Thursday, 8 January 2015

Hackney Museum

1 Reading Lane
London E8 1GQ

Wednesday January 7 2015

HAPPY NEW YEAR – our followers may well have wondered whether we had faded away as we have never left such a long gap (3 weeks) between blog entries but we were back in full force today with an additional visitor, Mary’s sister who happens to be a Hackney resident. When bus blogging we always had a few routes up our sleeve to post while resting but not so with the museums, which in some cases have rather special opening times. This year we were not so much resting as recovering from a range of heavy colds that could not possibly be flu as we were all fully immunised?? TMI.

Hackney Museum is part of the Town Hall Square (plenty of room to demonstrate out there if necessary) and is in a glass building beside the newly cleaned Town hall.   The Museum is fully accessible in every sense of the word and was designed to appeal to all ages and interests – I would defy you not to find something to hold your attention.

The ground floor and spacious exhibits are arranged thematically rather than purely chronologically, with topics where historical events, artefacts and records can be linked to Hackney today through photos/ films/ interviews (several phone lines are posted round key exhibits) and some hands on things for not just younger visitors. A small scale Number 38 bus (old style) takes pride of place next to an actual old fire cart (engine would be too flattering a description). The most valuable and probably oldest artefact is the log boat, displayed underfoot under glass, which the early settlers would have used to get along the River Lea, an important route for  the borough.
Another treasure taking pride of place was a trove of gold coins found only in 2007.  The Sulzbacher family arrived in Hackney in the late Thirties, refugees from Nazi Germany – Martin was interned in Australia (!) while his wife and four children were sent to the Isle of Man, leaving his parents and brother plus family in their Hackney home. The latter were killed by a 1940 bomb though Martin and his immediate family were later re-united. One jar of gold coins, buried at the onset of war, was recovered in 1951, but the second one not found until 2007 by which time Martin had died.  However, the rest of the family did inherit and donated a gleaming gold coin – actually a US Dollar – to the Museum.

Other treasures donated by former residents form part of the Chalmers Collection, a few  items of which are displayed within a context of  replica interiors of Georgian & Victorian Housing.  In the 1800s the former fields of Hackney came to be known as the ‘home of the clerks’ and Mr Chalmers was one such (an incomer from Scotland) and bequeathed his art etc collection to Hackney with an annuity allowing them to commission new works of art – and indeed the more up to date works by current Hackney artists are equally on display.

For many years the borough was barely built up – in fact it was renowned for its market gardens (to supply ever hungry Londoners) and as an off shoot from these, more exotic nurseries too. The Loddiges,  for example – George and Conrad, whose father had settled from Germany 
– ran a nursery near Mare Street and after their business finished the exotic specimens are still to be found round the borough, Abney cemetery being one of the many places where their  non-European plants still survive.

I’m not sure the Loddiges were fleeing persecution but what the exhibitions make very clear is how many of Hackney’s residents past and present came searching for a new life with ‘A Safe House  & Free Speech’. The borough has long been home to generations of the Jewish community, the more devout of whom have settled round Casenove Street in Stamford Hill.

Other seekers after refuge included the large group of dissenters who were apparently not allowed to practise their particular brand of non-conformist Christianity within London itself – thus Hackney provided a safe place for them to live and worship more freely at the requisite 5 mile distance.  Daniel Defoe was one such notable dissenter, and he  was apt to ridicule both the established church and some of the more fervent anti-establishment followers  for which he was charged and literally pilloried – that is put in the stocks.   

The following centuries saw successive dissenters later known as refugees each leaving a legacy in the borough – for instance the French Hospital or the Vietnamese Centre.  They came looking for looking for refuge but also for work and by the 19th and 20th centuries there were small workshops available to join or even set up yourself. An interesting section looks at some of the relics of local industry – hot metal or old-fashioned type setting and dressmaking have long flourished, and before their trade/product was seen as barbaric furriers also thrived in Hackney; then there are machines used by hatters and most interestingly you can see how long it would have taken you to assemble a match-box: less than a certain number within the hour and you were likely to go hungry or lose the roof over your head.  Shoe-making was another popular local trade.

Talking of roof over your head – a corner of the museum is devoted to the changing housing needs and provisions within the borough, from the clerks’ houses of the early 1800s to the 19th century villas – later sub-divided into rentable (then more latterly sellable flats) – to the impressive amount of local authority provision : a replica kitchen from a GLC era flat is on display and explanations provided of how the insanitary ‘slum dwellings’ of earlier construction were either bombed or destroyed to be replaced by flats in the sky, themselves later razed to the ground.  This website gives a range of local views on the flats old and new. 

The ‘No Choice – No Voice’ section looks at the most dispossessed who have passed through Hackney ; while no-one is pretending that racism within the borough no longer exists earlier overseas residents did far worse – the early black residents, usually brought over as slaves/servants had no rights, and particular other groups fared no better. Lascar sailors were often abandoned after their ships had docked until the East India Company  was obliged to provide a shelter for their former ‘employees’ who helped create the wealth of Empire. Likewise exploited were the Ayahs, Indian nannies for UK children who found themselves brought over with the returning families and then left in limbo if not re-employed.

Another group of women without which the National Health Service would have crumbled were the large contingent of Caribbean nurses – recruited specially in the 1950s. The Museum has devoted a special exhibition to this group of formidable practitioners, many of whom have now reached retirement age. They of course have a voice which can be heard here at the displays, which is more than some of the patients of the former ‘madhouses’ of Hackney had – once ‘locked up’ (and you could be for little more than   giving birth illegitimately) you had few rights and no voice.

The one thing I would have found useful was a large scale map – old or new – to locate some of the places mentioned. For those of you who are interested in more statistics here is a Greater London website, which looks at certain well being statistics for the borough The only map on display was rescued from a corner at Dalston Junction – one of the boroughs busiest crossroads – where it may have confused many folk who are more accustomed to looking at a map with North at the top rather than randomly out to the side: maybe it made more sense when in place but I’m not sure?

Part of the heritage of the borough was also the advent of transport – for Hackney this  was mainly buses as its underground stations are sparse – so the model of the bus and an early bus map (nostalgia here for the LWB) underlined the importance of links to work and play and further afield.

This was the first of our ‘local borough’ museums and we had anticipated something  small  and perhaps dusty, but we would challenge anyone, even if not a local resident, not to find this a fascinating, clear and well -presented tribute to the people and history of Hackney, and ultimately London.  

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