Geffrye Museum: hidden gem of East London

This little-known museum, located in one of the East London neighborhoods, is definitely worth a visit. It is especially attractive, if you a pondering, where to go in London on a weekend, but want to avoid stifling crowds at the popular landmarks. And, as an icing of the cake, this museum is completely free (unlike many London activities). It comes especially handy, given, that we are talking about one of the most expensive cities in the galaxy…
Geffrye Museum, or Museum of Home, itself spans centuries – it is located in the buildings of 18th century almshouse. Its expositions delve even deeper into the torrents of time: they explore people’s everyday life from late Elizabethan era to the dawn of 20th century. They stay away from familiar narratives of courtly intrigue and aristocratic luxury, instead focusing on the lives and homes of ordinary people: tradesmen, doctors, small-scale merchants, apprentices, housewives…
For example, you can see thoroughly recreated hall of the late 16th century house. In an age before formal dining rooms and parlours, hall was a place to dine, socialize, work and entertain visitors. Looking at my own studio flat, I am tempted to say, that we have come full circle.
Each room, dedicated to a 50 years span, also presents tons of little-known and often-overlooked details of everyday life in the given period. We discover, for example, that Elizabethan housewife had very little in common with the fragile, cute image of her 1950s counterpart. For instance, she had to master the processes of making cheese and churning butter, as well as brewing beer for the whole family. Endless process of salting and pickling food, potting meat and making fruits into jam was also essential in the absence of more time-saving conservation methods. And, mind you, we are still talking about urban middle-classes.

Thoroughly recreated version of 18th century parlour. Jane Austin's characters could spend a nice afternoon in a room like this )

Thoroughly recreated version of 18th century parlour. Jane Austin’s characters could spend a nice afternoon in a room like this )

The museum route guides us forward through the time – we see London, raised from the ashes of the Great Fire. This new London is also gripped by the fashion for everything genteel, “polite” and Continental. Thus, during the breakfast in a prosperous home, newly imported tea replaces ale, and toasts replace beef and oysters. Very few people remember, that initially tea was marketed as a “medicinal herb”. This breakfast is now served in a proper, separate dining room instead of a hustling and bustling hall. These homes are also serviced by the first water pipes in London – although these often become obstructed with fish and eels…
Everything becomes more formal, more ornamental. And, although we like to think, that moving times always brings forth progress, education for girls becomes more ornamental as well. Even daughters of merchants are now taught etiquette and French instead of trade and bookkeeping. This sad tendency continues through the later years and further rooms, into the stifling, heavily decorated Victorian parlour – realm of the “angel of the house”.
There, as in other rooms of the Geffrye Museum, you can pick up an audio guide and listen to well-narrated documents of the era. They include diaries, magazines, popular novels, satirical essays, letters and other heritage, bringing the bygone age alive in all its colour.
If you are coming with children, they can flex their wits in answering tricky questions, posed by time-travelling Sam the dog (in his Victorian incarnation he wears a top hat). And after that you’d be able to rest in a surprisingly spacious and light museum café (scones with clotted cream are well-represented there!).

Sources:

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian Mortimer. (UK version)

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, Lesley and Roy Adkins. (UK version)

Dr. Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century, Liza Picard. (UK version)

 

 

 

 

Comments

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