Thursday, 24 November 2011

Bethnal Green, A Fairy Dress and A Crying Dunce

Life's busy in Woolf Villas right now, but recently T and I made the effort and went to Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.    It's a real bit of Victoriana, with Crystal-Palace style ironwork and a mosaic floor which you will see is in the shape of fish-scales (and originally laid by female prisoners- better than stone breaking or whatever they did in those days,). 

I've always loved this museum, but it only gradually evolved into a children's one.  When I first visited, it had some amazing dolls houses and children's outfits, but there were also many strange old knick-knacks which was very interesting but not much to do with kids.   

A few years ago it had a revamp and ever since then it's been very lively, with displays involving local children as well as the regular exhibits. The current temporary display theme is fairytale nightmares, done with the help of local schools.  I liked the wicked black-plastic-sack crow carrying off the baby here.......

Still on the scary fairy theme, the dolls house (below) is part of the permanent display,and I hadn't seen it before. It was made in 1970 for some children who wanted a magic or ghost dolls' house, with a secret room hideen in the roof. How I'd have loved that! 

And here's an interior of a more traditional Victorian dolls house -  a cosy nursery, I think, despite the shadows and high ceilings. Victorian nurseries usually had plenty of people in them, because the families were so large and the nursemaid slept there too.

The choice of toys often makes interesting social comments. Look at the way the "Sindy" doll changed over the years. It was originally a sort of British competitor to Barbie (the first Barbie is also on display, below)

and here is Sindy, and how she changed over the years.

This was my favourite out of the stuffed toys. I think he's a fox,and to me those specs make him look like some clever but unscrupulous young intellectual plotting a smart way of wheedling his way into the hen house. 

There are far too many dolls to even mention, some of them hundreds of years old, some highly creative and modern, some just strange. I thought "Blythe"was pretty odd.  She was made for one year in 1972 - hence the trendy kaftan, I suppose. . Not only does she have an unfeasibly huge head and an world weary expression, but you could pull a cord on her back and make her eyes change colour four times. That was all she did.  Weird or what?

The collection of dolls below have a very sad backstory. They are supposed to show Queen Anne and her eighteen children, Queen Anne reigned from 1702-1714 but these dolls are really just wishful thinking, becuase they do not represent real people.  Queen Anne had at least  thirteen miscarriages or stillbirths, and her five children who survived birth, then all died before the age of 11. 

(Quick aside: In the Enchanted Palace at Kensington, which I have mentioned before, there is a display of the model army of the last surviving child, poor little William who was such a brave child who tried so hard to be what was required of him. I really shed a little tear for William. And that whole exhibition is one of the most interesting I've seen lately, so click the link for more details and consider visiting if you like art and history and are in London - but hurry, it closes on January 3)

So here are some of Queen Anne's might-have-been children.

On a more cheerful note, I was glad to see the Big Yellow Teapot, which had a well favoured place in our home. I wonder why they stopped making them, everyone loved them and most households with young children, had one.  As you see, it's a doll's house. I seem to remember its weak point was the hinge on the door, so most of the Big Yellow Teapots you spot these days are minus the door.

 And here is what I would have wanted as a child - already thinking of travelling, perhaps, but doing it in style rather than in the cattle-truck conditions of today's airlines.

There's also a super go-cart, created by an Dutch artist associated with the De Stijl movement, almost too nice to career down the  hill in.

We had a tin road layout rather like this one, although I liked looking at it rather than playing with it.

And as I like cats, I took a fancy to this beautiful child's chair

And this charming teaset, every piece different - so original. (sorry, I can only show part of it)

Puppets are not always toys. The museum displays a large 18th century puppet theatre with almost lifesized puppets (sorry, couldn't get far away enough to get a decent picture of this huge exhibit).  These Japanese puppets certainly are not playthings for kids.

There are also automata  -  here is a French "dunce" from 1860, who wipes away his tears continually and plays a sad tune because he is too stupid at school.

It was a relief to move from this sad scene to a beautiful fairy dress worn by a little girl in the 1920s.  How thrilled beyond words she must have been to prance around and show off in this lovely dress.

The museum has a good cafe, but we always go to the Gallery Cafe in an 18th century house just round the corner, which is run by a local charity called St. Margaret's House Settlement.  It's vegetarian/vegan, very cheap, very good and very popular.   Check out their website here if you live in East London because the charity runs arts and cultural events for young and old, a creative shop called The Create Place, a vintage clothes exchange, and it also does more.

 In the summer you can sit outside the cafe but it's much cosier to go inside when it gets to be November.  Since the museum is free to enter, and the cafe is so cheap and nice, this could be a very reasonably priced London outing, specially if you go by bike, as we did.


  1. What a wonderful place! I love the dolls' houses. The most spectacular doll's houses I've ever seen were in the Rijkmuseum. I also love th nostalgia of Sindy dolls, and I'm sure I recognise that tin road map. Puppets I do find rather scary though!

  2. I have heard of the Museum but I have never visited it. You are one of the few writers who make me want to move back to London. It is over thirty years since I lived there : and I tend not to miss the excitement of the place. And then I read your blog.

  3. Thank you so much for showing photos from this museum! It really looks like my kind of place to visit. I never liked Barbie dolls. To be honest, that big-eyed doll sounds like one that I would have loved!

  4. Doll houses look so interesting with many detailed displays!
    I remember that Victorian doll house exhibition was held in Osaka about 5 years ago. A friend of mine gave me a ticket as the friend knew that I was always interested in Victorian lifestyle. That was amazing! Those houses really showed a part of Victorian life style。子供のおもちゃとは思えない精巧なdoll houses でした。精巧な家具と家の作り、人形の着ている服 食器にいたるまで、本物をminiatureにしたもので、その時代の人々の生活様式の一端をうかがわせるものでした。

  5. What a magical museum! I would just love to wander and look at all it has to offer. I really enjoyed this tour. Thank you!

  6. I love this museum too. So many childhood memories

  7. This is the first I’ve heard of a museum that is exclusively related to children and it sounds absolutely fantastic. The Victorian nursery is utterly adorable. And the doll created in 1972 seems a little visionary (pun intended) and a precursor to the contact lenses we have today that change the colors of our eyes. And the Queen Anne children are such a tragic reminder of how harsh life can be even for royalty. Oh, and that lovely little fairy dress … my goodness! I don’t know how you managed to pick among the overwhelming amount of interesting historical items packed in this amazing place. I think I could spend days there without even stopping to have lunch. :)

  8. It's a long time since I went, perhaps that will have to be added to my list of places to visit the next time I get to London.

    You have given me an idea for a local museum visit which might be of interest, the Museum of Lost Content.

  9. What a fascinating place! I could spend hours and hours there. I loved the cat chair, too. The Japanese puppets are kind of creepy, but also mesmerizing. Thanks so much for the tour and the cafe looks inviting, too. :)

  10. What a lovely place. Here you can find your inner child

  11. Friko: oh yes I have heard about it but never really known what it was. Maybe you can post about it sometime :) ? Alan, that is a really nice remark and I do appreciate it! Joanne, never knew about the dollshouses in the Rijksmuseum, another thing to see when we return to Amsterdam which I'd really like to do having spent my recent time there doing kid stuff! Kay, yes, the big eyed doll has a curious presence, but I still think she's kind of weird :). Tomoko, I guess you have posted the same thing in Japanese, first time anyone has posted in Japanese on my blog and it's cool! Rita, I often find puppets kind of creepy, the Japanese ones were pretty big and I think they're part of traditional Japanese culture, but I don't know quite how. aka Penelope, glad you commented on the Queen Anne dolls, they are the ones, in a way, that I remember the most because I was so struck by little William's model army at Kensingston Palace. Ralline, - inner child, yes, definitely! Jill, and Mo, it's a great place for remembering childhood, all those toys that were once so familiar are there....

  12. It looks wonderful! Ah the Sindy brings back happy memories and I just love that little cat chair! Thank you for a lovely post and all those wonderful pictures.

  13. Thank you for such an interesting post, making me want to visit as soon as I can......but, oh, that poor little Dunce.

  14. What an interesting place and the fairy dress was lovely !

    Have a wonderful weekend...
    It is Thanksgiving weekend over in America. Lovely weather in Tucson perfect Fall weather !
    Good times.

    cheers, parsnip

  15. Another item for the list. Poor Queen Anne. The dolls made to represent the children she lost provide a glimpse into her terrible grief. Thank you.

  16. Thank you for a post perfect for me! I love that museum and your pictures of some of the exhibits are great. It is very sad about those dolls of Queen Anne's-a tragic doll tale. I have not seen a big yellow teapot before, but can see why it is popular. I love that haunted dolls house too. I must go back there soon! And thanks for the tip about the cafe-I didn't know about that!

  17. Looks like a fun place to visit and reminisce. I never knew about the Sindy doll nor the story of Queen Anne. The first picture looks like you are looking down into a eating area. I like the bright and airiness of the place.

  18. I always enjoy your posts. I enjoyed this one in particular because I myself collect dolls, and also make them. I can imagine how much fun you had at that museum.

  19. wowo....beautiful dolls these are... thanks for sharing the post even though i am not into dolls but hope one day when i will have kids i will give them dolls :)
    have a nice weekend and Thanksgiving :)

  20. During the 1990s, I came to London on a regular basis, sometimes 3 or 4 times a year, and I also visited the Bethnal Green museum. It was a memorable visit but cut rather short by the impatient company I had - I must admit we'd been to one or two other museums earlier in the day and at some stage my companion simply couldn't take in any more.
    The spooky doll house is great - I would have loved that as a kid, too!

  21. So many things I could comment on. I was talking to you the whole time I was reading! Could you hear me?
    I thought the Fox looked far too intellectual to be Basil - perhaps his cousin the Professor? I loved the pink plane and the go-cart a la Mondrian ... I am also enchanted by dolls houses and miniatures generally - especially working ones. The ghost doll's house was fantastic (old fashioned sense of the word).

    Lovely post Jenny

    Isabel x
    ps the next time I g to London I should ask you to draw me up an itinerary!

  22. Yes absolutely, Isabel. This entry is scrumptious!!

  23. An absolutely wonderful post. I do thank you for it. This is a Museum I have always wanted to visit, but have never actually made it there. I had no idea that it had evolved into a Museum of Childhood. My thanks again for sharing your visit with us.

  24. This is such an interesting place, Jenny. One that I would love to visit if I'm in town. ^^

    But I can't help being teary-eyed reading about Queen Anne and losing her children. :(

  25. Fascinating post,thanks for showing so many lovely and informative photos.
    Enjoy your weekend!

  26. I've had such a delightful tour here this morning! This is one museum I know I could spend many happy hours in. Thank you for such an enticing overall view of what's on display, along with your personal experience or knowledge of each item. I love your take on Mr. Fox. He's probably selling egg-timers as a ploy to get in. And that café looks like the perfect spot to rest my weary feet and have a little pick-me-up after a fun filled day at the museum.

  27. Hi, Jenny. I've never been to this museum and had no idea it was so fascinating. Lovely pictures - I like the Victorian dolls' house best.

  28. This museum sounds really facsinating, thanks for sharing.

  29. What fun it must be to visit that museum. Thanks for all the photo's and details. I always wanted a doll house but never had one. Maybe I need to just get myself one, what do you think?

    The fairy dress would be any little girls dream I think.


  30. Love the doll houses!!!! Specially the one you show on the outside. Thanks for sharing this, I have necer been to this museum and now I will make sure I visit it my next time in London

  31. Here you go:


  32. Wow, it was like being there! Great pictures, what a fun place. I am following you immediately, I love travels too. Hello from a Sicilian in Rome!

  33. So many interesting dolls and stuffs. The pair of Japanese puppet seem to be lovers who intend to do elopement.

  34. This just sounds like a wonderful way to while away an afternoon! When I was a little girl, I pleaded with my parents for Santa to give me a Victorian doll's house. Never got it -- they said it was only for very wealthy people! These knick knacks are so adorable and haunting too (like those what-if Queen Anne children. What a sad life she must have had). I think I would have liked that whimsical chair in my nursery! That yellow teapot is not something I am familiar with. But it brings to mind the Fisher-Price chatting telephone with eyes that roll or the rolling popper toy that most kids seemed to have back then too.

    Lovely post!

  35. The museum free of charge and the café with reasonable price is definitely a nice place to spend time. I’ve known Barbie but never known Sindy. We have Rika-chan (chan is a suffix to call her affectionately) which looks more pretty to Japanese eyes due to her shorter height and body features. I used to make “futon” (Japanese bedding, a quilt) and cushions for my daughter’s Rika-chan. She also liked sylvanian Families.

    I didn’t know about that tragic feature of Queen Anne regarding children. How sad. And, on a different note, I love that cat chair. I’d like to have one.


  36. Spectacular stuff Jenny. Despite living in London for years, and visiting since with my own kid, this museum has never registered with me.
    It's marked down now for the next trip to London!

  37. Love these further coments! I'm glad some people like the cat chair, this is something I would still like myself. Yoko, I looked up Rika-chan, she seems more like a little girl than Barbie, I think she's cute. @Foolish Aesthete, the fisher price telephone was also a favourite toy and a kind of beagle dog you pulled along both by Fisher Price. @haricot, it is so interesting that you make that comment, I cannot see how the japanese puppets would be considered lovers, so maybe it is something about their dress or attitudes? @louciao, you must be right about the egg timers :)

    Hello Francesca! I'll be visiting your blog later, I took a glance on my phone but I'd rather visit on the comuputer. Thanks for the link Cathy! @See you there, I think if you have always wanted a dolls house this is the time to get one :) . @Librarian, hope you make it to the museum next time.
    Abd thanks to everyone else for the really much appreciated comments.

  38. In future I'll try to respond more often, it will make my responses less unwieldy.

  39. Jenny, I wrote my comment by sumple reason;I don't know much about puppet theatre and the story about elopement is very famous. He looks a little serious and she touches as if she tempt him.

  40. Absolutely fascinating. I've never been and given that I now avoid London it seems unlikely that I ever will. Or perhaps I should say 'seemed' because each time you do such a post you make me think that perhaps I should re-visit some of the places I've been and see some new places too. In the meantime I shall do it vicariously.

  41. Queen Anne had at least thirteen miscarriages or stillbirths, and her five children who survived birth, then all died before the age of 11.

    That sounds like a horrific life!!


  42. I hate to be the one to bring it up but that Barbie is not Barbie but a clone doll the bathing suit, box, stand and glasses look original but the doll is definitely not Barbie looks like a uneeda or Wendy doll a cheaper competitor.


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