A History of the BNSS Building

BNSS Building

It is appropriate that our historic collections of local artefacts, local wildlife and fossils (plus lots more!) should find home in one of Bournemouth’s historic buildings. Not only is “Bassendean” the home of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society, but it is a Grade II Listed Building. These two important institutions came together by chance and necessity in 1919; before then, each had a separate existence.

Bournemouth came into being when Lewis Tregonwell decided to settle here in1810. A few years earlier, as part of Christchurch, this once heathland wilderness was parcelled up and sold off. The road connecting Christchurch and Poole was then just a track. The land to the south was planted out with pines as a cash crop, called Hinton Wood/Eastern Plantation. As the nucleus of Bournemouth expanded, luxurious villas were built in clearings towards Boscombe. One of these houses became the property of John Cassels, a colourful figure who had made a small fortune in India and, with his wife and family, eventually made his home in Bournemouth. Here, he involved himself with the Board of Commissioners (a pre-Council body which developed Bournemouth), with Holy Trinity Church, and moved in circles with the great of Bournemouth. He called his villa “Bassendean”, a possible reference to his Scottish origins, and moved in around 24th July 1880, soon after its completion. For some reason he abandoned the house after three months and moved to Jersey. The house was put up for let, and from the estate agent’s description we learn that the place had four large reception rooms and a full-sized billiard room at ground level, and some 9 bedrooms, two bathrooms and toilets on the upper floor, and a basement for servants and services. It was built in the Italianate style, popularised after Osborne House but not common in Bournemouth. This is typified by rounded-topped windows usually in pairs and the dramatic inclusion of a belfry-like structure, here used for the water-supply.

For the next 40 years the place was occupied by several people, some notable. One of the first was Lt Col Henry Dorrien Streatfeild, of Chiddingstone, here for tragic reasons. Sometime later came the Hon Mrs Isabella Fiennes and her family (today related to Ralph, Ranulph and Joseph).

The Bournemouth Natural Science Society, too, had a mixed but distinguished career. The late 18th century/early 19th century saw a great public interest in the natural world: its place in the universe, its extended history, and the plants and animals that inhabited it. Every large town generated its own natural history and antiquarian society. Their universal aims were to study and attempt to understand the planet on which we live. They did research, they gave lectures, collected items of interest, and books for extended study. In Bournemouth, we chose the academic term of ‘natural science’ to embrace those studies beyond just the living world.

The first stirrings of such a society in Bournemouth came in 1868, when the young town had a population less than 6000. The cliffs were found to yield fossils of tropical plants from 50 million years ago. A call was raised to form a society to care for these and establish a museum to keep them in the locality. One of the advocates was a close friend of Charles Darwin – Admiral Sir Bartholomew Sulivan. He lived just round the corner from where “Bassendean” was later to be built, and was an active promoter of the two societies that preceded the Bournemouth Society for Natural Science that was formed in1903. This latter organisation proved more viable and grew to 112 members in its first year. It was to inherit not only the original objectives, but also many of the various local collections made in the 19th century.

There was a periAlfred Russell Wallaceod when our membership reached over 600, and during our existence we have had as our members Alfred Russel Wallace (who, with Darwin, was the co-proposer of the Theory of Evolution), and many other world-renowned eminent naturalists who lived locally. Ten mayors of Bournemouth have been members, including Merton Russell Cotes and Percy Bright. And our annual Presidents have been a stellar array of scientific research.

We later called ourselves the Bournemouth Natural Science Society (BNSS), but it was to take longer to find a permanent home, starting first in the upper floor of a boot shop (122 Old Christchurch Road), Granville Chambers (Richmond Hill), then a space at the newly-built Municipal College at the Lansdowne. The aftermath of the First World War necessitated a new home and we took over “Bassendean”, just a quarter of a mile up the road. Thanks to the generosity of Sir George Meyrick and members (and with help from rentals), the BNSS moved in formally on 7th February 1920.

It needed some modification of the ground floor, but the present ‘Museum Room’ still gives the impression of the south-facing lounge and dining room from which it was formed. Upstairs, some of the former bedrooms are now occupied by the specialist collections; similarly, the Geology collection is now situated in part of the former servants’ quarters.

When the Society moved into “Bassendean”, the members realised they could display another dimension: the inside could hold the ‘dead museum’ of stuffed birds and butterflies, but in the acre of garden a ‘live museum’ of exotic plants could be created. Shrubs and trees like camellias, wych-hazel, and Gingko were planted and still give a riot of colour and interest. In recent decades – with less croquet – it has become a haven for wildlife with foxes, frogs, autumn ladies tresses, and numerous bird species. This has been encouraged with the digging of ponds, placing of bird boxes and bug-houses, and hedgehog-hibernation boxes. Our lawn may now look a mess – but you should see the woodpeckers, jays and squirrels working it for food! More further could be done such as bat-boxes, perhaps a butterfly farm, wild flower meadow…. Add to this a weather station, and we become a scientific oasis amongst a sea of flats and concrete. Join us in the exercise!

There is no doubt, that the Victorian naturalists caused great decimations with their collecting practices: we have an example of this displayed in the form of a Great Auk, rendered to extinction in 1844 because every collector and museum wanted one. (Actually, our bird is composite replica, but it does not stop us highlighting it as a cause célèbre: “Extinction is forever”)

Today, thanks to legislation, it is illegal to kill a wide range of animals, or collect eggs or pick plants. Present members of the Society also regard such practices as morally wrong and do not engage in taking specimens from the wild. The wide availability of cameras makes it unnecessary, anyway. However, we recognise the value of having specimens: as a teaching and study resource, an inspiration for art – and the sheer “Wow!” factor. Unlike many museums today, we would wish to display our specimens, share their beauty with the public. How often do you get to be that close to a Golden Eagle? We find we are now becoming a repository for earlier collections (often sadly because the collector has just deceased). Instead of valuable, unique specimens being confined to the scrapyard, we may be able to find a space amongst our crowded shelves (repeat, ‘may’).

History has shown that Bournemouth has lost the opportunity to retain objects because there was then no local repository. We have mentioned the Eocene plant fossils, but another case has been the loss of Bronze Age urns from Pokesdown. On the other hand, we received our lovely Egyptian mummy because in 1922 we had space to receive her. Similar local rescues, have included a collection of Barton Bed fossils (the second best in the world), and nationally, the archives of the Gilbert White Foundation. “Bassendean” is now a unique home to thousands of treasures from microscopic fossil nummulites to a blossoming Indian Bean Tree. It is all there to be shared with the residents and visitors of Bournemouth. A unique double-whammy of a museum.

Bassendean” was the former home of the Dorset Wildlife Trust during its early years. Since then the Society’s activities have brought together many local conservation groups, sharing events or their hiring our hall for special occasions. Being central to transport connections, the place has the potential to be a dynamic hub for existing groups, or the nurturing of new groups.

For much of our earlier existence, our collections were almost private, with just occasional airings to the public. Now, because of our charitable status, we are obliged to allow more accessibility. We are happy to do this and have recently received accreditation which gives us greater abilities. To provide this function of an historic collection within an historic building will nLantern Roofeed much work and we seek more volunteers to help and more funding to make the building properly functional.

Bassendean” is now 136 years old! Many Victorian buildings had conservancy-style roofs over their stairwell. At “Bassendean” this lantern roof differs by being central, allowing light to pass through a surrounding balcony at upper floor level, creating a light well to the entrance hall. The original effect on guests entering the building must have been stunning. It is a rare architectural feature that is worthy of restoring to its original function.

However, the Lantern has a wooden frame and despite carrying out repairs, exposure to weather has rotted the frame. It now leaks, putting our collections at risk of damage, and requires major repair. To help stop further damage from the weather, scaffolding has temporarily been placed over the top of the lantern.

The BNSS would like to restore the Lantern Roof to its original glory. To do this we have to raise £100,000 to fix the roof to its Grade II Listed standard, working with specialised architects and builders. We are looking into various funding streams and grants to do this, but to get the ball rolling we have started the #LanternRescue project. We are asking visitors and the local community to donate to this project and we are hoping to raise funds to support the project.

There will be a range of activities and events supporting #LanternRescue over the coming year, so keep your eyes open! You can also donate on our website. 

Thank you for your support.