The Museum of London is a wanderer among museums. It is currently situated at London Wall in the Barbican building complex, but will soon be moving to the General Market building at Smithfield, which is being refurbished after falling into disuse 30 years ago.
We think of museums as staying put to give an impression of unchanging solidity, but not this one. The London Museum as, it was first called – and is to be renamed when it moves – started life on 8 April 1912 in temporary accommodation on the second floor of Kensington Palace. Its aim was to illustrate the colourful history of the capital. It attracted 13,000 visitors on its first day.
That arrangement lasted for two years, after which the collection was moved to Lancaster House, a huge mansion on the edge of Green Park. It was originally to be for Prince Frederick, the second son of George III, but he died before it was finished. The house was purchased and completed by George Granville Leveson-Gower, the then Marquess of Stafford. It was and is a sumptuous creation (see below), clearly influenced by Louis XIV’s Versailles. It is easy to believe the story that on arriving at what was then called Stafford House for a visit, Queen Victoria remarked Stafford’s wife: “I have come from my House to your Palace.”
In 1913 the lease was purchased for the nation by Lord Leverhulme, a Lancastrian soap magnate, who gave it its present name. The museum took up residence the following year. The first Keeper of the museum was art historian Guy Francis Laking, who had shown an early interest in museum artefacts by writing an essay on The Sword of Joan of Arc when he was only 10 years old. From 1926 until 1944 the Keeper was the celebrity archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.
During World War II, much of the museum’s collection was moved to the nearby Dover Street underground station – now Green Park station – for safety, and later to Piccadilly Circus Tube. Some of the galleries at Lancaster House reopened to the public in 1942 despite the war, but in November 1943 the building was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works as a conference centre and the London Museum was soon on pass-the-parcel manoeuvres once more.
In 1948, George VI agreed to it returning to Kensington Palace, where it was housed in the two lower floors, leaving behind the government’s extensive wine collection – itself a museum of sorts – which remains at Lancaster House to this day. The moveable museum re-opened in July 1951, but was rather overshadowed by the extraordinary success of the Festival of Britain on the south bank of the Thames.
In 1975, in its biggest move so far, the London Museum was amalgamated with the City of London’s Guildhall Museum to form the Museum of London. It has had an air of permanence about it since it opened in its present building in December 1976, but it will close in December and complete preparations for moving its collection, now composed of more than six million objects, many of them in storage, to its new West Smithfield home, which is due to open in 2025.
As the museum anticipates a new era, the Smithfield wholesale meat market, which has been in continuous business in the area in different forms since medieval times, is doing the same. It, along with the City of London Corporation’s two other historic markets, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields, are due to move together to Dagenham Dock in the next few years.
The new London Museum museum will inhabit a place of deep London history. Smithfield – originally called Smoothfield because of the flat terrain there – saw the execution of Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, and of the Scottish hero William Wallace. It was also the location of Bartholomew Fair, which lasted for nearly 700 years before being closed in 1855. It will be fascinating to see how these memories are integrated into the new museum, which hopefully will not soon be on the move yet again.
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