History of the Geffrye Museum
The Geffrye Museum has not always been a bastion of house history; in fact, it can trace its lineage back to the Ironmongers Almshouse built in 1714. Today it is the only museum in the UK to specialize in depicting the interior living spaces of middling or middle class individuals throughout a 400-year span. Within the museum are rooms that depict what the main living area of a home would have looked like in 1695, 1790 and more. As fascinating as the history the Geffrye Museum displays, the buildings themselves have a history of their own.
In 1715, the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers established almshouses for pensioners. The funds for this endeavour were donated by Sir Robert Geffrye (hence the name of the museum today) who was master of the company and also lord mayor of London. Initially there were fourteen building, which contained four rooms, one room per pensioner.
19_ 20th Century
By this era, London was expanding quickly and the location of the Geffrye Almshouses was right in the middle of the clothing and furniture trade. Gone were the farmland and in its place were terraced housing, workshops and factories. Thanks to this explosion of growth, the area became less than savoury with over population rampant and resulting sanitation issues. At this time, the almshouses were sold, and the institution rebuilt in a better part of the city.
After purchasing the almshouses, the London County Council had a unique issue of what to do with the buildings. In hopes of sparking local artisans, a furniture museum was created, highlighting the artistry and innovation of the times. They hoped to make it a center of learning for local craftsman. As the 20th century wore on more furnishings were mass-produced and the museum evolved to become what it is today.
Inside the modern Geffrye museum, you will find a sort of “house history”. Eleven rooms are set up to highlight how people would have organized or decorated their homes during a specific time period. Each room displays furnishings that would have been common to the particular year. That is not to say each piece of furniture or decoration was created only within that year, but within a 10-20 year span leading up to that year. In other words a realistic portrayal of family furnishings for the period, after all who has a home only furnished with brand new furniture?
What can you learn from house history depicted in the Geffrye Museum? Quite a lot actually, whether you are consummate genealogist or just curious about how many of your ancestors may have lived, these rooms offer spectacular insight. There are also two rooms set up to portray what a typical almshouse residence would have looked like in 1780 and then in 1880. As you wander from room to room, you can get a real sense of how families from different centuries spent their leisure time as well as note the growth of disposable wealth as the rooms go from sparsely furnished to nearly cluttered!
Nick and Laura explored some of the rooms and talks to both the Curator and an eminent house historian.
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