East London's Best Unsung Museums

By Ellie Broughton Last edited 71 months ago
East London's Best Unsung Museums

Once you've exhausted the Geffrye Museum and the V&A's Museum of Childhood, there are still dozens of museums in east London to try, many of them unsung. The area's history as a magnet for migrants and industry, its working class heritage and the legacy of its activists all co-exist alongside medical museums, artists' houses, and Tudor and Georgian houses that the Luftwaffe missed.

Museum of London Docklands

Canary Wharf was not much of a weekend destination, for obvious reasons, until this Museum of London outpost opened. The main story it tells is that of the workers, slaves and servants who were vital to keeping the British Empire ticking over. It's family-friendly and has a great programme of opportunities for young historians and archaeologists to learn to handle and identify artefacts.

Museum of London Docklands, West India Dock Road, E14 4AL.

Sutton House, Hackney

See the clash of cultures as squatter graffiti marks Hackney history on the walls of this Tudor house. Sutton House was owned by Ralph Sadler (yep, of Wolf Hall fame) and changed hands several times before the National Trust got hold of it. The curators here run a brilliant events programme — keep an eye on the website for details.

Sutton House, Homerton High Street, E8 6JQ.

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge

Check out the crossbows and learn all about hunting at this 500-year-old palace on the edge of Epping Forest (and just a two-minute walk from Chingford Station). Although there are no records that Henry VIII or Elizabeth I hunted in the forest, there are plenty of apocryphal tales — including one about the Virgin Queen riding her house up the stairs to celebrate winning a war — that no doubt kept the tea room buzzing (as it was in the late 19th century).

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, 8 Ranger's Road, E4 7QH.

Museum of Immigration, Spitalfields

A clandestine synagogue is just part of the story of this little Princelet Street museum, which documents the secret life and previously untold stories of London's immigrant communities, including Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshi migrants. East London owes so much of its heritage to the people who migrated, and the communities who went before them.

Museum of Immigration, 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields.

Rainham Hall

Rainham Hall. Photo by Treble2309 from the Londonist Flickr pool.

Even London's best-travelled history buffs might have missed Rainham Hall. This National Trust property dates back to the 18th century and the Georgian architecture make it worth the trek, even if you're not a big museums person. The visitor experience is very hands-on, no sign of 'do not touch' signs and red ropes.

Rainham Hall, Rainham, RM13 9YN.

Dennis Severs' House

Installed not as a museum but a still-life drama, this house museum feels uncanny, as if its occupants had just popped out for a moment. Each room tells a different story of a family of (French) Huguenot weavers who moved to London in 1724. All visits are tours, given the size of the museum, and many visitors have highlighted the candlelit evening tours in winter as particularly atmospheric.

Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate Street, E1 6BX.

Ragged School Museum

The Ragged School Museum. Photo by helenoftheways from the Londonist Flickr pool.

If you think school sucks now, you should have seen it in Victorian times. Some dedicated souls have restored this Bow institution so that visitors can experience chalkboards, learning by rote firsthand. Thomas Barnardo stopped off in London to train as a doctor and missionary, but after seeing the state of the East End, in 1867 he set up a school here. Locals saved the building from demolition in the 1980s — find out why they were so passionate about the legacy on a visit. (If you like museums about social history, you'll want to check out the East End Women's Museum too).

Ragged School Museum, 46-50 Copperfield Road, E3 4RR.

Vestry House

Walthamstow residents know and love the William Morris Gallery, but this gem is often overlooked in favour of bold botanical print. First a workhouse, then a police station, it became a museum back in 1931. It’s great for residents who want to find out more about local history, but it is also good for exhibitions by contemporary local photographers. Don’t miss the garden when you visit.

Vestry House, Vestry Road, Walthamstow, E17 9NH.

Royal London Hospital Museum

So you've been to the Wellcome Collection, Old Operating Theatre, Barts Museum of Pathology and the Hunterian? Time to head to this Whitechapel crypt. A replica of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man's skeleton leans forlornly in one of the cabinets, plus you can read all about the stories of hero nurses Edith Cavell and Eva Luckes, and check out surgical equipment of yore. For afters, have a brandy in the hospital's nearby Good Samaritan pub to calm your nerves.

Royal London Hospital Museum, Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.

William Morris Gallery

Although this gallery's on the radar for many east Londoners, it couldn't be left off the list. Morris's former home now hosts permanent galleries with his work (check out the sketch of him on a fat little Icelandic pony, upstairs), as well as temporary exhibitions. Not only is the gallery a perfect size, Lloyd Park behind it makes a great add-on for a Sunday afternoon, and the small café and shop make it worth the walk from the tube. If you already know the gallery, check the programme of music, readings and talks.

William Morris Gallery, Forest Road, Walthamstow.

Last Updated 14 October 2016