London’s quirkiest museums

Royal London Hospital Museum

Situated in the crypt of the Anglican church that is part of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, you’ll find fascinating early medical equipment such as a case of bladder stones and the operation bell that was tolled to summon attendants to hold down patients before the introduction of anaesthetics. There are displays on the most famous patient, Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and First World War nursing heroine Edith Cavell, plus material relating to Jack the Ripper and H. H. Crippen, George Washington’s false teeth and an early ultraviolet-light lamp used in treating George V. (020–7377 7608;

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Belonging to Britain’s oldest manufacturing company a working foundry that’s been based in east London since 1420, moving to its present site in 1738—it focuses on tower bells, the most famous of which is 13½ ton Big Ben, cast here in 1858. The foundry’s connection with Westminster Abbey dates back to 1583; America’s original Liberty Bell, now in Philadelphia, was cast here in 1752, and Whitechapel bells can be found as far afield as St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Currently in progress is a peal of bells for St Magnus the Martyr in Lower Thames Street. (020–7247 2599;

British Optical Association Museum

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Two rooms in this Georgian house are crammed with intriguing artefacts relating to optometry and human vision. Founded by the British Optical Association in 1901, and on public display since 1914, the collection includes a pair of 16th-century ivory nose spectacles; Dr Johnson’s glasses and case of about 1780; scissor spectacles and spectacles in leather, whalebone bejewelled and as fashion items; the earliest sunglasses (1790, Venetian, as worn by the actor Goldoni); archaeological specimens, such as eyes from Egyptian mummies; and a section dedicated to contact lenses going back to the 1880s. Some of the machines were used until shockingly recently. (020–7766 4353;

Foundling Museum

The story of London’s abandoned children, including poignant tokens left by their mothers, is intertwined with a superb collection of art and one of the best Rococo interiors in Britain in this unusual museum near the site of the now demolished Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. Britain’s first home for abandoned babies was established in 1739, thanks to the campaigning of Thomas Coram and benefactors such as Hogarth and Handel, whose score for Messiah is here. The hospital doubled as Britain’s first public art gallery, the success of which led to the founding of the RA in 1768. (020–7841 3600;

Pollock’s Toy Museum

Started by Marguerite Fawdry in 1956, this delightful collection of toys is housed, with the original toy theatre shop and a toyshop, in a pair of 18th- and 19th-century houses off Tottenham Court Road. Crammed onto three rickety floors are toys of every conceivable description, ranging from an Egyptian mouse with a moving tail and mouth from about 2,000bc to toy weapons of the 1960s, although the majority are Victorian and Edwardian. (020–7636 3452;

Westminster Abbey Museum

Celebrating its centenary this year, it’s best known for a unique collection of wax and wooden funeral effigies the ‘ragged regiment’ of historic figures that includes Elizabeth I, Charles II and Edward III, whose wooden effigy is the oldest of a monarch in Europe, plus William Pitt and Lord Nelson. Other memorable exhibits include Henry V’s sword, saddle and helmet and a mysterious 4th-century Roman sarcophagus found on the site. But the highlight is surely the 13th–century retable believed to have been made for the high altar of Westminster Abbey, recently on display after years of conservation and one of England’s oldest altarpieces. (020–7654 4831;

Museum of Brands

This museum features more than 12,000 original examples of brand packaging and advertising for toys, games, posters, magazines, fashions, food and postcards. Here, you can travel through a ‘time tunnel’ to view decades of consumer culture from the Victorian era to the present day. (020–7908 0880;

Ragged School Museum

This was the largest of London’s ‘ragged schools’, founded to give poor children a free education. It’s located in one of three warehouses leased by Dr Barnardo. In 1896, 1,075 children were registered for the day schools here, with up to 2,500 attending Sunday schools and evening classes. It includes a re-creation of an 1896 girls’ classroom and a typical East End kitchen. (020–8980 6405;

Bank of England Museum

Did you know that the word sterling comes from the Middle English word ster, meaning strong, rigid or fixed? Or that the pre-decimal currency had 240 pennies to the pound because that was the number produced from a pound’s weight of 92.5% pure silver? These quirky facts and much more information can be found in the museum located within the vast complex of the Bank of England, founded in 1694, and one of the oldest central banks in the world. You can handle a gold ingot weighing two stone and learn about the history of inflation. (020–7601 5545;

Clockmakers’ Museum

Founded by the Clockmakers’ Company in 1813 and now housed in the Guildhall Library, this fascinating collection of horological curiosities, the oldest of its kind, tells the story of timekeeping in the context of London’s role as a major clock- and watch-making centre from about 1600. There are displays on John Harrison, who invented the marine timekeeper that could calculate longitude at sea, and clocks belonging to prominent figures such as Isaac Newton. Curiosities include a tin box containing an ingenious attachment for turning an ordinary pocket watch into an alarm clock, the smallest screw ever made (47,000 of which could fit into one thimble), and a water clock consisting of a copper bowl pierced with a miniscule hole that, when floating on water, sinks in about 25 minutes. (020–7332 1868;

Cuming Museum

This most quirky of London’s museums houses one of the very few Victorian private collections to have survived intact. Opened in 1906, it’s the legacy of the Cuming family—Richard and Henry Syer (father and son), who, between 1780 and 1900, bought thousands of artefacts at London sales. The many treasures include a feathered cape; a Hawaiian gourd bottle acquired during Capt Cook’s final two voyages; some of the first Egyptian antiquities sold on the British market; slippers belonging to Queen Anne and Queen Victoria; and a 19th-century dentist’s cap embroidered with extracted teeth. (020–7525 2332;

Grant Museum of Zoology

England’s oldest and last remaining university zoological collection, this is a treasure trove of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in jars of fluid, all crammed into a series of rooms lined with old-fashioned cabinets that re-create the atmosphere of a Victorian natural-history museum. Founded as a teaching collection in 1827 by the radical zoologist Robert Grant (mentor to Darwin), the museum, part of UCL’s Department of Biology, is still used for teaching. Look out for the bones of a dodo, the skeleton of a quagga and the dissected corpse of a Tasmanian tiger. The museum’s latest find is a collection of moles artistically arranged in a jar of formalin. You can adopt one of the 55,000 specimens and have your name displayed beside it. (020–7679 2647;