If you are visiting Walthamstow, you can easily pass a few hours in its local museum, Vestry House. This charming building is Grade II listed and has been used for various purposes over the years, spending some years as a workhouse and a few as a police station.
Located in the pretty streets of Walthamstow Village, it is now the local museum and archives store for the Walthamstow area.
The early days of Vestry House
Vestry House was built in 1730. It was commissioned on land purchased by local church authorities so that they could build their own permanent workhouse to serve the Walthamstow area. There was already a workhouse in the village at this time, but this was in a rented building rather than one owned by the local authorities.
You can still see the origins of the building on a plaque above the main door, which has the inscription “if any would not work neither should he eat”. This is a reminder that the poor people who were driven into the workhouse out of desperation would be made to work extremely hard for their keep. The house’s eight rooms originally became home to up to 40 people at a time.
By the 1820s, Vestry House could take in almost double that number of the destitute, as the original building had been developed and expanded a couple of times after the original build.
Vestry House did not stay a workhouse for all of its early history, however. It closed its doors to the local poor in around the 1830s. It was, at this point, then used as a local police station and as an armoury, before being taken over as a private home for local worthies at other times. Its last resident, Demain Saunders, donated her lease on the property to the local council in 1930.
The council decided that this would be a good location for a local museum and, in 1931, the museum opened with the aim of promoting the social and economic history of the Walthamstow area.
Things to do and see at the Vestry House museum
The museum has a range of interesting permanent and temporary exhibits and displays. Car lovers will particularly enjoy looking at the Bremer car. This was built in 1892 by a local engineer, Frederick Bremer, and would have been used on some local streets in the area. Some people think that this is the oldest car built in Britain that was fuelled by petrol and the very first to be driven on the streets of London.
You can also learn a little about life in the past, both generally and locally. The museum has a gallery dedicated to domestic life. This contains some common cooking, washing and ironing kitchen tools and devices from the 19th and 20th centuries. You can also spend time in a reconstruction of an 1890s parlour room. The Walthamstow tea service is on permanent display. This was produced in the early 1800s for a local family – its remaining pieces are painted with pictures of local houses.
You can also see some interesting examples of 18th to 20th century clothing in the museum’s costume gallery. For example, you can see a typical Georgian dress and examples of Victorian and Second World War wedding dresses.
Museum Activities For Children
If you want to scare the kids, make sure to take a good long look inside the museum’s police cell. If they (or you!) are lucky, they may just get locked in! This is one of the original cells dating back to when the building was used as a police station. The museum has recreated the room, which still contains some of its original fixtures and fittings such as the toilet and bench.
Like many London museums, the Vestry House caters well for children and has regular events and activities throughout the year. For example, it has Easter Egg trails, workshops and art activities. These are usually held on Saturdays or Sundays. There is also a display of toys in the museum, many of which were made in the local area in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Vestry House garden
Volunteers at the museum maintain its garden. Its design focuses on the time when the building was used as a workhouse and the garden was an important source of food. It has an 18th century design and contains the kinds of plants that would have been typical for that kind of garden, such as herbs, vegetables and plants that could be used to dye things. There is also an area laid out like a wild meadow and one containing plants that attract butterflies.
Entry to the museum is free. It is open to the general public Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. However, you can also visit Vestry House on Tuesdays if you are a group and you book in advance.