The Brassey Museum, London

A story of Victorian wealth, an around-the-world adventure, and one women’s collecting obsession

On my return from visiting the Beckton Alps in East London, while travelling along the Docklands Right Railway, my attention was held momentarily by a twin-prop aeroplane taking off from London City Airport, the runway of which stretches along a narrow slither of land alongside the Royal Albert Docks.

Along with the Docklands Light Railway, London City Airport was one of the first major projects completed by the London Docklands Development Corporation. The British Government created the Corporation in the early 1980s to transform the derelict wasteland of London’s docks into a revitalised urban landscape. London’s docks had fallen into a steep decline after the Second World War after the introduction of modern ships that were too large to navigate up the Thames rendered them obsolete.

By contrast when the Royal Docks opened in the 1850s they boasted the latest in nineteenth-century technology: hydraulic lock gates big enough to accommodate large steamships, and a quayside rail network, built by the hugely successful railway contractor Peto, Brassey and Watts, who, at the time of the docks’ opening, could claim to have built one in every three miles of railway track in Britain.1 Morton Peto, Thomas Brassey and Edward Betts were three of the most successful engineer-entrepreneurs of Victorian Britain. All three were contemporaries of Brunel, though less well-known in spite of their achievements.

The hydraulic lift at Victoria Dock.
The hydraulic lift at Victoria Dock, c.1850s, via Wikipedia.

Thomas Brassey financially supported Brunel in the construction of his steamship the Great Eastern, and, in the wake of Brunel’s death, and with the support of fellow engineer Daniel Gooch, helped the Great Eastern to lay the first transatlantic cables between Britain and America. Thomas Brassey also designed and built steamships himself, as well as factories, mines, telegraph networks and water and sewage systems.

Brassey’s daughter in-law Anna Brassey (née Allnut), who married Brassey’s eldest son Thomas in 1860, found her own maritime fame, thanks largely to the vast fortune accumulated by her father-in-law. Throughout 1876 and 1877 Anna, known as Annie to those closest to her, travelled around the world in Sunbeam, a 159ft-long, three-masted topsail steam schooner, commissioned by Thomas Brassey Junior from the naval architect St Clare John Byrne.

Thomas and Anna Brassey onboard Sunbeam, 1887.
Thomas and Anna Brassey onboard Sunbeam, 1887. Credit: Sidpickle, via Wikipedia.

The Sunbeam, which set sail on its first voyage from Chatham dockyard on 1 July 1876, was the last word in Victorian luxury. Its rooms below deck included a nursery for the Brassey’s four children, a dining saloon, and wooden-panelled bedrooms that would not have looked out of place in a stately house. The Brasseys departed with no less than 43 passengers and crew on board, along with two dogs, three birds, and a kitten for company. On their first voyage they sailed from Chatham to the Spanish island of Tenerife, and then across the Atlantic to South America, where they passed through the Magellan Straits in September 1876. From Chile the Sunbeam crossed the Pacific via Tahiti, the South Sea Islands, and Hawaii, where they spent Christmas. From Hawaii they sailed onwards to Japan, China, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Aden, and then through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, before arriving in Hastings on the night of 26 May 1877.

Sunbeam, moored in Brisbane. Credit: Sidpickle, via Wikipedia.

Throughout those eleven months at sea, Annie Brassey took scores of photographs and collected hundreds of artefacts from the foreign lands and indigenous peoples she encountered. Ten years later Annie died aged 47, while at sea on the Sunbeam on a voyage to Mauritius in 1887.

After Annie’s death Thomas Brassey converted part of the couple’s home at 24 Park Lane, into a museum dedicated to his wife, filled with her collections. “With a bottomless purse, a highly-educated taste, and a wide and lengthy experience of all parts of the world,” reported the Pall Mall Gazette, “it is not surprising that during her many voyages Lady Brassey should have made a large collection of interesting and remarkable curios.”2

The museum contained more than thirty glass cases, many lined with cloth woven by the inhabitants of Hilo in Hawaii, and made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. The cases contained ethnographic exhibits from around the world, including “savage” tools and ornaments from the South Seas and Northern Australia, alongside coral specimens, birds, a cloak made from the skins and feathers of birds from the Aleutian Islands, and the doorway of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. In one case was a flying fish, which had the misfortune to land on the deck of the Sunbeam on the night of 25 July 1887, off the coast of La Palma in the Canary Islands. Henry Potter, the Sunbeam’s surgeon, preserved the unfortunate creature in a bottle. The centrepiece of the museum was an ornately carved wooden Durbar hall, designed by the architect Caspar Purdon Clarke, then keeper of the India Museum in South Kensington. Originally made for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, Clarke’s intention had been to demonstrate the Islamic artistic techniques and patterns of the Punjab region.3

The Brassey Museum was very much a product of its age. The fruits of a collector for which money was no object, instilled with the Victorian desire to not just explore the world, but to collect it, classify it, to assume authority over it. In such museums as these the polished wooden floors, glossy glass cases and meticulously handwritten labels obscured the power structures of empire that enabled them to exist, and the associated violence that was inflicted upon subjugated peoples and animal species.

For example, in the above description of some of the content of the Brassey Museum, taken from Baedeker’s 1911 guide to London, there is no reference to the scores if not hundreds of wild animals killed and collected on the Brasseys’ circumnavigation of the globe. In her own account of the journey, A Voyage in the “Sunbeam”, our home on the ocean for eleven months, first published in 1878, and running to numerous subsequent editions, Annie appeared to be unconcerned at the kill count of their voyage. On her birthday on 7 October 1887 she wrote of the gift of a deerskin robe given to her by her husband, and the two ostrich rugs given to her by her children. Of the deerskin robe Anna wrote that the younger the deer is slaughtered for its skin the better, ideally less than thirteen days old, ‘or better still … those which have never had an independent existence’. Annie also wrote that her daughter was given a rug ‘composed of the skins of thirty little ostriches, all from one nest, killed when they were a fortnight old, each skin resembling a prettily marked ball of fluff.’4

Many items from the Brassey collection, including the Durbar Hall, remain on display at the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. The collections were donated to the Hastings Museum in 1919.

Notes

  1. Stuart Fisher, The Rivers of Britain: Estuaries, Tideways, Havens, Lochs, Firths and Kyles (London: Adlard Coles Nautical), 232.
  2. “The ‘Lady Brassey’ Museum. Memorial at Park Lane. A Description.” Hastings and St Leonards Observer, August 25, 1888, p.7.
  3. London and its Environs (Baedeker, 1911), pp.270-1.
  4. Annie Brassey, Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’ our home on the ocean for eleven months (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1891), pp.125-6.
  5. Annie Brassey, Sunshine and Storm in the East, or our Cruises to Cyprus and Constantinople (New York: Holt & Co., 1880), 187.

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