Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Cuming Museum, The Heygate Estate, Hidden London Life

Thinking about folklore (in the last post) got me thinking of the Cuming Museum, one of London's smaller and lesser known museums, which I've had quite a lot to do with lately. It is set in the Elephant and Castle area, in Southwark. There's one of its exhibits above - hair cut from the head of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The Elephant, as it's known, is a very historic bit of London. Historic, but not that appealing in recent years. Walworth Road, where the museum is, was once very grand, with big houses. Then it became run down as the big houses became slums and public housing was built. Now, there is a big regeneration project coming along, with the idea of bringing the area up again.

The museum occupies a few rooms in a grand Victorian building, and it's full of curiosities, mainly collected either by members of the wealthy Cuming family or the London folklorist Edward Lovett between the 18th and 20th centuries.

So in some ways it's a bit like a sort of costume-drama version of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" - except that the items on display are genuine. Because they were carefully collected by individuals, nearly all of them are in some way thought provoking, touching, creepy or just downright weird. Many cast a light onto the corners of Old London that we never hear about now, the world of the poor and superstitious, the Dickensian masses who battled to stay alive.

The museum hasn't nearly enough space to display its collections, which is a pity, but the displays are often rotated, and every time I go, I see something new to intrigue me.

And also, every time I go, I somehow take really, truly lousy pictures. Perhaps all that magic and folklore has cast a camera-busting spell on the place!

Anyway, sit back, relax (you might as well unfocus your eyes... you won't need focus) and I'll tell you a bit more about it.

This is an old mutton bone in a frock. Over 100 years ago, some poverty stricken child found an old baby's frock and dressed a mutton bone in it because there was no way to afford a doll. It was carried round and nursed and loved, and it was spotted by Edward Lovett. Lovett would walk around London in the early 20th century, seeking out London's home made toys, effigies and charms. The original little owner of this object was offered a nice new real doll in exchange for her bone. Wonder if she grabbed it eagerly. I hope so!

Lovett was so interested in folk magic that he designed this magical mascot for a motor-car. It's shaped like a horse brass (since cars were rather new at the time) and he has incorporated various magical symbols to protect the car's owner from harm. I want to find out more about this interesting man!

And this, below ... Do you really want to know what this is? Really? Well, it is a Victorian dentist's hat. You can see he has covered it with some of the teeth he has successfully extracted, as a tribute to his skill.

I'm pretty sure the dentist dates from the "slum" period of Walworth Road's history. I really can't see the nobility and gentry going for anyone who wore a hat like this. But, in contrast, the collection also includes this souvenir acquired during Richard Cuming's lifetime - he lived here 200 years ago or so, when it was a posh area.

These slippers belonged to poor Queen Anne. I wrote briefly about her last year, here (scroll to the bottom of the post) - the tragedy of her life and all her lost children is heartbreaking. Even being a queen could not possibly have made up for her endless suffering. And Cuming, who spent a fortune on his collection, took the chance to buy some of her slippers for his cabinet of curiosities.

Here is a Pearly King jacket. If you haven't heard of London Pearlies, read about them here. The museum has expanded in recent years to collect material from contemporary poor groups in London, such as the Pearlies and Gypsies.

The museum has some very interesting natural history objects. You might notice something in front of this stuffed bear.

It is a flower bedecked construction for an art project about "homecoming" which is part of the museum's outreach work. Since the Elephant & Castle area is being redeveloped, many local people have had to leave their homes and many community links have broken.

The Cuming's artists in residence addressed this idea of what home is, The portable construction contains things to do with comfort and home. A couple of my family members are involved in this so I came along last Saturday to see the construction being carried from the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre (also scheduled to be demolished sometime)

... to the Cuming, via the derelict Heygate Estate.

Here's Rebecca putting the finishing touches in the shopping centre. She looks as if she's praying but actually she's considering where to place flowers, chocolate bars and other comforting and home-like objects.

The construction was carried from the shopping centre across the road to the Faraday Roundabout.

The great scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had strong connections with this area in its posh days. He discovered many things, including the magnetic field. I don't know if he was much into the visual arts, but let's hope not, or even his ghost would faint at the sight of the awful ugly monument to him on the Faraday Roundabout. I think the monument's something to do with the London electricity service. I'll spare you the sight of this roundabout.

Anyhow, Vanessa told part of the story of the Odyssey here -this myth formed the theme running through the procession.

We then descended into the nearby underpass, an appropriate representation of the Underworld, although the council's tried hard to cheer it up with bright tiles.

The homeless man you can see sitting in the underpass was absolutely delighted to receive one of the chocolate bars as we passed, and showered us with wishes of good luck and happiness as we continued on our way.

Out of the underpass, and up the stairs to Walworth Road.

And into the Heygate estate.

The Heygate was designed with high hopes about fifty years ago. The apartment blocks are just as grim as everything else that was built round here at the time, but beautiful gardens were planted and magnificent trees were laid out with elevated walkways. The aim was to foster community spirit and give the residents a feeling of living in a humane environment.

Here's a photo I took there last autumn, and you can see the ruins of what were once wonderful park-like gardens, which are still kept up to some extent by the few remaining residents.

The Heygate scheme could have worked, I think, if the rules for allocating public housing hadn't changed. According to material also at the Cuming, the estate was originally a sociable and community-minded place to live. But when large numbers of people on the fringes of society were moved in, it was overrun with drug dealers and gangs. Since the architecture was ugly and riddled with asbestos, the decision was made to demolish and rebuild.

Some residents are staying put in the derelict blocks because they purchased their apartments under the "Right to Buy" legislation and are not being offered enough money to buy anything comparable in this now upwardly-mobile area. And the estate is now rather popular as a film location where a dystopia is required, the most recent being Brad Pitt in "World War Z." In fact, you can even do guided tours of the Heygate, not official ones of course.

In fact, it's become a bit of celebrity space, and local people are now struggling to retain the hundreds of mature trees in the grounds. They are afraid that keeping the generous park-like layout won't make financial sense to the consortium which aims to build new homes (only a minority of which will be affordable) in what's now called "Elephant and Castle Opportunity Area".

So there are lots of interesting things going on and Vanessa told a bit more of the Odyssey on one of the walkways....

And then we headed back to the Cuming Museum (don't bother re-focusing your eyes, the pictures are still blurred)

And Nigel sang some songs around the theme of Southwark, home, loss and the Faraday Roundabout!

Oh, all right, I'll show the Faraday Roundabout (not the monument) to you. Here it is (below). Traffic swirls round it constantly. As I say, I wonder what Faraday would think to have his name linked with this place.

Here is Nigel singing inside the museum

I found it a very interesting afternoon, a glimpse into one of the many hidden strands of life in this huge city and our own little Odyssey encouraged me to stop and reflect on it. It shows that an unprepossessing or poverty stricken exterior can hide a lot of creativity, history, interest and potential when you get something like the Cuming Museum to help interpret it.

I was rather sorry to catch the bus and leave. If you look behind the bus, you can see one of the original 18th century mansions in the days when the area was posh. I wonder what it will be like in another 50 years' time.

Which reminds me to show a close up of one of the questionnaires about Home which many participants eventually wrote out and stuck on the construction.

The questions were:
1. What are 3 words which signify HOME for you?
2. What is your favourite comfort food and why?
3. If you could travel North, South, East or West, which would it be?
4. What will this area be like in 50 years' time?

I had a very interesting time reading the various answers. What would you answer to questions 1,2 and 3?


  1. Any piece of art that features Wagon Wheel chocolate bars is ok by me! What a fascinating place. I think some of London's finest museums are actually its more obscurre offerings, similar to this one in Elephant & Castle. I'll have to check it out sometime...

  2. This is soooo interesting. I've often wondered about the Elephant and Castle -- now it's a lot more than a name of the last stop on an underground line. Good Lord, but that monument to Faraday is ugly!!!

  3. Thanks for bringing me along to see these interesting finds. I wish I'd known about the museum when I was in London. My daughter did her internship in London and I'll ask her if she saw this place. It's just the sort of place she'd enjoy too. My answers are, 1. Home - love, peaceful, where I can be a relaxed me. 2. Comfort food, ha ha, a pavarotti ice cream cone, (because I only buy it at my favorite neighborhood shop) and sit outside and watch the world around me and yeah throw crumbs at the birds 3. south, because it's bound to be warmish-hot and plenty of water. Not far away from me is also a cool museum (the setting is like a small castle) it has some way out stuff too. Link for it
    Enjoy your day! Karen

  4. Such a fascinating place. Kind of wish I could see it sometime.

  5. I don't think we've ever been to Elephant & Castle except accidentally. Love odd little museums so thanks for the visit. The mutton bone doll reminds me of the corn cob ones that poor children here had. I hate going to the dentist and one who wore his "work" on his hat was scare the h**l out of me.

  6. I taught at The Elephant for a short while, as a student, before I qualified. A large proportion of my class were on probation and just waiting to leave school. The playground was on the school's flat roof, and I had the class for R.E.(Amos for one term!), poetry a little science. Thank heaven for the little science!

    It has changed beyond all recognition since then. I didn't know about the Cuming Museum. Do you know how long it's been there?
    In 50 years time it will be a public space station, so I would choose top go straight up!I'm passing on the other questions

  7. That museum sounds just like my kind of place! Next time I am in London, I will try and visit.
    Interesting how the car talisman sports, among other symbols, a swastika. It is, after all, a very ancient symbol in Hinduism and was adopted only a lot later by the Nazis.

    My answers:
    1. Warmth, peace, safety
    2. Heidesand, a specific type of Christmas cookie only my Mum can make... like my Mum :-)
    3. Do I have to choose? There are so many interesting and beautiful places in all directions!

  8. Such a fantastic, interesting place! It may take me awhile to get that dentists hat out of my mind but I sure enjoyed the rest. :)

  9. belonging, secure, family

    really fascinating; would love to visit the museum - hope it survives all the changes. Elephant & Castle is an intruiging name just on its own. Where did that come from? elephants in London?

  10. I'm going to add this to places of interest I want to see on my next trip to London, which I hope isn't too far away.

  11. You said it so well: “… an unprepossessing or poverty stricken exterior can hide a lot of creativity, history, interest and potential. This is such an interesting post about the layers of life and you have peeled it back like an onion. I like that not only the rich are highlighted in the museum but also the impoverished that would have experienced the same tears and laughter as kings and queens. The doll made from a bone is priceless.

  12. first this is rather fascinating...the bone doll is heartbreaking a bit...the dentist hat is quite think of someone actually wearing it...shivers....

  13. The dentist hat left me with . . . WHAT . . . and Queen Anne slippers left me wondering . . .

    1. Home is Comfort, Creativity and Laughter
    2. Comfort Food is my Mom's pasty . . . the way she made it, would love to feel that comfort again
    3. Travel, N, S, E, W, I have to pick either all . . . love to travel and experience some place new!

  14. The Bakken museum looks great, Karen. I love searching out little museums wherever i go. Yes, Mac&Janet, I hadn't thought about the corncob "babies"
    I wondered if anyone would notice the swastika, Mieke, I too was concerned the first time I saw it used as a good luck sign, but the Nazis usurped it.
    Dave, I wouldn't be surprised if the Elephant was in its slum-clearance days then (Michael Caine time) The Heygate was supposed to replace all that.
    I love the comments people are leaving about their idea of home!

  15. Jenny, how fascinating. I'll have to mention the Cuming Museum to our nephew Ron and his wife next time we visit England. Ron loves London and knows a lot of unusual places, but once in awhile my husband and I have been able to surprise him by suggesting a visit to someplace he never heard of. I think this might be one of those places.

    I also wanted to let you know that I bought, and am half way through, your book "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll." I am enjoying it immensely. Carroll is an author who has always interested me, and your book sheds some interesting new light on his life and character. Imagine 40 years of his bank records lying undiscovered in a vault for over a hundred years! What a find. And so interesting to read about.

  16. What a fascinating post!

    Poor child dressing up a bone, and as for that dentist's hat, eugh.

    1. Home is: cosy, fun, relaxing
    2. Food: spagetti bolognaise with grated cheese over the top
    3. South, to the nearby beach.

  17. Well, i love this story and the pictures; since my vision is fuzzy, they look fine to me. Home means love, comfort, and beauty; my favorite comfort food is Ezekiel bread with coconut oil (yes, i eat weird), and i want to go east until i find home again.

  18. I've been a follower for such a short time but am becoming more and more fascinated by your posts. This museum with it's mixture of the bizarre, macabre and just plain interesting is a quite a find. As for Wagon Wheels the last time I saw one it was miniscule. I recall when they were as big a saucers - or is my memory playing tricks?

  19. That was very enjoyable indeed. I would not be able to live in London again. The elephant and castle is beyond recognition.
    1. Safe. Sleep. Sadie.
    2. Stew and dumplings.
    3. West to America. Doubt if they would give me a visa though.

  20. Enjoyed reading about this amazing place! I'll say it again...I am so glad I came upon your blog. My answers would be: 1)Family,security,acceptance 2)cookies: because I never ate one I didn't like, lol! 3)I would travel West because it is a part of the US that I love.

  21. Good post, and my eyes didn't notice the fuzz. I used to deliver around Southwark in the early 80's and it was horrid then! Most of south east London is I am sorry to say. Housing planned after the war looked good and modern on paper but failed regarding human nature.

  22. I enjoyed this museum quite a lot and hope to visit it someday. Three words for home? Books (we have thousands) cats and trees. Comfort food: goat cheese with a crusty baguette or a salad of dandelion greens. And to travel in any direction - the idea is traveling.

  23. That looks like my sort of museum. The doll is so wonderful. Such an evocative item to have.

  24. 1. Safety, sanctuary, creativity.
    2. I guess I don't have a favorite comfort food. Couldn't pick just one food. Love variety too much.
    3. I am fine right where I am.

    This was fascinating! I also thought of corn cob dolls and that hat would scare the hell out of me. Loved all the pictures! What an adventure. :):)

  25. Thank you so much for buying my book Canadian Chickadee (what is your first name?) I'm glad you like it! And I hope you can surprise Ron with a few things on your next visit. I wish the Cuming had more space. Southwark council are quite good to it but I'm told it has an amazing collection of shoes, the only ones I have seen on display so far are the Queen Anne slippers.

    Mimi, I never heard of Ezekiel bread, and it looks WONDERFUL! I've printed the receipe out and I will make it. As for coconut oil, it may be one of those things like yellow cornmeal that are weirdly hard to find in London (at least by me).

    Yes, GB, I agree these modern wagon wheels are a pathetic tiny shadow of the wondrous wagon wheels of youth. Halfway through our trip we distributed them to a group of local kids who had gathered to listen to the story. They couldn't believe their luck! There were also Tunnicliffe's Tea Cakes and the kids liked them, too

    Adullamite, (and Dave, again) I saw an old film shot in the 70s of the Old Kent Road and after that I can tell you the way it is now looks as picturesque as CarpetRight, Staples, Asda, MacDonalds and Toys-R-Us will allow. It was just horrendous beyond belief.

    1. Hi, Jenny, my name is Carol. If you want to see a photo of me, you can check out Pondside's blog for this Tuesday or Wednesday. Of course I'm much cuter than my photo! (Aren't we all??) LOL

      You may have to access Pondside's blog through Scriptor Senex's blog site. For some reason, I have trouble going directly to her site, without going through Scriptor's first.

      Just discovered your post a couple of weeks ago, via GB's from New Zealand, and am enjoying your writing very much.

  26. Tunnicliffe's Tea Cakes? Are they what used to be Mumchmallows? In Scotland we have Tunnock's Teacakes for which I have a particular penchant and love blogging about.

  27. You are right - Tunnocks they are. Munchmallows as were. I used to go to school with a bloke called Tunniciffe, who - well, long story.

    A few months ago I bought some plain Tunnock's teacakes. They weren't as popular as the milk ones, and one of them is still lurking in the biscuit tin in its blue and gold wrapper.

    As for Walnut Whips.... actually I saw a giant one they were selling for Easter, the size of an Easter Egg, which is definitely too much of a good thing. (Wonder how they found a giant walnut to go on top? I won't buy it to find out, though! )

    1. Thanks for that, Jenny. Long story....? Walnut Whips? Wow. I didn't know they were still being sold. Not my favourite but my maternal Grandmother had two weaknesses: Walnut Whips and Balkan Sobranie Turkish oval cigarettes. When I was young I used to buy her the WWs with my pocket money and later when I was working there was, next to the jewelers Boodle and Dunthorne, a small cigarette kiosk in Liverpool which stocked them and I sometimes used to buy them for her on pay-day. Ah. Memories.

  28. I love going to museums especially those that offer the more 'unique' items.
    As to your questions:
    Three words that describe home to me are love, trust, and caring.
    My favorite comfort food depends on the season. winter-potato soup, spring-chicken salad, summer-farm fresh tomatoes, fall- pumpkin pie.
    As to which direction to travel, it would be where ever my nose leads me. I love those trips where you just go with no idea of where you are going, seeing what you can find and do.

  29. You achieve the impossible with your London posts: you make me want to leave Tokyo and move to London! Thanks for a fascinating post.

    PS: I had a startling reaction when I thought of home. Home, to me, is solitude: the only place in Tokyo where I can be by myself, in blissful tranquil happy solitude.

  30. Jenny, What an interesting museum. I, too, hope the child with the dressed bone took the new doll. I thought the pictures were just fine.....of course my eyesight is not as good as it used to be;) Bonnie

  31. you got me soo interested in this museum!!

  32. I'm drawn to the mutton bone doll and kept thinking about the little girl who loved it dearly. She got to love it dearly to carry it around.

    My son has (still!) a funfair won, small, cheap weird chipmunk like pillow that he carries around - just at home & his grandad's home though; and love dearly despite having so many more expensive toys to play with. ;)

  33. As an America, I'm terribly envious of the museums in Europe. The history everywhere in England astounded me when I visited. I knew it was there, of course, but I didn't anticpate being so taken in by it :)!

  34. Sounds a really interesting Museum, not sure I'm too keen on the dentist's hat though:)

  35. A fascinating museum that may become better known as the area improves with regeneration.

  36. Well! What a tour I have just had! Thank you very much!
    Enjoy your weekend!

  37. What a rich post! I'm so afraid by this hat with teeth, brrrr!
    But the museum is very attractive anyway!
    3 words for home: nest, family, love
    Food:chocolate, can't explain why , just gives sugar,comfort and solace
    Direction: North!I love fog, snow, cold.. but near the sea, always.

  38. Jenny, this is such a fabulous post. All your photos are interesting (don't worry about focus or not - the content is what matters)!
    That mutton bone in the dolly's dress and the story behind it just gets to me.
    The strangeness of life eh! That Dentist's hat... oh my goodness :D)
    I doubt I'd ever get to that museum, so thank you for the opportunity.

  39. That's a great blog post Jenny!

    Alright, let's do this...

    1 - old LPs & record player, my dog, cider in the fridge

    2 - apple pie... fresh out of the oven - my mum's from a family of bakers and confectioners

    3- north... I love the ruggedness of the landscape up north, the moors, the mountains, ...

  40. Thank you Carol, I'll nip over to Pondside now, via Scriptor Senex whose blog I always enjoy.

    It's so interesting what people associate with home. I think my answers are
    1- Love, family, autonomy 2 Think I might be with Dominic on the apple pie, or else some nice apple crumble and custard.
    3. That absolutely depends on my mood! they all have their attractions, depending on the time of year.

  41. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.


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