Hidden Treasures: London

By Caroline Lewis | 11 July 2006
photo of a glass tube slightly tapered at one end

Read on to find out what this is! © Museum of Garden History

This trail of hidden treasures in London unearths odd and interesting museum collections from all across the capital - from a vintage speedboat at the National Maritime Museum to the preserved corpse of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham at University College London. We head across to the Museum in Docklands to look at the fight against slavery and also to the Museum of London’s medieval gallery with its trick dice and Chaucerian carvings.

There are many, many more curious things to puzzle about and walk up to in London's exceptional museums, and once you get to some of the venues below we recommend you keep your eyes open - you never know what might be round the corner!

Remember, do phone the museum before making a journey - contact details are easy to find by clicking on the info link at the foot of each paragraph.

The trail begins in the east of the city in the home of Greenwich Mean Time at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) where Shackleton's compass was among the items voted on for selection to the People's Museum.

The mission statement of the NMM at Greenwich is to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people. Within its grand buildings is an engrossing blend of exhibits on the history of mariners and navigation as well as stories of the sea itself.

Of all the famous events that have occurred in the ocean, Mutiny on the Bounty is so notorious as to have passed into common parlance. In one film version, Marlon Brando portrays Lt. Fletcher Christian, who forced Captain William Bligh off the Bounty.

photo of a very small weight with an inscribed plaque explaining what it was used for

The bullet weight that was used to measure the bread ration for Captain Bligh and his men after they were cast adrift in the Pacific. © NMM

The NMM holds intimate souvenirs of Bligh’s subsequent 3,600-mile voyage to Timor, including a horn beaker used to measure the daily water allowance for him and his loyal men, a bullet pendant used as a weight to measure the daily ration of bread and the coconut shell used by Bligh, inscribed 'The cup I eat my miserable allowance out'.

About 200 years after Bligh’s adventure, travelling on water was revolutionised with engines. The Miss Britain III speedboat – a futuristic aluminium craft – was built in the early 1930s to challenge America’s dominant position in the new sport of speedboat racing.

Although she didn’t win the race she was built for, her designer Hubert Scott-Paine was invited to advise the American Navy on its motorised torpedo patrol boats, which helped the Allies to win the Second World War.

a photogarph of a battered ensign

The D-Day flag marks June 6 1944 - a date when 175,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy to liberate the continent, many making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

Staying in the east, the collection of the Museum in Docklands, within an old quayside warehouse, is largely concerned with London’s role as a port and the River Thames. It was from here that the D-Day flag was selected for inclusion into the People's Museum.

The so-called Wilberforce Table is a star exhibit and reminder of the city’s central role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The well-used Georgian table, once owned by MP Thomas Fowell Buxton, was used to draft 19th century anti-slavery campaigns involving the likes of William Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay

A recent acquisition highlights just how much the capital has changed since its heyday as a land of docks and river trade. The Rhinebeck Panorama, painted between 1805 and 1811, depicts the River teeming with all manner of ships, with bustling warehouses and markets on either side.

detail of a painting depicting many different ships with full sails in the Thames

A section of the Rhinebeck Panorama. Courtesy Museum in Docklands

photo of a medal with a green gold and purple ribbon

Symbolic of the fight for the vote, this rare suffragette's hunger strike medal can be seen at the Museum of London

The Museum of London, on the edge of London Wall, comprehensively covers the history and archaeology of the capital, while keeping up-to-date with its contemporary culture and narrating the story of everyday life for Londoners past and present - its suffragette hunger strike medal made it into the People's Museum.

The Medieval gallery re-opened after a thorough refurbishment in late 2005 and now tells the story of the city’s bustling mid-life years more swishly than ever.

One area that must have changed in character since then is Fulham. Fulhams was the name given to loaded dice that were used by cheating gamblers in the 1400-1500s, as they were notorious in the Thames-side village (now far more salubrious!). Examples of original fulhams weighted with mercury or with the wrong configuration of spots are on show at the museum.

photo of a wrinkled purse and some yellowed dice

Fulhams and a purse from the 1400s.

Another iconic illustration of medieval life that continues the theme of cheating is a strikingly carved wooden panel from a 15th century chest, depicting a scene from the Pardoner’s Tale by Chaucer. The three characters in the story all end up murdering each other out of greed.

Criminals were dealt with harshly in London’s notorious Newgate Prison, which endured many reincarnations from its establishment in the 12th century through its peak in the late 1700s/early 1800s until its demise in 1902. The museum has some foreboding reminders of the penal institution – original heavy gates and the whipping block and irons used to restrain 18th century thief Jack Shepherd, who managed to escape from the prison more than once.

black and white photo of a kind of stocks with holes to secure the arms and chains

Newgate whipping block. Courtesy Museum of London

University College London (UCL), based in Bloomsbury, was the first university in the UK to open its doors to men and women of any background and has an appropriately proud heritage. Galton's fingerprint kit from its collection was selected to be voted on for inclusion into the virtual museum. The university houses several museum collections, notably the Grant Museum of Zoology and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

The Grant Museum holds the surprisingly chunky bones of that most celebrated extinct bird, the dodo, and a full, rare skeleton of a quagga. What’s a quagga? It’s an extinct relation of the zebra that was hunted to death for its unusual pelt.

Students across the capital know about UCL’s most famous exhibit and the colourful myths that surround it are many. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham requested in his will that his body be preserved and thus his padded, clothed skeleton is on display with a wax head of his likeness in the South Cloister of UCL main building on Gower Street.

photo of a model of a man dressed in 19th century clothes with a frilly white shirt and straw hat

Bentham's 'auto-icon'. Courtesy UCL

Northeast of UCL and you’ll find another beating heart of study and research: the British Library on Euston Road.

Alongside the literary giants – the British Library holds such jewels as the Brontes’ writing table, original manuscripts by Shakespeare, personal letters by Jane Austen and Shelley's ashes (up for the nomination at the People's Museum) – the British Library has the most incredible archive of printed rarities, sound recordings and images.

Just down the road is the museum and former home of one of London’s greatest literary sons, Charles Dickens. The Victorian author lived at 48 Doughty Street, WC1, between 1837 and 1839 and the four-storey townhouse is now filled with material related to the novelist and social commentator. Dicken's lectern made it into the short list for the People's Museum vote.

It was here that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and in the dining room visitors can see a grandfather clock that once belonged to Moses Pickwick – after whom Dickens named the hero of the Pickwick Papers.

photo of a room decorated in Victorian style with armchairs and a green sofa

Dickens' drawing room. Courtesy Charles Dickens Museum

It is said that Dickens took inspiration for Oliver Twist from the nearby Foundling Hospital for abandoned children. The Foundling Museum now stands opposite the site of the original 18th century building. It not only tells the story of the children who grew up there, but also explores the man behind the hospital, philanthropist Thomas Coram and a portrait of the man himself is in the People's Museum selection.

In addition, there is a wonderful collection of artwork on display: William Hogarth, on the hospital’s board of governors, encouraged his contemporaries to donate work to the charity. Composer Handel was also on the board, and an important collection of memorabilia related to him was later left to the Coram Foundation, including his last will and testament and parts of the manuscript for The Messiah.

Alongside such grand exhibits are the personal tokens left with babies by their mothers in the hope that they would one day be in better circumstances and able to collect their little ones, recognising them by the token. The surviving love tokens, more than 250 years old, range from beads to thimbles and silver clasps.

Shows a photograph of a number of love tokens laid out on a blue background, they include a small fish, a beaded necklace, a key and an initialed purse.

Love tokens left at the Foundling Hospital. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum

The , aptly situated in the West End near Drury Lane and Covent Garden, documents the development of British performing arts with a spectacular collection of costumes, props, manuscripts and architectural features from theatres. Its set from the John Osbourne play Look Back In Anger is up for nomination into the People's Museum.

One of the most momentous items at the museum is the document signed by King Charles II that reinstated theatre after the Puritan era of 1642-1660. The popular plays of ‘Restoration Theatre’ followed.

Victorians were also keen theatregoers and plays, in particular pantomime, made use of new tricks and effects. The museum reveals how many of these worked, including the interestingly named ‘star trap’ - a concealed hole in the stage floor through which an actor would be propelled onto the stage by means of countreweights.

It might not be the first place you think of for pop memorabilia, but the Theatre Museum also has a strong collection of ephemera related to singers and groups of the 20th century. There’s a guitar pulverised by Pete Townshend and the dress worn by Sandie Shaw when she sang the Eurovision winning Puppet on a String.

Etching of actresses inderneath a stage

Behind the scenes where some Victorian fairies are preparing to take their place in the star trap. Courtesy the Theatre Museum

One can only wonder what Sigmund Freud would have said about Sandie’s bare feet on stage that night. You might find clues at the Freud Museum, Sigmund’s family home in Hampstead, which is now a museum dedicated to the father of Psychoanalysis and his daughter and fellow psychoanalyst, Anna. Freud's couch is in the running for inclusion into the People's Museum.

The study and library are preserved just as they were when Sigmund worked there, full of his books and collection of antiquities. The objects that swathe his desk and shelves number about 2,000, including Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts. This personally-built museum features gorgeous urns, religious statues and intriguingly etched rocks.

On the landing are two portraits of Sigmund, by Ferdinand Schmutzer and Salvador Dali. The pen and ink drawing by Dali was created from a sketch he made surreptitiously after being introduced to the psychoanalyst in 1938. However, Sigmund never saw either the sketch or the subsequent portrait as the mutual friend who had introduced the two thought it was portentous of Freud’s imminent death.

Shows a photo of a desk with many statuettes lined up on it and a selection of writing materials

Freud’s desk at Maresfield Gardens, London. Photo: Ivan Ward, courtesy The Freud Museum

The London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark looks at how our modern fire-fighting force has evolved since the Great Fire of London in 1666. It’s open by appointment only, but you’re ensured a fascinating guide-led tour - its vintage fire engine is one of the People's Museum hopefuls.

We’ve all heard of beer money, but the first fire brigades, run by insurance companies after 1666, took the term literally: they paid their casual firemen in pints! Sounds nice, but it was a slightly flawed scheme if you wanted a good, sober force, so ‘pumping tokens’ that could be exchanged for beer in the pub, after a job, were brought in and you can see some at the museum.

Also on show is the forerunner to the huge hoses used nowadays. The squirt was like a huge syringe, plunged into a bucket of water and filled before being squirted onto the flames.

photo of a large brass syringe

Not quite as effective as the modern fire hose - a squirt. Courtesy the London Fire Brigade Museum

Also in South London, the Museum of Garden History in the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth bursts with displays and gardens that show how planting has grown up through the ages and the Tradescants' tomb there is one of the nominees for inclusion into the People's Museum.

The years before the First World War are seen as a golden age of style in the garden, with green-fingered stars like Gertrude Jekyll leading the way. Her writing desk and letters are one of the museum’s treasures.

There are some curiosities in the historical tool collection. Would you recognise the purpose of the cucumber straightener at the top of the page?

photo of a simple wooden desk with a scalloped back

Jekyll's desk, where many a wise word on the topic of planting was written. Courtesy the Museum of Gardening

More museums with fascinating collections to be found in London...

The Geffrye Museum in Hackney takes visitors through the ages via the changing face of domestic interiors in English homes. In 2004 the 24 Hour Museum reported on an interesting acquisition for the museum: an electric tablecloth.

The Horniman Museum in South East London travels through the world as well as time in its collection. Everything from prototype concertinas to specimens of the Horniman Butterfly and ritual masks from Asia adorn its displays.

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The Hidden Treasure Trails were produced with The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.