Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
“It is perhaps appropriate that a building occupied for so many years by men and women of unsound mind should now be used to house exhibits of that major insanity of our own time, war.”
Ida Darlington in the Survey of London, Vol 25 (1955).
The Imperial War Museum stands within the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park on the corner of St George’s Road and Lambeth Road. Now the only large open space remaining of the historic St George’s Fields, the site has a long history where fairs, pony races and public entertainment including balloon flights took place and where archery was practiced. In June 1780 it was the meeting place of supporters of Lord George Gordon prior to marching to Parliament to present an anti-catholic petition, an event that descended into violence and looting, becaming known as the Gordon Riots. During the Commonwealth, two forts were built on St George’s Fields, one within today’s Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park near the infamous Dog and Duck Tavern. The land was owned by the Bridge House Estate and when the Dog and Duck finally closed in 1799, the City of London offered the land to Bethlem Hospital in exchange for the site in Moorfields where the existing hospital, now in a badly decayed condition, had stood.
The new Bethlem Hospital opened in 1815 and largely followed the pattern of the old building in Moorfields. It had a small central core that housed offices which was flanked on each side by two long wings, one side housing female patients and the other housing male patients. The new accommodation allowed for convalescents and quieter patients to be given separate accommodation to the more seriously disturbed. Shortly after opening, at the request of the government, separate blocks were built for the criminally insane who before this time had been held in ordinary prisons. These patients were moved in 1864 to the newly built Broadmoor Hospital.
Scandal and charges of abuse attached themselves to Bethlem, but after an inspection by the Lunacy Commission in 1851 which found evidence of systematic abuse and neglect, a reforming resident physician and superintendent, Dr Charles Hood, was appointed. But as treatment of patients became more progressive, the building became unsuitable. A visitor to the hospital in 1867 commented: “The arrangements, however, are comparatively, in some instances, defective: the building being partly on the plan of the old Hospital in Moorfields, in long galleries, with a view to the coercive system there pursued, is, consequently, ill adapted to the present improved treatment." It was not until 1930 that the hospital moved to its current home in Beckenham.
There were fears that the former hospital site on St George’s Fields would be built upon and the green spaces lost but this was averted when Lord Rothermere bought the freehold of the site. Some of the hospital buildings were demolished, including the wings that flanked the central core which left the dome looking disproportionate, and the open areas formed into the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in memory of Lord Rothermere’s mother. He presented the entire site to the LCC. The remaining hospital buildings were leased to the Commissioners of Works when it became home to the Imperial War Museum in 1936.
Plans to establish the Imperial War Museum to record the British role in the First World War were begun in March 1917, before the end of World War I, when the Cabinet sanctioned a proposal for its creation from Sir Alfred Mond MP, First Commissioner of Works. The Times described the project in its issue of 26 March 1917. “The object is to collect and preserve for public inspection objects illustrating the British share in the war. The exhibits will comprise examples of the arms and other war materials used by the British naval and military forces, trophies captured from the enemy, souvenirs found on battlefields, inventions connected with munition making at home, the literature and art of the war (including regimental magazines and trench drawings), maps, the music of the war, placards issued by the Government in connexion with the recruiting, economy and loan campaigns, medals and decorations, flag day souvenirs and autograph letters of some of those who have taken distinguished parts in the war”
Donations of material were invited and there was a huge response, from items ranging in size from an ambulance and an aeroplane to stamps. It was initially intended to be a National War Museum but interest quickly developed from the Dominions included Canada and Australia so it became the Imperial War Museum. From an early stage, it was intended to reflect the contribution and sacrifice made by all ranks and classes, from the lowly private to the general, from the politician to the women who worked in the munition factories, from those on the frontline to those on the home front.
The Crystal Palace in Sydenham was chosen to house the Museum which was opened by King George V on 9 June 1920. Sir Alfred Mond read an address to the King in which he said that it was hoped to make the museum so complete that everyone who took part in the war, however obscurely, would find therein an example or illustration of the sacrifice he or she made. The museum was not a monument of military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice.
In response, the King stated that the committee responsible for the foundation of the museum had succeeded in the great task of “erecting a memorial which speaks to the heart and to the imagination” and that the Museum “recognizes in concrete form that success in modern war is no longer the achievement of a few leaders or of a professional class, but the result of the devoted and heroic work of millions of men and women cooperating as parts of one vast living machine. None of us can forget, and this museum will ever preserve the memory in future ages, that we owe our success under God not to the armed forces alone, but to the labours and sacrifices of soldiers and civilians, or men and women alike. … We cannot tell with what eyes future generations will regard this museum, nor what ideas it will arouse in their minds. We hope and pray that, realizing all we have done and suffered, they will look back upon war, its instruments and it organisation, as belonging to a dead past. But to us it stands, not for a group of trophies won from a beaten enemy, not for a symbol of the pride of victory, but as an embodiment and a lasting memorial of common effort and common sacrifice …”
The Museum moved premises to two galleries adjacent to the Imperial Institute, Kensington in 1924 and finally to the former Bethlem Hospital on St George’s Fields in 1936. This was to be a permanent home for the Museum and the larger premises meant that many donations were able to be put on display for the first time. It was opened by the Duke of York, shortly before he became George VI, who had also been present at the opening ceremony of the Museum at Crystal Palace in 1920. The Museum was closed between 1940 and 1946 and the subject of approximately 40 incendiary attacks during the second world war.
The Museum extended its scope in 1939 to record World War II and later the remit was changed to include all conflicts that involved British and Commonwealth soldiers after 1914. Inevitably, exhibits and galleries have grown to reflect more recent conflicts but there has been a shift over the years from recording the operation of war to how war affects people’s lives which has has been emphasised in the recent revamp of the Museum completed in July 2014. The work included the creation of permanent galleries dedicated to World War I to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the conflict.