In 1895, Kate Marion Hall, (1861-1919), was appointed Curator of the Whitechapel Museum making her the first woman in the country to hold such a professional position. Kate was a protégée of the social reformer and philanthropist, Henrietta Barnett, whose work in the East End attracted a number of young middle-class women to the area as volunteers. Kate had started work in the East End in 1891 when she began teaching nature studies at the Natural History Society at Toynbee Hall.
One of the ways Henrietta and her husband, Canon Barnett, sought to improve the impoverished lives of working people in 1890s Whitechapel was through education. To achieve this they established The Whitechapel Library which gave free access to books, the Whitechapel Art Gallery with its free access to art exhibitions and Toynbee Hall which provided a wide range of educational courses also free of charge.
When the Whitechapel Library was opened in 1891, a room was set aside on the second floor to serve as the Whitechapel Museum with Kate's mentor, the botanist and geologist, Alfred Vaughan Jennings as its first curator. The museum housed the "menagerie of natural history specimens" collected by the Reverend Dan Greatorex (1829-1901), also known as the Sailor's Chaplain. Greatorex was a social reformer renowned for his work with the poor in the East End, which included "a maternity benefit fund, numerous schools and nurseries and a Children's Temperance Society."1
'Practical lessons in elementary science in Whitechapel: An exhibition of living bees', from The Graphic, 10 Nov 1900
Although part of his collection came from gifts given to him by British and foreign sailors grateful for his help, many other artefacts were collected by Greatorex on his own travels around the world, which included voyages to the Middle East, Canada, the South Pacific and South America. These included exotic specimens of sea creatures as well as spears, axes and clubs belonging to"cannibals and headhunters."2
When Kate succeeded Jennings as curator, she regarded the most important aspect of her work at the museum to be the organisation of nature study lectures and demonstrations for school children living in one of the most polluted and deprived areas of the country. Kate was innovative in her teaching methods, providing local school teachers with a carefully planned syllabus with which to introduce the children to the basics of nature studies prior to their visit to the museum. She also arranged displays of flora and fauna which were changed weekly and which the children were invited to handle. In this way, nature study, which had only recently been added to the curriculum of elementary school education, was seen as the study of living things.
Museum opening hours were extended to 10 pm, so that working men and women could visit the museum their children had told them so much about. The museum attracted huge numbers of visitors. Henrietta Barnett later recalled:
"Many people came to that little museum, no less than 104,406 in two years, the majority of whom were shown by Miss Hall wonders such as the observatory beehive, the wasps nest etc.."3
The museum's success attracted gifts of Egyptian artefacts from F.D. Mocatta and rare specimens given to the Duke and Duchess of York ( later King George V and Queen Mary) on their royal tour of New Zealand in 1901. In 1903, the museum became the Stepney Borough Museum, the first municipal museum to be funded by local rates. Kate was well known throughout the wider male-dominated museum fraternity who held her in high esteem. She retired from the museum in 1909.
For further information about Kate Hall's life and work see :
Leanne Newman, 'Kate Hall "A Fellow of the Linnean Society and creator of a beautiful and famous municipal garden"', The London Gardener, London Parks and Garden Trust, Volume 21, 2017, pp.11-25.
A view of the reference library in 1975, from a digitised colour slide in the collection of the Tower Hamlets Archives:
The poet and playwright Bernard Kops (b. 1926) reads his poem 'Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East', in May 2015
Contributed by Survey of London on March 12, 2018