The former mortuary building in the churchyard of St George In The East is a truly curious little relic of times gone by.
It is somewhat dilapidated, and the fact it is still standing is something of a surprise.
When it ceased being used as a mortuary, it became a nature study museum, and, on Saturday, the 30th of March 1918, The Graphic published the following article about it:-
A ONE-MAN ZOO
Easter will take thousands to the Zoo in Regent’s Park. This article describes a Zoo in Whitechapel.
Hidden away at the back of Cable Street, Whitechapel, next to the Stepney Town Hall, lies a little pleasure-ground, which owes its existence to the wise policy of converting old church yards into places of decent recreation, and here is situated a little building, a sort of combination zoo and museum, maintained by the local Council, and furnished with a curator by the School Teachers Nature Study Union.
I must admit I had never heard of this small institution until I had the curatorship, which I held for some months till I found work in the local Food Control Office; but I think it deserves greater publicity, as showing what can be done in a small building to amuse and instruct the public.
ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
All the work on the premises, except the cleaning of the floor, etc., is done by the curator, who also lectures to classes brought in by the local school teachers, and during these war-time conditions the place is not open all the week yet at the time of writing, we were exhibiting, besides goldfish, a dozen species of British fish, in tanks without running water and with little weed; living Red Admiral butterflies and stick insects bred in captivity; frogs, toads, newts, a salamander and – a great sensation – a snake; besides small fry in the shape of various aquatic insects, snails, and a small collection of stuffed specimens of the commoner British birds and the like.
Nor is botany forgotten, for the water-weeds shown are of various species.
A CONVERTED MORTUARY
The building itself is simply a converted mortuary, and the chief expense connected with its upkeep is the provision of a stove, used only when the place is open.
Consequently, although the collection may seem but small, it is really considerable in view of the accommodation, and to see the interest it excites among the juvenile population was a revelation.
A CHERISHED DREAM
Quite apart from my own connection with it, the place interests me as a realisation of a cherished dream of mine – the institution of small one-man zoological collections, of living things as far as possible, scattered here and there far away from the big exhibitions of natural history.
These are practically inaccessible to the majority of the poorer population, especially to the children, who can best benefit by them, since the mind of the child has an innate eagerness for information and an appreciation of beauty, which only need encouraging, and in default of that encouragement are apt to languish as years go on.
CHILDREN OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
I found when teaching in a school that the most troublesome boys, when they found I was a naturalist and had travelled, were eager enough to talk to me out of school, and it is informally, I think, that natural history subjects are best treated.
At the same time, the presence of a teacher with a class is a great help to the custodian of a public place, and the relations of the elementary teachers in this far east neighbourhood with their classes are admirable and a pleasure to watch.
Then, again, the science of the practical management of animals, which is not nearly so well understood as its importance deserves, is particularly well served by the multiplication of small institutions, where the official in charge has some chance of carrying out his own ideas.
Of course, one has to cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth.
Equipped with small resources and only half-time attendance possible, it is hardly possible to keep mammals and birds, though this was, I believe, done in pre-war times when the little museum was run as a branch of the large one at Whitechapel High Street, and so it seemed best to pay particular attention to the aquarium, since fish can do with less care.
EAST END YOUNGSTERS
Were I organising such a small institution from the start on my own account and on full time, I should try, in the first place, to show a representative collection of the smaller domestic animals, since everyone ought to be acquainted with the management of these.
Nothing teaches close observation and accurate inference better than the care of creatures whose wants have to be interpreted from their behaviour, and I find, as a matter of fact, that the East End youngsters have an excellent idea of the ways and needs of the few domestic animals that come under their observation – poultry, for instance.
Jewish children seem particularly bright and observant. Their delight in seeing a peacock’s feather was quite pathetic. Most had never conceived of anything so beautiful, though I regret to say that one class of little ones, when told that Solomon was the first to bring the peacock from its Indian home, did not know who that monarch was.
Yet these children have given to them as school books Alice in Wonderland and Kingsley’s Water-Babies, in accordance with the crazy idea that it is better to educate the young on fiction than teach them facts.
SMALL IS BETTER
It is from the firm conviction that to the normal child the realities of nature are just as interesting as fairy tales, and that knowledge loses nothing of its moral value from being useful, that I would plead for the multiplication of little collections like this, but it is important that such should be run on inexpensive and unambitious lines, for natural history, more than most subjects, has suffered from the prevailing fallacy that nothing can be done unless one launches out on a large scale with a big show.