Thomas Layton, FSA: The Obsessive Collector

By Shirley Seaton

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 9 (2000)

Thomas Layton 1819-1911

Thomas Layton gave Brentford one of the most remarkable and interesting collections to emerge out of the Victorian age. In bald figures, inventories after his death listed some 2,600 assorted antiquities, 3,000 coins, tokens and medals and 900 pottery and glass vessels and tiles, 22,000 books, 3,000 prints and maps, plus manuscripts and personal papers.

An excellent article about the collection was published in 1977 by David Whipp and Lyn Blackmore in The London Archaeologist, at a time when the antiquities, including the coins and pottery, had gone to the Museum of London (many of which have been on display) and Gunnersbury Park Museum, but the rest of the collection was still mouldering in a dilapidated building at Chiswick after years of neglect. But this is over twenty years ago. Since then this half of the collection has found a home in the purpose-built Hounslow Library, and a conservation programme is well under way.

Layton’s personal papers and his vast collection of books and prints offer a few clues to the man. We know he was by trade a coal merchant, a Victorian ‘worthy’ who played a leading role in parochial affairs at a time when the Brentford soap works, breweries, tannery and a huge gasworks were bringing more grime, smells and overcrowded slums to an already poor area. In 1992 a working group of four members of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society – Naomi Datta, Mary King, Frank Rackow and the author of this article – tried to find out more about the life of this obsessive collector, who appears to have been a very private person with a dislike of outward show.

The Layton Family
Thomas Layton was born at Strand-on-the-Green in June 1819, to Thomas Jewell Layton and his wife Mary. Thomas Jewell was a coal merchant and lighterman, from a long line of watermen and lightermen of Kew, and the only member of the family to take up residence on the north side of the River Thames. As a young man, aged 17, he had been appointed Waterman to HRH Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland (son of King George III) who lived on Kew Green ‘to give his personal attendance on me.’ He was not the first of the Laytons to procure a royal appointment. His grandfather sold coal to HRH Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales (£80. 15s. worth in 1769), and he transported boxes, baskets and bundles of plants to stock her new botanic gardens. Watermen and lightermen both plied a lucrative trade before the bridges were built across the Thames, as did a London coal merchant in the 18th and 19th centuries when coal was such an essential commodity.

Thomas Layton’s mother, Mary, was the daughter of Richard Filkin of Chiswick, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Lieutenant Filkin (whose journal of life in HMS Warspight from 1758-9 is among manuscripts in the Layton Collection) died quite dramatically in 1783 when ‘his open car [sic] overturned near Greenford’, as reported in the London Times.

In 1825 Thomas Jewell with his wife and family (six-year old Thomas and his two elder sisters) moved to 22 Kew Bridge Road, a fine 18th-century house on the Brentford side of Kew Bridge, with moorings for their coal barges alongside the bridge. Thomas was to live here for the rest of his life. He joined his father in the coal business, which he took over and expanded. His uncle, John William Layton was a coal merchant/lighterman at Kew, on the opposite bank of the Thames (see David Blomfield’s article ‘The Watermen of Kew’ in the Richmond History Journal, May 1999). After his father’s death in 1870 Layton went into partnership with Benjamin Hardy of Chiswick, who was also a very considerable figure in local affairs, and he took over the business on Thomas’s retirement.

On 23 December 1872, despite Christmas being a very busy time for a coal merchant, Thomas, aged 53, married Alice Symonds, spinster aged 38. It was a registry office wedding in Islington, where she was living with her step-sister and husband. From a Norfolk family, her father, Charles Symonds, had been a merchant and ship owner of Great Yarmouth. There were no children of the marriage, and sadly, Alice died of cancer in January 1888. By all accounts she was a kindly, cheerful lady, active until her illness as one of the district visitors to the needy of Old Brentford for the St George’s Church Provident and Clothing Club. She is buried in Ealing Cemetery. When Thomas died he was also buried here in the family grave, a large vault to the SW of the church.

Public Life
By the age of 21 Thomas was a churchwarden at St George’s Church, where he was a parishioner throughout his life, serving for many years as people’s warden or vicar’s warden. St George’s Church, Old Brentford (now the Musical Museum), was built as a chapel, and had been consecrated as the first church in Old Brentford in 1828. It was in the shadow of the huge gasworks built in 1821. Amongst his correspondence is a draft of a letter to the Bishop of London written in 1885 to plead for a new site for the rebuilding of the church, which was beneath the ‘very large gasworks’. To no avail – the church was demolished the following year and rebuilt on the same site.

When he was only 17 in 1836, Thomas was elected to the Board of Guardians. The Brentford Union had been established only the previous year, with a Board of Guardians to administer relief for the unemployed and to run the new Workhouse, which had accommodation for 400 paupers. Perhaps he knew something about the duties of a guardian from Edward Dalgas, formerly a superintendent of the Chiswick workhouse, who was married to Thomas’s aunt Charlotte? At the time of the terrible flood in January 1841, Layton was one of the three Guardians who visited the scene to offer comfort and arrange relief for the needy on the Sunday afternoon, the day after the Grand Union Canal burst its banks causing so much devastation.

Layton kept a diary for just over a year from April 1848, covering the meetings of the Board of Guardians. It gives a most interesting insight into the workings of the Board and rivalries among the members, allowing him to give vent to his frustrations at the opinions of his fellow guardians, whom he called the ‘nincompoops’. He was righteously concerned that ‘the principles worked out in the Brentford Union by a majority of the Guardians are inconsistent with the true intent of the new Poor Laws [1834 Poor Law Amendment Act]… and I have no reason to think that the Poor Law is administered any better nor do I expect it ever will be while the majority of the Board consists of those whose opinions are the same as produced all the mischief under the old Poor Law.’ He deplored that ‘a lazy administration of the Poor Law is not only injurious to the industrious Rate payers, but most pernicious and demoralising to the Pauper himself.’

Throughout his life, Thomas continued to take an active part in local affairs, only occasionally missing meetings due to illness or pressure of work. He was a member of the Vestry Burial Board, elected to Brentford’s first Local Board in 1874, its inaugural year, becoming Chairman in 1876, and the first Chairman of Brentford Urban District Council in 1894. He was an excellent chairman, keeping the peace and seldom speaking his own mind – following the maxim expressed in his 1848 diary that ‘the President of any Public Board should not permit his personal views to overide strict impartiality’. He was never given to making flowery speeches. On the Council he played a major role in the establishment of the enclosed Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Market (1893) – previously held as an open air market in the road outside his house! – in the building of the new Public Baths (Chairman of the Council when they were opened in 1896), and, his particular interest, Brentford’s first public library (1890) and the new Carnegie Public Library (1903, Chairman of the Library Committee). He was not considering retiring at the very pensionable age of 79 when he was defeated at the polls in April 1898, and he felt this very keenly, threatening to withdraw his promise to leave his collection to the town. He was pacified by being co-opted back as Chairman of the Library Committee, a position he held – albeit nominally – until his death.

The Collector

Roman legionary short sword and scabbard presented to the British Museum (Society of Antiquaries)

There were few educated Victorians who were not smitten with the urge to collect, and the possession of a small ‘cabinet’ had become almost a hall-mark of erudite gentility. The Victorian gentleman’s study with its cabinets and grinning skulls which is on display at the Museum of London, includes many items from Thomas Layton’s own study. But he became obsessive in his collecting, and by the time he died his entire house was stacked with treasures which had overflowed into some 30 sheds he had put up in his garden.

Perhaps he was first attracted to the Thames treasure trove by tales of the nine foot long elephant tusk found among the elephant and hippopotamus remains in the gravel beds near Kew Bridge a few years before he was born? He probably picked up objects on the foreshore, mudlarking during his boyhood, for the Thames was being continually dredged to deepen the channel on the Kew side, upstream of Kew Bridge. By the 1840s he was well known to all who worked on the stretch of the river between Strand-on-the-Green and Isleworth as a high payer for any finds, and therefore the first collector to see any new discovery. Before long he had a monopoly on all the finds made between Wandsworth and Richmond. One can imagine his excitement at being offered bronze swords and spear heads found in the vicinity of Brentford’s ‘Old England’, perhaps believing that these were the very weapons used by the Ancient Britons when defending the Middlesex shore from attacks by the Romans under Julius Caesar.

These finds from the Thames were the most cherished in his collection, and are the most important in his vast accumulation of antiquities, but as he became obsessive he also bought specimens from abroad, painted urns from Greece and Italy, grave figurines from Egypt, pottery flasks from Peru, porcelain from China and Japan – anything that took his fancy. His collecting soon extended to books, prints and engravings, paintings, maps and curiosities from all over the world.

He first exhibited ‘a large collection of antiquities discovered in the bed of the Thames near Kew’ to the Society of Antiquaries in 1866. Later the same year he exhibited again, this time four skulls. A graph recently prepared by Jonathan Cotton, of the Museum of London, shows that it was in the previous five years, from 1860, that by far the largest number of items from the Thames came into his collection, particularly those of the Bronze Age. He was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1868, and thereafter he exhibited only occasionally, notably in 1872 in the Bronze Age Exhibition at Somerset House. Like many collectors he showed his hoard to few others; his friend, the local collector Peter Crooke being an exception. It was rare for Layton to part with anything, but in 1883 he gave to the British Museum a very fine Roman legionary short iron sword, in an embossed bronze sheath, found in the river at Fulham, off Bishop’s Walk. It is on permanent display in Gallery 49. In his later years his labelling of items was minimal or non existent, and where he had labelled many were unreadable or lost after years of neglect.

Thomas Layton in Old Age
The elderly Layton lived a solitary, hermit-like existence after his wife’s death, with a live-in housekeeper and five pug dogs. He had suffered from occasional deafness for many years, and this may have contributed to his apparent isolation. He had been more sociable in his younger days. W.H.Fitch, the distinguished Kew botanical artist, was a friend, whose daughter Katherine was his godchild, but their friendship had cooled, as Layton, like others, was a tardy payer for purchase of a Fitch drawing.

Anecdotes about the elderly Layton are recounted in the book The King of Brentford, written in 1946 by Mrs Robert Henrey, whose husband was the son of the Revd Thomas Selby Henrey, vicar of St George’s from 1897. The boy would accompany his father to see Layton:

He lived in a walled-up house and garden which stretched down to the river… He would tell the boy hair-raising stories of the Hounslow highwaymen, and pluck figs from the trees as he walked meditatively along the gravel paths, throwing the skins behind him…. He would turn night into day, sleeping until 5 o’clock in the evening, then rang for his breakfast, after which he would read the papers and write a little. His doctor, Mr Fincham, took pleasure in his company and would come over from the surgery for a nightcap while his patient drank his mid-morning glass of Madeira wine… His housekeeper served lunch at midnight, and then Mr Layton would disappear with his five pugs in the direction of Gunnersbury Lane, to tramp past the hedgerows by moonlight… Some of the relics were kept in large sheds in his garden, but many were housed indoors, and the dining-room was filled with swords, spearheads and axes, together with the tusks of Asiatic elephants and the ribs of hippopotami… As these things had a musty smell, and as Mr Layton allowed his five dogs to be unmannered, the atmosphere offended my nostrils.

The Itinerant Layton Collection

Morning market at Kew Bridge c. 1890. Layton’s house is on the right.

When Thomas Layton died in 1911 at the ripe old age of 92 the sheer extent of his collection became apparent for the first time. He also left a sizeable sum of money. A life annuity for his housekeeper, £1,000 for a peal of bells in St George’s, which also paid for the building of the church tower, small legacies to his godchildren, and about £40,000, one half of which was for various charities, and the other half, together with: ‘his residence, his collection of early British bronze and other implements and all such of his pictures, prints and articles of vertu as may be considered worthy of retention to a body of three trustees, who are to form on the premises, 22 Kew Bridge Road, a Layton Museum for the benefit of students interested in antiquarian and scientific research’. Thus Thomas Layton the philanthropist left his money and worldly goods to the community. The sticking point however was the annuity and life interest in the house left to his late wife’s nephew, Thomas Fullard and his spouse. Thomas Fullard died soon after Layton, and it is doubtful whether his widow, who lived on for many years, ever occupied the house.

Sir Hercules Read, Keeper of the Antiquities of the British Museum, and then President of the Society of Antiquaries, was called in to inspect the collection. He wrote:

It was the most original and most confusing private museum it has ever been my fortune to see. In order to provide space for the mere storage of the heterogeneous accumulations of something like seventy years of assiduous collecting, shed after shed was added, and every empty corner filled with books, pottery, fossils, stone implements, bronze swords, and every conceivable thing that can be found in an antique store. The mass of material is incredibly large, and the task of the executor, with a life interest in the whole, to reduce it to anything like order and utility is not enviable.

The task had fallen to Fred Turner, Brentford’s librarian and one of the three trustees, who meticulously sorted and catalogued the collection over a period of years. Fred Turner wrote:

I don’t suppose he knew what he possessed or half what he possessed. I found valuable things, books, prints, swords, armour, pushed away in all out of the way corners. In one room so small that a big man would hardly be able to get into it, I found books stacked right up to the ceiling, the bottom ones in each pile resting on little stools. A corridor between two rooms was so choked up with books and various articles that I could not get through, and some of the bookshelves had volumes placed four deep… One room full of books had not been opened, I was told, for seven years. There were no means of letting light or air into it, and I had to work in a narrow space in the bitter cold of the winter by candle light, and with a row of grinning skulls looking at me from a shelf where they had been put… I even found books put away in fireplaces and piled up the chimneys… A valuable copy of Boydell’s Thames I found under a couch, where it had been shoved to stop up a mouse hole.

By 1913 with the house in the possession of Fullard’s widow, and considered in any case to be unsuitable to house the Collection, the matter was taken to the Court of Chancery which ruled that it should be moved to Brentford Library. So the enormous task of sorting began. In 1914 a series of auction sales disposed of a huge range of curiosities including stuffed birds, fossils, tomahawks, a hook and anchor from the Royal George, a shark’s tooth, Japanese kimonos, many dwarf Japanese maples, a Mexican hat – nearly 3,000 items in all. The contents of the house were also auctioned – everything from bedsteads and antique chests to carpets and coal scuttles. A three day sale of books, many of them duplicates, reduced the total number, and others were too badly wormed and damaged by damp to be retained. About 12,000 remained. These included works on almost every conceivable subject, early printed books and rare works. Many date from the 17th century and the collection is particularly strong on archaeology, history and topography of the British Isles. The catalogue prepared by Fred Turner is still in use today, although it is in need of revision.

There are prints and engravings by well known artists and print makers, including 200 by Hogarth, and some 16th-century engraved maps of London. The catalogue of prints and engravings, paintings, maps, the manuscript collection and personal papers is also sadly in need of updating, with many items in other local collections or no longer in existence.

The entire Collection remained at Brentford Library until 1963, with a small display in glass cases. ‘A pathetic memorial to a misguided antiquary’ wrote Ivor Noel Hume in 1956. The widow had died, the house sold, and there had been years of wrangling between the trustees of the Layton Collection and the Council about its future. In 1963 most of the finds were transferred to the London Museum (now the Museum of London), with some going to Gunnersbury Park Museum.

As for the books, prints and maps and ephemera – from 1963 they were stored in St George’s Church in two cellars, until it was noticed that they were rotting from the damp, when they were moved onto bookshelves in the pews. Vandals regularly broke in, smashing the shelves and ransacking the books. In 1965 it was agreed that prompt action was needed and there were plans to dispose of this remainder ‘perhaps to a new university’. In 1968 lorryloads of books, prints and maps were again on the move, this time to premises behind Chiswick Town Hall. It was here that the author first encountered the collection in a dark, pigeon infested home, where stray cats gained access through broken windows, and already damaged books, too large for the metal shelving, lay on the floor. Ten years later, in 1978, a move by the University of East Anglia to acquire the Collection was fought off in a campaign spearheaded by James Wisdom, the Local History Society’s current chairman.

The Layton Collection Today
In the 1980s the Trust was reformed to give the London Borough of Hounslow majority representation on the Board of Trustees – now increased to nine members – and in return the Borough Council was to provide a permanent home in the new Hounslow Library, which opened in 1988. Since 1993 there has been an ongoing project for its restoration and conservation funded from Trust investments, from sponsorship, and thanks to a magnificent grant in 1996 of £79,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, more than 800 books have been restored. You can sponsor the restoration of a folio volume with a donation of £75, and a bookplate will bear the name of the donor. Several have been donated ‘in memoriam’. With the continuing restoration programme this treasure trove left by Thomas Layton can at last be more widely used by our community, as he wished.

Sources used include: Whipp & Blackmore article in London Archaeologist Autumn 1977 Vo 13 No 4, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Henrey, R. The King of Brentford (1946), Turner, F. History & Antiquities of Brentford (1922), Jones, R.J. Thomas Layton & the Layton Collection (1972 unpublished) Noel-Hume, I. Treasure in the Thames (1956),

Shirley Seaton has lived in Chiswick for over 30 years. A former TV researcher, she is co-author with Reginald Coleman of Stamford Brook: An Affectionate Portrait, revised edition, 1997.

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