The Museum of London had been recommended to me by my super-in-law, so I took a tube there one day while in the city.
As the Olympics have been held in London three times, and everyone has caught the fever, there was an exhibition in the foyer on the subject. This one hopes to be the most sustainable games to date – for example, the top ring of the Olympic stadium is made from surplus gas pipes.
I skipped through exhibitions about London before London and Roman London (not literally skipped, you understand, that would be weird). The city was burned in AD60 by Boudicca and was then rebuilt and expanded. By AD100 it replaced Colchester as the capital of Britannia. Glass cases contained bones and pottery, models of amphitheatres, stone sculpture tools, coins and horseshoes, but I was being selective, and pressed on.
I was intrigued by the remaining part of the London Wall, however. The first fort was built in AD120 for the soldiers in Londinium. There were remaining mosaics from AD 200 when these walls were strengthened and incorporated into a city wall to protect London. In AD410 the Romans abandoned London; the city declined as it was empty for nearly 400 years and the wall began to collapse.
The Saxons moved in (in AD886), repaired the walls, and added towers for extra protection against Viking attack. They built houses right up against the wall, but they were destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666). In the nineteenth century, warehouses and shops again abutted the wall. World War II bombing caused extensive damage to both the wall and the buildings, and when archaeologists dug up the ruins, they found sections of the original wall, one of which is displayed here, looking secretive in the summer sunshine. I love how the stones are steeped in history.
Real children were playing in a reconstructed house in the Medieval Britain section. Here the displays feature weapons, keys, chain mail, pottery, preserved doors and altarpieces, rings, paintings, books, manuscripts (bibles and primers from the 1400s) and illustrated letters. There’s a collection of London Delftware pottery, and the Cheapside Hoard, a treasure of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewels discovered in 1912 under the cellar floor of a seventeenth century house in Cheapside.
Again, I raced through this bit, but was morbidly interested by the display on the Plague, Black Death and Pestilence caused by the stink and filth of the city. The ‘War Plague and Fire’ section also interested me as it has a model of the Rose Theatre from 1587 and the three copper plates of the 1559 Copper Plate Map – fifteen plates made up a map of London, and only these three survive, although there is no contemporary printed map.
Oliver Cromwell’s death mask is also on display here. He is claimed to have said, in a 1656 interview, “I am as much for a government by consent as any man; but where shall we find that consent?”
London was teeming – furniture, models of 1660s timber houses, and pictures of the Great Fire illustrate this state. Donald Lupton wrote in London and the Countrey (1632), “London is the great beehive of Christendom... she swarms with people of all ages, natures, sexes, callings... she seems to be a glutton, for she desires always to be full.”
One-fifth of the population died in 1665 due to the Great Plague. In an effort to ward it off, people wore bunches of herbs; lavender, cloves, and pommo d’ambre (a mixture of whale vomit, animal scents and flowers – thought to be efficacious). And then came the Great Fire.
London booksellers stored all their books and papers in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral for safety, but it was covered in wooden scaffolding which caught fire, the lead in the roof melted, the cathedral burned down, and everything was destroyed. Fortunately London Bridge had a gap between shops in it (from a previous fire), which prevented the fire from spreading to Southwark, and causing further loss of life.
The gaolers took pity on the debtors in prison at Newgate, and released them to fend for themselves. People pulled down houses and Charles II himself helped with throwing water on the conflagration which raged for five days, destroying 13,000 homes – the King arranged for bread to be delivered each day to feed the many homeless.