The South London Botanical Institute
- Original design
- Unknown, 1863
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
There is very little information on the history of the building before the foundation of the Institute. Research at Minet Library, home of the Lambeth archive collection, has so far proved that the house was built between 1862 and 1876. This is clear from maps of the area for the period, which show the first appearance of the house at the latter date.
It was obviously built as a family house with ample space for domestic offices, basement and reception rooms, as well as at least five bedrooms. We can only speculate about how much plumbing was provided. However the small scullery at the back with stone flagged floor would seem to be original. The flat ceramic sink was only recently replaced. The downstairs WC may have been original but perhaps a slightly later addition. In her book, The English Home, Doreen Yarwood states, 'After 1890 water closets, known as wash-down closets, previously found only in large houses, were becoming a more common installation." There is a kitchen upstairs (not on view) in which there was a small, original bath until six years ago.
Our founder, Allen Octavian Hume, son of Joseph Hume, purchased the house in 1910 specifically to establish the South London Botanical Institute. Some modifications were made to the house at this time, principally to make room for the collections. For example, the old dining room was made into the library. We imagine that his Indian clock was installed in the hall at this time. Hume had returned to England in 1894 and lived in Beulah Hill after a long and distinguished career in India. Unfortunately he only survived two years after the founding of the Institute.
Hume had served the Government both before and during the Indian Mutinity with distinction, being made a Companion of the Bath in 1860. After this he became commissioner of Customs for the North-west provinces. Later he was Secretary to the Government of India. However, he came up against authority with a change in viceroys owing to his liberal attitude to the Indians. He was then left in a minor position until his retirement from the service in 1882. After this he was instrumental in helping the Indians to form the Indian National Congress in 1883.
His natural history collections from India were legendary, with the bird and animal collections being presented to the British Museum Natural History as it was then called. Back in England, with help from his friends, he immediately started collecting British plants. These collections form the nucleus of the Institute herbarium. He also designed the herbarium cabinets. The library was started with books owned by him. The garden was to be used partly to grow alien species missing from the herbarium. We do not know whether there was an original conservatory: the present one replaced the existing one, riddled with dry rot, in 1990. This was made possible with a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The Institute was cared for by resident curators.
It is interesting to speculate on why such a very distinguished and energetic man as Hume should have spent his final years, then aged over 80, pursuing such an unusual aim. According to the original Memorandum of Association, 'The sole object for which the Institute is established is to promote, encourage and facilitate, amongst the residents of south London, the study of botany exclusively'. We can look back to organisations such as the Mechanics' Institute and the WEA (Workers' Educational Association) which educated those lacking in formal education opportunities; or we can look forward to David Attenborough's television work in bringing natural history to us all.
For a time, the Institute owned the site of the house next door (left as you stand in the road and look at the Institute) on the corner of St Faith's and Norwood Roads. This had been bombed in the second world war. It was hoped that the botanic garden could be extended on this site. However, this proved to be beyond the means of the Institute. There was also a plan to redevelop the whole site during the 1960s, but this too, was abandoned. Eventually the site was sold to a housing association, and houses built on it as you can see today.
Notes written by Judy Marshall, Council Member, SLBI (2006)