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Little known museums of London

Picture credit Jonathan Brennan

We spend a lot of time in London and over the years have found out about some of the capital’s less well known museums. If you are planning a visit over the Christmas break and are looking for something a bit different, maybe take a look at one of these little gems.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane R.A. was born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer, but became professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. His best-known work was the Bank of England. 

Throughout his life he was an avid collector of antiquities, art, sculpture, books and all manner of curiosities. After the death of his wife in 1815 he lived alone at his house in Lincoln Inn Fields, constantly adding to and rearranging his collections. His home is now regarded as "the best house-museum in the world". Only a few visitors are admitted at a time. 

The collection is too extensive to describe in detail but highlights include three excellent Canalettos and two series of Hogarth paintings, A Rake’s Progress and An Election. (his only other surviving series is in the National Gallery). There’s the sarcophagus of Seti I, one of the finest Egyptian pieces outside Egypt, the Naseby Jewel (a hat pin with a figure of a cavalier in the centre, studded with rubies dating from c.1630, said to have been dropped by Charles I at the battle of Naseby), Sir Robert Walpole’s desk and paintings by Turner, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Watteau. The house is an absolute treasure trove, and a museum like no other.

13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields WC2

The Horniman Museum

Founded by Frederick John Horniman in 1901, who had inherited the world's biggest tea trading business and used the money to indulge his lifelong passion for collecting. The museum is home to 350,000 items in various collections, ranging from natural history to cultural artefacts and musical instruments. There’s an amazing array of stuffed animals, an aquarium and a host of strange curiosities – weird masks, a Japanese mermaid, Korean Pan pipes, implements used by the Spanish Inquisition, ancient toys, lucky charms and much more besides. 

100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ 

The Cartoon Museum

Just a stone's throw from The British Museum, The Cartoon Museum exhibits the very finest examples of British cartoons, caricature, and comic art from the 18th century to the present day. The collection is great fun and includes:

 - Rare and original artwork on loan from The Beano, the Dandy, and Topper including The Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger, Billy the Whizz, Desperate Dan, Beryl the Peril and of course Dennis the Menace.
 - Classic works by Gillray including The Plum Pudding, John Bull taking a luncheon and The Zenith of French Glory.
 - Cartoons in 3D including Gerald Scarfe’s memorable Chairman Mao caricatured original leather armchair from 1971.
 - Great joke cartoons by Larry, Kipper Williams, Tony Husband, Nick Newman and many more.
 - Classic war cartoons including Sir David Low¹s ‘All Behind you, Winston’, and Bruce Bairnsfather's, ‘If you know a better ‘Ole...’

The museum also stages regular exhibitions.

35 Little Russell Street 

The Charles Dickens Museum

This is the only remaining London home of the renowned writer and one of the most important collections of his artefacts in the world. He lived here from 1837 until 1839 and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby under this roof. It’s home to over 100,000 items including manuscripts, rare editions, personal items, paintings and other visual sources. 

It gives you the opportunity to experience what Dickens’s home would have been like when he lived here as well as learn more about the life and works of the great novelist and social commentator.

48 Doughty Street, London, WC1N 2LX

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry

One of the most remarkable buildings in London, a tribute to the builder’s art. It was built between 1927 and 1932 as a memorial to the Freemasons who died in WWI.

The Museum contains an extensive collection of objects with Masonic decoration including pottery and porcelain, glassware, silver, furniture and clocks, jewels and regalia. Items belonging to famous and Royal Freemasons including Winston Churchill and Edward VII are on display together with examples from the Museum’s extensive collection of prints and engravings, photographs and ephemera. 

It gives a fascinating insight into this once secretive organisation.

Freemasons’ Hall, 60 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AZ

Old Operating Theatre

You can visit Britain’s oldest operating theatre, in the garret of a baroque church within St Thomas’ Hospital. Until 1822 patients were operated on in the adjacent ward but the 1815 Apothecary’s act required apprentice apothecaries to watch operations, so this theatre was purpose built with raised banks of seats and a skylight to maximise the light from above. Although not heated or ventilated, it provided an ideal, albeit small, area for demonstrating surgical skills.

You can also see the Apothecary’s herb store, also in the garret.

9a St. Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY

Museum of the Order of St John

This museum, given a £1.5million makeover in 2010, tells a unique and fascinating story. It traces the history of the Order of St John, from its origins in eleventh century Jerusalem, through to its role today with St John Ambulance and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.

When Palestine was recaptured by Muslim forces in 1291, the Order moved briefly to Cyprus and then, in 1309, to Rhodes. The Order remained on Rhodes until 1522, when the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, conquered the island.

From Rhodes, the Order moved to Malta. After a famous siege by Suleiman in 1565, which the Knights and the Maltese people survived, a new capital city, Valetta, was built. The Order’s ships patrolled the Mediterranean and remained on Malta until 1798. Malta was lost to Napoleon in 1798. The original Roman Catholic Order still has headquarters in Rome; its full title is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. It remains a sovereign entity in international law and is engaged in international charity work.

St John’s Gate EC1

We hope you find this list stimulates your curiosity - and if you know of any peculiar museums you’d like to share then please let us know!

I realised that to drive there and back and do a full day’s work, was exhausting, using Sybaris made my life much simpler.

David Lamb

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