Mr Booth and his Museum

A photograph of Mr Booth with shotgun, hat and boots, BCIL000002
A photograph of Mr Booth with shotgun, hat and boots, BCIL000002

Edward Thomas Booth amassed a large collection of British birds in the 19th century. He built a museum in 1874 to house his collection, displaying each of the birds in a series of dioramas.

He bequeathed the collection and museum to the local authority in 1890.

A Biography of Edward Thomas Booth 

Booth was born in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, on 2 June 1840. He was the only child of Edward Booth, a gentleman of independent means and his mother Marianne who was one of the well-known Beaumont family of Northumberland. By 1850 the family had moved to Hastings, Sussex, where the young Booth was taught taxidermy by Kent, the bird stuffer and barber from St Leonards. Presumably his lifelong enthusiasm for wildlife and hunting started at this stage of his life. In 1854 the family moved to Vernon Place, Brighton, where he attended a private school. He went on to Harrow and finally to Trinity College Cambridge from where he was sent down (probably for working harder at shooting on the Fensthan on his actual studies).

Edward Thomas Booth, BCIL000003
Edward Thomas Booth, BCIL000003

Booth’s early hunting started in the marshes near Rye, increasing his range in later life to the Norfolk Broads and the Scottish Highlands.

With the first Mrs Booth he moved to Dyke Road, Brighton, where he had built their home called Bleak House and in 1874 he built his museum in the grounds. At this stage the Booth Museum of British Birds was not open to the public, which occurred gradually with charitable fundraising events. By then he had formulated his ambition to exhibit one example of every species and recognisable stage of British bird, all of which he had collected, and set about the task of building up his collection.

Booth published his Rough Notes, three volumes of coffee table sized books, which amply demonstrate his detailed knowledge and powers of observation. He employed Ernest Neale, a little known artist, who based all of his illustrations on specimens in the Booth Museum.

Booth’s diaries, most of which still exist and form the basis of the text of his book, are largely rather dry accounts of shooting expeditions and include frighteningly large lists and tallies of creatures shot. He certainly was an excellent marksman. Here and there however it is possible to glimpse behind the rifle sights into the character of this very private man. A man whose dog’s names are recorded but not his wife’s, who shoots at another gunner who had the temerity to come too close when shooting on the Norfolk Broads, who enjoyed whiskey, Cross & Blackwell’s tinned soup and the company of ghillies (wardens hired to chase away poachers). Rumours about Booth include keeping a locomotive under steam for an entire week to enable him to leap into a hot train and travel to Scotland on receiving word from the ghillies who were searching for examples of the few remaining White-tailed Eagles. Also that he raised fledgling gannets in pens behind his house to enable him to kill them when they reached the level of plumage required for his display. Even that he became increasingly eccentric, even alcoholic, and fired his shotguns at the postmen on Dyke Road.

Bleak House, BCIL000004
Bleak House, BCIL000004

At some stage we do know that Mrs Booth became ill and died. Her nurse, Bessie, became his second wife. He himself died on 2 February 1890 and was buried in Hastings cemetery. Shortly after his death the young widow donated his gun collection to the museum. Mrs Booth also commissioned a fine Portland stone pulpit inscribed to his memory to be erected at St Andrews Church, Portslade. The inscribed stone was given to the Booth Museum when the church was decommissioned. Booth’s original hope was to bequeath his museum to the London Museum of Natural History; they persuaded him otherwise. Brighton Corporation, as it was then called, became the beneficiary and there it has remained ever since.

Booth’s Technique 

Edward Booth employed George Saville, from Belgium via Cambridge, as his taxidermist, who was rumoured to been paid £25 per month, a huge sum in those days.

BCil000001
BCil000001

Booth’s technique was to shoot the specimens and probably while still in the field he would make a large, rather primitive painting of the area in which the bird had been obtained. The skinned bird along with the painting would be presented to Saville. A painting of the bird would be made and cut out, then placed on the landscape painting, moved around until the desired composition was achieved, and glued into place. Saville would mount the birds and replicate Booth’s painting in the form of a display case. These cases range from two feet by three feet to six feet by six feet.

Prior to Booth’s collection, mounted birds were usually placed on simple wooden perches. Booth’s dioramas, as well as his museum, are his major legacy to the world. The idea of exhibiting the bird as well as its environment has been widely copied all over of the world, and perfected in large museums in the USA such as The American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute.

The Booth Museum of Natural History 

Between the death of Edward Booth and the 1930s the museum was well cared for by a succession of wealthy and knowledgeable gentlemen whose own collections were added to the museum, notably Alderman Griffith, Dr Herbert Langston, J Gordon Dalgliesh and Major Blackiston. During this stage many more collections of other groups of animals were added to the collections prominent amongst which were the Hall, Tonge and De Rhe Philip collections of lepidoptera, the Holmes and Willett collections of fossils and the M J Nicholl collection of bird skins. Many more cases of mounted birds were added to the Booth display; these were prepared by Brighton taxidermists Brazenor Bros, Swaysland & Sons and Pratt & Sons.

During World War II the museum was closed and used for general museum storage. Happily the building survived the war intact, unhappily all the collections did not. The newly acquired insect collections suffered at the hands of other insects, specifically the larval form of the Carpet Beetle. Fortunately a warder, Ray Hiles, hitherto employed by the 8th Army took it on himself to fumigate the collections and was able to save much. In the 1970s the council started to employ professionals to care for the museum and the collections. In 1975 all the zoological and geological collections housed elsewhere in Brighton were moved to Dyke Road. They included the F W Lucas collection of vertebrate skeletons, which were displayed in a new gallery in the Booth Museum. The next development was an ecology gallery and an insect gallery, which is also used as a classroom. These were followed by the fossil and mineral gallery displaying some of the earliest known dinosaur bones.

Booth Museum of Natural History
Booth Museum of Natural History

In 1998 the Booth Museum was one of the first regional museums in the country to be designated as having collections of national importance.

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