The giant engines at the London Museum of Water & Steam are their own witness to the endeavours and achievements of the engineers in the past. The Hidden Treasures in the museum’s archive provide the flesh-and-blood behind the story of the installation and maintenance of the water supply to London. In the second talk of the year to members Melissa Maynard, former Interim Director of the museum, gave an enthralling insight to the wealth of information contained in the documents and objects usually kept safely behind the scenes.
To judge by the reaction of her rapt audience, many – even volunteers of many years’ service – were unaware of how much information the museum possesses in its own archives. Here is the “why” – the great debate about providing a clean healthy water supply to one of the greatest cities in the world – and the “how” – the decisions about which engines to order, the running and maintaining, the in-house support of the forge, the carpenters’ shop and so on; but more particularly the individual stories to be quarried out as work on the items continues. Here are the names (and addresses) of the people who worked at the waterworks: the carefully preserved press cuttings, the logbook of the duty officer during the First World War (sadly the works suffered a direct hit during the First World War bombing with at least one fatality), the board’s decisions on disciplinary matters… Just what caused the set of false teeth to be abandoned and found during the restoration of the Bull Engine (spoiler alert: we don’t yet know)? Who played golf on the Metropolitan Water Board’s golf course (a teaspoon gives a clue to that story)? The many watches – in the early days of water supply, the mains were only switched on for certain hours during the day and accurate timekeeping was essential. . The exceptional store of plans of the works continues to be useful to Thames Water in plotting out where the original popes and valves were situated.
While a few of these documents and items are already on display, members of the audience made the point that the general public would be just as fascinated, and hoped that it would be possible in the future to show more of the whole story of the waterworks. Work on the conservation of the archive continues with the assistance of a team of volunteers, and the winnowing out of the human stories is an on-going task.
The next talk for members will be given by the newly appointed Director Hannah Harte, when she will be speaking about future plans for the museum.
The Care and Collections Volunteer Team preparing for the Members talk.