[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Previous Next
of 10 items

The charming case of Alfred William Rowlett

Robin Strub, our Anthropology Volunteer, has been looking into the Horniman's collection of charms.

Have you ever wondered how the Horniman got its objects?

Who brought them here, and why? 

I’m here to help answer some of those questions! I volunteer in Anthropology’s collection of English charms and amulets, which has a lot of pieces from a man named Alfred William Rowlett. 

He came from the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots and, between 1904 and 1933, he sold the Horniman dozens of items that he had found as part of his town’s rural culture.

What do you think of when you look at the objects in the Horniman’s cases?  What do you imagine of the people who collected them?

Do you think of a Victorian, professorial man with a tweed jacket and pipe?

How about a Victorian dustman with a bin and broom? 

  • AW Rowlett by CF Tebbutt, From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978
    From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978

This picture is of Rowlett, who worked as a Dustman for the local government.  Bert Goodwin, a historian and local of St Neots, remembers Rowlett, and wrote about him for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s 2011-12 winter edition, including this picture of Rowlett and his dustbin making his rounds. 

When looking up Rowlett in the 1881 Census I found he was in work as a labourer by the time he was 13. He went on to become a businessman, as well as a Dustman, with an antiques shop, and worked with the Horniman in a professional capacity.  He even had his own official stationery that he used to write letters and invoices to the Horniman!  Here is how his letterhead looked:

  • Rowlett's, letterhead

We don’t know how Rowlett started working with the Horniman but as a local, he had specialist knowledge and access to his community. This was undoubtedly part of the benefit of the Horniman doing business with him. In a letter dated 6 May 1907, Rowlett noted that ‘my business is to find out and get all the necessary information I can get’ on objects destined for the Museum. 

His research is still important for the Horniman, as the things we know about the objects he sourced came via his connections. The information would otherwise have been lost without his detailed descriptors. 

Here is what he wrote about a ‘Spinning Jenny’ (object number 7.199) as an example, with a transcription beneath.

  • Spinning Jenny, Object description
    Object description

Spinning Jenny.

used at Easton Socon, Beds for Raffling oranges sweets & home made cakes at Holiday times & festivals with an original charm against the children in getting to high a number so as to benefit the owner of Spinning Jenny

used by Mrs Newton at home and village feasts in & Round Bedfordshire Cambs & Hunts

1856 half penny a spin

This is how the Spinning Jenny works:

You can see a piece of orange flint tied to the device - that’s the charm.

We know what that flint was for thanks to Rowlett, as well as precise details about how the Spinning Jenny is used. (I thought the owner would’ve been caught out by cheating, but my Curator figured out that if you keep the stone against your palm and hold out the Spinning Jenny, nobody can see that you have it in your hand!)

Rowlett would also make handwritten labels for artefacts that were entering the collection, and many of his labels are still stored with the objects. This is an example for number 9.41 in our collection, a wood pigeon’s foot that was used to ward off cramp.

  • Wood Pigeon, foot label
    foot label

A lot of the charms that Rowlett brought us are things from the natural world that people associated with various curative powers.

It may seem strange today, but the idea was that wood pigeons never get foot cramps. If I carry a wood pigeon’s foot, maybe that will protect me too. If you have ever heard of someone carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, it’s not too far a leap from practices today.

Rowlett’s community of St Neots still remembers him as someone to go to for these kinds of all-natural remedies for health problems.

Local historian Rosa Young transcribed several adverts from a 1900 issue of a local paper for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s, which included an old advert that Rowlett had put in the paper for his own special patent medicine. It cured everything (naturally) but Rowlett’s neighbours did come to him seeking his medical expertise.

Bert Goodwin, the local historian who photographed Rowlett, recounts that when he was a child he had a wart on his knee cured by Rowlett,

He cut a small twig from a bush which he called ‘Joseph’s Thorn’,  which he shaped into a spatula, and then made his mark on the wart X.  “There,” he said, “it will be gone by the next full moon.”  Strangely enough, I forgot about it, but when I next looked it had gone.

Because of Rowlett’s work at St Neots, the local historical society put up a Blue Plaque for him.

  • Rowlett's blue plaque, Thanks to Eatons Community Association
    Thanks to Eatons Community Association

Like the wood pigeon’s foot above, many of the objects that Rowlett brought to the Horniman were considered to have health benefits. The charms I’m studying were used by real people who believed in them, and used them to solve a variety of different problems. Ironically, Rowlett – with his Joseph’s Thorn for curing warts – thought that some of the charms’ owners were ‘eccentric’!

I don’t know about you, but I have lucky charms. Millions of people all over the world believe in the power of objects and in 2018, the Horniman will open a new gallery where you will be able to find charms from all around the world, including those collected by Rowlett!

If you’d like to see what Rowlett brought to the Horniman, and 2018 is too long to wait, you can find all of Rowlett’s objects online

The Horniman in other museums

All this week, we've been taking part in #MuseumInstaSwap - swapping our instagram with Royal Museums Greenwich.

It got us thinking, what of the Horniman can you find in other London museums? We did some searching, and here's what we found.

This great poster for the Horniman dates from 1938, and is one of four in the London Transport Museum's collections

In the Imperial War Museum, we found two photographs of Jack Gold's Variety Orchestra playing music on our bandstand during World War 2.

The British Museum holds many objects from Mexico, which were previously displayed at the Horniman in 1977 as part of an exhibition of popular arts of Mexico. Here is one, a servilleta, and the poster of our exhibition.

  • Servilleta from Mexico, Displayed at the Horniman in 1977− © British Museum
    Displayed at the Horniman in 1977

The Museum of London holds this impressive group of stone statues. It was manufactured by Eleanor Coade, stood above the entrance to the Pelican Life Insurance Office on Lombard Street - and was, for a time, displayed in our Gardens.

  • Group of stone sculptures, This was previously displayed in our Gardens.− © Museum of London
    This was previously displayed in our Gardens.

Finally, in the V&A Museum's collections, there are many wallpaper samples donated by Frederick Horniman's son Emslie - like these two by Walter Crane, Seed and Flower and Peacock.

  • Seed and Flower wallpaper , By Walter Crane− © V&A Museum
    By Walter Crane

Conservatory Anniversary

It's one of the Horniman's standout architectural features. So it might surprise some to learn that October 2014 marks just 25 years that the Grade II listed Coombe Cliff Conservatory has stood in our Gardens.

Of course, the Conservatory itself is a lot older than 25 years. It was originally constructed in 1894, at the Horniman family home, Coombe Cliff House, in Croydon.

Conservatories were popular additions to large houses in the 19thcentury, providing shelter and an artificial climate for sensitive plants to flourish. The Coombe Cliff conservatory was constructed Glasgow firm of MacFarlane’s, Scotland at the time a world leader in architectural cast ironwork. The company was well known for its decorative cast iron and had been awarded an International prize at the 1862 International Exhibition.

Coombe Cliffe house had been the home of our founder's parents, and Frederick Horniman's mother lived there until her death in 1900. After being sold in 1903, the house later served as a convalescent home for children, college of art, education centre and teachers' hub.

Over the years, many voices spoke out for the need for preservation of the Coombe Cliff Conservatory, as the house was eventually left abandoned and suffered from neglect. In 1977, the building suffered considerable damage in a fire.

Eventually, it was decided that the best way to preserve this listed building was to dismantle and move it to another location. This work began in 1981, although it would be a few more years before ownership was transferred to the Horniman, and the component parts spent a few years in storage in Crystal Palace Park.

The dismantled Conservatory was eventually moved to the Horniman in 1986, and its reconstruction began in June 1987.

The Coombe Cliff conservatory has impressive dimensions, being 56 ft long, 22 ft wide and 20 ft long.

The ambitious restoration project was completed in 1989, and the Conservatory officially opened in the Horniman Gardens in October of that year.

The cast-iron work-panels, friezes, roof spandrels within and the fish scales, terminals and crestings without, all show the wealth of pattern available from MacFarlane’s. The decoration is ornate but it lightens the effect of the structure and gives it an airy appearance belying the weight of the materials from which is it made.

Today, the Conservatory is home to music, film, dance and poetry performances at many of our special events, provides a stunning setting for our arts and crafts markets, and is available to hire for weddings, civil ceremonies and other special celebrations.

We'd love to hear from anyone who remembers the Gardens before the addition of this fantastic building, or even remembers its reconstruction period. If that's you, and you have any memories to share with us, please get in touch on Twitter or Facebook.

Share your #HornimanMemories

This month at the Horniman we're looking for our visitors to send us their favourite memories of the museum and gardens, to create a collection of #HornimanMemories.

Whether it's the first time you laid eyes on the Horniman Walrus, discovering the view of the London skyline from our Bandstand, or getting your hands on real museum objects in our Hands on Base, we want you to share all your favourite Horniman moments.

To add your memories to the project visit Twitter or Instagram and share using the #HornimanMemories hashtag. You could share a story, a feeling, or even a photo from a previous visit. We'll be using the hashtag to find all the memories shared and collect them together using Storify.

At the end of the month, we'll be selecting our three favourites and offering their owners a year's free Horniman Membership, including free access to the Aquarium and special exhibitions, as well as plenty of other perks, so you can continue to create even more memories here at the Horniman.

We'll also be sharing some of our own #HornimanMemories throughout the project, using pictures from the museum archives to reveal moments from the museum's past. Look out for these on our Twitter account.

The Case of the Missing Polar Bear

A large taxidermy polar bear stands proudly in our family-friendly Extremes exhibition at the moment.

Its arrival here caused quite a flurry, but it wasn't the first time a polar bear had been on display at the Horniman.

In the early 1890s, Frederick Horniman bought a polar bear from a man called James Henry Hubbard. The polar bear was first displayed in the Canadian Section of the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, along with many other Canadian animals including our famous walrus.

The polar bear is first mentioned in local newspaper articles as 'a polar bear realistically attacking a seal'.

It was one of the big stars of the Museum for over 60 years and was very popular with museum visitors. Over the years, the polar bear and other animals were moved several times. It was stated that it took five men to move each one.

However, in the late 1940s, the polar bear was sold.

There were many reasons for this: the fur of the polar bear may have become dirty and the mount itself may no longer have been in good condition; staff in the museum began to research new themes for display based on the latest scientific ideas and developments and there would have been very little space to store large animals at that time. Also, by the 1940s tastes and attitudes towards taxidermy had changed significantly and it became increasingly unfashionable to display large animals in museums.

The polar bear was sold on 17 September 1948, to a Mr T Allen, a local ‘scrap’ merchant. The polar bear's fate is a mystery.

  • Children with polar bear, Curators' children pose with the polar bear in the early 1900s. Could the polar bear have been used like this for other photographs after it left the Horniman?
    Curators' children pose with the polar bear in the early 1900s. Could the polar bear have been used like this for other photographs after it left the Horniman?

At one time, there were rumours that the polar bear had been bought and put on display in Selfridges, but this has never been confirmed.

In 2006, we set upon a search to find out if the polar bear still exists somewhere out in the wider world, but were not able to find anything concrete. We learned that it had been sold on by Mr Allen in the 1950s to a photographic studio in Southend-on-Sea, but unfortunately have not found any evidence of what happened to it after that.

Do you live in Southend-on-Sea or have visited in the past and remember having your photograph taken with a polar bear? We'd love to hear from you.

#TranscribeTuesday at the Horniman

Today marks the start of #TranscribeTuesday in our archive, as we invite the public to become Horniman historians and deceipher the handwritten notes of curators and collectors past.

Normally hidden in our archive stores, 'Scrapbooks G & H' provide a fascinating record of the Horniman's early purchases, including some of the most iconic objects from the collection.

These records are over 100 years old, and show objects signed over to the Horniman's first curator, Richard Quick, and even to the museum's founder Frederick Horniman himself.

Many contain their own notes about their purchases, often including quick sketches, presumably to remind themselves of which object was which before the days of quick and easy photography.

Now, each page of these fascinating folios has been carefully digitised, but there is still some information missing from our collections database.

Inspired by St Fagans National History Museum in Wales, we're uploading these documents to the photo-sharing website Flickr, and inviting the public to transcribe the handwritten notes in the comments. We're hoping this information can then be added to our database to help researchers in the future.

To get involved and add your transcriptions (there might be more than one interpretation of some particularly spidery scrawls), head on over to our #TranscribeTuesday Flickr set and sign in to get started. If you don't already have a Flickr account, creating one is free and easy.

We've started the project by uploading receipts from the first page of Scrapbook G.

Transcription can be a tricky task: while the text of some receipts seems easy to read, the handwriting of some sellers seems deliberately designed to stump.

You don't need to transcribe a whole document at once (although we are looking for a transcription for every piece of text on each receipt). If a letter of word is completely unreadable, typing [?] or [000] in your description is a good way to show it.

If you fancy doing a little work to hone your transcription skills first, why not check out The National Archives interactive tutorial? You can try your hand at some really tricky passages and check how accurate your reading was at the end.

Alternatively, if you don't fancy your deceiphering skills, just taking a look at some of the receipts now on display online allows a fascinating glimpse into museum purchases of the past.

We'll be sharing further pages from the scrapbook on Twitter every Tuesday, as well as tweeting some transcription tips, so be sure to look out for the #TranscribeTuesday hashtag. Other organisations are also making use of the tag, so take a look and see where else you can get involved.

Richard Quick from the Horniman to Russell-Cotes

Collections Access Officer Sarah has been renewing the Horniman's connection to Bournemouth's Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum through our Object in Focus loans scheme.

In light of a recent loan to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, I can’t help but look through our archive for pictures of our friend Richard Quick.

I work on an Arts Council England funded project called Object in Focus whereby we proactively encourage museums to borrow objects from our stores. One of these objects is a beautiful ceramic shogi (chess) set from Japan.

This object has been part of the Object in Focus project since 2012 and has so far toured to Maidstone Museum, Hastings Museum, Powell-Cotton Museum and Chiddingstone Castle, and lastly to Bournemouth at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

The Horniman Museum is comparable to the Russell-Cotes Museum not only due to our similar collections, but also because of Richard Quick. Quick was resident curator of the Horniman Museum and Gardens from 1891 to 1901. His move to the Horniman coincided with the museum being open to the public, and he oversaw a change in museum practice: the retention of letters and receipts relating to purchases, production of annual reports, and rearrangement and relabelling of numerous displays.

During Quick’s tenure, he also acted as an agent for John Frederick Horniman and between 1897-1899, listed his entire collection in two bound registers including a ‘Geo-Global Survey’ of the ethnographic collection that listed a total of 7,920 objects.  

After leaving the Horniman Museum he worked at Bristol Art Gallery and Museum until 1921, then moved to the Russell-Cotes where he worked until he retired in 1932. It is understood that Quick was handpicked by Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes due to his extensive Japanese knowledge.

Quick was married but his wife died not long after he started working at Russell-Cotes. His daughter, who was a nurse, also lived in the museum. When a visitor died of a heart attack in Gallery One, she tried to save him before the doctor arrived.

Quick gave many lectures both at the Horniman and Russell-Cotes Museums. He was a curator for 43 years and an original member of the Japan Society in London.  


We've posted a lot about the Bioblitz project, but while the Natural History team have been busy sorting through thousands of specimens, our librarian Helen has been tackling her own review of the Horniman Library's historic books.

  • An 18th century travel journal from the library's historic collection, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

The Horniman Museum and Gardens has always had a library, which used to be in the room now taken up by the Hands On Base before it got its own dedicated building.

Librarians have continued to add to the library right up to the present day, focusing on books which have strong connections to the collections - Natural History, Anthropology and Musical Instruments - and to the Horniman itself.

Now, the Horniman Library is regularly used by staff for research purposes, and is open to the public by appointment on Thursdays and Fridays (email enquiry@horniman.ac.uk to arrange a visit). You can also browse the library catalogue online.

  • A 19th century book of handwritten 'recipes', Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

The library's oldest volumes were donated when the museum was founded, including many by the Horniman family. Some volumes are centuries old, while others tell stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is this historic collection which has been the focus of Helen's 'Bookblitz' for the last year.

  • Frederick Horniman's own bookplate in an early Entomology volume, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

The reasons behind carrying out this review are similar to those behind Bioblitz and Collections People Stories. By examining each volume on the shelves closely, Helen is able to establish exactly what we have, and whether anything is particularly special or needs extra attention, either from researchers or our Conservation team.

  • An old volume showing signs of damage from bookworm , Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

One of the most important tasks is checking that the numbers assigned to each book in the original accession registers and modern catalogue, and those attached to the books themselves all match. Just like in the object collections, these unique numbers allow us to track the book's history and everything we have learnt about it.

  • An original accession register, showing volumes added to the Horniman Library in the 1930s, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

With the other collections reviews running alongside, the Bookblitz has offered a fantastic opportunity to make new links with other Horniman collections. We even have some books which tell the story of how our own museum objects were collected.

  • An intriguing title, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

Just like Bioblitz and Collections People Stories, people with specialist knowledge have thrown new light on some of the library's collection. Judith MaGee, Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum, joined Helen to look over the fantastic Natural History volumes.

  • An early entomology volume complete with stunning illustrations, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

We'll be blogging about a few of the discoveries Helen has made when making her way through the library's catalogues, so stay tuned to see more fascinating historical books.

Bookblitz blog posts:

Crocodile Hunting in Central America

Japanese Fairy Tales

Man: His Structure and Physiology

Another Frederick Hornemann

The Oldest Book in the Collection: De Materia Medica

Early Entomology

Archive Photos of Horniman Gardens

Our gardens have been open to the public for 117 years today - they were first opened on 1 June 1895. This week, following a major development, they are re-opening.

Our new display gardens explore the links between the plants in our gardens and the collections in our museum, which was our founder Frederick Horniman's vision. He wanted the Museum and Gardens to be a place for “recreation, instruction and enjoyment”.

We hope you enjoy these archive photographs of the Museum and Gardens from the late 19th and early 20th century, and will spend some time enjoying our gardens over the coming summer.

Entrance to Horniman Museum and Gardens, early 20th century

Front of the Horniman Museum in 1896

Horniman water Gardens in 1924.

Dutch Barn on the Bandstand Terrace

Bandstand Terrace around 1903 / 1904

Rear view of the Bandstand from early 20th century

Bandstand and Terrace in 1911

Boating pond with railway in background, early twentieth century

Westwood Park Gate entrance, early 20th century

The Avenue looking south towards London Road, late 19th century

Previous Next
of 10 items