Victorian Collector's Treasures Brought Together In Brentford

By Graham Spicer | 28 November 2005
Shows a sepia photograph of a Victorian gentleman in a suit sat down and with a letter in his hands

Thomas Layton, businessman, councillor, benefactor and eccentric collector. © Hounslow Local Studies and Archives

A vast collection left to the people of Brentford, Middlesex by an eccentric Victorian benefactor is finally getting the recognition it deserves thanks to a two-year community project.

The project aims to raise the profile of Thomas Layton and his legacy, including rare books, prints, coins and antiquities, many of which have never been seen before by the public. Heritage Lottery funding and support from Hounslow Borough Council, CIP and the Layton Trust have made it possible.

A website has been launched and a series of exhibitions are taking place, starting with A Taste of Layton: Every Conceivable Thing at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, running until December 18 2005.

Shows a photo of a bronze age chariot part

A fine Bronze Age chariot fitting from Layton's diverse collection. © Museum of London

A much larger exhibition is planned from early September to December 2006 at the Gunnersbury Park Museum, which together with the website will help to fulfil Layton’s wish that his collection be made available for the people of Brentford.

Layton was born in 1819 in Strand-on-the-Green and his family moved to nearby Brentford in 1826, where he stayed at the same house until he died in 1911.

“He filled this site all the way down to the riverfront with sheds and outhouses and he filled this all with his collection,” said Mike Galer, Project Officer at the Layton Trust, which is organising the scheme. “It was absolutely stuffed full to the ceiling with books and other objects.”

Shows a photo of two long sets of shelves filled with antique books

There were originally some 22,000 books, prints and maps but even though many were damaged or stolen thousands still remain.

“Apparently he lived by night and slept by the day, didn’t believe in gardening, lived on figs and threw the stones over his shoulder where later trees would grow,” he added.

This eccentric character was also a well-known local businessman, successful as a coal merchant and in his mining, dredging and ship-loading ventures. Some of the antiquities he collected were found by men working for him along the Thames and on canals.

Layton also served Brentford as a councillor for some 50 years and was involved in many philanthropic projects.

Shows a Victorian black and white photo of a ceremony with a large crowd, several men in top hats and a little girl

Laying the first stone at Brentwood Library in 1903 - Layton is in the middle, leaning on the chair wearing a top hat. © Hounslow Local Studies and Archives

“He helped to build a lot of the civic infrastructure that we take for granted today [in Brentford] like the swimming baths, sewage system, the fire station,” said Mike.

The project has created a local walking trail where you can see Layton’s wider legacy and the buildings associated with him.

His collection was highly regarded by contemporary academics, keen to obtain items for their museums, but Layton jealously guarded it, allowing almost no visitors to see the collection during his lifetime.

Shows an engraving of a Roman sword and its ornately decorated scabbard

Engraving of the Roman gladius-type sword Layton bequeathed to the British Museum.

“One very famous piece is on display at the British Museum which was the only piece freely given away in his lifetime and is a Roman sword in its scabbard…probably the finest example of a Roman sword in the country.”

He wouldn’t give any other items away, although the British Museum courted him for years, and instead bequeathed his entire collection to the people of Brentford. Yet, bizarrely he left a note in his will that no-one under the age of 18 should be allowed to see it. (The new exhibtions are open to all ages, however).

Unfortunately his ambition of turning his home into a permanent museum to house it was never realised and the collection had to be rescued by court order in 1913.

Shows a black and white portrait photo of a man with a bushy moustache and wearing a suit, waistcoat and tie

Librarian Fred Turner, who carefully catalogued the collection in the 1920s and 30s. © Hounslow Local Studies and Archives

It was carefully catalogued at Brentford Library in the 1920s and 30s by librarian Fred Turner, but since the 1930s was kept in poor conditions and many of the books were damaged or stolen.

Originally numbering about 22,000, there are now some 8,000 books and 4,500 individual prints and maps remaining, which were rescued by Hounslow Public Library in 1988 where they now have a permanent home.

With an emphasis on arts and humanities, they date from the 16th century to the end of Layton’s life when he was still collecting.

Shows a photo of a large old book opened at a page showing an illustration of a rowing boat arriving on a shore met by a group of South Sea islanders

Layton's books covered a wealth of subjects, like this one about the voyages of Captain Cook.

The antiquities, coins and medals all moved to the Museum of London in 1959 where many are now displayed.

He collected thousands of Bronze Age spear and axe heads with a total of about 5,000 archaeological objects from all over the world. There is also a 3,500-coin collection, with finds dating from the time of Alexander the Great up to Victorian Maundy money.

Although the collection is in safe hands, the project is seeking to raise their profile in the Brentford area, as Layton himself wished.

Shows a page from a book showing a number of engravings of old coins, some of which appear to be Roman or Greek

About 3,500 rare coins are included, from ancient Greek finds to Victorian Maundy money. © Hounslow Local Studies and Archives

“This is the first time these objects have been shown together since the 1930s,” said Mike of the Kew Bridge exhibition, adding that the forthcoming Gunnersbury Museum show will be about five times larger with many pieces that are still being restored.

“I hope to have a lot lot more material there that we couldn’t do in time for the Kew Bridge Museum,” he explained. “We have got so many objects to choose from and that will be the pinnacle of this project, getting it back on view for the local people.”

“We are hoping to do him proud in this project and bring the collection back to life and fulfil his dreams and wishes.”

Further details can be found on the Trust's website, where you can also find out more about becoming a volunteer with the project.

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