Geffrye Museum: The pub for labourers, the museum for the middle classes and an extension that resulted in class war

War of words erupts after council declares derelict building is of benefit to community
  • @MrNickClark

A museum dedicated to Britain’s middle classes has failed in an attempt to bulldoze the 175-year-old working class pub next door, in the wake of fierce local opposition.

The director of the Geffrye Museum in East London is said to have prompted outrage among locals opposed to the demolition after reportedly declaring at a public consultation meeting that he had “no interest in the culture of the labouring classes”.

David Dewing, who wanted to clear the way for a new extension to the museum to be built, argued that the site was running at capacity with 100,000 visitors a year and needed developing. But when Hackney Council’s planning committee scrutinised the building application they voted against it by seven to two.

The plans, drawn up by David Chipperfield Architects, involved knocking down the Marquis of Lansdowne pub next door to make way for a two-storey extension. It was intended that the new site would house a gallery, library and collections store as well as restaurant and conference facilities. The council said the benefits were “not of sufficient merit to justify the loss of the public house”, as well as potential damage to the site’s Grade I listed almshouse.

Mr Dewing described the rejection of the plans as a “complete shock” which had left his organisation “totally devastated”.

The pub, derelict for 20 years, is not listed but sits in a conservation area and Georgian and Victorian groups have said it would be a loss were it to be knocked down.

Will Palin, a trustee of the Spitalfields Trust, who led the campaign to save the Marquis, said: “Local people feel very strongly about the few historic buildings that are left in the area. People were shocked by the plans; they felt the museum was out of touch.”

He added: “The museum was constantly trying to denigrate the building… It’s a quintessential building from Hackney of the 1830s. It was buildings like these that made the area what it was.”

A local blogger, who goes by the title of The Gentle Author but did not want to be named, was at the public meeting. They told The Independent that the “whole room gasped” when Mr Dewing made his remark about “labouring classes”.

“I was so shocked that I wrote it down verbatim at once and I have witnesses,” they said. A second person present supported the story.

However, Mr Dewing responded: “We didn’t record the meeting, so I can’t stand here and say I never said that. But I don’t think I said it and it’s not something I believe. I disown it completely as a statement.” Mr Palin, who was not at the meeting added: “I know David, and he’s not a snob. It was an unfortunate thing to say. It may have been out of context.”

Mr Dewing said focusing on the living rooms of the middle class was a “valid historical theme” but added: “We don’t dismiss the labouring classes and the aristocracy. To say we’re not interested is a complete misstatement.”

He added his statements may have been confused but “to suggest this museum is some sort of elitist group is nonsense and hurtful”.