London Sewing Machine Museum’s surroundings are decidedly 2016. This tiny museum sits in the top levels of a warehouse, opposite a Lidl and within a stone’s throw from Tooting Bec station.
But step inside and you’ll enter a different world of class, vintage domesticity, 600 machines and one family’s eccentric history.
The machines in the huge collection are fascinating, but what’s most interesting to me is the dogged resilience with which its creator has held onto his family’s heritage.
To learn more, you’ll need a guide — so it’s worth waiting around for the start of a tour — but here’s just a taster of what you’ll hear…
The history of London Sewing Machine Museum
The museum’s history starts just after WWII, when Thomas Arthur Rushton set up a small business in Wimbledon restoring sewing machines that he’d retrieved from derelict homes.
Retrieving them was hard work; thry were built to last and had to be carried by hand since there was no van.
When Thomas’ son Ray Rushton joined the business, he was naturally enlisted to collect the machines (on his bike this time, before a van was acquired). In 1979 the business moved to a new location in Tooting, where it still stands today with 78-year-old Ray at the helm.
Highlights of the collection
There are over 600 sewing machines in the London Sewing Machine Museum collection, from the first Singer and a patent that was sent for the Great Exhibition, to a machine that was given to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter as a wedding gift when she married Prince Frederick William of Prussia.
The latter dates from 1865 and Ray bought it for £23,500, making it the second most expensive sewing machine ever bought.
The most expensive sewing machine ever bought is, naturally, also in Ray’s collection. Dating from the 1830s, it is believed to be the fourth prototype by Barthelemy Thimonnier – the inventor of the sewing machine. Basically, it’s one of the first sewing machines ever made.
Thimonnier’s work is also very rare; when 19th-century seamstresses heard of his creation, they burned down his factory with him in it. Luckily he escaped and managed to grab a couple of machines on his way out, but most of his work was gone forever and he died poor.
So, how much did Ray buy this incredibly important, incredibly rare sewing machine for? £50,000.
Sewing machines just got interesting, and the London Sewing Machine Museum (and Ray) is right there in the centre of the action.
Address: 308 Balham High Road (above Wimbledon Sewing Machine Company), London SW17 7AA
Opening times: 2pm-5pm, first Saturday of the month
What does one do when faced with the hottest day of the year (so far) and a whole week as a lady of leisure before starting a new job? Why, visit one of the coolest historic houses in London, of course. And that’s exactly what I did when I visited Chiswick House and Gardens for the first time.
And when I say ‘coolest’, I’m not just talking about the fact that Chiswick House is on every nerd’s trip wishlist. It’s also ‘cool’ regarding its temperature; I stepped from 32-degree heat into a glamorous gold-plated human cool bag that was once used to entertain London’s high society.
The house is surrounded by acres of gardens, which stretch for what seems like miles and could easily fill a day’s exploring; they include the Italian gardens, conservatory, temple and the magnificent lake that stretches across the grounds.
Walk up to the front of the Chiswick House itself to be greeted by two magnificent sphinxes and a dozen statues; the mix of regal elegance in some and mischievous grins in others are enough to make you question what sort of house you’re entering…
Another sphinx awaits you inside on the far right-hand corridor of the building: this one was moved inside due to decay, but it’s interesting to see how well-intentioned restoration work was done with bricks and cement to help keep the shape of this magnificent but time-weary structure.
It’s not every day that you find that you live half an hour from a house that was created and owned by a major character in Tudor history. But when I discovered just how close Sutton House is, I couldn’t resist a visit. While there, I learned more about Sutton House’s creator — Sir Ralph Sadleir, Secretary of State to Henry VIII, and protégé of Thomas Cromwell — and discovered some of the secrets hidden within its walls…
If Sadleir’s name rings a bell, that’s because he features in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hallnovel series about Thomas Cromwell, as well as many accounts of Cromwell’s rise to power. In Wolf Hall, Sadleir is renamed Rafe Sadler. He also features in the BBC series (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the theatre production of the same name.
But back to the history: Sadleir created the house in 1535 while both he and his mentor Cromwell were on their way up the professional ladder. It was originally known as Bryck Place — its red bricks were a rarity in Tudor London — and, unlike today, it was surrounded by Hackney’s ‘green fields and clean air’.
Sadleir lived here with his wife Ellen (otherwise known as Helen or Margaret), who he met in 1530 while she was working as a laundress in the Cromwell household. The couple fell in love and moved to Bryck Place in 1535, a year before their first child, named Thomas after Cromwell, was born — Ellen’s bedroom is now marked with a child’s cot.
As Cromwell rose in status, so did Sadleir, and he gained the enviable position of Privy Councillor in 1540. After a brief spell in the Tower following Cromwell’s execution later in the same year, he managed to regain Henry VIII’s trust; the king would later add him to the council that would rule England during Edward VI’s minority.
During the first 10 years of their marriage, Sadleir’s wife Ellen was thought to be a widow; her husband Matthew Barre abandoned her and their two children. But Barre’s reappearance in 1545 led to Sadleir’s successful petition to Parliament for Ellen’s divorce from Barre on grounds of desertion — the first divorce of its kind.
Sadleir’s early beginnings in Thomas Cromwell’s household marked the start of his long and successful career in the Tudor court; after serving Edward VI until the young king’s untimely death in 1553, he supported the protestant Lady Jane Grey and was subsequently forced into semi-retirement during the reign of Mary I. However, he returned to favour when Elizabeth I became queen; he was on important royal business in Scotland when he learned of the reappearance of his wife’s husband.
So Sutton House has sociological significance as well as historical importance. Here’s what I got up to on my visit, and some hints at the secrets I uncovered…
I admired the beautiful wall panels (and the house’s original brickwork behind them)
I enjoyed the biggest slice of carrot cake in Hackney…
I found out what’s behind the secret door in the bedroom…
And spotted this fellow etched into the fireplace… but what was he drawn for?
I learned the perils of a Tudor kitchen (thankfully without the heat of one)
And learned why Sutton House is called a house of two halves…
Nearest station: Homerton / Hackney Central
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm-5pm (open daily in August, and on bank holidays)
I absolutely love, love, LOVE St Bartholomew the Great church in Smithfield. It’s the kind of place that I take friends and family when they visit London; it’s almost as old as the Tower (what’s a hundred years between friends?) and more beautiful than Buckingham Palace, but doesn’t have the crowds or selfie-sticks of either. And it’s got a fascinating backstory.
So, why do I love this little corner of London? Let me count the ways…
900 years of history
Like much of West Smithfield, St Bartholomew the Great is really old. It was built around 1123 and, while several parts of it were destroyed throughout the years, it survived Henry VIII’s reformation, the Great Fire of London, and The Blitz largely intact. In this sense, it is unlike other churches in the City of London (including Christ Church Greyfriars and St Dunstan in the East).
Step through the huge doors and the sounds of West Smithfield and Farringdon slowly drift away. Once inside, you enter another world: one without any visible sign of modern life, where time has stood still for hundreds of years, and where the dead live forever in rows of memorials and eerily beautiful tombs.
The age of this cavernous building gives the air an unmistakable thickness: it exudes the kind of atmosphere that only exists in places that seem to have soaked up 900-years’ worth of lives that have passed through.
A Tudor face
The Tudor gatehouse at the entrance to the church grounds has a fascinating history of its own.
St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse stands where the original nave of the church would have stood, before the nave was destroyed in the reformation in around 1539. It was built in 1595 as a two-storey residence and incorporates the arch (built in 1240) that would have been the original doorway to the church’s southern aisle before the reformation.
The connection with the church is referenced in both the name of the gatehouse and the figure of St Bartholomew that stands in the front between the first and second floors.
Luckily, the gatehouse’s location saved it from damage from the Great Fire in 1666 (the fire only spread as far as the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where The Golden Boy of Pye Corner now stands) and it was covered over by a Georgian facade sometime in the 1700s before being used as a shop.
The next phase of the Tudor gatehouse’s life reads very differently to that of many buildings in the area. Instead of being destroyed by bombs in the early 20th-century, it was uncovered by them; in 1917, the Georgian facade was damaged by a German Zeppelin raid and the Tudor gatehouse was revealed. It was fully restored in the 1930s (as well as the exterior, there is still Tudor panelling in the attic) and later used as a rectory for the church and then a school for 8 pupils.
Filming location for great films
The list of films and history TV shows that St Bartholomew the Great has been featured in reads like a schedule for an all-time great movie marathon: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sherlock Holmes, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age all featured scenes filmed in the church.
Often it’s used as a stand-in for other big churches: for example, in Sherlock Holmes it was used as the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.
A Damien Hirst artwork
Legend has it that St Bartholomew brought Christianity to Armenia, where he was flayed alive and crucified head-down. The most recent addition to the church is an unmistakable nod to this story in the form of Damien Hirst’s Exquisite Pain statue, gilded and holding a pair of scissors in a reference to his links to medicine and surgery, and also influenced by Edward Scissorhands.
//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js Exquisite Pain will be at St Bartholomew the Great for a few years; Hirst’s exhibition at the Tate Modern was big news back in 2012, so this is a great opportunity to see one of his more traditional pieces in a much more peaceful setting.
Nearest Tube: St Paul’s / Farringdon
Opening times: Monday to Friday, 8:30am-5pm (until 4pm during autumn/winter); Saturday, 10:30am-4pm; Sunday, 8:30am-8pm (check the website for details about opening during services)
In the heart of Bloomsbury, there is a place for quiet contemplation of three things that shape us as people: childhood, family, and art.
Situated just off Brunswick Square next to the former site of the home of the Bloomsbury Group, The Foundling Museum charts the history of The Foundling Hospital, which was once located in this building. It is dedicated to the children who were cared for here, the man who ensured they would be cared for, and the eminent figures who helped him realise his vision.
History of The Foundling Hospital
Created by Thomas Coram in 1739 to care for babies who were at risk of abandonment, The Foundling Hospital was the first children’s charity in the UK. Any mother forced to make the excruciating decision to give up her child (usually as a result of poverty or illegitimacy) could come to The Foundling and apply to have them safely lodged here in the care of the hospital.
After returning to London from America, Coram saw the country’s terrible abandonment problem (1,000 babies were abandoned every year in London alone) and started his campaign for a Royal Charter from George II to create his hospital.
He had to campaign for no fewer than 17 years for the charter to be granted, and another two years for the hospital to open.
In his quest, Coram had help from notable Londoners such as artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel. Hogarth helped established the hospital as the first public art gallery in the UK by encouraging his contemporaries to donate work, and Handel organised regular benefit performances of Messiah in the hospital chapel.
The composer’s impact on the hospital’s history is now remembered with the Gerald Coke Handel Collection on the top floor of the museum, in a space dedicated to his music.
Coram’s persistence in getting permission for the hospital paid off – in 1741 the first babies were admitted to the new hospital and, in the 231 years that it was in operation, a total of 25,000 children were cared for here.
The Foundling Hospital eventually evolved into the charity Coram, which now changes the lives of a million children a year, and moved to Russell Square. The museum now covers both its own history and that of the charity.
New exhibition starting 27th May: FOUND
Based on The Foundling Museum’s heritage as a hospital for abandoned children, Foundling Fellow Cornelia Parker has invited over 60 artists to create works based on the theme ‘found’. The exhibition links the Foundling Hospital’s involvement in the development of the Royal Academy, and the role that artists played in the hospital’s creation and continued support of children.
The artists include Jarvis Cocker, Brian Eno, and 22 Royal Academians. Find out more information about the exhibition at The Foundling Museum website.
Nearest Tube: Russell Square / Euston Square
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm
How do you make some of London’s most beautiful museums and historic houses even prettier? By filling them with candlelight, of course.
And that’s exactly what Museums at Night aims to do — from today until Saturday, many of the city’s best hidden places will be open later than normal. Here is a selection of my favourites, including candlelight evenings, guided tours, and special events taking place this week.
Where will you see at Museums at Night 2016? Let me know in the comments, or pop me a message!
1. Benjamin Franklin House (Thursday & Friday)
Learn about the history and architecture of the only surviving residence of Benjamin Franklin, the American inventor and Founding Father of the United States, at one of the house’s architectural tours. Learn about the 16 years that Dr Franklin lived here, why there was an anatomy school in the basement, and the house’s connection to Winston Churchill.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th and Friday 13th May, tours start at 7pm and 8pm both nights
Booking? Book in advance: tickets are £5 (£3.50 for concessions). Buy from the box office in person or call 0207 8392 006.
This lesser-known museum was voted one of the best museums in the UK earlier this year, so now’s the time to visit it after dark at a special talk about their project ‘Animated Minds’, a series of short-films aimed at addressing stereotypes around mental illness.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th May, 6.30pm-7.45pm
Take a rare chance to visit the former home of Samuel Johnson by candlelight at a special late opening for Museums at Night 2016. See the garret where Dr Johnson compiled his dictionary, climb the original staircase, and enjoy this beautiful Georgian building as its most famous inhabitant would have known it.
Normal admission fee applies (currently £6) and you’ll get a free glass of wine in the bargain, too.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th May, 5.30pm-8pm
Explore No.48 Doughty Street by candlelight, learn the secret of Catherine Dickens’ butter recipe at a special churning demonstration, enjoy live acoustic music in the library, and discover a hidden walled garden at this late opening of the former home of the famous author.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th May, 6pm-8pm
Join the Horniman Museum for a night for a night of music, films, spoken word, talks and extravagant performances at their Queer Late.
Learn more about England’s LGBTQ history and heritage, try some queer tango moves, see portraits of LGBT asylum seekers, watch films about love, and experience a new performance piece by artist-in-residence Robson Rozza.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th May, 6.30pm-9.30pm
Test your general knowledge and see a piece of London’s history at the same time at the Museum of the Order of St John’s traditional pub quiz. The quiz will take place in the museum’s historic rooms while staff from the historic Jerusalem Tavern serve drinks and bar snacks.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th May, 6.30pm-9.30pm
To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate? Make your own mind up at The Hunterian Museum’s late event dedicated to the history of and changing attitudes to vaccination. Accompanying the museum’s ‘Vaccination: Medicine and the Masses’ exhibition will be a specially-commissioned work by The British Society for the History of Science ‘Strolling Players’ and a talk by medical historian Dr Richard Barnett about horrifyingly beautiful illustrations of infectious disease.
Museums at Night opening times: Thursday 12th May, 6pm-9pm
Gather in the oldest operating theatre in Europe for ‘Night of the Bodysnatcher’, a talk about the gruesome history of the Resurrectionists, the men who supplied the dissecting rooms of London from the graves of the city.
The talk will be held by Kirsty Chilton, Assistant Curator at the Old Operating Theatre Museum, who will tell stories about this horrific work, including the tricks of their trade…
Museums at Night opening times: Friday 13th May, 7pm-8pm
See one of the most beautiful historic houses in London by twilight at Late Night Keats — an evening dedicated to John Keats and fellow wordsmith William Shakespeare. Follow the Keats and Shakespeare trail, hear their works performed, or grab a drink at the pop-up bar (price of a ticket includes a complimentary drink).
Museums at Night opening times: Friday 13th May, 7pm-9.30pm
Ever wanted to watch a taxidermist at work? Do you want to watch a taxidermist at work now that you’ve read that last sentence? Well, you’re in luck, because UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology is holding a night based around that very thing as part of Museums at Night 2016.
Watch live taxidermy by ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long and an exclusive viewing of the film short ‘Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens’. If all of that leaves you needing a drink, then there will be a pop-up bar serving taxidermy-themed cocktails and other drinks throughout the night.
Museums at Night opening times: Saturday 14th May, 8pm-9.30pm
It’s been over a week since I was at Chislehurst Caves in south London — standing 350 feet below ground in total darkness while the sound of bombs echoed through the 20 miles of caves around me — and the experience still gives me the shivers…
I still haven’t forgotten the urge to stare at the lamps on the floor to avoid looking into the darkness around me, for fear of seeing something I didn’t want to. I still can’t stop thinking about the stories I heard; of the young woman killed at what is now known as the Haunted Pool, and of the 15,000 people who slept in the dark, damp caves throughout World War II.
They say that this uneasiness is down to a kind of sensory deprivation: that we’re so used to light pollution in big cities like London that, when faced with this level of darkness, our minds start to imagine things in place of what they expect to see. But it’s hard to thnk that clearly when you’re so far away from normality and shrouded in complete darkness (more on that later). It’s hard to even get your bearings because there are no signals telling you where to turn, and every other sense seems heightened.
The history of the caves
Like most things associated with Chislehurst Caves, their past is surrounded in mystery. The guides will tell you they were dug by the druids and the Romans, but a quick Google search leads you to a few archaeologists who have cast doubt on that theory with the insistence that they are no more than a couple of hundred years old.
During the Second World War, the caves were used as shelters; their depth meant that, despite the cold, cramped and damp conditions, they were competitively attractive alternatives to the world above.
Incredibly, 15,000 people lived down here at any one time during the war; there’s even a Red Cross hospital, a citizens advice bureau, and a church within the miles of caves, and each ‘pitch’ had its own address where post could be delivered. All of this was provided for a whole family for about £5 in today’s money: it’s a small price to pay for safety.
A tour of Chislehurst Caves lasts around 45 minutes and takes you through about a mile of the 20 miles of tunnels. It’s not for the feint of heart: you’ll be plunged into total darkness for a few minutes of the tour, and the guide will do their best to scare you as silly as possible with stories of ghosts, murder and human sacrifice.
And if you were thinking you’ll have your trusty smartphone to light your way, then think again: there are no lights other than the gas lamps given to a few of the group at the start of the tour to light the way.
Which all just adds to the ambience and the relief of getting back to normality at the end of the tour. But it also makes Chislehurst Caves one of the most unusual — and enjoyable — experiences in London. Just don’t look behind you…
Opening hours: tours leave on the hour between 10am and 4pm every day