Frederick John Horniman, Victorian tea trader and philanthropist began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts 'illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world' from around 1860. His overarching mission was to 'bring the world to Forest Hill' .
By the late nineteenth century these 'spoils had accumulated to such an extent that he gave up the whole house to the collections'. The family’s former London Road residence became known as the Surrey House Museum and was freely thrown open to the general public on 24 December 1890. The collection was divided into two sections - Art and Nature. in 1893 it was necessary to build an extension onto the museum.
The adjoining gardens were officially opened to the public on 1 June 1895.
In 1898 Mr Horniman decided to erect a more suitable public museum. The old museum was closed on 29 January 1898 and demolished in May of that year. Surrey Mount was used as a store house.
Charles Harrison Townsend was the architect commissioned to design the new museum and the foundations were laid between June and September 1898.
Mr Horniman resolved to donate the museum, collections and adjoining grounds as a free gift to the people in perpetuity with London County Council as Trustees.
The Museum and Gardens were formally opened to the public on 29 June 1901. The Horniman family continued to take an active interest in the museum and in 1912 Emslie Horniman generously donated money to build a new library and lecture theatre.
After the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 the Friends of the Horniman were established in 1988. The Horniman Public Museum and Public Park Trust was formed in 1991 and took legal responsibility for the Horniman employees, collections and property on 1st April 1992.