In one corner of the churchyard of St George in the East, Stepney, stands a forlorn brick building. Its roof timbers have collapsed, and the doors and windows are boarded up. Many walk past on their way across the churchyard but few give the derelict ruin a glance. Trees have taken root within the structure and perhaps this is appropriate, for at one time this small building was a nature study museum.
It was originally built in 1877 as a mortuary chapel, a place to store bodies before burial. Between 1884 and 1900, over a hundred bodies a year were brought to the chapel, and in some years more than two hundred.
In 1892 the Whitechapel Municipal Museum opened in a room in the newly established public library on Whitechapel Road. The museum benefited from a substantial donation from the Reverend Daniel Greatorex, vicar of St Paul’s Whitechapel. Greatorex had travelled widely, visiting the USA, Canada, the Middle East and Australia. During his travels he collected weapons, wood carvings, and a wide variety of animal specimens including snakes, turtles, and the jaws of a great white shark. This collection formed the nucleus of the museum, which changed its name to Stepney Borough Museum in 1903.
In the meantime the use of mortuaries had declined, and in 1904 the chapel at St George’s was converted into a Nature Study Museum and opened on 3rd June.
It was a branch of the Stepney Museum, initiated by Kate Marion Hall, curator at Stepney, and Claude Hinscliffe, co-curate of St George’s. Part of Greatorex’s collection was moved to the new museum, which became part zoo, part museum, as live exhibits were added.
Alongside the more traditional exhibits of stuffed birds, butterflies, and moths were live sea anemones, tropical and fresh water fish, frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders. One of the birds was an Indian Bee-eater found in a tea barge in the nearby St Katherine’s Dock. The museum also featured a monkey, although this had a tendency to bite visitors and staff. Outside were wild flower gardens, including a beehive with a glass wall, viewable from inside the museum. According to Arthur Mee’s London, this was the first municipal beehive: “We may watch them at work behind glass, and see them gathering honey from the bed of wild flowers planted every year”. The museum was intended to give those living in the city an experience of the natural world.
It was certainly popular. Up to a thousand people a day reputedly visited during the summer months, with seventy people at a time filling the small room. But war interrupted and then caused the museum’s demise. It was boarded up during the First World War, and re-opened in 1920. After the Second World War began it became difficult to get new live specimens, and many children had been evacuated to the countryside. The museum closed for the last time on 10th March 1942, and the remaining exhibits were transferred to the Stepney museum.
The churchyard gardens were restored in 2007–8 but the building was left untouched. A number of plans for new uses – none of them for a museum – have so far come to nothing. So the building remains derelict, the sign on the lintel a fading reminder of one of London’s unusual small museums.
Archival photographs courtesy of St George in the East; other photos by the author.