Henry Christy (Biographical details)

Henry Christy (academic/intellectual; collector; British; Male; 1810 - 1865)

Also known as

Christy, Henry


103 Victoria Street, London SW (Henry Christy's museum)


Quaker businessman whose wealth came from manufacturing hats and cotton goods, as well as investments in stocks and property. As a young man, Christy took an interest in botany through the influence of his brother and was advised by his friend Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew, on how to collect and record botanical specimens. He later applied these skills to the collecting of ethnnographic and archaeological specimens. His interest in ethnology developed through Quaker concerns about the abolition of slavery and the protection of aboriginal peoples in British colonies.

He began to travel abroad in 1850, when he set off for the eastern Mediterranean inspired by Lord Byron's narrative poem Childe Harold. It was on this expedition that he acquired Cypriot antiquities that he gave to the British Museum on his return. This was first major group of non-numismatic objects of Cypriot origin acquired by the Museum.

The Eastern mediterranean trip also provided a new business venture. During his stay in Turkey he discovered loop pile towelling and brought a sample back to England where machinery was invented to manufacture it in the family cotton mill in Stockport. The exhibition of the new product at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851 not only furthered his enterprise but also enabled him to see ethnographic exhibits from around the world. During subsequent expeditions to North America, Cuba, Mexico and Algeria as well as Europe the collected and purchased thousands of objects from around the world. He took advice on how to organise his collection from the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen and employed Steinhauer to catalogue his material. In 1860 he visited the Somme valley where the association of stone tools with the remains of extinct animals had been deemed to prove a much greater length of human antiquity than allowed by historical estimates. Fascinated by this and the implications of Darwin's evidence of evolution he teamed up with the eminent French palaeontologist Edouard Lartet (q.v.) and financed the excavation of a number of important sites in the Vezere valley around Les Eyzies, Dordogne France. In the course of this work he often developed inferences using his knowledge and experience of ethnographic material. This was a distinguishing feature of his work.

Christy was elected to the Royal Society in 1865 but did not live to take his place there. He was also a Fellow of the Geological Society and the Linnean Society.The bulk of his large collection was offered to the British Museum by the trustees of his estate (who included AW Franks [q.v.]) and was accepted c. 1868. The collection remained on display at his house in Victoria Street until after the removal of the natural history collections to South Kensington in the 1880s. In 1874, the Trustees gave some 425 antiquities (Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot and Roman) to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Christy also left a sum of money (used to establish the Christy Fund [q.v.]) that allowed for the occasional purchase of important collections or individual objects.

Additional Information on his collection at the British Museum [by Marjorie Caygill]:
The Christy collection was bequeathed to four Trustees, including A,. W. Franks, in 1865 and shortly afterwards it was agreed that it should come to the BM. However, there were certain conditions, including the compilation of a catalogue and proper exhibition. If these conditions were not met the Christy Trustees retained the right to withdraw the bequest.

It was therefore not possible to incorporate the Christy objects into the BM registration system, hence the slips. In 1862 Carl Ludvig Steinhauer, at Christy’s request, had produced a selective catalogue of his collection which was privately printed. Objects included in this catalogue now, usually, bear an St. prefix. After the collection came to the BM an attempt was made to revise Steinhauer. Objects similar to those in Steinhauer were slotted in. These bear an a, b, etc suffix e.g. St.400a follows St.400. Proofs of the partially printed catalogue appeared in 1870 but it was never finished or distributed.

At the same time, Franks’s clerk, T.K. Gay seems to have been going through the objects, producing the Christy slips starting with 1. He died in 1874 and the work was taken over by (Charles?) Hercules Read. This series goes up to 9999 then starts again with a + sign. At a relatively early stage objects added to the collection e.g. purchases from the Christy Fund, donations from Franks and others to the Christy Collection, are incorporated into this series. These are usually clearly marked with the name of the donor – Christy objects are not usually annotated as coming from him. Objects actually from Christy seem to peter out in the 4000s. The Christy slips do not always give their provenance, e.g. some Mexican objects in the collection. For example, although some Christy slips are marked ‘Doyle’ some objects, obviously from Percy Doyle’s sale at Sotheby’s, are not so marked. There are also in the AOA archives some early Christy Collection registers post 1865.

Quite how Gay and Read acquired the information in the slips we do not yet know. There may have been notes and in some instances it looks as though labels are being copied.

At the same time, Franks was continuing with the BM registers – the 0000,0000,00 series which is how ethnographic objects from 1753 onwards were recorded after the beginning of the 19th century. On the whole, it seems that Franks and Read largely kept ethnographic material within the Christy Collection series with other objects using the BM numbers.


Cook J 2012, 'In pursuit of the human race. Henry Christy and Mexico', In J C H King et al. (eds), Turquoise in Mexico and North America (London: British Museum)

Kiely T. 2010, 'Charles Newton and the archaeology of Cyprus', CCEC 40.

King J C H 1997, 'Franks and Ethnography', in M Caygill and J Cherry (eds), A W Franks (London: British Museum Publications, London, 1997)

Franks A W 1868, Guide to the Christy Collection (London).

Ulbrich A 2011, 'Unpublished sculptures from ancient Idalion. The earliest provenanced find-assemblage in the Ashmolean Cypriot collection', CCEC 41, 183-210.