Switched on to Soane

28th May 2024

Thanks to a National Lottery grant, Sir John Soane’s stableyard at the Royal Hospital Chelsea is being restored and transformed into a state-of-the-art visitor centre. A number of apprentices in learning trades like mechanics, plumbing and roofing, are important members of the team. As the immersive exhibition space, post office and cafe start to take shape, electrical apprentices Ryan and Kian share the impact working on the site has had on them.

A Different Working Experience

Two electrical apprentices in hi-vis jackets stood smiling in front of building site.
Ryan has been involved in the project from the start, while Kian joined the team about a month ago. 

Ryan started as a software developer but says he “always wanted to be hands on”, so began night courses at a local college before beginning an apprenticeship with electrical company T. James, who sent him on this placement. Kian also studied at college, then worked with his uncle, which led to his apprenticeship with the same company. 

Compared with the more usual warehouses and industrial jobs, both apprentices have found a heritage site poses new challenges.

“Warehouses are all the same. This is different. It’s nice to see your work looking good and people appreciating it”, Kian says.

Ryan says heritage work is more intricate:

“There are more restrictions and a lot more you have to do to make things suit the heritage state. It’s got to stay the same, you can’t damage things. In new builds, anything goes anywhere – here everything’s hidden away. It looks clean and pristine, like it was before any of this new electrical has gone in. 

In a warehouse, you never hide anything away, for accessibility. Here you have to think about accessibility but also aesthetics. You’re trying to keep things out of sight while make it user friendly.”

The deadlines have been challenging too, as everything underground needed to be resolved before the floors could be laid, and because the walls aren’t completely straight, fixing things to them has not been straightforward. Over the years, things have been added and retro-fitted, adding to the complexity. 

Hands-on History

The apprentices have found the work very fulfilling too.

Ryan explains:

“What’s most satisfying is when you can do something to the architect’s plan… You think ‘how on earth are we going to put that in?’ Then you get it so everything fits together and goes in nicely how it’s supposed to and you step back and go ‘wow!’”

The apprentices have both found the history of the place exciting.  “I didn’t even know this place existed. Now I’ve learned quite a few things and it’s intriguing to know and useful for the future too”, Kian says. 

Ryan has even started reading about the Royal Hospital on his breaks. He says it’s exciting to uncover the past.

“The building itself is so interesting. You’ve got all the ancient timbers and even the brick is intricate – today they build things as tight as they can. They might be technically better, but this looks better. You get a sense of the past. When we first stripped it, we found chairs, layers of old wallpaper, newspapers from 40 years ago. Working here makes you feel you’re part of its history.”

 Sparking an interest in heritage

Kian and Ryan say their team is doing a full electrical install – from security and fire alarms, to lighting and heating. At the end, they’ll be working with the museum creators to make sure the displays and immersive installations are set up and working. Ryan explains:

“We’ve got to try and hide things where nobody will see them, such as inside the joinery. We’ll be doing fancy lighting in all the rooms – the corner room has special audio visual equipment – music will play and screens will come on. I’ll definitely come back down to see it and I’ll point to everything and say ‘I done that!’”

Their experience has inspired both Ryan and Kian, who are keen to do more similar work:

“It’s definitely sparked an interest in heritage. There’s so much more detail, you have to think more about what you’re doing”, Kian says.

Ryan – who also worked on a lottery project at Leicester Cathedral – agrees: 

“With a museum like this you can come back and see how it looks, it makes you feel proud. I definitely want to do more. I’ll be going on the next heritage site”.

National lottery logo with text that reads made possible with heritage fund

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