hen Victorian tea-merchant Frederick Horniman was looking to build a new home for his extensive collection of natural and cultural artefacts, his own back garden offered the perfect spot. Situated on one of the highest points in London, Surrey Mount – the Horniman family home – enjoyed commanding views across the city. The surrounding area of Forest Hill was a thriving suburb, and Horniman sought to “bring the world” to this growing community by making his collection accessible to everyone.
Architect Charles Harrison Townsend was commissioned to design the new museum, which opened in 1901. Soon afterwards, Horniman presented the museum and 15 acres of gardens to the London County Council as a gift in perpetuity for the “recreation, instruction and enjoyment” of the people of London.
Like many museums around the world, the Horniman was forced to close temporarily in March 2020 to help stop the spread of Covid-19. The gardens remained open throughout lockdown, taking on a vital role for the local community during this period of forced isolation. The sloping lawn where Surrey Mount once stood became an impromptu gathering place to watch the sun set across the city’s now empty skyscrapers.