Saturday, 19 November 2016

Islington Museum

245 St John's Road EC1V 4NB

Thursday 17 November 2016

Linda and I are fans of the borough museums around London, and we thought Islington's was a splendid example of the genre.  It has one room for temporary exhibitions and, at the moment, they are telling the story of fires and firefighting in Islington, making use of objects from the London Fire Brigade Museum which is currently closed.  We started with fire because we were told that a school party was about to arrive in the room. (We were able to eavesdrop for a while on their enthusiasm and the 'performance' of the Museum's excellent Education person)

The south end of Islington is, of course, very close to the city of London, so the story of fire-fighting goes from pulling buildings down, and using water brought through elm pipes, to the Great Fire and the start of proper fire insurance. The thought of firefighters checking for the right insurance mark before putting out a fire made me think of medical treatment in the United States today.  The London Fire Engine Establishment of 1833 became the London Fire Brigade in 1866 and has not yet been privatised.

We learned that the Vestry, effectively local government before the 1860s, was able to give money to people whose 'poverty came by fire'. There was also a pile of dressing up clothes, and some 20th century equipment. Islington suffered 57 consecutive nights of bombing in 1940-41, so the work if the Auxiliary Fire Service is also recorded. Answering more that 50,000 calls, they suffered 327 deaths. (The names are recorded on the memorial at the St Paul's end of the Millennium Bridge)

The main part of the Museum is organised in themes, and we started with 'food and drink'. Information about the New River reminded us that people paid for drinking water until the mid 19th century, and we saw delivery vehicles of various vintages for other items .

The section about Italian restaurants, dating back to the 1920s, was salutary in these Brexit days. Alfredo's Cafe is still busy.  Speaking of Italians, if you visit the grave of the former Islington resident and great clown, Grimaldi, at St James' Churchyard, now renamed Grimaldi Park, you should dance on his grave, as it plays a tune.

In Living, we saw a dresser with a number of objects, including a Dickens mourning brooch (Mr Pickwick lived in Goswell Street) and a 1930s kitchen. The cooker, kettle and cupboards were all convincing, but we doubted the authenticity of the hot and cold chrome taps over the Belfast sink. A basin and ewer and a mangle were further reminders to be glad we live 'now' and not 'then'.
One of the many memories featured on the walls was of a man who used to be sent with a basin to buy sixpence worth of cracked eggs.

The 'Radicals' area had a bust of Lenin, who lived in Clerkenwell while writing for Iskra. The 1907 Congress of the Russian Communist Part was held in Canonbury.  The Spa Field Riots of 1816 got a mention, as did the suffragettes. I was sorry that the Museum has nothing much about the huge 1834 demonstration in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but they are of course memorialised elsewhere in the borough.

In 'Health' we saw that the first Marie Stopes clinic in the UK was opened in Islington in 1921, and there were features on the Caribbean nurses who came to the area, as well as the famous Finsbury Health Centre and the Whittington Hospital. There was a sort of recipe book of extraordinary remedies, some of which looked much nastier than the complaints they were supposed to cure.

Linda was very taken with a table full of lapel pins and badges, claiming that her own family connection was larger.  We spotted 'save the ILEA', though not 'nuclear free Ambridge', one of my favourites

As well as a brief display about fashion in Islington, there was a sectioin about poverty and the Work Houses.  The Vestry had much to do in Islington, since boroughs like this, on the border between wealth and poverty, attract many transients.  We saw the seal which authorised a 'Pauper Funeral' paid for by the local rates, and also the menus and recipes for the Workhouse inmates, presented by a descendant of the chief cook there.

'Education' included a round up of local schools and colleges, as well as the punishment book of one of the schools. Offences for which boys were caned ranged from 'disobedience' to 'jumping on vehicles.  As with all such records, the same names appear repeatedly, demonstrating just how ineffectual corporal punishment is (except, as the old joke says, in making the administrator of the beating feel better)

I think all local museums have a section on wartime, and Islington is no exception. Starting with the Swiss born Alexander Aubert, who established a militia to deal with invading Napoleonic troops, the exhibition has the stories of First World War veterans, and material from the home front during the Second World War: gas masks, first aid kits, information posters and descriptions of life under the Blitz and the V-weapons. Islington was a tube-free area (well, north of Angel anyway) until the Victoria Line, so sheltering was in cellars and basements

Entertainers and leisure featured in several sections: the many spas enjoying the clear water of the wells around here, such as the Peerless Pool, opened in 1743 with changing rooms and other facilities for bathers. (The Peerless Pool features in several Georgette Heyer novels, as addicts will recall) The section on leisure was very entertaining (!) 

There was some film of Arsenal beating Liverpool in the Cup Final, in 1950, with King George VI watching. Seven cinemas opened in Islington in 1909 alone, and the borough's links with the movies were extended with the establishment of the Gainsborough Studios in 1924. This is where Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was filmed, Ivor Novello and James Mason also filmed here.  Then there were the three Music Halls, of which the most famouis was probably Collins, where Tommy Trinder was one of the regulars. His catch phrase ('you lucky people') could well apply when Champagne Charlie was on the bill. His sponsor, Moet and Chandon apparently used to let him offer champagne to all the customers.

Linda and I felt pretty lucky to have enjoyed such an interesting museum.

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