Sunday, 24 December 2017

Bromley Historical Collection

Central Library
High Street Bromley Kent BR1 1 EX
Tuesday December 19 2017

Bromley once had a free standing museum, located towards the south of the borough in Orpington , but in the way of many local authority resources, it has been vastly reduced and is now something of a side show in the Central Library. The library is next to the Churchill Theatre and both are rather tired looking Sixties concrete buildings, albeit very handy for the High Street, where I was ultimately headed. Bromley is of course something of a bus and train hub and I managed both modes to complete my trip.
(There is by the way an eloquent lament for the closure of the old Bromley Museum and the inadequacies of this replacement by a former Orpington volunteer in this blog post )

The first floor section is what I now recognise as ‘standard local Museum’ albeit in much truncated from and comprising three large showcases and a free-standing small ‘fire engine’ – in fact the  legally required water pump that each parish had to have according to Queen Anne. This is certainly an older model than some local authorities have, affectionately named the Squirt.
Bromley is that strange outer London hybrid – a proper London Borough but also in Kent for geographical and locational purposes if not for administrative ones. Kent having been known as ‘the Garden of England’ it is not surprising that most of Bromley was a mixture of agriculture, fruit growing, and small villages until really comparatively recently. There are significant Roman remains as we know from our visit to  Crofton Roman Villa
but little more than the usual pot shards are exhibited. Likewise for the Anglo-Saxon arrowheads.

According to the captions the Industrial Revolution barely touched this part of the world and the only industries of any note were mills on the River Cray.At its height employing 700 people and shaping the local community – a more detailed account can be seen here. Apparently there was also a mineral water company but I cannot find any more information on this. Keston Ponds, which lie within the Bromley borough, are apparently on the site of the Roman mineral springs and we did see people filling their bottles at ‘Caesar’s Well’ there when we were walking the London Loop.

A late arrival to the industrial landscape of the borough was the Morphy Richards factory, again at St Mary Cray, which was built in the late Thirties and thrived through the Fifties and Sixties but then closed in the recessive Seventies.

Another case looks at ‘community’ in the very loosest sense so an early etching of Bromley Market (? where held?) and various sporting memorabilia, and souvenirs from the last but one coronation. Kent County Cricket seems to divide itself between grounds in Canterbury and some newly refurbished in Beckenham, which falls firmly within the borough.

The last display focuses on famous people from the borough; these include Peggy Spencer who did ballroom dancing before the spray tan era of ‘Strictly’ and the undoubtedly more famous David Bowie who, while born in Brixton, did spend his school and teenage years in Beckenham. The museum has some age and location appropriate photos and a bright green jacket which David customised with blue black ink stripes! There is a wonderful patchwork coat in this display, which looks like an early Bowie garment but is in fact a ‘make do and mend’ artefact apparently from the Chislehurst Caves, which we have of course visited. 

Local authors include Enid Blyton, who taught in Bickley, HG Wells and Richmal Crompton (who has a large pub named after down the road from the library). Crompton both taught and lived In Bromley until her death in 1969. Give me ‘Just William’ over Noddy anytime….

The back of this case celebrates the arrival in Bromley of the famous Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park – the palace burned down in the Thirties (there is a conspiracy theory that ‘we’ demolished it before the Luftwaffe could use it to orientate themselves too well on their approach runs to London). 
Bromley is quite a wealthy borough but these displays came across as rather piecemeal and not altogether coherent. Some other less well-off local authorities have done better.  From travelling around the borough I get an impression of a series of villages – many still retain their village signs or ponds, and there is little attempt to capture what life must have been like for the many agricultural labourers, or come to that their wealthier landowners.

Up on the second floor there is an altogether better presented display featuring a local ‘worthy’ namely John Lubbock,1st Baron Avebury. There have been a long string of Lubbocks variously active in Public Life. From a family already ennobled to the Baronetcy he started life as a banker (the Lubbock family bank was eventually taken over or absorbed into Coutts)  but became a politician – among the bills he sponsored were:
·         The Bank Holidays Act’ 1871 (he thought his workers deserved some days off without having to do calculations, but also campaigned for shorter working hours for all)
·         The Ancient Monuments Act 1882 (thereby saving the threatened Avebury (arguably more interesting than Stonehenge) and taking its name when made a Baron)

·         The Libraries Act’ 1892 (the wall is adorned with his quote; ‘We may sit in a library but be in all quarters of the earth.
All things we now take for granted but important achievements in the day.
In other ways he was a typical Victorian gentlemen collector and interested in archaeology; he did not go on expeditions himself but tended to ‘buy in’ and there are cases with his artefacts which he used to keep at the family home at High Elms.
Even more importantly he was a keen scientist and naturalist; a close neighbour of Charles Darwin at Downehe was introduced to the thinker at an early age, and he obviously saw him as someone akin to a mentor. Throughout his life Lubbock was a staunch supporter of Darwin’s thinking and along with some other scientists of the age founded the ‘X Club’  to exchange ideas and help promote Darwin’s work too. The lifelong association only finished when Lubbock helped carry Darwin’s coffin at the Westminster Abbey funeral – the invitation is on show.

That the funeral took place in a religious setting comes as something of a surprise. Lubbock like Darwin was a great believer in adult and ongoing education and they wished to give and promote improving talks in the local school in Downe.  However the audience had a tendency to smoke and spit so the Reverend Ffinden objected to this extra-curricular use of his school, though one suspects his real objection was to letting someone whom he regarded as a ‘non-believer’ use his premises. Lubbock tried very hard to mediate with said vicar and the correspondence shows this.

Lubbock also clearly valued other people’s collections taking over one from an archaeologist in Copenhagen but even more importantly making sure that the artefacts collected by Pitt Rivers (actually his father in law) in Oxford were preserved for the nation.

I am not clear whether Lubbock made some kind of condition to his collections being displayed but I certainly found this section of the Bromley Historical Collections more absorbing than the more diffuse elements downstairs. .


  1. Just to wish you a happy Christmas. Your museums blog has provided a great source of inspiration for me this year. Highlight was a visit to Crossness Pumping Station. Victoria

  2. Everyone has their favourite...
    Thanks for your support and all the best for a great 2018.