Today (January 15) in London History – no riff-raff allowed

On this day in London History? Has to be the British Museum’s birthday.


London calling.

It’s January 15th and we’re off to the British Museum. The British Museum, the world’s first free, national, public museum.

And how appropriate. Because today is the British Museum’s birthday. January 15th, 1759 was the day the British Museum opened its doors to the public. 

And how special is this, we’ve almost got it to ourselves. There was a grand total of eight visitors that first day. They called them Readers because then it was principally a collection of manuscripts and books. 

And look, that way of describing it – “opened its doors to the public” – needs to be taken with a grain of salt. 

This grain of salt, for example. It’s the Abstract – I’m quoting here – the “Abstract of the Statutes and Rules relating to the Inspection of the British Museum.” I tracked it down it in a contemporary newspaper. It’s an announcement in the January 9th, 1759 edition of the Whitehall Evening Post. 

It reads: “Persons desirous to see the Museum, must, in Writing, give in their Names, Condition, and Places of Abode, also the Day and Hour they desire to be admitted, to the Porter, before Nine in the Morning, on some preceding Day, which he will enter in a Register, to be laid every Night before the Principal Librarian and if he shall judge them proper, he will direct the Porter to deliver Tickets to them on applying a second Time for Tickets.”

What a palaver. Especially that “give their condition.” Makes it perfectly clear, there wouldn’t be any riff-raff “inspecting” the British Museum.

The “public” in those first years was “the better sort of people.” And to a man, those well-connected visitors were given personal tours of the collections by the museum’s trustees and curators. And that was the way the game was played for 70 years. Finally, in 1830, the visiting regulations were liberalised. The great unwashed were allowed in. And they extended the opening hours. Those first years it was open just from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. Which, if you think about it, would have automatically debarred working people, servants, etc. 

Anyway, let’s suppose WE passed muster – the Librarian adjudged us studious and curious persons fit to be given tickets, and we’ve had our tour, it’s now three o’clock and we’re on our way out…

If it’s not too vulgar a thing to do, how about if we turn left out of the front door and go along just a stone’s throw to 3 Bloomsbury Place. 

3 Bloomsbury Place – it’s a very fine 16 room house – was Sir Hans Sloane’s house. He actually had the house next door as well. Needed it for, well, you’ll see…

Anyway, Sir Hans Sloane is the reason we have the British Museum. And this time of the year is certainly Sir Hans Sloane season. He died on January 11th, 1753. Was buried a week later, on January 18th. He’s buried next to his wife in the southeast corner of the churchyard at Chelsea Old Church. And of course today – January 15th, six years later, 1759 – was the day the British Museum opened.

And maybe just a couple of takeaways about the man. He was Anglo-Irish. He was born in Killyleagh in County Down in 1660. Yes, he lived to a great old age. As a youngster he developed – here I’m quoting again – “a strong inclination to the study of the Works of Nature.”

Unforgettable detail: as a sixteen-year-old he developed a pulmonary infection which left him periodically spitting blood for the rest of his long life.

When he was 19 he came to London. Lodged in a house in Water Lane, adjacent to the Apothecaries Hall where he studied chemistry. Personal note: I’m so glad I found that out. Apothecaries Hall – still there, it’s London’s most beautiful Livery Company building. From here on out, every time I go there I’m  going to be seeing, in my mind’s eye, a young Hans Sloane walking across that handsome courtyard and going inside. 

Anyway, in due course our chemistry student becomes a physician. A hugely successful physician. And he marries a very wealthy woman. So he’s set. What does cast a shadow on the matter is that his father-in-law was a Jamaican sugar plantation owner, one of the principal purchasers of enslaved people on the island. So there you have it right in the solar plexus – slavery was one of the underwriters of the British Museum.

Sloane went to Jamaica. Collected no end of scientific trophies, including 800 plant specimens. 

The diarist John Evelyn gave an account of Sloane’s Jamaica haul. Evelyn described it as ‘a universal Collection of the natural productions of Jamaica consisting of Plants, [fruits,] Corralls, Minerals, [stones,] Earth, shells, animals, Insects, &c: collected by him with greate Judgement.’

Collecting was what Hans Sloane was put on earth to do. 

He basically created his own museum.

His collection of rarities, as he called it, got so large that he had to acquire the house next door, 4 Bloomsbury Place, to store it.

And look, Sloane didn’t just hoover up individual rarities – he bought up other collections. 

The figures tell the story. They’re jaw-dropping. Sloane amassed over 80,000 natural and artificial rarities, over 40,000 books and manuscripts, and 32,000 coins and medals. 

And there you have, in that assembly, the core collections of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Library. 

At the time of his death the collection was said to be worth £100,000. Say £25 million in today’s money.

He wanted to keep the collection together if at all possible. I’ve read Sloane’s fifty-page-long will. It’s a very clever document. It’s designed to keep the collection together. It’s a pecking order of whose to inherit the collection. Beginning with the King. If the King didn’t want it Parliament got the next crack of the whip. And so on. Down at the end of the line, foreign cities and bodies, which might be likely to take it on. What’s more, the beneficiaries were on the clock should their turn come to take it or leave it. The named British potential beneficiaries could see that if they didn’t take it, the collection might end up in – horror of horrors – foreign hands. In Madrid, for example. 

The only catch was Sloane wanted, in return, a sum of £20,000 for his daughters. Not that they were poor. Their father had his £100,000 collection of rarities but he also had a ton of personal wealth to leave them. Another £100,000 – a cool £25 million, remember, in today’s money. Anyway, the King didn’t want Sloane’s collection of rarities. Or maybe he didn’t want to part with the £20,000. But Parliament – next in line – took the bait. It was probably a combination of knowing they were getting the bargain of the millennium – something valued at £100,000 for an outlay of £20,000. That, and the thought that the world-famous collection could end up in Johnny Foreigner’s hands if they didn’t take it.

And that’s pretty much the story of the early days of the British Museum. The continuing story is of course a marvel. Starting with the size of the collection. It runs to about eight million objects today. 

There is, though, one other matter that interests me greatly as a guide, as someone who’s fascinated by the individual character of London neighbourhoods. The British Museum was initially housed in the 17th-century mansion Montague House. Montague House stood where the British Museum stands today. The collection outgrew Montague House so it was demolished to make room for the much larger building that is today’s British Museum. The intriguing thing is that when they were casting about in the 1750s, trying to find a building to house the collection, the two leading candidates were Montague House and Buckingham House, the forerunner of Buckingham Palace. It was a mansion owned by the Duke of Buckingham. 

Montague House won out. Three years later Buckingham House would be bought by George III as a residence for his Queen, Charlotte. And those two property moves essentially dictated the very different character of the two London neighbourhoods in question: the Buckingham Palace purlieus and Bloomsbury, the home of the British Museum.

And on that note, let’s take leave of 1759. Get back to 2022. 

From London and London Walks to one and all – keep on Londoning wherever you. Hope to see you soon.

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