A great number of significant historical figures have lived in London over the years. Many of their homes are now open as small museums - providing a fascinating insight into the past inhabitants
Many a Londoner will claim their city is the most important in England, and has been for centuries. A controversial statement perhaps, but the country’s capital has functioned as the heart of England’s economy ever since trading boats cluttered the Thames in the Middle Ages. Latterly, the city has become the epicentre of global business and financial trade. Throw in the seat of UK politics, the centuries-old universities, and the ever-burgeoning arts community, and the importance of this great city becomes indisputable.
With such an esteemed reputation, London has attracted a great number of historical figures over the years – Freud, Darwin, Franklin & Dickens, to name but a few. Many of their city homes are now open to the public as museums dedicated to the past inhabitants. Read on for a comprehensive guide to the most significant and captivating of these London house museums.
We begin with the Freud Museum in Hampstead, North London (20 Maresfield Gardens, NW3 5SX; +442074352002; www.freud.org.uk/). Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud lived here with his family after escaping the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, and his youngest daughter, Anna, remained resident until her death in 1982. The museum’s primary purpose is to celebrate the life and work of Sigmund and Anna. The main focus inside is on Freud’s study, filled with antiquities from around the globe. The centrepiece attraction is undoubtedly his original analytical couch. There is also a temporary exhibition room, a pleasant garden and a small shop. Open 12-5pm, Wed-Sun, £6 entry.
Just north of the Freud Museum, on the periphery of Hampstead Heath, you’ll find Keats House (Keats Grove, NW3 2RR; +442073323868; www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk/). It was home to the romantic poet John Keats from 1818-1820 and is now a museum dedicated to his work and to poetry in general. Inside, a number of rooms have been restored to their original décor; including furniture, brass and paintings – recreating the living environment of Keats and his fellow lodgers. Open 1-5pm, Fri-Sun in winter, Tues-Sun in summer (group tours can be booked outside these hours), £5 entry.
Charles Dickens Museum
Close to the city centre, occupying a Georgian terraced house, is the Charles Dickens Museum (48 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX; +442074052127; www.dickensmuseum.com/). The most popular novelist of the Victorian era, Dickens resided here from 1837-39. This relatively short period was a highly productive period for the writer, during which Dickens penned Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Nowadays, the house features regularly-changing exhibitions looking at Dickens’s life and works, as well as boasting a café, garden and gift shop. Open 10am-5pm, seven days a week, £7 entry.
Sir John Soane's Museum
A little further south, near Holborn station, is another famous London residence. Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP; +442074052107; www.soane.org/) was the architect’s home for many years (1792-1837). During this time he extended the property into the two neighbouring buildings. This allowed experimentation with architectural ideas, and provided somewhere to house Soane’s extensive collection of antiquities and architectural salvage. Each room is architecturally unique and full of fascinating artefacts (highlights include the huge sarcophagus of Seti I, invaluable bronzes from Pompeii, and a number of original Hogarth paintings). Open 10am-5pm, Tues-Sat, free entry.
Dr Johnson’s House
A short walk from Sir John Soane’s Museum is Dr. Johnson’s House (17 Gough Square, EC4A 3DE; +442073533745; www.drjohnsonshouse.org/). Built in 1700, Samuel Johnson lived and worked here from 1748-59. During this time he compiled the first comprehensive English language dictionary – a momentous literary achievement. The museum features an impressive collection of period furniture in a number of beautifully-panelled rooms, along with exhibitions focused on the Doctor’s life. Open 11-5pm, Mon-Sat, £4.50 entry.
Benjamin Franklin House
Right in the centre of town, just off Trafalgar Square, is the only surviving home of Benjamin Franklin (36 Craven Street, WC2N 5NF; +442078392006; www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org/). Diplomat, scientist, inventor, and founding father of the United States, Dr Franklin resided in this property from 1757-75. Today, the museum comprises a ‘Historical Experience’ – featuring a live actor portraying period characters – a ‘Student Science Centre’ – allowing hands-on interactivity with contemporary scientific devices – and the top-floor ‘Scholarship Centre’ – world-renowned for Franklin-related studies. Open 12-5pm, Wed-Sun, £7 entry.
Handel House Museum
A short stroll into Mayfair brings us to Handel House Museum (25 Brook St, W1K 4HB; +442074951685; www.handelhouse.org/). Residence of the German Baroque composer, George Frideric Handel, from 1723-59, this is now the only dedicated composer museum in London. Handel created some of his most famous compositions here; including the universally acclaimed Messiah. The museum features carefully restored period rooms with relevant displays and exhibitions, in addition to weekly concerts. Bizarrely, the top-floor of the neighbouring property was home to another legendary musician – Jimi Hendrix – from 1968-9. Also under the jurisdiction of the Handel House Museum, ad-hoc Hendrix exhibitions are displayed inside. Open 10am-6pm, Tues-Sun (from 12pm on Sun, until 8pm on Thurs), £6 entry.
Leighton House Museum
On the edge of Holland Park in West London is another historic London home – Leighton House Museum (12 Holland Park Road, W14 8LZ; +442076023316; www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum.aspx). This was the home and studio of Victorian artist Fredric, Lord Leighton. The first part of the house was built in 1866, and then extended and developed into a private palace of art until Leighton’s death in 1896. The centrepiece of the property is the magical ‘Arab Hall’ – constructed to house the thousands of Islamic tiles collected by Leighton during his travels in the Middle East. Open 10am-5.30pm daily (except Tuesdays), £5 entry.
If you’ve got time for a half-day trip out of town, consider a visit to Down House (Luxted Road, Downe, Kent, BR6 7JT 15; +442079733000; www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house/). The former residence of English naturalist Charles Darwin - architect of the groundbreaking evolutionary theory of natural selection. The house is now under the ownership of English Heritage and open to the public: you can see the authentically-restored study where Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, and wander through the gardens that so inspired this revolutionary thinker. Opening times and days vary (check website), £9.30 entry. Down House is 15 minutes by train from London Victoria to Bromley South, then a 30-minute bus ride (route 146).
Where to stay
Continuing the theme of this guide, here are three London hotels with famous historical connections:
The Edward Lear (28/30 Seymour Street, W1H 7JB) – former home of the Victorian poet (author of the ‘nonsense’ limerick, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’). This is a great budget option just off Oxford Street. Double en suite from £60/night.
Brown's of Mayfair (Albemarle Street, W1S 4BP) has been the place to be seen since its opening in 1837 – past guests include Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie. You pay for the privilege of staying in 5* luxury here – room rates start at £485/night.
The Cadogan Hotel (75 Sloane Street, SW1X 9SG) gained infamy with the arrest of Oscar Wilde during his stay here in 1895. This is a small hotel (60 rooms) that manages to provide the level of service you’d expect at the biggest luxury chains. Doubles with en suite from £175/night.