Brighton Museum celebrates its 150th birthday today, having been formally opened on 5 November 1861. To mark the occasion, we are running a free audio touch-tour of the museum, and have designed a treasure trail for our smartphone app. But it is worth taking a moment to remark upon the fate of one of Brighton Museum’s first curators: Sir Charles Dick.
When the Brighton and Sussex Museum opened in 1861 it was not in its present building. It originally occupied several rooms on the upper floor of the Royal Pavilion. At the time, the museum consisted of the municipal art collection, and several other collections, including natural history specimens. Dick was not the first curator of the museum, but he has become the figure most closely identified with this early period.
In spite of his title, Dick lived much of his life on modest means. He was born in London in 1802, and moved to Brighton in 1820 with his father, Sir Page Dick. They lived in a house named Porthall on Dyke Road. Much of his income seems to have been derived from his father’s war pension, and when Sir Page died in 1851, Dick inherited relatively little. Other than his title, the house, some furniture, and a collection of armour and painted miniatures, Sir Charles Dick was left with little income. Believing himself to be entitled to a substantial pension from the crown, dating from a settlement made by Charles II, Dick spent much of the remainder of his life petitioning the government for these funds. His efforts would prove unsuccessful and, according to an obituary published in the Brighton Herald, he ‘sank lower and lower in worldly circumstances’. So low did he sink that he became a museum curator.
In the early 1860s, Dick and his family were forced to give up Porthall, and his collection of armour and miniatures were acquired for the museum. Dick’s knowledge of the collection, or charitable feeling, appear to have been the only reason he was appointed to the post. He certainly does not appear to have held much enthusiasm for the job, and spent most of his time fruitlessly pursuing his claim to a pension from the government. According to the Herald obituary:
‘It cannot be said that the now aged Baronet took kindly to his office; doubtless, his “heart was over where,” for his ” claims” were ever uppermost with him.’
Shortly before the museum moved to its present home in 1873, Dick was dismissed from his post with three months pay. Although he pleaded to be kept on, it seems that the town’s authorities had ambitious plans for the museum. An elderly, distracted curator clearly did not match this vision. Indeed, it seems that many people dismissed his museum entirely. John George Bishop in his 1891 The Brighton Pavilion and its Royal Associations fails to mention the museum at all, and simply dates the founding of the museum to 1873, the year it moved to its present site. This is particularly striking, as Bishop was one of the few mourners who attended his funeral several years later.
Sir Charles Dick died on 3 December 1876. The obituary published on 9 December bore the title ‘A Sad Story of a Life’. Although it may be hard to define Dick’s legacy, he is at the very least a reminder of how much has changed in the museum in the last 150 years.
Digital Development Officer