Tucked away, a 20 minute bus ride from the city centre in Shoreditch, is one of my favourite London museums – The Geffreye Museum. Built by Sir Robert Geffreye in 1714 as an almshouse, it was turned into a museum, focusing on the home and domestic life of the ‘middling sort’, in 1914. It’s a glorious oasis of calm and tranquility in the heart of a busy neighbourhood. Locals who live and work in the area often come here to enjoy a picnic in the grounds of this beautiful building.
Spread out the length of the main block are middle-class living rooms, ranging from Elizabethan to Victorian times. The exhibition continues downstairs with more rooms featuring our evolving lifestyle throughout the 20th century. Although I’d visited the Geffreye before, I wanted to go back to see the rooms decorated for Xmas – and it was a treat.
First off was the Elizabethan room in a home ‘over the shop’. Panelled in rich golden oak with green curtains at the windows, this was the room where the household gathered to eat, socialise and entertain, a fire burning in the grate. With the walls and mantlepiece decorated with greenery for Christmas, the table is laid for a feast. But look carefully. Disguised as hard-boiled eggs and strips of bacon are sugar treats!
Over the next few centuries a change started to take place in the middle class; home and workplace became separated. Further division occurred within the home itself; instead of one great room for all social activities, these were separated into dining rooms and parlours. Also, there was a growing distinction (and separation) between the family and their servants. Interesting to note, too, how little Xmas decoration there was during this period. A hangover from the Puritan era perhaps?
Contrast that with the full explosion of the Victorian room! Although Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, is credited with introducing the Xmas tree to Britain, apparently Xmas trees had been seen in homes earlier in the century. What surprised me about the tree was the decoration at the top. It’s neither star nor fairy but a union flag! (The tree at the Dennis Severs House – which I blogged about a few days ago- was also topped by a flag.)
Downstairs, we enter the 20th century. This room depicts the 1950s. This was the era when my parents bought their first home, so there are some elements here (the paper chains hanging from the ceiling, a miniature artificial tree) which I recognise from my own childhood Christmases.
Behind the museum you’ll find a collection of gardens matching the time periods of the rooms inside. Our gardens have also evolved over the centuries just as much as our interiors. Unfortunately, the gardens are not open to the public during the winter months.
And the purpose of the great room appears to have come full circle. Once again, in the 21st century, common modern home design is to create one large open-plan space on the main floor where the family eats, socializes and children do their homework together. The more things change, the more they stay the same?
During your visit, make sure to stop and have a meal or snack in the museum’s cafeteria. Backing on to the gardens below, it’s a lovely, bright, open space. The food is great quality – I dare you NOT to have a dessert – and very reasonably priced. I chose to have a cup of ginger and lemon tea (along with a delicious chocolate brownie!) and was delighted to be presented with a small teapot holding slices of fresh ginger and lemon, a tiny dish of honey on the side as sweetener. That’s something I’ll be trying at home.
Entry to The Geffreye Museum is free and it’s open most days except Monday. For further details on the museum and how to get there, please click here.