Bethnal Green in the Tudor era was a popular London suburb for the new gentry. There was good agricultural land with opportunities for hunting grounds, plenty of space for large homes, it wasn’t far from the Thames and it was also very handy for the City of London. However, by the 17th century, London was growing and encroaching on the local gentry’s idyll. Under the guise of philanthropy and in order to halt growing urban development, the gentry of Bethnal Green bought a plot of land and in 1690, put it into trust as Common Land – that is, land for the lower classes of society to grow crops and graze cattle.
Over the next 160 years, Britain changed dramatically. The Industrial Revolution led to the transformation of London’s East End, engulfing Bethnal Green and becoming home to the new working class masses. In 1851 William Gladstone, later Prime Minister, suggested a museum be built in Bethnal Green. Three leading local figures, Sir Antonio Brady, Bethnal Green rector Revd Septimus Hansard and Dr Millar bought the common land and lobbied Parliament for a museum to be built there. The ambition behind the museum was in keeping with the way the Victorians saw the world. However, the museum would not be built for some time.
The 19th century witnessed the growth of urban society and a complete change in living styles, and universal education was deemed necessary for the modern age. Although it would not be until 1880 that universal education would be compulsory for children aged up to 10, the century saw a growth in schooling provisions and the idea of rational recreation – the idea that people could improve their minds in their leisure time by visiting museums and galleries. Prince Albert was an advocate of rational recreation and to this end he helped launch the museums at South Kensington, the area being nicknamed Albertopolis.
1851 marked the year of the hugely important Great Exhibition (or the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations) which was intended to show off Britain’s might and technological know-how. A purpose built iron frame building covered in glass, known as the Crystal Palace, was constructed in Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace was the brainchild of Prince Albert, who chose Henry Cole to direct the operation. Henry Cole had come to Prince Albert’s attention when he lobbied parliament for better standards in industrial design. Cole was also responsible for issuing the Penny Black stamp and the first commercial Christmas card. In 1852 he was made superintendent of the Department of Practical Design, renamed Department of Practical Art in 1853.
The Department was housed at Marlborough House from 1852. This, however, was to be the home of the Prince of Wales when he came of age in 1859 and so a new permanent home was required for the Department combined with items from the Great Exhibition, the Museum of Manufacturers and the School of Design. Profits from the Great Exhibition were used to buy land in Brompton, west of Knightsbridge in London, and a temporary iron structure was built there (Benjamin Disraeli argued in Parliament that, if the venture failed, the iron structure could be re-used.) However, the new South Kensington Museum, designed and built by Charles Young and Company, was not loved. Cole was away in Paris when the design of the building was agreed: a simple iron frame covered in corrugated iron and in common with many of his contemporaries, he considered it hideous. It was quickly nicknamed the Brompton Boilers, as it resembled three boilers laid side by side. The Builder bluntly wrote, “Its ugliness is unmitigated” and The Civil Engineer described it as a “huge lugubrious hospital for decayed railway carriages”.
The Museum, however, was a success and permanent buildings were added to it. The Department thought there should be similar museums in north, east and south London and in 1864 put the idea to each district. Only those responsible for Bethnal Green were interested and in 1868, following the architectural guidance of J W Wild, construction on the plot at Bethnal Green began. The work was carried out by S Perry and Company, led by Colonel Henry Scott, an officer of the Royal Engineers. The Prince of Wales opened the Bethnal Green Museum on 24 June 1872. Wild had originally designed a garden, clock tower and library amongst other features, however, due to the lack of funds, his design was only fully realised in an 1871 edition of The Builder magazine. The final structure was decidedly less grand, the east and west facades being the noticeable remaining original design elements.
The museum building succeeded in being educational from the onset. Female inmates of Woking Gaol laid the fish scale pattern marble floor (visitors to the Museum will notice that some worked more diligently than others!) and F W Moody designed the murals in the north and south exterior walls as educational pieces. The murals on the south wall depict agricultural scenes whilst those on the north depict art and industry. The murals, following the style of those in the main quadrangle at the South Kensington site, were created with the assistance of female students of the South Kensington Museum Mosaic Class.
Other than being a vehicle to bring an awareness of Britain’s cultural heritage to the East End, the Bethnal Green Museum’s purpose was vague. The exhibits were made up of collections from the Great Exhibition (namely, Food and Animal Products, which were still on display post 1918), South Kensington collections and a loan of 18th century French art from Sir Richard Wallace (the Wallace Collection). As time passed, members of the Royal family began to house their gifts at Bethnal Green. This, along with lack of staff, contributed to the Museum’s closure during the First World War as it was thought that the objects would be safer in storage rather than in an open museum.
In 1922 the slow process of becoming the Museum of Childhood unwittingly began. Arthur Sabin became head curator and was instructed to reorganise the museum. Noticing that the museum was frequently filled with bored, noisy children he sought to make it more child-friendly. As part of this endeavour, he set up a classroom and employed teachers. He also began to source child-related objects, a project in which Queen Mary (the wife of King George V) joined him, donating many toys of her own. A Mrs Greg of Leeds became interested and also began to donate her collection of toys to the museum. For the duration of the Second World War and until 1950, the museum operated as a British Canteen, for feeding the general public. When it re-opened, a small collection of childhood-related objects were displayed again next to the V&A circulation department’s exhibitions.
Over the following 23 years, this area of the collection became noticeably popular. To this end, when Roy Strong became director of the V&A in 1973, he instigated changes that resulted in the Bethnal Green Museum re-opening in 1974 as the Museum of Childhood. All childhood-related collections held at the South Kensington site came to Bethnal Green and all non-childhood related objects at Bethnal Green went to South Kensington. Meanwhile, the Museum’s childhood collection continued to grow with new acquisitions from toy companies, the BBC, members of the public and government funds.
Despite its eventful life, no investment had been put into the building’s structure since its 1872 opening and as the Museum entered into the 21st century it was very much in need of attention. The turn of the 21st century bought a new Director to the Museum of Childhood, Diane Lees (dir. 2000-2008) whose remit was to look to the future. The architects, Caruso St John, were employed to do this and from October 2005 to December 2006 the Museum was closed for refurbishment. A new entrance was added with new toilets, lifts and more teaching space, complementing other aspects of improved access.
So it is that the V&A Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green continues to open its doors daily. In sympathy with the Tudor gentry, this plot of land still feeds the people of east London (and further afield) but as Prince Albert, Henry Cole, W J Wild and other mid-Victorians anticipated, it is their minds that continue to be nourished.