London: The Charterhouse Museum

dsc00346_stitchI was flipping through a copy of Time Out London a few weeks ago (because I still prefer the print version to their website), when one of the photos in their “Instagram Posts of the Week” (or whatever it’s called) section caught my eye, because the caption underneath read something like, “a picture of the Charterhouse, London’s newest museum.” I think I may just be automatically drawn to the word “museum” at this point, but my interest was piqued enough that I investigated further.  Turns out that the Charterhouse, built in 1371, and variously serving as “a monastery, private mansion, boys’ school, and an almshouse” (according to the museum’s website), has recently opened a small section of its building to the public “for the first time since its foundation in 1348” (again, from their website. I guess they’re including the plague pit years in that timeline). There is a small museum, and visitors are welcome to tour the chapel as well when it’s not being used for a churchly function.

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Nothing (well, other than the promise of ice cream) gets me out of the house faster than the prospect of a new, free museum to visit, so Marcus and I ended up heading there later that week. It’s right around the corner from Barbican Station, in a rather secluded square that would probably be quite lovely if there wasn’t loads of construction going on, and a pervading smell of chicken shit from all the mulch being put down (confession: I actually don’t really mind the smell of manure or mulch.  It reminds me of the county fair, and thus weirdly gives me a craving for frosty chocolate milkshakes and french waffles).  It wasn’t a corner of London I’d ever had the occasion to visit before, and even with all the construction, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice and historical it all looked (especially because I hate the Barbican Centre so very much.  It’s a hideous piece of Brutalist architecture, and the tunnel you have to walk through to get to it is grim, but the Charterhouse is in a different area entirely).

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We received a friendly greeting upon entering, and were told we could either go through the door marked “Museum” first, or go through the chapel entrance first and then see the museum.  We opted for the former, and ended up seeing the museum in reverse chronological order (I think it does flow pretty well either way, but if you’d prefer to go forward in time, then see the chapel first and go into the museum that way).  The museum was located inside two very long, narrow rooms, but by keeping all the objects tight against the walls so they didn’t stick out past the partial partitions erected between each section, and by having white walls with lots of windows, the gallery never felt particularly crowded or claustrophobic like the one at the City of London Police Museum, even though there were more visitors here than there were at the Police Museum (though still only a handful).  So, props to them for good design.

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Because we were travelling backwards through the museum, we began by learning about its present-day occupants; the Brothers.  The term is one that has stuck around since the Charterhouse’s monastic days, though it no longer has religious connotations (mass is still held in the chapel every day, but attendance is not obligatory).  Rather, the Brothers are a group of 60+ year old men “in need of financial and social support, who are selected from a wide variety of professions” (they must also be in good health at time of application. Because there is an application process involved…they’re not just selecting seniors at random or anything, which was kind of what I thought at first). They live together at the Charterhouse, which provides them with a sense of community, since they take meals together, and are welcome to participate in various activities. Traditionally, Brothers have always been men, but now women are welcome to apply as well, though they will still be called “Brothers.”

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Next, we learned about the boys’ school, which was here from the 17th century until 1872, when it was moved to Godalming.  It had some fairly famous pupils over the years, including William Makepeace Thackeray, John Wesley, and Robert Baden-Powell (of Scouting fame).  Not unusually for the time, corporal punishment took place here, with “swishings” being the method of choice, using a bundle of twigs like the one pictured above. As you may be able to read in the caption, the school actually tried to do away with beatings in favour of monetary fines, but the boys voted against it because they felt that paying fines wasn’t “honourable.”

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Next came the section on Thomas Sutton, who was responsible for both the boys’ school and almshouse that exists to the present day.  Sutton was a Tudor businessman who got rich from coal mines, money lending, and other investments, and, as many wealthy people did back then, he left a number of charitable bequests in his will for the good of his soul.  Because the Charterhouse had been dissolved as a monastery under Henry VIII, and turned into a mansion, Sutton was able to purchase it and establish an almshouse for 80 Brothers, as well as a school for 40 boys.  He also left money to a few other people and institutions, the most intriguing of which was mentioned on a sign in the museum, “£100 to the poorest fishermen of Ostend…In recompense for an episode earlier in Sutton’s career which weighed on his conscience.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how you can mention an intriguing tidbit like that and not give people the whole story somewhere, but I couldn’t find anything about it, and a bit of googling has gotten me nowhere.  I can’t be the only one who wants to know what the “episode” was!

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Anyway, leaving the poor fishermen of Ostend behind, I entered the next corridor, which was all about the monastery that stood here from the 14th century until Henry VIII got his greedy fat paws on it.  Like many monasteries, the Carthusians at the Charterhouse seemed to have a damned impressive medieval plumbing system, and the manuscript describing it stretched out along the length of the whole room.  I was also interested to learn that the monks were strict vegetarians, and they had a separate “flesh kitchen” away from the rest of the monastery for when they had to cook meat for visitors. Being a vegetarian myself, with a fairly strict no meat in my flat policy (well, visitors can eat it if they must in the form of a takeaway or something, but they can’t cook it here using my pans and utensils.  It’s not even an ethical thing so much, I just really honestly find meat super disgusting, and don’t want it stinking up my flat, or gunking up my pans. I had enough of that when I had housemates), I quite like that idea, if I had somewhere to put it, but obviously people would have to cook their own damn meat in it (I’m not doing it for them!).  It would save having to listen to my old flatmate whining whenever he comes for a visit because I won’t let him cook bacon for breakfast.

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They also had a splendid little scrapbook people could look through in the monastery section, full of medieval illustrations (including one of people being stabbed by “Death the skeleton” which I just loved), but the best thing of all is something we didn’t photograph: the skeleton of an actual plague victim.  Before it was a monastery or anything else, this was the site of a burial pit for the victims of the famous 1348-1349 bubonic plague outbreak (aka the Black Death), and modern archeologists have unearthed the skeleton of a young man who died during the pandemic (I imagine they found more than one, but only one is in the museum).  It seems rather curious that the monks would choose the site of a relatively new plague pit for their monastery, but maybe they reckoned it would give them plenty of souls to pray for (since it’s estimated that half of the population of London died during the Black Death).

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Thus concluded our museum visit, but there was still a splendid little chapel to see. The room outside the chapel was full of memorials to the great and good who had some connection to the Charterhouse, including Thackeray, and Wesley, and also one to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.  As soon as we entered the ante-chapel, a volunteer came running up and said he was about to take his lunch, but his replacement hadn’t arrived yet, so he could quickly show us around if we wanted, which was nice of him.  He gave us a brief history of the chapel (the ante-chapel dates back to 1512, but the large chapel had been demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries, and a small chapel was tacked on to the Charterhouse for the use of the person living in the mansion.  When it became Sutton’s Hospital, the chapel was expanded, so most of it dates to the 17th century, with the exception of a bay on the side that was built specially for the pupils of the boys’ school (presumably to keep them out of the hair of the other parishioners), and pointed out some decorative details.  One of these was the monument to John Law (shown above right), Sutton’s executor, who died a mere three years after him (so he must have done some speedy work).  I loved the skull, and thought I’d like a memorial plaque just like it, until I saw Thomas Sutton’s monument.

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Damn, now that was a monument!  It took up most of a wall, and included not only a skull, but also some delightful little figures of Peace and Plenty, and a whole panel showing the Brothers and Scholars who existed thanks to Sutton.  And a life-size effigy of Sutton himself.

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But that’s not the only Sutton-y touch in the chapel.  There were also greyhound heads at the end of every pew, because apparently the greyhound was Sutton’s personal symbol.  So now I guess I need a personal symbol as well (in addition to a splendid monument, though I’d like mine built before I die so I can see how awesome it is. Also my sacrilegious ass would have to be somewhere other than a church.  Maybe a library or museum…or gelateria), I’m thinking maybe spy crow?

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So despite my decidedly non-religious inclinations, even I could appreciate this gorgeous little chapel, in particular the memento mori-esque monuments.  These are the only areas of the building normally open to the public, though they do offer Brother-led “behind-the scenes” tours for a fee of either £10 or £15 (depending on the length of the tour), which sound like they might be worth doing someday, since you get to see some Elizabeth I related rooms, and some areas used by the medieval monks.  Visitors (of a more religious bent) are also welcome to attend services at the chapel, which are held daily.  As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this little museum, and very much enjoyed my time here.  The balance of signage to artefacts was excellent, the layout was good, and the chapel was wonderfully quirky.  The only thing I can suggest at the moment is to include the story behind the bequest to the Ostend fishermen (if it isn’t one of those things that’s been lost to history… I do realise they might not have included it because there was only a passing reference to it in the will, and not an actual explanation or anything), because I’m dying to know if there’s an amusing anecdote behind it.  Other than that, it is an excellent start for “London’s newest museum.” 4/5.

ETA: I posted this in the comments, but in case you don’t feel like scrolling down that far, I have discovered the story behind the fishermen of Ostend, in case anyone else is interested, thanks to an obscure entry in the Biographia Britannica found on Google Books. It still isn’t terribly clear, but as far as I can work out, he purchased “two prizes” of boats laden with cod some years before he died, for which he paid £200 – basically, I think this incident occurred whilst England was at war with the Dutch, and the boats were basically stolen from Ostend fishermen by English privateers, so he was essentially trading in stolen goods, and clearly felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. So he was trying to make up for it by giving back the value of the boats that he had taken, because there is a clause in the original will that states “I desire the same men, or their children, to have the same, if the true owners may be found out, if not, then I will the same £200 to be given among the poorest fishermen of that town.” He later changed the amount to £100 because Ostend had been destroyed by a siege, and he reckoned there weren’t enough fishermen living there anymore to need that much money. So not as generous as it initially appeared, nor as juicy of a story as I was hoping, but at least the mystery has been solved.

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See what I mean about the construction?!

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12 comments

  1. What a wonderful museum – and so neat that it’s on top of a plague pit!
    Of course, I have to say, I’m a bit partial to that Alexander McInnes – looking all broody and fierce in his fancy white pants.
    Those were some pretty impressive students, electing to be swished rather than pay up. Myself, I’d go the “ungentlemanly” route and get my coin purse out.
    When I first saw the toasting fork, I feared it had a dark purpose – glad to know it was just a kitchen utensil.
    Sutton’s monument IS incredible. I don’t think I’ve seen another with so much detail. I love the gold bubbles the over-sized baby is blowing (is that Peace?) and the greyhound heads are so sweet. I’d be happy with even just one of those on my marker – it’s way better than an angel. I’ll have to remember to mention it to my family.

    1. I was partial to McInnes too, that’s why the picture of him is in this post! I’m pretty sure I stopped and made some comment about him, and that’s why Marcus took the picture in the first place. He reminds me of Wellington, who I’ve always had a historical crush on, as I’m sure I’ve said before.
      Fortunately, there’s no dark story behind the fork. It sounds like they just ate a lot of toast, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
      The baby-figure is actually Vanitas, and apparently the bubbles represent “the ephemeral quality of worldly pleasure.” The scythey guy next to him is Time. Upon re-reading the information sheet I have on his monument, I realised that Peace and Plenty are actually the women in the tier above Vanitas and Time, and not the guys in the green and red, which is what I initially thought. So I have no idea who those two guys are, unless they’re both supposed to be Sutton. Could there be three Suttons on his tomb?!

      1. Ah, gotcha! That makes much more sense. At first, I thought they were the New and Old Year characters – which would’ve been a bit odd, but I figured “cycle of life” and all that. (I just came across an old New Year’s Eve ad featuring Mr. Scythe and two (two!) New Year’s babies on it, which is probably why I had them on the brain.) Oh, I really hope all three are Sutton – that’d make it extra delightful.

  2. I just read about this place (the Brothers rather than the museum) on the Spitalfields Life blog the other week. Before that, I’d never heard of it. It sounds like a really lovely visit.

  3. It sounds like you had a great visit! I always love visiting places when they first open so I can make my own impression of them beforehand. But now I want to know about this fisherman incident.

    1. Don’t we all! I don’t even know what kind of incident it could be. Like, did he taunt them with fishermen-related slurs (I don’t even know what a fishermen-related slur would be), or steal a fish? Or capsize one of their boats? £100 was a pretty sizeable sum back then, so it must have been something pretty bad.

    2. UPDATE! I have discovered the story behind this, thanks to an obscure entry in the Biographia Britannica as found on Google Books. It still isn’t terribly clear, but as far as I can work out, he purchased “two prizes” of boats laden with cod some years before he died, for which he paid £200 – basically, I think this incident occurred whilst England was at war with the Dutch, and the boats were basically stolen from Ostend fishermen by English privateers, so he was essentially trading in stolen goods, and clearly felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. So he was trying to make up for it by giving back the value of the boats that he had taken, because there is a clause in the original will that states “I desire the same men, or their children, to have the same, if the true owners may be found out, if not, then I will the same £200 to be given among the poorest fishermen of that town.” He later changed the amount to £100 because Ostend had been destroyed by a siege, and he reckoned there weren’t enough fishermen living there anymore to need that much money. So not as generous as it initially appeared, nor as juicy of a story as I was hoping, but at least the mystery has been solved.

  4. I’ve walked around this area a few times and have organised pub crawls around there. I didn’t know about this museum, so thanks for telling us about it Jessica!

    1. It only just opened in February, so if you haven’t been there since then, I can see why you didn’t know about it! I don’t think it was super obvious even now (they might have had a small sign out), and the Charterhouse is a fairly imposing building to approach anyway.

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