Edward Hart was born 30 July 1847, the son of William Hart, a Christchurch taxidermist. His father had become interested in natural history as a boy and passed on his skills, and later his business 'William Hart & Son, Preservers of Birds and Beasts', to his son, Edward. Unlike the cases produced by William which were quite crude by modern standards, Edward's Work was of very high quality and demonstrated his skills in painting and plant modelling.
William had opened his first taxidermy shop, which was situated in Bridge Street, in 1834. Two years before the birth of Edward in 1845, William built a Fusee watch chain factory at West End, an area later known as Bargates. This was one of three major Fusee industries in Christchurch and although taxidermy remained as interest, watch chain manufacture became William's main occupation.
William opened another taxidermy business close to the Fusee Chain factory and presumably the shop in Bridge Street closed. It was around this time that the young Edward Hart started to become interested in taxidermy. 'In 1857 I shot three of these birds and afterwards mounted them, little thinking at the time that this attempt at taxidermy was to be the beginning of making my collection, which has been my fortune to accumulate principally from Hampshire'. Edward worked at William's new premises for several years, learning the art of taxidermy, until he opened his own business at 23 High Street (The Bow House).
As well as preparing animals and birds for local sportsmen, Edward started his own collection. Most of his specimens were taken between 1867 and 1897. In 1866, his collection was large enough to open a museum in 'The Bow House', which is now the Portman Building Society.
Hart's Museum received many visitors, including Sir Robert and Lady Baden-Powell in March 1914. The building was described as 'warm, well-lit and very clean, the ideal of a private museum, every part of which is crowded with rare and beautiful birds.' A chart drawn up by Edward Hart for Bournemouth Corporation gave some indication of the space taken up by the cases. The total length of the bird cases was 270 feet (82 metres) with a height of 10 feet (3 metres). In addition the mammal cases extended another 30 feet (9 metres).
Over the years Hart's Museum grew in size to include 'upwards of 420 cases, containing 1350 specimens of birds, 2000 birds' eggs, 1000 fossils and flint implements, besides sea weeds, ferns, mosses, moths and butterflies and various specimens of horns, skulls, etc., and other interesting articles.' Most of the specimens were procured by Edward himself, and he kept detailed notebooks of where and when he found them. Other specimens were collected by local people, notably Mr. T Pike 'whose friendship I was so long privileged to enjoy.'
In addition to keeping notebooks, Edward took great pride in his work. Many of his cases, in particular the rarities, have backgrounds of local scenes depicting where the birds were shot. In addition to having examples of local bird records, the cases give a glimpse to how Christchurch looked towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. The backgrounds were described in 1903 as giving 'semblance of life and reality, and it is difficult sometimes for the spectator to believe that he had not the living bird in its natural surrounds before him.'
Throughout his life, Edward was in close contact with other naturalists and one of his more valuable specimens, the Little Egret, was described by Yarrell (1856) in his History of British Birds - 'This lovely bird, whose name is so familiar on account of its plumage, was shot near the town of Christchurch in 1822 and is one of only three known specimens in England.'
Although ornithology was his main interest, Edward also prepared a number of mammals. These included squirrels, rats, shrews, stoats and dormice, the latter being recorded as 'very numerous between early spring and October.' In common with many taxidermists of the time, Edward occasionally arranged mammals into what he called 'Grotesque Groups', which depicted animals, usually squirrels, in human situations. These dioramas included 'Prize Fight' ( six scenes), 'Leap Frog' and 'The Barber' amongst others.
Although Edward Hart's attitudes to wildlife seem almost barbaric by modern standards, it should be remembered that Victorian naturalists did not access to binoculars or cameras. Often, the only method of identifying specimens was to shoot first and study afterwards. As there were great numbers of wildlife, it seemed inconceivable to Victorian naturalists that they could have any damaging effects on the populations of birds and animals. It is interesting to note that while Edward acknowledged the need for protecting rare birds from extinction, he killed the last pair of Choughs to inhabit the Isle of Wight stating 'Other people were after them, and if I has not added them to the museum somebody else would have got them.'
Unlike many naturalists of his time, Edward came to realise the effects of the increasing numbers of visitors to the area on the local wildlife. He supported Acts of Parliament which prevented shooting during the breeding season and noted ' should game ever come to be left to the tender mercies of the masses, a sorry day it will be for animated nature'. In later years, Edward was able to note the beneficial effects of the Wild Birds Protection Act. 'The finches are undoubtedly increasing in numbers. I have noticed a large addition to the flocks in this district during the last ten years and this I attribute to the Wild Birds Protection Act….'
Despite the popularity of his museum, Edward became increasing disenchanted with the public and bemoaned the surge of visitors from London, complaining '….decency should compel them to leave their brazen-throated gramophone and music hall songs in their own homes, and not intrude on the lonely reaches and quiet creeks of our rivers.' In 1903 Edward offered his entire collection, provided that it remained intact, to Bournemouth Corporation for £4000. He also offered to curate the collection once relocated and to bear the cost of adding specimens and supplying cases once in-situ. The Corporation were keen to acquire the collection to form the nucleus of a Public Natural History Museum for Bournemouth and the neighbourhood.
On the advice of the Natural History Museum, Bournemouth Corporation invited Mr. Edward Gerrard to come and inspect the collection. Unfortunately Edward Gerrard's visit was unannounced and Edward Hart was unable to show him the most valuable pieces of his collection which were housed separately. Despite a low estimate of the value of Hart's collection which did not include 88 cases of birds and animals, Bournemouth Corporation agreed to try and raise the £4000 required by Edward Hart. The Corporation set aside £1700 half of Gerrard's estimate) and started a campaign to raise the remaining £2300. The first list of subscriptions raised £290 with the proviso that if the committee had not reached their target in 6 months, the money would be returned. Although the campaign generated interest both locally and nationally amongst naturalists, the money was not raised and the collection remained unsold.
Shortly before Edward's death in 1928, the collection was offered for sale. Most of the cases were purchased by John Hall of Stafford. For the next few years until his death, Edward Hart corresponded with John Hall, a keen ornithologist, sending batches of bird records to him for checking and answering enquiries regarding some of the cases of birds.
After the death of John Hall, the collection was passed to Stowe School in Buckinghamshire where they remained until 1923. The collection was, by this time, in a sad state of neglect and staff at Leicester Museum took them on for conservation and safe storage. Unfortunately a number of cases were beyond repair and had to be disposed of. In the early 1980's, Stowe School offered the collection for sale and they were purchased by the Horniman Museum, Leicester Museum and Hampshire County Council Museums Service (HCCMS). Twenty two cases were purchased by the latter and chosen, not only as fine examples of taxidermy, but also because the backgrounds show Christchurch at the time the birds were shot.
In addition to the twenty two cases of Edward's Work, HCCMS also holds examples of specimens prepared by his father, William. Although William's work is not of the quality produced by Edward, they still represent good examples of early 19th century taxidermy.