Monday, 10 July 2017

The Richmond Museum

2nd Floor, Old Town Hall
Whittaker Avenue
Richmond TW9 1TP
Friday July 7 2017

Jo has a series of booked holidays and other commitments so luckily the husband formerly known as 63 regular (no longer such as he has now retired) volunteered to be my photographer. Given the fine weather we headed slightly ‘out of town’ to very accessible Richmond and its museum.

Like most borough museums it is part of the Library Service and as such is housed upstairs in the Old Town Hall – a rather sweet specimen of town hall architecture close to the river. I am not sure where Richmond now runs its affairs from – it is something of a London anomaly especially in its choice of MPs – but the Town Hall does nicely for the Museum. (Twickenham I'm told) 

The first thing we learn is that Richmond was not always Richmond, having started its (medieval) life as Shene or Sheen, but it does have a long history of royal connections and this to a greater extent has marked its development as an area. Edward III was the first monarch to decide to build here – a handy journey upstream from London. (Henry V would later found England’s largest Carthusian Abbey/Monastery nearby when these things mattered.)  When Edward’s palace burnt down another was hastily built and then another – by this time we had got to Henry VII. Henry had an earldom up in Richmond Yorkshire and so liked the Thames-side  residence he decided to rename it in honour of his ‘other home’ and the name stuck. The ‘Shene’ bit got relegated to the right and renamed East Sheen. His son spent time here but then cast envious eyes on Wolseley’s residence along (I’m never very  good with up/down)  the river at Hampton.
Henry VIII’s presence at Hampton Court meant that his various followers (and detractors) all tended to move to these ‘still handy for London’ outskirts so the various houses that went up here all  belonged to what sounded like the ‘cast list’ from  'Wolf Hall'.

By this time I was thinking whether Richmond had ever been home to any ‘ordinary people’ but there was a  board setting out very clearly the manorial system' and even more so the ‘dues’ of those at the bottom of the heap to those above them. '

With the large Charterhouse Monastery destroyed (Cromwell this time) and the palace in ruins after Charles I,  with bits recycled up and down the streets things seem to have gone a bit quiet. No less than five Royal parks had been established (today Richmond and Old Deer parks) so there was never going to be a building boom. We liked the keys for the parks and also Richmond Bridge keeper’s leather money bag for tolls. Crossing the river hereabouts was always an issue – there was a ford at Brentford (no s**t Sherlock), a bridge at Kingston and a ferry (which still exists between Richmond and Ham House) so any locality with pretensions needed its own bridge. The money was raised, not quite by public subscription by via the Tontine system a sort of combination of shares and lottery with the ‘last guy standing’ taking all the shares (and any profit). Still it resulted in Richmond getting its bridge, a forerunner of the current one. The little trumpeter is a replica from said bridge.

 The next major phase of development seems to have come with the Georgians, III in particular, where the Age of Enlightenment and the fashion for spas coincided. Not having waters  to  drink other than the rather dubious Thames meant Richmond ‘s life was rather limited as a spa town but George III did establish a Royal observatory here.  Richmond was fashionable for longer than it was considered a spa boasting a theatre (Edmund Kean was often seen and heard declaiming his Richard III)  and both inns and hotels as visitors came from London for all sorts of pleasures.

There are the usual displays of clay pipes and pots including a rather fine ‘Bellarmine’ originally from Germany and poking fun at the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Again with limited local industry development of smaller homes seemed limited to tradesmen’s establishments. There is a corner with chairs where you can watch videos celebrating the details of fine architecture (cornices/lintels/architraves etc) in the grand houses round Richmond Green and radiating out from there. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the Lord Mayor of London ‘retired’ to Richmond and was promptly elected its first mayor.

The boards tell us that ‘the railways made Richmond’ or with three local stations (as seen on an old estate agents board’ it became (and remains) prime commuting territory and continued its dominance as a venue for ‘a good day out’ offering riverside treats and many inns, and by the Thirties several cinemas.  There were souvenirs to be had, a proper transport map to guide you around of course the option for souvenirs.
The only industry it seemed to boast was that rayon was developed here, with two organic chemists Cross and Bevan forming the Kew Viscose Spinning syndicate. They eventually sold out to Courtaulds but I did learn that Viscose and modal are all derivatives of rayon; this last is hardly used today with its connotations of post war austerity.

As is now expected the local museums will look at the impact of both World Wars on their boroughs and people. The museum seems to consider the impact of the first war to be minimal (what about the loss of life at the front?) and certainly there was no local damage. Ironically however it was  the war that gave Richmond two of its most memorable institutions and both were linked in their aims to help the wounded servicemen of the war – namely the Poppy Factory and the Star & Garter Home.  The latter started life as a hotel, becoming grander and grander, but then falling out of fashion so became a home for those same disabled servicemen until they were moved to  more suitable  premises in 2013; as a listed building it is now a very prestigious and pricey housing development.  

There is the bomb damage map on display from World War II and also an installation where you can listen to the oral history memories of both world wars by former Richmond residents. We liked the handmade ARP and Home Guard dolls that a daughter had made from her father’s original uniforms.

Post war development in Richmond has been limited – a few estates in the Fifties but little since then and what has been is mainly commercial. With no major employers there seems to have been little in the way of an invited (as per ‘Windrush’ ) or subsequent overseas workforce leaving one very much with one’s initial impression that Richmond is well …for the rich. I t certainly has an interesting  history as a borough and area but it is one that lacks the diversity and vibrancy of many of the other London boroughs – or at least as portrayed through its very neat and well captioned museum.    


  1. I didn't know about the Richmond Museum, and looks very interesting. Not sure whether it's on your list but Twickenham has a quaint museum too, found on the Embankment by the Thames. My parents volunteer there once a month. Next door is York House Gardens which are owned now by the council and there are some rather splendid statues of water nymphs by a cascading pool that are worth a visit too. Victoria

  2. Thank you Bright - yes it is on our list....