Restored Almshouse Tour – Geffrye Museum

Statue of Sir Robert Geffrye
Statue of Sir Robert Geffrye

The Geffrye Museum in Hoxton may be closed for refurbishment, but the tours of the restored almshouse are still going ahead. Previously, you had to turn up on the day and hope for the best, but now it’s possible to book in advance for some Tuesday and Wednesday tours. I took the day off work and signed up.

Restored almshouse
Restored almshouse

The almshouses were founded by Sir Robert Geffrye, chair of the Ironmongers’ Company. Most of the almshouses have now been converted into the museum, but one still remains, and has been restored to how it might have looked in the past.

Eighteenth-century room
Eighteenth-century room
Eighteenth-century room
Eighteenth-century room
Eighteenth-century room
Eighteenth-century room

On the ground floor, one room looks as it might have done in the eighteenth century, home to a poor pensioner who may have fallen on hard times. The fireplace is large and functional, as the inhabitant would have had to cook their own meals here. They also had to furnish their own room. The chairs here are very low because when their feet rotted – as they would often do in poorer houses – they were cut off and the rest of the chair preserved. Candles were usually made of tallow – the cheapest substance available – and were kept locked in an iron container so they were not eaten by mice. Pensioners got a pension that was roughly equivalent to £8,000 per annum, but they were subject to various rules and regulations, such as a 7pm curfew (9pm in summer), compulsory attendance at church or chapel, and a ban on swearing, fornication, adultery and other undesirable behaviours.

Nineteenth-century room
Nineteenth-century room
Nineteenth-century room
Nineteenth-century room
Nineteenth-century room
Nineteenth-century room

Upstairs, another room is set out as it might have looked during the late nineteenth century. By this time, some of the rules and regulations had been relaxed, and pensioners enjoyed a larger allowance – equivalent to approx £16,000 per annum. However, the owners of the almshouses looked for a “better class” of inhabitants, who had to prove they could supplement their pensions with a small income. Many inhabitants at this time were retired governesses, respectable spinsters with not much money who had no home of their own, having spent their lives in other peoples’.

These inhabitants did not have to cook their own food – and many did not know how to, anyway. Therefore, the fireplace here is much more decorative. Light was provided by oil lamps, though the flickering nature of the ‘fish-tail’ lamps meant that many people still preferred to read by candlelight. There are many more objects in this room than the other, a testament to the industrial revolution which ensured mass-produced furniture and decorative items were available at lower cost. The room is also filled with photographs, popular with Victorians, and with souvenirs of holidays, such as a booklet about Scarborough.

Adjacent to the two almshouse rooms are two small exhibition spaces, looking at the history of the almshouses. In the basement there is an indoor toilet, installed during the nineteenth century, and a laundry room, though many of the Victorian inhabitants would have sent their laundry out.

The almshouse tour is only £5 (plus booking fee if pre-booked via Eventbrite) and is run by knowledgeable volunteers. While the main Geffrye Museum is closed, it’s well worth checking out.

FACTS

Address: 136 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8EA

Website: geffrye-museum.org.uk/whatson/events/almshouse-tours

Opening Hours: Selected Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays – check website for details

Prices: £5

Geffrye Museum

Geffrye Museum

After intending to do so for several months, I finally got round to making a visit to the Geffrye Museum in east London. The museum focuses on the history of the home during the past four centuries, exploring how homes have changed and how these changes reflect and are reflected in the way people live.

Open 10-5 every day except Monday (it’s open Bank Holidays though), the museum is free to visit and easy to reach:  it’s fifteen minutes away from Old Street tube station, and a couple of minutes from Hoxton Overground station. The building itself is a set of almshouses built in 1714 by the Ironmongers’ Company, owing to a bequest from twice Company master and former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Robert Geffrye. Now Grade 1 listed, the building has been a museum since 1914, after it was sold off by the Ironmongers’ Company who wanted to relocate the almshouses out of Hoxton, which had become one of the most run-down and unhealthy parts of London.

Geffrye Museum
Geffrye Museum
Sir Robert Geffrye
Sir Robert Geffrye

One of the almshouses, No. 14, has been restored and is open to the public (for a small fee) on selected Saturdays and weekdays. Sadly it was not open on the day I visited, so I will have to make a return trip in order to see it. The museum’s past is also evident in the almshouse chapel, which you come across around halfway through your visit.

Chapel
Former almshouse chapel

On entering the museum, you witness a microcosm of its theme: a selection of chairs arranged in a semicircle, each from a different era. Looking at them, you can see how styles have changed in four hundred years.

Chairs in a row
Chairs from the last four centuries

Most of the museum is made up of period rooms, each of which is made up to look like a typical family room from a particular period. The rooms are arranged in chronological order, and provide fascinating insight into how people lived during those times.

Period room
Hall, 1630
Period room
Parlour, 1695
Period room
Parlour, 1745
Period room
Parlour, 1790
Period room
Drawing room, 1830
Period room
Drawing room, 1870
Period room
Drawing room, 1890

I really enjoyed looking at the development of the rooms and how they changed over time. One important factor in this change was that in the beginning, many middle-class people worked from home, perhaps running their business from the lower floor or front room of their house and living in other rooms. Later, people began to go out to work, and homes were used only for leisure purposes.

Later on, there is a section of the museum devoted to the twentieth century. Another arrangement of chairs greeted me at the start.

Chairs in a row
Chairs from the last century

These rooms represented shorter spaces of time than the older ones: each portrayed only a decade or so. Perhaps this reflects the more rapid changes in design during the twentieth century.

Period room
Drawing room, 1910
Period room
Living room, 1935
Period room
Living room, 1965
Period room
Apartment, 1998

The last bit of the museum was a small exhibition about the people who live and work in Hoxton, a nice complement to the rest of the exhibitions.

I liked the Geffrye: it is a lovely place and there’s a lot to see considering that it’s free. Definitely worth a visit.

FACTS

Address: 136 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8EA

Website: geffrye-museum.org.uk

Opening Hours: Tues-Sun (& Bank Holidays) 10am-5pm

Prices: Free