King, J (1994). Croydon and Lewisham - common problems, Bull Croydon Nat Hist Sci Soc, 97: 5-6.

Croydon and Lewisham - Common Problems

When Muriel Shaw gave a talk to the Croydon Society about this Society's museum collections, and in particular about some of the problems that had arisen, alarm bells rang in the head of one of her audience. That person was John King, who is a member of this Society, but is better known to some of us for his involvement with the Croydon Airport Society. Less well known is John's involvement with another local history society, Lewisham, of which he has been the chairman for the past three or four years. It was what appeared to be happening in Croydon that frightened John lest it also happened in Lewisham. He provides this account of the problems of a local society in a neighbouring borough.

The Lewisham Local History Society was formed in 1961 out of a growing interest by a number of people in the history of Lewisham and its districts which, since the 1965 Local Government Reorganisation have stretched from Deptford in the north to Sydenham in the south, and from Grove Park in the south east to Forest Hill in the west. Nobody seems to have given much thought to a local museum until about the late 1960s when a small number of members started collecting, in a vague sort of way, old bottles and pipes from the beds of the Ravensbourne and Quaggy streams where flood prevention work was going on. The finds were duly presented to Lewisham's Local History Centre at Manor House in Lee.

From this start, there grew a collecting activity amongst a small number of members. At the same time the society pursued its main activities, which included monthly meetings, occasional visits and the annual publication of the Transactions of its meetings. The Leisure Services Department of Lewisham was pleased to help the society in its early days and in fact the Chief Librarian had played a major role in its birth as a sort of midwife. Neither the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, nor the later and larger London Borough of Lewisham, which included Deptford, seemed to have any interest in the Borough having its own museum. The Borough did of course have one internationally renowned museum just within its western boundary at Forest Hill, the Horniman where Muriel once worked; but, as we know, the Horniman is mainly devoted to ethnography. There are two other museum collections in the Borough - the Metropolitan Police Traffic Museum and the Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Museum - but access to both is limited.

In accordance with its policy of assisting the society, the Council made available surplus rooms above the New Cross Library where the museum collections could be interpreted and stored, but gradually the Civic Fathers began to feel that perhaps they ought to have their own museum in common with many other London Boroughs. This became official policy and the first plan was to use the old Deptford Town Hall at New Cross when the offices would eventually be relocated to an enlarged Town Hall complex at Catford. By the early 1980s there was a feeling that Deptford was no longer realistic for reasons of cost and location - it was too big and not central to the borough. Unfortunately, the earlier concentration on Deptford had had the effect of distracting attention from more viable options.

Following the appointment of a new Leisure Services Officer, a Local History Working Group was set up in 1984 with representatives of various interests. A report of the Working Group recommended a local museum and the Council subsequently commissioned a study by the Area Museums Service. This AMSSEE report recommended the appointment of a Museum Development Officer and that a museum be established in one of two locations. Unfortunately, neither location proved to be available for this purpose, the Council's finances were not too healthy and so it was felt there was no point in appointing a Museum Development Officer.

The next development was in 1987 when the Lewisham Local History Council, a Qualgo, co-ordinated a History Festival at the Concert Hall over a weekend. The Local History Society's response was to put on displays with the theme 'Museum for Lewisham'. The displays were very attractive and the festival was considered to have been a great success.

The society subsequently organised a petition which was presented to a full meeting of Lewisham Council and quietly forgotten. It was at this time that the security of the society's collections, which had grown considerably and now included the collections of the erstwhile Lewisham Natural History Society, became a matter of concern after some break-ins. At the same time, the society still did not have a defined collecting policy. Fortunately, the Council was able to relocate the collections in 1988 to more secure accommodation above Catford Library but, when the library was itself relocated, the collections had to move again, in 1990. In many ways the building was ideal for the society - it was large, secure and had accommodation for committee meetings and preparing exhibitions. At the same time, the Leisure Services Department expressed a desire to take over the society's collections but this was resisted as the society's officers felt that such action would effectively neutralise the society as a campaigning organisation. The society did, however, favour setting up a Museum Trust which could bring in several interests including the Council, industry and commerce. In 1991 the Council agreed with the society that a Museum Trust was the best way forward but unfortunately little has happened since then.

The story now comes to the present time. For a long time the Leisure Services Department has wanted to relocate its main library to a more central position in Lewisham. With the recent acquisition of a former telephone exchange and BT offices in a more central position in Lewisham High Street this is about to be realised. However, it has had implications for the society in that the museum store building and old Library have been sold to Lewisham Hospital. So the collections have had to be moved again; unfortunately, working conditions for the museum team in the new store are not so good. There is, however, an opportunity for a museum to be located in one of the 19th century Camden Villas in the High Street opposite the new Library. It will be a challenge for all of us to find the time and the resources to maintain the collections.

John King


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