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Our history

Read about the events that shaped the Horniman family, the Museum and collections established by Frederick Horniman.

Frederick Horniman was born

He was born in Bridgwater, Somerset, the son of Quakers John and Ann Horniman. John, a tea merchant, sold his products in towns throughout the south west of England. The family later moved to Croydon.

Joining the family business

When he was 14, Frederick left the Quaker Friends’ School in Croydon where he had been a pupil from 1845-50. He joined the family firm, an increasingly successful tea company.

Horniman's Tea grows

Many foods during Victorian times were contaminated with chemicals to make them colourful. In 1855 the results of hundreds of tests were published. Horniman’s tea was declared pure and safe, giving a huge boost to sales.

The Horniman family

In 1859 Frederick married Rebekah Emslie. They had two children, Annie (1860) and Emslie (1863). Annie went on to found the first repertory company at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester.

Travels around the world

Frederick 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' and educate and enrich the lives of the local community.

His travels took him to destinations such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States collecting objects which 'either appealed to his own fancy or that seemed to him likely to interest and inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands'.

The Horniman family often travelled overseas. In 1884 Frederick signed the visitor’s book at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. He brought back models of the magnificent architectural restorations, used as guides for the painters.

"The collection goes or we do..."

With a house rapidly filling up with objects, Rebekah, Frederick's wife, is reported to have said 'either the collection goes or we do'.

With that, the family moved to Surrey Mount - the grounds of which adjoined those of the former residence. The location of there house is where our Prehistoric Garden now sits.

Surrey House Museum opens

Surrey House Museum was officially opened to the public on Christmas Eve by famous physician Sir Morell Mackenzie. In the following nine years there were more than half a million visitors.

Open for business

The museum was initially open every Wednesday and Saturday from 2pm until 9pm and on bank holidays from 10am to 9pm. Arrangements were made for the reception of schools, societies and clubs and every visitor was supplied with a free hand guide catalogue to help them examine and interpret the objects on display.

The collection was divided into two sections - Art and Nature. During its first year, the museum was open for 110 days and received 42,808 visitors. Mr Horniman and his staff including the museum's first curator Richard Quick continued to actively develop the collections with regards to both display and content. In 1893, it was necessary to build an extension onto the museum to accommodate the growing collection.

'Agents in every town'

Extensive new warehouses for Horniman’s Tea were opened at the docks where the Horniman at Hay’s pub now sits. It was reported that Horniman’s had ‘warehouses in the docks and agents in every town in the world’.

The Gardens opening

The Gardens adjoining the Museum were officially opened to the public on 1 June 1895.

They included a water Garden, a wishing seat, tennis courts and a putting green.

Elected as an MP

Frederick was elected as Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth, in Cornwall. He was a member of the Liberal Party, which later introduced the welfare reforms that led to the British welfare state.

A new museum

On 29 January, Surrey House Museum opened for the last time before the move to a purpose-built building. Frederick demonstrated the new Edison Phonograph to the crowds with a recording of his own voice. Construction started on a purpose built Museum at a cost of about £40,000.

The Horniman opens

The original Museum building opened to the public on 29 June 1901 by the Duke of Fife, Lord-Lieutenant of the County of London. It now has grade 2* listed status. It is made of Doulting stone (shelly granular limestone as used in Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey), and was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend.