How the walrus lost his neck wrinkles

For more than a century visitors have enjoyed the exotic collections of Frederick Horniman at a museum named in his honour – but do they really remember him? New book explores his family’s interesting history

  • In 1886, one of the star attractions of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in Kensington was a stuffed walrus, which Queen Victoria admired 
  • The tea merchant Frederick Horniman was so impressed that he bought it 
  • Clare Paterson details the chequered business life of Horniman in her new book 

Mr. Horniman’s Walrus: Legacies of a Remarkable Victorian Family

by Clare Paterson (Michael O’Mara £20, 272pp) 

In 1886, one of the star attractions of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in Kensington was a stuffed walrus. Queen Victoria visited the exhibition and admired it. 

It may have been the first time she’d seen a walrus. It was probably also the first one the beast’s taxidermists had come across. Unaware that a walrus’s thick skin is folded in loose layers, they’d ironed out its wrinkles and presented a surprisingly sleek, smooth creature. 

The tea merchant Frederick Horniman was so impressed that he bought it when the exhibition closed. It can still be seen today at the Horniman Museum in South London. For more than a century, visitors have enjoyed the collections of the ­Horniman without knowing much about the family after which it’s named. In this delightful, book, Clare Paterson looks at the lives of three generations of Hornimans. 

In 1886, one of the star attractions of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in Kensington was a stuffed walrus, which Queen Victoria admired

Born in 1803, John Horniman was the founder of the family’s fortunes. His father — ‘that rare bird, a drunken Quaker’, as one historian described him — died aged 41. His mother quickly embarked on a second marriage to a widower with two daughters. 

John’s business career was initially a chequered one. He was a grocer in Birmingham, a cheese merchant in Somerset, and a draper in Northampton. 

At one point he was bankrupt, cast out of his Quaker community. 

However, in middle age, he hit upon the one idea that made him a very wealthy man. He decided to sell tea. Instead of selling loose tea, he would offer it in foil-lined sealed packets to guarantee its purity. This was an immediate success. 

Horniman’s Tea was soon familiar in every household in the country. Adverts appeared showing Gladstone, Florence Nightingale and a then famous preacher named Charles Spurgeon. John’s son, Frederick, the walrus purchaser, inherited the family business and fortune. An enthusiastic collector from youth, his money enabled him to splash out. 

Mr. Horniman’s Walrus: Legacies of a Remarkable Victorian Family by Clare Paterson (Michael O’Mara £20, 272pp)

A list of other items he bought from the Colonial And Indian Exhibition (‘Bombay prayer mats, carved daggers… a life-sized model of a Burmese man and a Burmese girl… a bronze Hindu deity, and Queensland moths and butterflies in a case’) gives some indication of his range of interests. 

By 1883, his collection was already so huge it required a full-time curator to look after it. During the year 1890, 40,000 people received an invitation from Horniman to inspect his enormous cabinet of curiosities. 

His wife gave him an ultimatum. No longer could thousands of visitors traipse through the marital home. A museum was built which Horniman eventually donated to the London County Council in 1901. Frederick’s daughter, Annie, was, in Paterson’s words, ‘a crop-haired, chainsmoking, bloomer-sporting cyclist with an independent mindset’. As a young woman, she had ambitions to be an artist. She was drawn to the occult and joined the legendary Order Of The Golden Dawn until she fell out with its increasingly weird founder, MacGregor Mathers. She claimed to make regular astral journeys through time and space. 

After Frederick’s death in 1906, his daughter came into her own, achieving the landmarks in theatre history for which she is best remembered. 

She used her inheritance to fund the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, until she fell out with its other backers. She established the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, which played a leading role in the promotion of contemporary drama in the 1910s. 

Today, Horniman’s Tea is largely a name from the past. The brand, which (curiously) remains popular is Spain, has long disappeared from the shelves of British shops. 

However, as Clare Paterson makes clear, the Horniman family itself should not be forgotten. 

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