Ahead of my visit to The Household Cavalry Museum, I was expecting plenty of military history and display cases full of shiny ceremonial uniforms, but I was in for a few surprises. I discovered that concerns about ‘fake news’ were around over 350 years ago, that an England 1966 World Cup winner served in the Household Cavalry, and how one officer’s Mess bill became considerably more expensive than he anticipated.
If you have visited London, you are probably familiar with the sight of two mounted troopers in Whitehall. Take a walk between the horses and under the arch into Horse Guards Parade and you will find this small but perfectly formed museum in the corner of the parade ground. The entrance is behind the statue of Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley (also on horseback) pictured above.
The museum outlines the history of two of the British Army’s most senior regiments, The Life Guards and The Blues and Royals. These form the Household Cavalry which was established in 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy to protect King Charles II. However, guarding the Monarch could at times be rather dull which led to a degree of indolence. In 1894, Queen Victoria found the entire Guard drinking and gambling and ordered an inspection every day for the next 100 years. Known as the ‘Punishment Parade’, this tradition continues today.
Since the turn of the 20th Century, the Household Cavalry has been involved in conflicts across the world. When I visited, the museum was marking the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War with a temporary exhibition. What looked like a more permanent section outlined the regiments’ involvement in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. This included a fascinating display of body armour and equipment that soldiers now wear and carry. I was particularly struck by the goggles that are made from the same material as fighter jet canopies. These can resist bullets and bomb blast debris.
Even in the UK, life in the Household Cavalry can be hard, and indolence is no longer part of the culture. Quite the reverse as troopers spend at least ten hours a day cleaning and preparing their kit and horses for the daily inspection. You can peek into the stables from one of the museum’s galleries. Most new recruits learn to ride after they join the regiments. I winced whilst watching a video display in which a young trooper described falling off his rather large horse and breaking his ribs. Already incapacitated, he fell off a further four times due to his determination to complete the riding lesson.
Look carefully and you can find some rare gems throughout the museum. A pamphlet entitled ‘The Kingdomes Intelligencer’ listed members of the King’s Life Guard, and was published by the authorities in 1660 expressly ‘to prevent false newes’. The cap awarded to Jack Charlton when England played West Germany in 1965, a year before the World Cup victory against the same country, is on display because Charlton served his two years' national service with the Household Cavalry.
One of the most extravagant items in the museum is the Zetland Trophy. The Earl of Zetland left The Blues in 1872 without presenting the customary leaving present to the Officers’ Mess. When reminded of this, Zetland casually remarked, ‘‘Oh, buy a piece of silver and send me the bill’. His fellow officers took him at his word and commissioned a massive table centrepiece which takes four men to lift. The cost was £1,000, an enormous sum at the time.
When reflecting on my visit, I think it is one of the smallest items which has left the most lasting impression, a bent nail about three inches long. This was one of many nails packed into an IRA bomb which was detonated in Hyde Park on 20 July 1982. The blast killed four troopers from The Blues and Royals and seven horses. A further 23 people were injured.
I was reminded of the important role that small museums such as The Household Cavalry Museum play in telling such powerful stories, often with little fuss or technology. Next time you are in London, I recommend you enter the door in the corner of Horse Guards Parade and take a look around.
If any of the museum’s volunteers are in the galleries, have a chat with them. They will expand on what is printed on the information boards. If you visit in the morning, catch the Changing of the Guard on Horse Guards Parade at 11am (10am on Sundays). If visiting the museum later in the day, watch the ‘Punishment Parade’ at 4pm.
Check the museum’s website for current opening days and times and ticket prices. Your admission helps support the work of the Household Cavalry Foundation.
Pre-booking is recommended but not essential, and you should allow about an hour for your visit. You can opt to take an audio-visual guide in English or browse at your own pace.
The museum and shop are on one level. Being housed in an old stable block, much of the museum’s floor is stone cobble. The museum has seating in the galleries and an accessible toilet near the shop.
Thank you to Museum Director Alice Pearson for providing complimentary access to The Household Cavalry Museum. Thanks also to museum volunteer Ian Bell for sharing some fascinating stories. All images taken by Ian Lacey, with permission.
* * *
Ian Lacey is a public historian. He is currently undertaking postgraduate research at Royal Holloway University of London into the experiences of UK travellers who went Interrailing between 1972 and 1990. Ian has worked in the visitor attraction sector for the National Trust at Osterley Park and House, and most recently as Marketing Manager at the Houses of Parliament where he was responsible for promoting tours and visits. Aside from history, Ian’s interests include travel and tourism, accessibility, photography, music, and cricket.