.