Victorian collector's treasures to be celebrated in local history project

An important collection of historical artifacts gathered by a prominent Victorian Brentonian is to be brought back together following a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Thomas Layton (1819-1911) was born at Strand on the Green just north-east of Kew Bridge but in 1825 his family moved a few hundred yards across the parish boundary into Brentford. For the next 86 years of his life he lived in a house at the north-west corner of Kew Bridge; the site is currently awaiting development. His father was a lighterman and coal merchant and when he died Thomas Layton took over the running of his businesses, as well as becoming very active in Brentford affairs.

Throughout his life he was closely associated with St. George's church in Brentford, better known today as the Musical Museum, becoming a churchwarden when he was 21. He was a local councillor for over 45 years, being elected to the Brentford Local Board, established in 1874, and its successor Brentford Urban District Council from 1894 and serving as chairman of the latter for some years.

Layton was a keen antiquarian and an avid and eclectic collector. He amassed a very wide range of items, including English topographical books, maps, prints and paintings, old coins and archaeological finds, including many objects found in the Thames at or near to Brentford. On his death in 1911 this collection was left to the people of Brentford together with his house, which he intended would become a museum housing the Collection.

Layton's Legacy
The will was contested by members of his family who, according to the terms of the will, were to continue to live in the house for the duration of their lifetime. This prevented the museum being established. A High Court decision instructed the Librarian of Brentford Library to remove the Collection to Brentford Library; catalogue it and provide temporary housing until such time as the museum in Layton's house could be established. The museum was never established. By the time the last beneficiary died the house was in a dilapidated condition and there were insufficient funds for its repair, so it was demolished in about 1949.



The Thomas Layton Trust has recently been awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to employ a community historian for two years to work on Brentford's history at this time of rapid change and regeneration in the area. The advertisement for the project worker appeared in The Guardian newspaper on Wednesday this week.

The project will involve researching the history of the area, organising a group of volunteer helpers, networking with local community groups, putting on displays and exhibitions, developing a web-site and advising the Trustees on future developments.

The project will be administered through Hounslow Libraries. Application packs can be obtained by calling 0845 456 2930 (24 hours), emailing or write to: Library Management Office, CIP, CentreSpace, Treaty Centre, High Street, Hounslow, Middlesex TW3 1ES. Please include your name and address, and quote reference number CIP/07/279. Closing date 16.07.04.

The collection which Layton left includes 8,000 books from the late 16th century to the 19th century. They cover many subjects but are particularly strong on English topography, history and natural history. They range from Topsell's Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes of 1607 to R W Johnson's System of Midwifery of 1766. There are 4,000 maps and prints which complement the books and a further 150 framed prints, maps and paintings. He also left a wide range of objects, 1,200 of them from the prehistoric and Roman periods in London and Middlesex, plus 3,568 coins, trade tokens (including some for Brentford) and medals. There are also coins and medals from India, the USA and other foreign countries, and a token celebrating the Abolition of Slavery, 1,028 items of pottery and implements of all periods - many found in the Thames at or near Brentford - ancient British, Roman, Saxon and medieval items, also Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan and Peruvian items, and 2,974 further archaeological finds - flint axe heads, Bronze and Iron Age items, North American items, swords, spears, pins, Egyptian antiquities, a Saxon comb, Viking spears, axes, tobacco boxes, keys and Malay daggers.

The Collection after Layton's death
The London Borough of Hounslow and its predecessors (Brentford and Chiswick Borough Council and before that Brentford Urban District Council) provided several temporary homes in council-owned premises up to the late 1970s, when they asked the Trustees to assist in finding more permanent accommodation. In the 1950s the coin and medal collection had been placed on long term loan to the British Museum and the archaeology collection had been transferred to the Museum of London (where many of Layton's items are now displayed in the "London before London" gallery). Some locally-relevant archaeological finds are housed at Gunnersbury Park Museum and some ethnographic items were passed to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.

In the late 1970s concern about the future of the collection led to the London Borough of Hounslow, the Trustees of the Layton Museum Trust and the Charity Commissioners reforming the Trust to give the London Borough of Hounslow majority representation on the Board of Trustees. In return the London Borough of Hounslow agreed to provide a permanent home for the books, maps, prints and paintings in the new Hounslow Library Centre, which opened in 1988.

Significance of the Layton Collection
In one of the few publications about Layton and his collection, an article in The London Archaeologist by David Whipp and Lyn Blackmore (1977), Layton was described as the possessor of "probably the largest collection of London antiquities ever amassed by a single individual". The Layton Collection is of the greatest importance for the study of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (with 762 items, over half of these axes or adzes) and also the Bronze Age (63 axes, 30 knives and daggers, 69 swords and 66 spearheads). Of the 40 known examples of Thames Valley rapiers, made about 1200 BC, nine are in the Layton Collection. A superb Roman short sword, found at Putney in 1873, and recognised as the best example of its kind in Britain, is one of the few items which Layton allowed to leave his own collection, when he donated it to the British Museum. There is no adequate catalogue of the Layton collection items at the Museum of London and the article mentioned above points out that "Many scholars have…… visited the collection and used it as a quarry for the raw materials of their researches but few of them could have been aware of the value of the collection in fields outside of their own."

The book collection at Hounslow Library is fully catalogued and extremely wide-ranging in its scope, and includes a number of rare or unique items from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The manuscripts, maps and prints mostly relate to London and the Home Counties and there is a fine collection of 18th century London theatre playbills. Given Layton's lifelong residence by the Thames and the key position of the river Thames in the history and development of Brentford, there is much in the collection which deals with the river, including material on Kew Bridge, Brentford ferry and the Layton family lighterage business. 72 items from the Layton Collection have so far been digitised and included in the NOF-funded Thames Pilot project (part of the larger consortium Sense of Place South-East), with more to follow, and many of these can already be viewed on the website During 2003 the entire collection of maps and prints has been systematically re-housed in conservation standard protective sleeves.

Brentford's history in the Victorian era, when the town underwent such enormous change, cannot be understood or written without reference to Thomas Layton; the collection which is his legacy has the potential to show us how we can learn about, value and even create history, and provides the key to unlocking our understanding of Brentford's past. Since this vast and unique collection has long been geographically dispersed between different bodies, the project has the benefit of bringing together again the intellectual content of this collection which reflects the tastes and interests of one of Brentford's leading community figures of the 19th century.

!0 June 2004

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