Today (December 24) in London History – The Horniman

Horniman’s – the very special museum in Londoners’ London – opened its doors on December 24th, 1890. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


And counting. 

It’s Christmas Eve.

And how very appropriate.

It’s been said that London isn’t a city, it’s a country. Or a world. Or even a universe.

And that it’s the gift that goes on giving. 

How many Londons are there? Tough question to answer. Some people would answer it by saying how many Londoners are there? That’s how many Londons there are. But then what about the visitors to London? Perhaps 30 million of them every year. If there are nine million Londoners and 30 million visitors that’s nearly 40 million Londons. And what about the people – visitors and Britons who live within striking distance of London and who used to come to London and because of age and infirmity can no longer do so – but who, in our, London Walks’ case – go on our virtual tours – we hear from them regularly – “I used to love coming to London – I can’t manage it now – but your virtual tours are  making it possible for me to go on visiting London, thank you so much” – what about all those Londons, the Londons in those greying heads? And indeed what about the Londons of the people who’ve never been to London? Not even once? I remember being told by the young American who made our first website that his grandmother had never been to London and that he’d told her he was making a website about London, and she’d said, “London, it sounds so big.” That American grandmother’s London – “so big” – is one more London we can add to the tally.

But for our purposes here, today, Christmas Eve, I want us to start with the claim – the pretty plausible claim – that there are two Londons: visitors’ London, tourists’ London – and Londoners’ London. And here’s where – like a chef – we stir in a dash of a special ingredient. Call it London’s gift-giving. Call it London’s ability to surprise.

Tourists’ London has all those world-famous attractions: the Tower of London, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Changing of the Guard, St Paul’s, the theatres, the restaurants, Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Royal Parks, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and Marble Arch, the Cutty Sark and O2 Centre, the shopping meccas, the River Thames, the famous villages, the list goes on and on. It’s virtually inexhaustible. But it’s just the layer of hard, crunchy – and very tasty – burnt caramel that tops creme brulee.  Londoners’ London is the rest of said dish of creme brulee. It’s not just delicious and nourishing and delightful – it’s often got the extra sparkle of coming as a surprise. In addition to all that, London’s got this too?

It’s a gift – a surprise gift. In some cases a gift however you turn it, whichever facet you look at.

Here I’m thinking about London’s out-of-the-way, unusual, little-known museums. By way of example, The Viktor Wynde Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History, the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Cinema Museum, the Fan Museum, The Magic Circle, 

Dennis Sever’s House of course, 18 Stafford Terrace, the Old Operating Theatre Museum, the list goes on and on. London isn’t just a world – it’s a world of museums. As well as being a museum itself of course. How many museums are there in London? Hundreds. Too many to count. It’s like trying to count bats coming out of a cave. 

And all of that is to set up what’s coming now. It was on this day, Christmas Eve 1890, that the Horniman Museum opened.

It was a kind of Christmas gift to London and Londoners. Today it’s a year-round London gift to all of us.

The story is London at its best. And, yes, London capitalism at its best.

The Horniman Museum is named after its collector and founder – Frederick Horniman. He was a tea merchant. How appropriate is that.

It was a family business. His father had invented a tea packaging machine.

By 1891 – a year after Frederick Horniman started displaying to the public his large collection of curios in his own house in Forest Hill – by 1891 Horniman and Co. was the biggest tea firm in the world. The export trade alone was over 5,000 chests per week, each chest containing 100 pounds of tea. 

Frederick Horniman was principled and admirable. In that same year, 1891, when his tea business opened its new premises, he said, “we supply direct, we employ no middlemen at all, we buy for cash, and we sell for cash…we never vary our quality any more than we vary our labels and we reduced our price when the tea duty was lowered…We cut everything as fine as we can, for we think that if we always give customers the best tea at a low price we shall never lose our trade. We made our trade by sticking to that principle and we shall never change. As a proof that our policy is the best the business grows every day. 

But what about the museum, you rightly say. Well, it’s of a piece, really, with the industrious, principled London businessman who founded it.

From a very early age Frederick Horniman was interested in natural history. As a youngster he collected butterflies, birds’ eggs, moths and insects of all kinds. And well, the child is the father to the man. 

The child’s collector’s instincts took wing when Frederick Horniman was a grown-up and his business interests had him crisscrossing the globe. The collection – amassed from his travels – came to comprise a great variety of rare and curious objects as well as those illustrative of natural history, arts, and handicrafts from all over the world.

It was one of those wonderful London potpourris: birds, butterflies, Egyptian and classical antiquities, manuscripts, armour, glass, porcelain and oriental ethnography and musical instruments. 

The collection got so big he had to extend his large house to 24 “saloons” to accommodate it. And it bears repeating, three days a week he was opening all of that up – under his own roof – to the public. For free. But in no time the collection and the number of people visiting it outgrew those 24 saloons. So sure enough, Frederick Horniman closed the existing museum and built a new one on the site.

In the words of his great-grandson Michael Horniman, “the new building, consisting basically of two large galleries and a distinctive tower, which has been described as one of the few large-scale masterpieces of English free-style architecture, was completed at a cost of £40,000 in 1901. Soon afterwards it was presented, with the collections and 15 acres of gardens, to the London county council, as representing the people of London. It was recorded on a plaque at the entrance that this should be ‘for ever as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment’.”

And that’s the Horniman. That’s London. That’s a fine Christmas present from a Londoner to Londoners, even those Londoners who’ve never been to London. 

Nothing to add except it’s where this Londoner is off to as soon as I finish voicing this piece.

And a Today in London recommendation. You’ll recall I recommended the Horniman at the end of yesterday’s podcast. For today, Christmas Eve, my recommendation is midnight mass at St. John’s Hampstead’s very beautiful old parish church. The service starts at 11.30 pm. Unless you’re living locally you’ll need an Uber. But that visit will be more than a visit. It’ll be an experience. And looked at that way – a couple of taxi fares – well, it’ll cost you way less than you’ll fork out for a few drinks in your over-priced hotel bar. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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