John Horniman

1803-1893

John Horniman was probably the first tea merchant to ensure that his product was clean and pure. This was almost certainly influenced by his Quaker upbringing and the testimonies he was familiar with and clearly practised.

During the 19th century many Quaker industries became successful and profitable. They were known for being entirely honest in their business practices and in their employment procedures. Many of these Quaker business men, not wanting to profit themselves by their newly found affluence, established trusts and funds from which many benefit today. The John Horniman Children’s Trust came into being due to the tea merchant’s business success and the philanthropic practices he followed on his retirement.

 John Horniman was born in Reading in 1803 to Thomas and Hannah Horniman, who had joined the Quakers shortly after they married. John and his brother Robert were educated at Ackworth, the Quaker school in Yorkshire.

Following their schooling, John and Robert set up grocers’ businesses, but by 1826 John Horniman had founded the tea trading and blending business, 'Horniman's Tea Company', in Newport, Isle of Wight. In 1852 he moved the company to London to be closer to the bonded warehouses at London Docks, then the biggest tea trading port in the world. John Horniman could be seen riding to his London dockside warehouse in full Quaker attire, mounted on his black horse. 

At that time, tea was only sold as loose leaf, enabling unscrupulous traders to add other items, such as dust and hedge clippings, to the product. John Horniman, following the Quaker testimony of integrity, wanted to demonstrate the honesty of his company and so found a mechanical method of filling tea packets which could then be sealed. Tampering with the tea was now impossible.

A further testament to the quality of Horniman’s tea came following a series of articles in The Lancet in the 1850s about the adulteration of food. The editor, Thomas Wakeley, arranged for food samples to be tested for purity and Horniman’s tea was ‘extremely praised as passing the tests in triumphant fashion’. The business flourished following this article, which subsequently led to the Food and Drugs Act of 1860. By the end of the century, Horniman’s was the largest tea trading business in the world.

John Horniman retired in 1869 and devoted his energies and accumulated fortune to philanthropic work. Amongst many other organisations that received his active support were the Peace Society, the Anti-Slavery Society and the Howard League for Penal Reform.

In 1890, he settled money on Trustees to buy or build a convalescent home suitable for disadvantaged children. This home opened in 1892, a year before John Horniman died at his home in Croydon, Coombe Cliff House. He was almost 90 and had been married to Ann (nee Smith) for over 67 years.  He left a large fortune, of which over £90 thousand (a huge sum in those days) went in bequests to various charitable institutions.

His son, Frederick John, took over the family business when his father retired. In the course of his business travels in India, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Burma, USA, and Egypt, he began collecting ethnographic objects, natural history specimens, and musical instruments. He turned the family home into a museum in 1890, and then in 1898 commissioned an architect to built a purpose built home for his collection. He donated it as a free gift ‘to the people in perpetuity’, with London County Council as Trustees. The Horniman Museum continues to this day.

In 1941, the Horniman convalescent home closed. After the Second World War, it was leased to the Invalid Children’s Aid Association, which in 1986 became Invalid Children’s Aid Nationwide (ICAN). The home was eventually converted into a school for children with speech and language problems. It closed in 2003 and the building sold.

The money from the sale has been invested to generate an income, and Trustees have revised the deeds of the charity to carry forward the vision of John Horniman by making grants to organisations and individuals to assist with the relief of sickness and the advancement of the education of children who are sick, convalescent or have learning disabilities. Projects supported range from residential breaks for disabled children, to drama workshops and music therapy. Trustees are all members of the Religious Society of Friends.

Further Reading and Credits

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Image reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holder Sarah Montgomery