Our history

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

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is located in Forest Hill, South East London.

It first opened as the Surrey House Museum in 1890 in the Horniman family residence. In 1901 it changed its name to the Horniman Museum when it re-opened in a new purpose-built museum building.

The Horniman is named after Frederick Horniman, who inherited and ran his father’s business, Horniman’s Tea, and was elected as an MP for the Liberal Party in 1895.

Frederick Horniman has historically been remembered through his museum as a social reformer who campaigned for the creation of the British Welfare State, and was committed to raising standards of living in Britain across all sectors of society. It is said that he built his museum to “bring the world to Forest Hill” and provide an opportunity for people from all walks of life to see and learn about global craftsmanship and creativity.

It is however also important to remember that the wealth that enabled him to make his collection, build his museum, and campaign as a social reformer in Britain, was reliant on the exploitation of people living in the British Empire.

The Horniman family did not own tea plantations, but were merchants, buying mostly Chinese tea on the London market at auction. This trade took advantage of the low price of tea enabled by the British sale of Opium in China.

They made huge profits from the tea trade, using their reputation as honest Quakers to promote their brand of pure, unadulterated tea. This drew on anti-Chinese sentiment in Britain to build mistrust in other sources of Chinese tea.

The tea growing process was labour intensive, poorly compensated, and in many cases used indentured or forced labour. The protections for workers that Horniman campaigned for in the UK were knowingly absent in the global plantations of the supply chain, that he relied on to supply his business with tea. It is this exploitation that made the tea trade so profitable. Read more about Frederick Horniman’s colonial legacy.

Colonial legacy

The Victorian and colonial context in which Frederick Horniman and his staff collected and documented objects also need critical reinterpretation today, working with international partners and community members to ensure their cultural heritage is displayed and cared for respectfully and ethically.

The size of the collection has expanded enormously to around 350,000 objects, including internationally important collections of anthropology and musical instruments, and alongside this growth, the expectations of museum visitors around explicit recognition of the colonial legacy have increased.

Look through the timeline below to learn more about how the Horniman Museum and Gardens came to be, the Surrey House museum and the Horniman family.

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: business is booming

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 their 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. The collection was divided into two sections - Art and Nature.
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.

'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’.
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.

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

In the same year, 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.


Natural History

Taxidermy mount of a Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus).
See full collection record

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.
Dr. H. S. Harrison was appointed Director of the Museum in 1904 and remained in this position until retiring due to ill health in 1937. Harrison was responsible for reorganising and extending the collections, introducing a scheme of lectures and a number of small popular guides to the collections written by Harrison himself. He also served as honorary secretary of the Royal Anthropological Institute and edited its Journal for a number of years.

Frederick Horniman dies

On 5 March 1906 Frederick Horniman died at his home in Falmouth House on Hyde Park Terrace in London. He was buried with his first wife, Rebekah in Camberwell Old Cemetery.

The 1912 extension

Frederick Horniman's son Emslie Horniman generously donated money to build a new library and lecture theatre. The extension was also designed by Charles Harrison Townsend.
Dr. L. W. G. Malcolm was appointed Director of the Museum. Originally from Australia, L. W. G. Malcolm trained as an anthropologist at Cambridge with A. C. Haddon and W. H. R. Rivers, and had worked at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as a Conservator. He worked at the Horniman until his death in 1947.

Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0
Dr. Otto Samson was appointed Director of the Museum in 1947. Otto greatly expanded the Horniman collection strategy through several different initiatives. This included the establishment of a post in ethnomusicology and an active collection of musical instruments.
D. M. Boston OBE was appointed Director of the Museum. During his directorship, collections from field workers increased significantly - with both curators encouraged to pursue their own fieldwork and also using external field workers, some of whom were supported by the Emslie Horniman Scholarship Fund. He also secured the Study Collection Centre in Greenwich for collections storage.

The Sand Painting

Fred Stevens, a Navajo medicine man, created the Whirling Log sand painting at the Horniman, by hand. The circle represents a lake with logs floating to the shore. On the logs stand a pair of Navajo deities, male (black) and female (white). The four other figures guarding the Whirling Log are the white Bringer of the Dawn in the east, the yellow Twilight Bearer in the west and the two hunchbacked Carriers of the Universe, who gave the Navajo their songs and painting.

Nature Trail opens

The Horniman Nature Trail opens in 1973 as a wild - but still managed - nature walk. A group of school children planted a series of trees along the boundary on the Horniman Gardens side, following the opening, including Yew, Hornbeam and beech. The trail was previously a railway line. The Victoria to Crystal Palace High Level line used to connect visitors to the Crystal Palace from central London, but closed in 1954 following lack of use after the fire destroyed the Crystal Palace. Most of the land has been allowed to grow wild.

The Conservatory opens

After being dismantled at Cliffe Coombe House in 1986, reconstruction began in June 1987. The ambitious restoration project was completed in 1989, and the Conservatory officially opened in the Horniman Gardens in October of that year.
Michael Houlihan was appointed Director of the Museum in 1994, having been Deputy Director from 1984-1994.

CUE building opened

The Centre for Understanding the Environment (CUE) opened, designed by local architects Architype using methods developed by Walter Segal. For a long period of time the building had a grass roof. It is constructed from sustainable materials and it currently houses our Library and some staff.
Janet Vitmayer CBE was appointed Chief Executive of the Museum. During her appointment, Janet led a series of successful capital developments and fundraising campaigns at the Horniman, resulting in the transformation of its galleries, buildings and Gardens. Underpinned by collections development and audience engagement, this led to a 300% increase in visitor numbers.

A new entrance and galleries

A new extension to the Horniman opened just after the Millenium, celebrating 100 years of the Horniman. Designed by architects Allies & Morrison, this provided new galleries (including the Music Gallery), a café and shop, doubled public spaces and re-orientated the Museum entrance to face the Gardens.
Dr. Nick Merriman was appointed Chief Executive of the Museum, having previously been the the Director of the Manchester Museum.

"Now more than ever, we need to promote understanding and tolerance between cultures, and to engage people in environmental issues that are of mounting public concern, such as climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity."

A new gallery about human cultures

The World Gallery opened on 29 June, 117 years after the Museum officially opened to the public. This followed a six-year project to review and redisplay our Anthropology Collections.

The Studio: a social arts space

The Studio opened, showcasing exhibitions co-created by our local communities, artists and Horniman staff.
Gordon Seabright is appointed as Chief Executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, following previous roles as Chief Executive of Creative Land Trust and Chief Executive of The Eden Project.

"The Horniman is a very special place, and we'll be working to make it even more successful for our local communities and for national and international audiences."