Vic Keegan’s Lost London 87: The Royal United Services Museum

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 87: The Royal United Services Museum

This is a tale of a lost museum. In its day it was regarded as the biggest and most important in the country, apart from the British Museum. It was started by the Duke of Wellington in 1831 and housed 9,000 artefacts, including Napoleon’s horse (well, its skeleton) and a telescope designed for the one-armed Lord Raglan during the Crimean War.

I first learned of the Royal United Services Museum in H V Morton’s wonderful book In Search of London, published in 1951. Morton described it as “the most surprisingly housed museum in the world”. I couldn’t  wait to visit and wondered how I could have missed it during my frequent walks along Whitehall. 

There are two reasons for that. One is that the entrance is marked merely by a slightly confusing set of initials – RUSI, a modest label for the Royal United Service Institute, the oldest think tank for defence in the world. The second reason is that the contents of the museum, which was housed from 1895 in Inigo Jones’s magnificent Banqueting House, complete with the Rubens painting on the ceiling next door (see picture), were dispersed in 1962 to other museums and galleries. The RUSI building is, however, still attached to the Banqueting House as a kind of Siamese twin with connecting doors. 

RUSI remains home to some of the busts snd paintings from the museum and also boasts a Grade I listed window on a shared wall with the Banqueting House, on which can still be seen blackened scars caused by the fire of 1698, which destroyed Henry Vlll’s Whitehall Palace.

The rest of the contents were dispersed to the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Army Museum, among others. When it was at the Banqueting House, the museum was a history of war told in objects ranging from a bottle of port and bits of masts rescued from Nelson’s flagship Victory to the skeleton of that horse – whose name was Marengo, after Napoleon’s victory at the battle of that name. Marengo’s frame is now restored and can be viewed in the Battle Gallery of the Army Museum in Royal Hospital Road. 

The original Royal United Services Museum catalogue is available online. The thousands of artefacts also including a scale model of the Whitehall Palace, a German crossbow, the Duke of Wellington’s umbrella and remnants of battles from Crecy to Alamein. There was, apparently, even a piece of ration bread issued to British troops on the day of the Battle of Waterloo. 

The origin of the museum can be traced back to 1829, when an article in Colbourn’s United Service Journal written by “an old Egyptian campaigner” suggested a society which would “apply the new lessons of science to the military art”. The RUSI would doubtless argue that that is part of what it is still doing today.

Read instalments one to 86 of Vic Keegan’s Lost London here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London

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