I HAVE LIVED all my life in or around Brighton (give or take five years in the wild west of Wales) and only visited the Booth Museum last year to see what must be one of the finest collections of Victorian natural history taxidermy birds in the UK. I visited again last week to have a look at what is in storage hidden away at the back and upstairs. There is a phenomenal amount of stuffed animals and skeletal remains tucked away and it’s a fantastic collection idly waiting to be used in research.
The Booth Museum on Dyke Road, Brighton
The museum’s founder, Thomas Edward Booth, was a dedicated naturalist. He was born in Buckinghamshire in 1840 to wealthy parentage and moved to Hastings in East Sussex when he was 10 years old. Four years later the family moved to Brighton. He was educated at a private school in Brighton before going to Harrow and then Trinity College, Cambridge. He didn’t complete his degree at Trinity as it appears he was sent down (Oxbridge for thrown out). It’s not clear why but probably due to spending too much of his time on shooting birds on the Fens rather than studying at College. A matter of choice I suppose.
Young Edward Booth probably when he was at Cambridge
He moved to Dyke Road in Brighton with his first wife in 1865 (his second wife was his first wife’s nurse – keep it in the ‘family’) and built a house he called ‘Bleak House’ (one may assume he was a Dickens fan). In 1874 he built his museum for his British bird collection in the grounds of his house. He made copious notes and drawings of these birds (most of which still survive in the museum archive) and he had learned taxidermy as a child from a chap called ‘Kent’ from St Leonards in Sussex. The idea of the museum was to recreate birds in glass cabinets in their natural habitat and, at this, he was most successful, although the principal taxidermists were T.E. Gunn, George Saville, Pratt & Sons of Brighton, Brazenore of Brighton and Swaysland of Brighton (credit where credit is due I say). The museum was known as the ‘home of the dioramas’ (three-dimensional full-size models enclosed in glass showcases)
Older Edward Booth (the ‘walking stick’ in his left hand is, in fact, a 410 gun)
Booth planned to collect every species of British bird and he did so by shooting them or capturing them by net or trap. He also raised fledglings only to kill them when they were the size he required for stuffing. I know what you are thinking – but he was a fanatic and it was legal then (killing birds, not being a fanatic – although that was also legal). He even had his own train carriage at Brighton station ready and waiting to link up to a train if he heard a rare or new species of bird had been spotted (that’s style if you can afford it). He was obviously eccentric and not averse to taking pot-shots at other bird-spotters imposing on his hunting territory. He was also fond of the alcohol which may have had something to do with his premature demise in 1890 (aged 50).
The museum circa 1911
His museum was not a commercial enterprise and it was not open to the public (other than occasional special days). It was not until after his death that the museum was left to ‘the people of Brighton’. Booth’s house on Dyke Road has long since been pulled down and the land redeveloped but the museum remains intact. It is reported to house over half a million insects and animals; 50,000 fossils, minerals and rocks; 30,000 plants; and 11,000 books and maps; all dating back over three centuries. This is not to mention the many bones and complete animal skeletons which have been acquired from various donations (including Brighton Museum, and a collection confiscated from a burglar of the premises!). It is well worth a visit – for more info, click here
Stuffed Victorian Osprey by Booth
Next week: Herstmonceux Castle
Artemus Smith’s Notebooks
I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:
My neighbour, Travis Arbuthnot, had just bought a chainsaw and was somewhat displeased with the implement. He said to me, “Not sure what’s wrong with this darn thing. The salesman said it would cut around six trees in one hour. So far I’ve only managed one tree and it’s taken all day.” I enquired as to whether he would mind if I had a look and he handed me the item of concern. I pulled the cord and started the motor. Immediately he exclaimed, “What’s that noise?”