London Landmarks: The Museum of London

A perfect Sunday afternoon

This was my first visit to the Museum of London that nestles against a section of preserved Roman wall, a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral. Innovative in its design, the museum’s nine (free) galleries—that span from pre-history to the modern era—are laid out such that the visitor must follow them chronologically.

A time of mammoths and lions

The pre-history gallery (450,000 AD to 50 AD) informed me of the mammoths and lion that once roamed the marshland that was later transformed into the great city. There were plenty of bones (some carved) and skulls. Though the artefacts were crude (great cutting flints, rusted axes, battered knives), they were poignant too, as I imagined the early people that lived here. Was it a better time? A worse time? A reconstruction of a woman’s head that oozed humanity, caught my attention.

Julius Caesar

The arrival of the Romans changed everything. Astonishing delicacy of metalwork that included combes, knives, spoons and jewellery vied with sympathetically carved statues. A Roman room looked both familiar (chairs, sofa, hearth, wall decorations) and inviting. Who needs carpet when you can have an extraordinarily ornate mosaic floor?

Medieval London

Then came the medieval galleries that started with the Anglo-Saxons. They named their town “Lundenwic” (London-port), where busy merchants could beach their vessels on the riverbank and haul their fare to one of several markets. I marvelled again at the shields, spears and axes, the pottery and exquisite metalwork displayed in the jewellery cabinets.

Within the old Roman city wall, the first St Paul’s cathedral was built of timber. When the Vikings attacked in 842 and 851, the new city was abandoned.

Death, death and rebirth

The 1550s to 1650s was a period of war, plague (1665)–that may have accounted for 200 million deaths across Eurasia—and the Great Fire (1666) that started at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane. Though the death toll was considered small, the fire consumed 13,200 homes, 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the end of the wooden city as the rebuild comprised much brick and stone. There was a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre that brought back memories of the plays (Othello, Hamlet) I studied at school.

1670s – 1850s

The next two centuries saw a massive expanse in the city’s size and culture. I loved the reconstructed “Pleasure Gardens”—where residents would dress up in their finest to enjoy fresh air and flirting. London was now the world’s largest city and the country’s main manufacturing centre. Great fortunes were made and lost with those on the losing end finding themselves locked up in the forbidding Debtors’ Prison, to be observed via the tiny window in the thick iron-reinforced oak door. Carvings in the salvaged cell timbers recorded many names and dates. Fortunately, there wasn’t a “Starling” amongst the prisoners.

Approaching modernity

The next gallery took us up to the modern era, and the Second World War. An impressive display detailed the 50-year struggle of women suffragettes until they were granted the vote in 1918. I understand a full gallery dedicated to this important period in history is due to open next year, to mark the centenary.

A beautifully reconstructed street, including a toy shop, a barbers and pub had me spellbound as did a 1908 taxi, resplendent in its black livery and white-walled tyres. There was Art Deco too—with a homage to that great hotel, the Savoy. It opened in 1889 and was funded from the profits of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Leaving something for next time

And then it was time to leave. But no matter as the 1950s to today, and the 2012 Gallery will be awaiting me on my next visit. As will the suffragette gallery in which I’ll learn about the struggles of extraordinary women like Winifred Rix, Kitty Marshall, Emily Wilding and the mother and daughters Pankhurst.

Tourist or townie, I strongly recommend the Museum of London.

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