How could anyone not like a museum called Geffrye? (Pronounce as Geoffrey or Jeffrey, depending on your spelling preference). I’d never heard of this place until recently whilst trawling my Art Pass guide. (Quite frankly, I’m beginning to think the Art Fund should be paying me commission, the amount of times I mention the organisation favourably on this blog). Situated right by the railway station at Hoxton – an area of London I’d not visited since the early seventies -The Geffrye Museum is now in one of the most sought after postcodes for young moneyed Londoners – especially the ones with the lumberjack shirts and beards, apparently. (I don’t know what constitutes a female hipster but I’m guessing facial hair isn’t a requirement).
Hoxton lies just north-east of the city between Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. In my student days we had to travel to Shoreditch once a week to the college annex which was housed in a building that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dickens novel. It had one of those cage lifts with the metal fretwork doors. We used to pile into this rickety structure, overload and get it stuck on purpose every Friday just to abbreviate and alleviate the tedium of Mr. Goldstein’s Cosmetic Science classes.
Anyway, back to Geffrye. When I saw that this is a Museum of the Home, I knew that WF1 (Work Friend 1) would be my ideal companion for the day. She likes anything home design related and of course shares the same days off as me. We discovered that it’s easy to get to from Waterloo and arrived as early as our off peak train cards would allow.
I picked up a comprehensive guide book which explains that ‘the museum is set in the former almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, built in 1714 to provide homes for the elderly poor. They were founded with a bequest made by Sir Robert Geffrye, a wealthy merchant who became Master of the Ironmongers’ Company (one of the London guilds) and Lord Mayor of the City of London.’
The buildings were converted into a museum of furniture and opened in 1914. The surrounding gardens were – and still are – a free space for local people to enjoy.
The museum has arranged its collection into a series of living-rooms through the ages, depicting the way the middle classes have lived since 1630. There is plenty for the visitor to read by way of storyboards and there are ‘feeling’ samples of the textiles used in each set which enhances the whole sensory experience. We were very impressed – the curating here has been done with meticulous attention to detail.
One of the almshouses – Number 14 – has been restored so that visitors to two of the rooms can glimpse life as it would have been in the 1780’s and the 1880’s. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide spends around half an hour explaining the history and restoration process which we found fascinating.
With the help of lottery funding and the work of the Geffrye Museum Trust (funded by the government) the resources available here are just wonderful. A full range of educational programmes is offered throughout the year for schools, families, youth groups and adults. WF1 and I visited during the half-term break so it was crowded with children busily finding out about how their ancestors lived. There is a delightful café on site where you have to wait to be seated. While waiting, you stand beside a delicious array of home-made cakes and pastries and when you are finally seated overlooking the gardens and bee hives, a waitress takes your order. I had home-made soup and sour dough while WF1 had a tasty looking sandwich on home-made bread. There is an option to have a full cooked meal with wine…maybe next time.
The gift shop’s not bad either: tasteful merchandise with relevance to home and garden and a good selection of books. Any trashy logo-imprinted tat was thankfully conspicuous by its absence.
Outside, between the museum and the station, the gardens are divided into a series of period garden rooms reflecting the rooms inside. There is a Knot Garden; a Herb Garden, a Town Garden and so on. Going in late October doesn’t show the gardens at their best so WF1 and I have already pledged to return next spring.
Entry to the museum is free (donations obviously welcome) and there is a charge of £3 for the almshouse tour which must be booked on the day in advance.
What’s not to like? I’d have no qualms about awarding the Geffrye five stars.