Christmas at the Geffrye Museum

Saturday, December 10th 2016

Christmas is probably the UK’s biggest retail festival of the year as a stroll along Oxford Street in the first three weeks of December should easily convince you. Among the noise and glitter of high-pressure sales, one still finds the occasional seasonal gem. One of these is celebrated in one of our favourite museums, as I shall recount below.

We had arranged to meet a friend and take him with is on our visit and the meeting place agreed upon was Liverpool Street Station. Happily, we arrived sufficiently ahead of time to be able to grab breakfast in a nearby coffee shop.

Costa Coffee, Eldon Street
Costa Coffee, Eldon Street

Costa is one of our favourite coffee shops and there is a branch in Eldon Street, a short walk away from the station. (Costa was one of the first modern-style coffee shops , preceding Starbuck’s UK launch by 27 years.) Here we had coffee and croissants and relaxed until it was time to go to the station to meet our friend.

Liverpool Street Station, Bishopsgate entrance
Liverpool Street Station, Bishopsgate entrance

Our friend had summoned us to meet ‘under the clock’. The question, though, was ‘which clock?’ There is a clock tower at the Bishopsgate entrance to the station but we assumed that this was not the one he meant. Instead we went and stood under the digital clock in the station concourse. It turned out that this was the right answer.

The Geffrye Museum
The Geffrye Museum
(Click for a larger version)

We caught a bus to Kingsland Road, Hoxton (Shoreditch), where our destination was the Geffrye Museum. We have visited this ‘museum of the home’ on a number of occasions – see, for example, Rooms through the ages and September Staycation – Day 8. In the latter post, I provided a potted history of the Geffrye and so I might as well reproduce it here:

The Geffrye Museum of the Home is a lovely place to visit. Rare for this part of London, it has an extensive garden between itself and the road where open-air exhibitions and other events can be held. It was built in 1715 (some say 1714) at the behest of Sir Robert Geffrye, sometime Lord Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers’ Company, as a set of 14 almshouses, principally for the widows of ironmongers. Its original function having come to an end, it was eventually acquired by the London County Council and converted into a museum, opening in 1914. In 1991, the Geffrye became an independent charitable trust with funding from various sources and a modern extension was added in 1998 in a style different from, but in sympathy with, the original buildings. The museum seeks to portray the history of domestic interiors, from Elizabethan times to the modern day. The heart of the permanent collection is a series of rooms, each furnished and decorated in a manner consistent with the particular period it represents.

Each December, the exhibited rooms of the Geffrye are set out for the Christmas festivity as they might have been in their respective periods. I show a sample set of rooms, together with the descriptive notes provided by the museum.

A hall in 1630
A hall in 1630

In the 17th century, the ‘hall’ would have been the living room and reception area of a well-to-do  merchant’s house. Museum notes:

In this hall it is New Year’s Day and the household are feasting with friends and neighbours. The mistress and servants have spent hours preparing the sugary ‘banquetting stuffes’ laid out symmetrically on the table. They have moulded some of the sweetmeats into shapes playfully imitating other foods, such as bacon and eggs or walnuts. They made the gilded and white cubes from leach, a boiled creamy jelly flavoured with rosewater.

A parlour in 1695
A parlour in 1695

In the parlour it is Christmas Day and the head of the household has invited his family, friends and members of the church he attends back to his house. They are spending the afternoon listening to music played on the viol and recorder, dancing, snacking on anchovies and olives and drinking posset, a hot milky, spiced and sweetened alcoholic preparation. Later they will go to the evening service at their church.

A parlour 1745
A parlour in 1745

In the parlour it is one of the evenings between Christmas and the New Year and a family is taking tea in the parlour after supper. They are sipping cordial, a strong alcoholic drink, with their tea. A friend has called on the family, and, because he has missed supper, he is offered two jellies and a glass of wine to make up for it.

The Chapel
The Chapel

In the centre of the row, lies the chapel. These days it looks rather bare but for 200 years of the lifetime the almshouses, it would have been a venue for regular religious services. according to the notes,

The resident chaplain conducted Sunday services here at 11am and 3pm, and attendance was compulsory. […] Many of the chapel’s original fittings survive, including the stone and marble floor and the interior panelling. The altar would have stood in the apse, which was added at the end of the eighteenth century. Sir Robert Geffrye and his wife are commemorated by the marble monument to the right of the apse. The chapel is painted in colours which paint analysis has indicated match an early decorative scheme in this space.

A parlour in 1790
A parlour in 1790

In this parlour it is Christmas Day and the family are about to have their dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Although turkey was introduced into this country by the 1530s, it did not replace beef as the main dish of Christmas dinner until the late nineteenth century. Plum pudding, a boiled pudding of suet, eggs, flour and dried fruit, the forerunner of Christmas pudding, was served with the beef rather than as a desert.

A drawing room of 1870
A drawing room of 1870

In this drawing room it is the morning of Christmas Day and the children of the family are highly delighted with their presents and the tree decorated with small toys, paper flags and baskets of sweets. The servant-maid arranged the tree two days ago and their father appeared as Father Christmas with a cotton-wool beard to light the candles. They are about to go to the 8 o’clock church service, and will go again at 11 o’clock, before their Christmas dinner.

A home in 1890
A home in 1890

In this room it is Boxing Day, a cold and foggy afternoon, and the house is empty. The master and mistress have just finished a cold lunch of boiled beef and mince pies and left to go and see the pantomime ‘Puss in Boots’. Earlier they gave the maid three shillings and some velvet to trim a dress, and she is now out visiting her parents.

Edwardian Period room (1900-14)
Edwardian Period room (1900-14)

In this drawing room it is mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve in a young family’s home. The mother is exhausted after having spent the morning shopping on Oxford Street and then speaking to the cook about tomorrow’s dinner. She has decorated the room and the Christmas tree, with a little help from the maid, and has stopped for a cup of tea. Later she will finish wrapping presents and the children’s stocking will be hung by the fireplace, ready for them to find tomorrow morning.

1990s Period Room
1990s Period Room

In this living room it is the afternoon of Christmas Day and a couple are having some friends over for lunch. They have just opened the second bottle of champagne and are exchanging small gifts before the meal is ready. This year they are following Nigella’s turkey recipe; last year’s smoked duck with chorizo stuffing was not a success. Over the next week they will visit one of the men’s families in Devon, before a New Year skiing trip to France with the other’s parents.

As well as the permanent set of rooms, some of which are described above, there are other exhibits such as furniture and household accessories of various periods and an intriguing exhibition of Teenage Bedrooms.

Chapel entrance Sir Robert Geffrye
Sir Robert Geffrye above the Chapel entrance

The Geffrye Museum has a cafe but we preferred to patronize the less formal tea and coffee bar beside it where we could sit on a nearby seat to drink our tea and talk about what we had seen.

The Marquis of Lansdowne (defunct)
The Marquis of Lansdowne (defunct)

Before leaving the area, we went around the corner to take a look at the Marquis of Lansdowne. This is, or rather was, a Victorian pub whose fate has for some time hung in the balance. There were plans to demolish it but these met with public protest. Eventually, it was decided to keep the pub and to make it part of the Geffrye Museum. I understand that the museum will take the pub in hand and probably turn it into a tea room. We await with interest the results of refurbishment.

We decided to walk back to Liverpool Street Station. As we progressed, I noticed very many people, mainly men, dressed in Santa Claus costumes. This prompted me to wonder whether the Killer Clown craze was about to be paralleled by a Killer Santa craze. Happily, all the Santas I spotted seemed benign. Then we came upon the biggest gathering of Santas of all!

The Santas are gathering...
The Santas are gathering…

I didn’t even try to count them. A great crowd of Santas was being marshalled behind a drum band and were obviously on the point of setting off. They paused for a moment, awaiting a break in the traffic and then…

Santas on the march
Santas on the march

…off they went to… wherever they were going. Where that was, I have no idea. Some of the Santas tried to get a chant going:

What do we want? – CHRISTMAS!
When do we want it? – NOW!

though with not very much success.

Passers-by were as mystified as I was and many took photos of the procession. I now think it has something to do with an annual event called Santacon London (part of an international Santacon movement), though I know very little about it beyond the information on the Website.

Have we derived any inspiration from the Geffrye Museum for our own Christmas celebrations? Possibly, but I think that Christmas is a time for people who love one another to celebrate together and in whatever way brings them the most pleasure.

Copyright © 2016 SilverTiger,, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Christmas at the Geffrye Museum

  1. WOL says:

    The Geffrye is one of my favorite type of museums. They put the artifacts in context in such a way that one gets a feel for the whole.gestalt of the period in question. Your parade of Santas reminded me of my dad and his collection of “skinny Santa Claus” figurines.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Yes, there is a certain kind of magic to them: you feel as though the occupants of the room have just stepped outside or as if the hosts have gone to greet arriving guests.

      Many museums these days do have mock-ups of rooms, business premises etc but none that I know of have a complete set as does the Geffrye.

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