An inhabitant of Roman Londinium some 1,600 years ago, a wealthy Roman woman was laid to rest in a stone sarcophagus in what is now Southwark.
Her rest was not uninterrupted. At some point – reported as during the 16th century – thieves broke into her coffin, allowing earth to pour in. The sarcophagus was then reburied and and lay undisturbed until June, 2017, when it was found at a site on Harper Road by archaeologists exploring the property prior to the construction of a new development.
Subsequent analysis found that almost complete skeleton of a woman as well as some bones belonging to an infant (although it remains unclear if they were buried together). Along with the bones was a tiny fragment of gold – possibly belonging to an earring or necklace – and a small stone intaglio, which would have been set into a ring, and which is carved with a figure of a satyr.
The burial, which took place at the junction of Swan Street and Harper Road, is estimated to have taken place between 86 and 328 AD and the woman was believed to be aged around 30 when she died.
It’s clear from the 2.5 tonne sarcophagus that the woman was of high status – most Londoners of this area were either cremated or buried in wooden coffins. The sarcophagus was only one of three found in London in the past three decades.
London is replete with historic homes but only a few have become museums. In this series we want to look beyond the more famous ones – think of the Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury or of the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to name two – to some of the lesser known homes that have became museums.
First up, it’s Benjamin Franklin House at 36 Craven Street. While the history of this Georgian terraced house goes back to 1730, Franklin himself is known to have lived in what was a lodging house for some 16 years from 1757 to 1775 (his wife Deborah had apparently refused to come and remained in Philadelphia).
Franklin, who had first lived in London in the mid-1720s while working as a trainee printer and stayed in various lodgings including in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, initially served as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly in London but, after a brief time back in Philadelphia, returned to London in 1764, this time as ambassador for the colonies in America. He left the property in 1775 to return to Philadelphia where, shortly after, on 4th July, 1776, he was among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence.
The four storey townhouse, which is the only surviving property lived in by Franklin left in the world, remained a lodging house up until World War II. It later served as the headquarters for the British Society for International Understanding.
The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House was founded by Mary, Countess of Bessborough in 1978 and in 1989 the government gave the friends the freehold to the land. The friends then undertook a major renovation and restoration project.
During the works some 1200 bones fragments – believed to be the remains of 15 people, at least six of them children – were found buried in the cellar. They were dated to about the time Franklin had been living there.
But, fear not, the bodies were not of Franklin’s doing. It is believed that William Hewson, an early anatomist and friend of Franklin (as well as being married to Polly, the daughter of the property’s landlady Margaret Stevenson), was responsible for the remains.
Hewson, who was among tenants at the property between 1770 and 1774, ran a small anatomy school here where he conducted secret dissections to avoid any legal complications. The bodies were thought to have been buried in the back garden which, when the property was expanded, later became part of the basement.
The Grade I-listed property – which contains many original features including the floorboards, ceilings and staircases – finally opened as a museum for the public in January, 2006.
These days, the history of the property – including its architecture and Franklin’s residency – can be explored through an ‘historical experience’ and ‘architectural tour’. There’s also a virtual tour available online recreating what the property may have looked like in Franklin’s time.
Among the artefacts on show in the house are Franklin’s leather wallet (inscribed with the Craven Street address and his name), a bust of Franklin dating from about 1800, and what is believed to be the property’s original door-knocker.
The house also features an English Heritage Blue Plaque – although the plaque, which was erected in 1914, is grey, not blue and rectangular, not circular.
WHERE: Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, Westminster (nearest Tube stations are Embankment and Charing Cross); WHEN: Various times for tours – check the website for details; COST: Historical Experience – £9.50 adults/£8 concessions/free for under 12s; Architectural Tour – £7.50 adults/£6 concessions/free for under 12s; WEBSITE: https://benjaminfranklinhouse.org.
This spectacular Anglo-Saxon helmet – perhaps the most famous Anglo-Saxon object in a museum today – was among the finds made at the Sutton Hoo burial site in Suffolk in the late 1930s, the story of which is told in the current Netflix film, The Dig.
The ornately decorated helmet, the manufacture of which is dated to the late 6th or early 7th century, was found buried in the grave mound of an important figure whom some believe was an East Anglian king named Rædwald. The grave mound had been constructed over a ship containing the body and artefacts including the helmet. The ship itself had disintegrated but its imprint was uncovered during the excavation.
Excavated in hundreds of corroded fragments, the iron and bronze helmet, which is believed to have weighed about 2.5 kilograms, was painstakingly reassembled in the mid-1940s to reveal a helmet featuring cheek and neck guards and a mask with sculpted facial features including a nose, eyebrows and moustache as well as holes for the eyes. It features a number of other decorative elements including representations of dragons and warriors as well as geometric patterns. Gold and silver were used in the decorations.
The helmet underwent a second reconstruction in the early 1970s after issues were identified with the first.
The helmet, along with other artefacts found at the site, were deemed to be the property of Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty who subsequently donated it to the British Museum. It is on permanent display in Room 41 of the museum.
• Meanwhile, the V&A has announced it has acquired a rare jewelled late medieval cluster brooch which was uncovered in 2017 by a metal detectorist in a former royal hunting ground near Brigstock, Northamptonshire. The brooch, which dates from c. 1400- 1450, is believed to have been made in either France or Germany. It’s the only one of its kind to be found in the UK and one of only seven known examples in the world. The brooch is on display in V&A’s William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery (when the museum reopens).
Please note: Exploring London is aware that sites across London have closed temporarily as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. But we’re continuing our coverage as usual – in the hope you can visit at a later time…
Located at 5 Strand Lane in the West End, these brick-lined baths were long-reputed to be of Roman origin. But they are actually believed to be the remains of a cistern built in 1612 to supply water to fountain in the gardens of Old Somerset House.
The fountain had been built by French engineer, Salomon de Caus, after he was commissioned to do so as part of King James I’s efforts to refurbish Somerset House for Queen Anne of Denmark.
Following the demolition of the fountain, the cistern was neglected until the 1770s when the cistern was used a public cold plunge bath attached to a property at 33 Surrey Street. A second bath, called the ‘Essex Bath’ was added (it’s now under the nearby KCL Norfolk Building).
The idea that they were Roman is believed to have originated in the 1820s when the bath was so described as an advertising gimmick (Charles Dickens’ helped popularise the idea in his book David Copperfield – it is believed Dickens himself may have bathed here).
The 1.3 metre deep bath passed through a couple of different hands in the ensuing decades including Oxford Street draper Henry Glave and Rev William Pennington Bickford, the Rector of St Clement Danes, who, believing in the bath’s Roman origins, hoped to turn them into a tourist attraction.
But his plans came to nothing due to a lack of funds and following his death, in 1944, the National Trust agreed to take on ownership while London County Council agreed to see to its maintenance. They reopened the baths, following repairs, in 1951.
These days, while owned by the Trust, the baths are managed by Westminster Council.
WHERE: 5 Strand Lane (nearest Tube station is Temple); WHEN: While National Trust properties are temporarily closed, viewings are usually arranged through Westminster Council and Somerset House Old Palaces tour; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/strand-lane-roman-baths.
We’ve entered a new year but before we leave 2019 completely behind, here’s quick look at four sites in London that were put on the National Heritage List for England last year…
1. Sainsbury Supermarket, Camden Town. Listed at Grade II, it was the first purpose-built supermarket to be placed on the National Heritage List. The store was built in 1986-88 as part of Grand Union Complex designed by architectural practice Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners.
2. The Curtain Playhouse, Shoreditch. A scheduled monument, the theatre dates from about 1577 and hosted performances of Romeo and Juliet during Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour with Shakespeare himself listed as a performer. Archaeological investigations in the years from 2011-16 revealed parts of the stage as well as the wings, galleries and yards and 17th century structures which showed the later use of the site as tenement housing.
3. Nursemaid’s Tunnel, Regent’s Park. Grade II listed, this is one of the earliest surviving pedestrian subways in London. It was built under New Road (now Marylebone Road) – linking Park Crescent with gardens in Park Square – in 1821 after residents campaigned for its construction due to the dangers of navigating the busy road (especially for children being taken to the playground by their nursemaids).
The remains of Captain Matthew Flinders, a Royal Navy explorer who led the first circumnavigation of Australia and is credited with popularising the name the country now bears, have been found by archaeologists working on the HS2 rail project in Euston. While the general area in which he was buried – the former St James’s burial ground – has long been known, archaeologists were able to narrow down the location of his grave among the 40,000 on the site thanks to a lead breast plate placed on top of his coffin upon which, conveniently, his name was written. The HS2 project will see a high speed rail link constructed between London and Birmingham and as part of the preparations for the project, the largest archaeological dig ever to take place in the UK is underway on the site of what will be the London terminus. Flinders was buried in St James’s burial ground in 1814 but when Euston station expanded westward into the burial ground in 1840s, his headstone was removed and the location of his grave thought lost (despite a persistent myth that he was buried under Platform 15). There is already a statue of Captain Flinders at Euston Station – unveiled on the bicentenary of his death in 2014 (originally at Australia House), it depicts both Flinders, busy charting Australia’s coastline, and his cat, Trim. There is now talk of a memorial marking the site of the grave.
An 18th century ice house has been (re)discovered beneath the streets of Marylebone during a residential development project known as Regent’s Crescent. The subterranean red brick ice house – which measures 7.5 metres wide and 9.5 metres deep and was built in the 1780s – was used by pioneering ice-merchant William Leftwich during the 1820s to bring high quality ice to wealthy households and service the trend to serve frozen treats to guests as well as supply increasing demand from food retailers and medical institutions. Leftwich, seeing a niche for clean, quality ice (ice sourced from local canals and lakes during winter was often dirty), shipped ice collected in Norway’s frozen lakes and then transported it into London via Regent’s Canal. Now listed as a scheduled monument by Historic England, the egg-shaped ice house was rediscovered by MOLA archaeologists who were working on the site on behalf of property developer Great Marlborough Estates. It will now be incorporated into the gardens of Regent’s Crescent which have been newly designed by Kim Wilkie as part of the £500 million development project. The Grade I-listed crescent was originally designed by John Nash (of Buckingham Palace and Brighton Pavilion fame) and built in 1819. The houses were destroyed during the Blitz and replica properties were built in the 1960s. But the ice house, an entrance tunnel and ante-chamber all survived the bombing and remain in what MOLA has called “excellent condition”. It is anticipated that the ice house chamber will be open to public viewing via a special corridor during archaeological and architectural festivals.
• Video games – their design and use both in terms of gaming but also in pushing boundaries – are the subject of a new exhibition opening at the V&A this Saturday.Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt will provide rare glimpses into the creative process behind games like The Last of Us, Journey and Kentucky Route Zero through original prototypes, early character designs and notebooks as well as cultural inspirational material ranging from a Magritte painting to a viral cat video. The display also features large scale, interactive and immersive multimedia installations featuring games like Minecraft and League of Legends, and explore how major technological advancements have transformed the way games are designed, discussed and played. Runs in Room 39 and North Court until 24th February. Admission charge applies. For more, see vam.ac.uk/videogames. PICTURE: V&A.
• The Natural History Museum is celebrating Roald Dahl Day (13th September) with a James and the Giant Peach weekend. The South Kensington museum will this weekend offer a range of James and the Giant Peach-inspired family-friendly events and activities including the chance to see insects up close in the Darwin Centre and the Wildlife Garden as well as specimens in the Attenborough Studio. There’s also the chance to take in a ‘Whizzbanging Words’ session with a team from the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, and music from the three-piece band, Roald Dahl’s Giant Bugs. Runs from 11am to 4.50pm on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free (but some events are ticketed – check website for details). For more, see www.nhm.ac.uk/events/james-and-the-giant-weekend.html
• An exhibition revealing some of the historical artefacts found by some of London’s most prolific Mudlarks along the banks of the River Thames opens on Tuesday as part of Totally Thames. Hannah Smiles has been taking the pictures over the past year and they capture everything from Tudor-era pins to World War II shells, medieval pottery, human teeth and even messages in bottles. The photographs and artefacts themselves both form part of the display. A series of talks by Mudlarks accompanies the free display. It can be viewed at the Art Hub Studios, 5-9 Creekside, in Deptford until 16th September. For more information, head to www.totallythames.org.
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Little remains of this priory which once stood on the banks of the River Wandle in Surrey (and is now encompassed in Greater London).
The priory, which was founded as an Augustinian house in the early 12th century, rose to become one of the most influential in all of southern Britain.
The institution was created thanks to Gilbert, the Sheriff of Surrey, Huntington and Cambridge, who was granted the village of Merton by King Henry I. Gilbert came to live in Merton and there established a priory, building a church and small huts on land thought to be located just to the west of where the priory was later located.
Gilbert had been impressed with what he’d seen of the Augustinians, also known as the Austin friars, at Huntington and so gave control of the new church to their sub-prior, Robert Bayle, along with the land and a mill.
It was based on Bayle’s advice that the site of the priory was then moved to its second location and a new, larger wooden chapel built with William Gifford, Bishop of Winchester, coming to bless the cemetery. The canons – there were now 17 – moved in on 3rd May, 1117.
Among the high profile people to visit the new priory was Queen Matilda, who brought her son William with her. In the early 1100s, a certain Thomas Becket (later the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury) received an education here as did Nicolas Breakspeare (later the first English Pope, Adrian IV).
The priory expanded considerably over the next century and in 1217 its chapter house was the location of a peace conference between King Henry III and Louis, the Dauphin of France. The Statutes of Merton – a series of legal codes relating to wills – were formulated here in 1236.
The connection with royalty continued – in the mid-1340s, King Edward III is thought to have passed the Feast of the Epiphany here while King Henry VI apparently had a crowning ceremony here – the first outside of Westminster Abbey for more than 300 years – in 1437.
The priory remained in use until the Dissolution of King Henry VIII. The demolition of the buildings apparently started even before the priory had been formally surrendered to the commissioners – stones from its building was used in the construction of Henry’s new palace – Nonsuch – as well as, later, in the construction of local buildings.
The site came to be referred to as ‘Merton Abbey’ and, passing through various hands, was used to garrison Parliamentarian troops during the Civil War. It later became a manufacturing facility, works for the dying and printing of textiles, one of which became the workshops of William Morris.
Some of the priory buildings survived for some years after but the only remains now left as sections of the perimeter wall (the arch which now stands over the entrance to Merton parish church is reconstructed – there’s another ornamental gateway in the outer court wall which was also replaced with a replica in the 1980s).
The foundations of the unusually large chapter house, meanwhile, have been excavated and are now preserved in a specially constructed enclosure under a roadway. Construction is now underway to build better public access to the remains.
PICTURE: A ceiling boss from Merton Priory which still bears traces of its original red paint and guilding. It was found during excavations at Nonsuch Palace in 1959-60 is now on display in the Museum of London. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) (licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0).
• A Tudor-era bowling ball, Roman iron horse shoes and late 19th century ginger jars are among hundreds of historic objects unearthed during the Crossrail construction project to go on show at the Museum of London Docklands tomorrow.Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail presents highlights from among the more than 10,000 objects which have been discovered during the project, the largest infrastructure project currently underway in Europe, since it kicked off in 2009. The finds, which span 8,000 years of human history, also include prehistoric flints found at North Woolwich, medieval animal bone skates and human remains found in the former 17th century Bedlam cemetery. The objects, which can be seen until 3rd September, are displayed in accordance to where along the new Elizabeth line they were found. Entry is free. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
• More than 100 robots are on display at the Science Museum in South Kensington as part of a new exhibition spanning 500 years of robotic history.Robots, which explores how robots have been shaped by religious belief, the industrial revolution, 20th century popular culture and dreams of the future, features everything from a 16th century mechanical monk to a 2.4 metre tall robot named Cygan dating from the 1950s, and one of the first walking bipedal robots. Visitors will be able to interact with 12 working robots and go behind the scenes to see recent developments in robotic research as well as speculate on what robots of the future might be like. Admission charge applies. Runs until 3rd September. For more, see www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots.
• A major exhibition celebrating the work of early 20th century UK modern artist Vanessa Bell – a central figure in the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ – has opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London’s south this week. About 100 oil paintings as well as ceramics, fabrics, works on paper, photographs and related archival material are featured in the exhibition with the works arranged thematically so as to reveal Bell’s “fluid movement” between the fine and applied arts and focusing particular attention on her most distinctive period of experimentation from 1910 onwards. Vanessa Bell, which runs until 4th June, is presented alongside a photography display which brings together Bell’s photographic work with that of American musician, writer and artist Patti Smith. Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith features 17 photographs by Smith – who has long found inspiration in the work and lives of the Bloomsbury Group – and a selection of Bell’s photo albums. Both can be seen until 4th June. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.
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• A series of prints by Pablo Picasso spanning the period from the late 1940s to the late 1950s form the heart of a new exhibition at the British Museum in Bloomsbury. The prints, which include 16 lithograph prints and three aquatint prints, were recently acquired by the museum in what represents the final part of the museum’s effort to more fully represent the artist’s work as a printmaker. Six of the lithographs were inspired by the beauty of Picasso’s lover Francoise Gilot while others feature Bacchanalian scenes and portraits of German-born dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. On display from Friday in Gallery 90A, they can be seen in the free exhibition until 3rd March. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.
• The details of some 160,000 people buried at Highgate Cemetery in north London have been made available online. Deceased Online has announced that all records for the period from May, 1839, to August, 2010 – a total of 159,863 people, are now available, including digital scans of original registers, details of who is buried in each grave and location maps for most graves. Notable people buried at Highgate include author Douglas Adams, philosopher Karl Marx and chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. For more, see www.deceasedonline.com
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• The most prized archaeological finds from a 1975 excavation of the General Post Office on Newgate Street, one of the largest archaeological sites ever excavated in London, are on show in a new exhibition at the Museum of London.Delivering the Past, the free display features objects from across a 3,000 year period and include everything from Roman era finds such as a dog skull, a rare amber die, a spoon and mortar with the makers’ names of Albinus, Sollus and Cassarius stamped on the side (pictured) to floor tiles and architectural fragments from the medieval parish church of St Nicholas Shambles. There’s also a 17th century Bellarmine beer bottle (these were widely imported from Germany in the 1600s), the only 19th century twisted clay tobacco pipe ever excavated in London, and a 19th/20th century ceramic fragment showing General Post Office branding. The exhibition runs until 8th January. The museum is also offering free 45 minute walks to notable excavation sites around Newgate Street every weekday until the end of October. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
• Japan’s native flora comes to Kew from this weekend with a new exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.Flora Japonica features paintings from 30 of the Asian nation’s best contemporary artists as they attempt to capture the beauty of everything from camellias to cherry trees and the delicate Japanese maple. The watercolours have been produced based specimens collected from across Japan as well as, in a couple of cases, specimens found within Kew Gardens. Also on display are works never before seen outside Japan including historic drawings and paintings by revered botanists and artists such as Dr Tomitaro Makino (1863-1957), Sessai Hattori and Chikusai Kato (both Edo period artists), artefacts from Kew’s Economic Botany Collection including traditional Japanese lacquerware collected in the 1880s and wooden panels from 1874, and illustrations from Kew’s collections such as a 17th century illustrated manual of medicinal plants. Runs from Saturday until 5th March after which the exhibition will move to Japan. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.kew.org.
• An English Heritage blue plaque honouring late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was unveiled at his childhood home in Feltham, in London’s west, earlier this month. Mercury’s parents bought the house in Gladstone Avenue in 1964 after the family had left Zanzibar for the UK. He was still living in the home when he met Queen band mates Brian May and Roger Taylor. The new plaque was revealed on 1st September, on what would have been the singer’s 70th birthday. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.
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