Heritage Category:
Listed Building
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Date first listed:
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Statutory Address:

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Tower Hamlets (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ 35027 82920


788/9/130, 788/10/130




Originally constructed in South Kensington in 1856-7, disassembled 1865-7, and reassembled in Bethnal Green where it opened as the museum in 1872; refurbished early-C21.Charles Denoon Young & Co. supplied the ironwork for the original building which was erected under the supervision of Sir William Cubitt; James Wild was the architect for the re-assembly in Bethnal Green. Iron-framed clad in red brick; slate roof in three spans with lantern lights running full length of ridges. EXTERIOR: Facade to Bethnal Green Road has three gables divided by pronounced pilasters and modillion eaves cornice. Each gable with wide arched window divided by chamfered brick pilasters. Below this, a full width single storey range also divided into three parts, with similar chamfered mullions between mid-C20 metal framed windows. Side elevations divided into three storeys with gauged brick banding and dentillation; a raised basement below main floor with large windows, and the upper level marked by a mosaic panel to each bay, illustrating agriculture and the arts and sciences; these designed by F.W. Moody and assembled by female students of the South Kensington Museum mosaic class.

INTERIOR: Lower front range has C20 toilet blocks to each side and leads to main building where, on entering, a split-level staircase to each side, then the impact of the main space. This comprises a central full-height hall with raised ground floor and mezzanine galleries to the perimeter, and the exposed iron frame throughout. This is of malleable bowstring roof trusses with continuous clerestory roof lights, slender cast-iron column uprights that have arched braces with circular spandrels to the beams, and X pattern balustrade. Some of the uprights were replaced at the time of re-assembly. The main hall floor is black and white mosaic tile in guilloche pattern, apparently made by female convicts from the Woking Gaol. Staircases with board panelling balustrades were inserted at the time of reassembly. Fire escape doors and stair inserted in southeast corner late-C20. Raised basement used mainly for storage and with some C20 interventions.

HISTORY: The origins of this building formed part of the first phase of the South Kensington Museum, as planned by the Department of Science and Industry. Construction of the chosen pre-fabricated iron `temporary` shed was supervised by the well known London building contractor William Cubitt. Cubitt had an interest in new constructional systems and had exported prefabricated structures to Crimea during the War, which further prompted the economic choice of structure. Cubitt enlisted Charles Denoon Young and Company for the manufacture of the ironwork, this firm having supplied the same to many buildings in the colonies as well as in Great Britain, including the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition buildings. In form and structure, the South Kensington Iron Museum resembled Joseph Paxton's nearby Great Exhibition building, the Crystal Palace, but the museum differed in its corrugated iron cladding. This unusually non-glassy skin, coupled with the buildings massing of three barrel-vaulted spans, earned the building the disparaging nickname of the 'Brompton Boilers'; an elegant iron arcade along the south front and a bright paint scheme were added to ameliorate the aesthetics. The Iron Museum served as the home of several collections including the Museum of Ornamental Art and the Architectural Museum, a collection of casts to educate carvers in the newly favoured Gothic style. As the Museum site expanded, the iron building was mainly dismantled in late 1867, and the few remaining bays were demolished in 1899. Bethnal Green had been lobbying for a museum since 1857. After much debate and several designs, the Bethnal Green Museum was opened on 24th June 1872 as designed by James W. Wild, a notable mid-C19 architect, responsible for the Grade I Grimsby Dock Tower and associated with the South Kensington Museum as their expert on Arabian art. His museum building at Bethnal Green was encased in red brick, presenting an altogether more attractive exterior with generous used of rubbed brick, decorated gables and large windows, and the parade of mosaic panels representing agriculture and the arts and sciences to both long elevations. The interior remains the most dramatic aspect, however, with the cathedral-like scale and arrangement of the tall central nave flanked by galleried aisles, all three ranges top lit, and with the delicate but robust iron structure exposed. Some of the columns were replaced at the time of re-erection, but the original structure mostly survives, including the bowstring roof trusses. The museum primarily held collections that were transferred from the South Kensington Museum, continuing the connection. It was re-launched as the Museum of Childhood in 1974, and in 1997 the National Museum of Childhood.

SOURCES: The Builder, 10 May 1856; The Engineer, 2nd May 1856; The Builder, 21 January 1871. Survey of London Vol. 38, The Museums Area of South Kensington and Westminster (1975); Conservation Plan for the Museum of Childhood, Alan Baster & Associates, February 2004; Jonathan Clarke, forthcoming English Heritage publication.

Listed at Grade II* for its very special significance as one of the earliest surviving examples of a pre-fabricated iron-framed building that is a landmark in constructional history and closely related to other seminal buildings such as the Crystal Palace and the Sheerness Boat Store. This bold group of mid-C19 structures prompted further developments of the fully-framed building leading to the skyscraper revolution of the later-C19. There is also strong historic and cultural interest: as the first building of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, guided in its choice of construction by the Crimean War, informed by leading builders and manufacturers of the period, and for its subsequent removal to and re-erection in Bethnal Green where it survives as an accessible, structurally apparent, and impressive structure. Group value with the associated listed buildings, namely the Eagle Slayer statue, the railings, four lamp standards and St John's Church.


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This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 09 Oct 1999
Reference: IOE01/01512/14
Rights: Copyright IoE Ms Clare Glenister. Source Historic England Archive
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