Nature Study Museum

The mortuary chapel
In 1876, at the time that plans were being made to turn the former churchyard into a public garden, the Vestry constructed a small redbrick mortuary chapel on the south-eastern corner of the site. This may have replaced a former building on this spot (though earlier maps do not show one), or the mortuary in the adjacent Wesleyan burial ground (shown on older maps), which was cleared and incorporated into the Gardens. It was presumably built as a reminder of the original function of the gardens, as well as for practical purposes.

Public health concerns (from the time of the 1848 Public Health Act, and reinforced by the 1866 Sanitary Act) prompted the building of such chapels, for the repose of coffins prior to burial in the distant public cemeteries that had replaced local churchyards, often involving a greater time delay (plus the need for poor families to accumulate burial fees). Keeping bodies for many days in overcrowded homes (in rooms where the living were sleeping) called for action. Brooke Lambert, Vicar of St Mark Whitechapel, was among those who campaigned for chapels - see here for details. However, there was strong resistance from the urban classes, partly because of domestic leave-taking customs, and fears about body-snatiching, and partly because of objections from local residents concerned about the 'miasma' surrounding dead bodies (a legacy of the old insanitary burial grounds). So urban mortuary chapels were little used. See further Pam Fisher, Houses for the Dead (London Journal 34.1, March 2009), which refers specifically to the mortuary chapel at St George-in-the-East.

The Nature Study Museum
In 1904 the disused mortuary was converted by the newly-created Borough of Stepney into a Nature Study Centre and Museum, a branch of the Whitechapel Museum. Over the door (still visible) are the words Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Nature Study Centre. This picture is from 1910. The cost, met by an anonymous benefactor, was £253 1s 2d. [invitation to opening right].

The vision came from the Curator of the Stepney Borough Museum, Miss Kate Marion Hall and the then-curate of the parish, Claude Hinscliffe, who became the first secretary of the School Nature Study Union, founded in 1902/3. Its journal was School Nature Study. Others involved in its foundation were Miss Lulham and Miss von Wyss of the London Day Training College. tI was was an influential group in the London area, and paved the way for rural and environmental studies (see further E.W. Jenkins & B.J. Swinnterton 'The School Nature Study Union 1903-94' in the journal History of Education 1996, vol 25 no 2 pp181-98). Its national influence was more limited - though in 1906 the Finnish journal Vanamon Kirjastia (vol 5) published an article 'Kuvia Englannin Koulista' on the nature study work of Mr Winkworth from the neighbouring Cable Street School.

The Union's motto was to see and to admire, not harm or destroy; they described the Stepney project as a Temple of Nature, in the least romantic centre of the Metropolis. 

The intention was to give city children and adults, who might otherwise never have encountered live animals, an experience of the natural world. The live exhibits included tanks of sea anemones, tropical and fresh water fish and amphibians (frogs, toads, newts and salamanders). So the Museum was unique in London in two respects: it was the only one to major on live exhibits, and Stepney was the first borough to support municipal museums from the rates. The Linnaean Society's obituary of Miss Hall in 1919 described it as a fairy house in an oasis.

The live specimens caused a few problems. The moth-eaten cockerel (is it alive? asked the children) was washed in benzol, despite the curator's protests. In 1937 the Borough Librarian wrote to complain that the monkey had from time to time bitten and attempted to bite not only members of the museum staff, but the general public as well. 

There were stuffed birds, butterflies and moths. Outside there were wild flower gardens (which, taking into account the unfavourable local conditions of soil and atmosphere, is surprisingly successful), an ant-hive, an aviary, and a beehive, with glass walls, which could be viewed from within the Centre. The bees became famous: they fed on honey from the garden flowers, syrup from shops, and spoil from the sugar ships at the docks, and people came from far and wide to see them. Sadly, they were removed during or after the First World War. Various specimen trees were planted in the Gardens at the time of its opening. A meteorological station, with regular records, was kept.

One of the children who visited wrote about 'Tom the borough toad'....

The Italian toad sits in a little pot of water and hardly moves.
When we look at it, it makes a snap at us, 
as if it wants to eat us.

Up to a thousand people a day visited in the summer months, mostly local schoolchildren (it was part of the Elementary Schools Curriculum), some of whom still fondly remember their visits in the years before the War. They came in school holidays too: according to the School Nature Study journal for 1916, sometimes on those hot August afternoons, there were 70 in the room at a time, till the curator would at last make a clean sweep of all who had not only just come.

The Nature Study Museum managed to keep going during the First World War, but closed during the Second World War, since it proved impossible to acquire new live specimens, and many children had been evacuated. It never re-opened: the remaining specimens were transferred to the Whitechapel Museum, and the Centre fell into increasing disrepair and was subject to vandalism.

Recent years have seen several schemes and funding bids to restore and use the building, but they have all failed. In the late 1990s a bid was made to English Partnership for it to become a based for the City and Docklands Gardening Company, training learning-disabled young people in horticulture. In 2002 Spitalfields Trust obtained planning permission for its restoration to something akin to its former purpose, on the strength of which ownership was technically tranferred to the diocese of London (with the 'effects of consecration' removed) to facilitate this, but it foundered partly because it included an impractical element of residential accommodation on the upper floor. At the time of the major restoration of the Gardens in 2007-08, described here, discussions took place with A Rocha, a Christian environmental educational agency, as a centre for their work in East London, but this also came to nothing. The Gardens were formally re-opened on 31 May 2009, with the absurdity of a derelict building in its midst. There is an urgency to save it before it is too late - it appears on the English Heritage Heritage at Risk register - and we are currently exploring a project, in consort with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the diocese, which we hope will come to fruition.

We are grateful to Peter George Kulpa for permission to include his detailed 2015 report (a Cambridge University Master of Studies project) on the building, which can be read here.

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