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date: 25 September 2020

Horniman, Frederick Johnfree

  • Michael Horniman

Horniman, Frederick John (1835–1906), tea merchant and founder of the Horniman Museum, London, was born on 8 October 1835 at Bridgwater, Somerset, the fourth of six children of John Horniman (1803–1893) and his wife, Ann, daughter of Thomas Smith of Witney. The first two children and the last died in infancy; young Horniman therefore had an elder brother, William Henry, and a sister, who died at the age of fourteen. John and Ann Horniman were Quakers and Horniman was educated at Friends' School, Croydon. On Frederick's birth certificate his father described himself as a cheese factor but about five years later he invented a tea-packaging machine, and when the selling of tea in sealed packets proved profitable he established the tea business of Horniman & Co. Horniman left school at the age of fourteen to join his father and by 1852 the firm had offices in the City of London at Wormwood Street and a warehouse in Shepherdess Walk.

In later years Horniman recorded that from an early age he was interested in natural history, particularly entomology, and had collected butterflies, birds' eggs, moths, and insects of all kinds. His enthusiasm for these interests seems never to have flagged but he found time in 1859, on 3 June, to marry Rebekah, daughter of John Emslie of Dalston, and he became a Congregationalist to please his wife and her parents. In 1868 his father retired and Frederick and his brother took over the increasingly successful business, with Frederick, the younger but apparently dominant partner, as chairman. Later at the opening of new premises he explained their success thus:

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.

St Stephen's Review, 3 Jan 1891

W. H. and F. J. Horniman & Co., as the business had become, was described in 1891 as the biggest tea firm in the world. The export trade alone in Horniman Pure Tea was estimated to exceed 5000 chests per week, each chest containing 100 lb of tea.

Physically, Frederick Horniman appears to have been a small man, quite bald from an early age and in middle life with a moustache and beard, which he later shaved off. Concurrently with his business activities he was collecting on an ever-increasing scale, his interests having expanded since boyhood 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. With the wealth derived from his business he employed missionaries and travellers of all sorts as agents, and he later travelled and collected extensively himself, in 1884 making a three-month trip to India and Ceylon. Since 1868 he had been living at Surrey House, Forest Hill, but the scale of his collecting over twenty years was such that room by room the collections had taken over and eventually he moved to Surrey Mount at the top of the hill. At the end of 1890 he opened Surrey House as a free museum to the public on three days a week.

In 1895 Rebekah Horniman died; later that year Frederick was elected Liberal MP for Penryn, Falmouth, and Flushing. No sooner had he been elected than he embarked on a world tour, crossing the USA and Canada, visiting Japan, China, Burma, and India and returning home via Egypt, where he was escorted around the temples of Luxor and Karnak by Howard Carter. Back home, characteristically, he seems to have been an active MP, gaining particular popularity in the constituency by securing the passage through both houses of parliament of a bill abolishing the rector's rate, which had been, as he described it at a meeting in 1897, 'a noxious impost' on the borough since the time of Charles II.

In middle life Horniman joined the Church of England; on 30 January 1897 he married Minnie Louisa, daughter of G. W. Bennett of Charlton, Kent. With his new wife, who was some forty years his junior, he subsequently had two daughters. In the same year, to celebrate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, he opened a large part of the gardens of Surrey Mount to the public. By now electric light had been installed in Surrey House and the collections were said to include: birds, butterflies, Egyptian and classical antiquities, coins, manuscripts, armour, glass, porcelain, and oriental ethnography and musical instruments. Although the house had been extended so that twenty-four 'saloons' were open to the public, the collection and the numbers of people visiting it had outgrown the space available, and Frederick decided to close and demolish the existing museum and build a new one on the site. As architect he chose Charles Harrison Townsend, and 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 than this should be 'for ever as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment'.

Frederick Horniman died at his home, Falmouth House, 20 Hyde Park Terrace, London, on 5 March 1906 and was buried with his first wife in Camberwell old cemetery. His son with Rebekah, Emslie John Horniman, Liberal MP for Chelsea (1906–10), added a lecture hall and library to the museum. His daughter with Rebekah, Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman (1860–1937), founder of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and the Repertory Theatre, Manchester, was made a Companion of Honour in 1933. Following the demise of the London county council and its successors the Greater London council and the inner London education authority, the Horniman Museum and Gardens were administered by a trust and funded by the Department of National Heritage. For all the range of his interests, it can be seen that Frederick Horniman was informed by a serious purpose in his determination to build comprehensive collections in selected areas, and that determination has been built upon in the intervening years so that now each of the three collecting departments of the museum, ethnography, natural history, and musical instruments, houses material of international importance.


  • The Times (6 March 1906)
  • K. Teague, Mr Horniman and the tea trade (1993)
  • Richard Quick's scrapbook, Horniman Museum, London
  • S. Goodie, Annie Horniman: a pioneer in the theatre (1990)


  • Horniman Museum and Library, London, corresp.


  • M. Stewart, oils, 1891, Horniman Museum, London
  • B. Stone, photograph, 1897, NPG
  • E. Roberts, pastel drawing, 1903, Horniman Museum, London
  • possibly by J. W. Rollins, bronze bust, Horniman Museum, London
  • photographs, Horniman Museum, London

Wealth at Death

£421,628 13s.: probate, 9 April 1906, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

National Portrait Gallery, London