Young V&A, Bethnal Green | Look Up London

History of the Young V&A, Bethnal Green

The Young V&A (formerly the Museum of Childhood) in Bethnal Green isn’t just a fabulous museum, its building also has a fascinating history to tell.

Young V&A, Bethnal Green | Look Up London

Travelling back 350 years or so, Bethnal Green was a popular suburb for London’s upper classes. There were some large Manor Houses and the surroundings were largely rural.

As London expanded during the 16th and 17th centuries, encroaching on this agricultural space, a plot of land was left as Common Land in 1690 to ensure that local people could grow crops and let their animals graze.

On John Rocque’s London map of 1746 you can see the chunks of common land. I’ve circled in yellow the current site of Museums Gardens, still a public green space that sits below the site of the current museum.

Image from

Under the circle you can spot the intriguing “Mad H”. This is a reference to the Mad House, or “Lunatic Asylum” which was here from 1727 until it closed in 1920.

It’s now the Bethnal Green Library – a far nicer institution – which is housed in the former male wing of the asylum, built in 1896.

A School Visit to the Bethnal Green Library in the 1920s, showing the original 19th century Asylum building

Today the gardens in front are officially called Bethnal Green Gardens, but they’re also known as ‘Barmy Park’, a nod to the area’s past.

In late 19th century maps you can clearly see ‘Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum’ (circled in blue).

Image from (Booth Poverty Maps c.1890s)

As well as the new museum (circled in yellow).

Image from

So how did the Bethnal Green Museum come into being?

Museum Gardens, Bethnal Green | Look Up London
Museum Gardens in Spring

You’re probably familiar with The Great Exhibition of 1851? If not, I’ve written all about it – and the Crystal Palace – in this blog post.

After this (hugely successful) exhibition ended in Hyde Park, it sparked development in Brompton, today’s South Kensington.

What we now know as the Victoria and Albert Museum began life in some simple iron-framed buildings. These temporary structures were known as the Brompton Boilers.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Inside The Brompton Boilers c.1857

Wanting to spread the legacy further than just West London, the Department of Practical Arts had dreams of establishing museums in North, South and East London. However when they approached local councils, only Bethnal Green took up the cause.

Thanks to the work of a group of men including Sir Antonio Brady, Reverend Septimus Hansard, Mr Clabon and Dr Millar, the plot of common land (today’s Museum Gardens) was bought and set aside for a museum. Work began in 1868.

In a happy coincidence, the Brompton Boilers of South Kensington were no longer needed and so they were disassembled 1865-7 and transported to Bethnal Green to create the framework for this new museum.

Further help came from Sir Richard Wallace (from the Wallace Collection) who loaned many pictures and artworks for the opening.

The Bethnal Green Museum opened on 24 June 1872 with the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Consort Alexandrea of Denmark).

If we take a closer look at the building, it’s hard to tell they were once the simple, pre-fabricated ‘Brompton Boilers’.

Young V&A, Bethnal Green | Look Up London

However, looking inside you can see the industrial appearance.

Inside the Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green | Look Up London

The architect in charge of transforming the building into a more suitable museum was James Wild. The iron-framed structure was clad in red brick with a slate roof.

Young V&A, Bethnal Green | Look Up London

Viewing the building from the charming Museum passage, you can admire the murals designed by Frank Moody who worked with the female students of the South Kensington mosaic class.

Mural Detail, Young V&A in Bethnal Green | Look Up London

On the South side there are idyllic agricultural scenes while the North side shows images from art and industry.

Mural Detail, Young V&A in Bethnal Green | Look Up London

It’s not the only contribution women made to the building. The interior marble floor was the work of female inmates from Woking Jail!

You can read more about the future plans for the museum here. It’s due to reopen in Summer 2023.

Museum Passage, Bethnal Green | Look Up London

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1 Comment

  • Margaret Giltname


    During the Second World War was the building used as a dinning hall. I am sure as a young child my mother took me there.

    December 10, 2023 at 8:57 pm

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