Blue Plaques

SLOANE, Sir Hans (1660-1753)

Plaque erected in 1965 by London County Council at 4 Bloomsbury Place, Bloomsbury, London, WC1A 2QA, London Borough of Camden

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Physician

Category

Collecting and Antiquities, Medicine

Inscription

SIR HANS SLOANE 1660-1753 PHYSICIAN Benefactor of the British Museum lived here 1695-1742

Material

Ceramic

Hans Sloane was a physician, whose vast accumulation of biological specimens and artefacts formed the basis for the British Museum’s collection.

Oil painting of Sir Hans Sloane seated and holding a natural history book
Oil painting of Sir Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, 1736 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Jamaica, slavery and specimen collecting

Sloane was born in County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland and studied natural science and medicine in London and in France. In 1687 he travelled to Jamaica as personal physician to its governor, the Duke of Albemarle.

Sloane’s writings show him as largely untroubled by the realities of Jamaica’s slave economy, though he did observe that conditions aboard one slave ship were ‘very nasty’. His interest in the health of enslaved people mostly went only as far as it affected their ability to work on the sugar plantations, and when he treated them individually, his underlying assumption was that they were feigning illness. He was also critical of the alcohol consumption of many settlers – it was the effects of this that almost certainly killed Albemarle, his superior.

In 1689 Sloane returned to London with some 800 plant and geological specimens, as well as live animals – a yellow snake, an iguana and an alligator – none of which survived the voyage (the snake was shot just before it reached the widowed Lady Albemarle’s cabin). Sloane also collected anthropological items such as banjos played by enslaved people; whether he obtained these by force or exchange is not known.

Sloane went on to publish a list of the plants he had collected in Jamaica (1696) and the two-volume Voyage to the Islands (1707, 1725), covering the natural history of Jamaica and an account of the other islands he had visited.

Society doctor in Bloomsbury

In 1695 he married Elizabeth, the widow of Fulke Rose, one of the biggest British sugar plantation slave-owners in Jamaica. Through marriage, Sloane inherited the income from a third of Rose’s estates: his subsequent collecting was therefore substantially funded by slave labour.

Professionally, Sloane thrived; he became physician extraordinary to Queen Anne and George I, and served as president of both the Royal Society and of the Royal College of Physicians. He also ran a free surgery for the poor. As a doctor he was described as ‘cautiously progressive’, advocating inoculation and the use of quinine. He was also a pioneering advocate of drinking chocolate mixed with milk as a health drink: cacao was one of the specimens that he had collected in the West Indies.

Following his marriage, Sloane first lived on the south side of Bloomsbury Square. In about 1700 he moved to a house in what is now Bloomsbury Place: the street at that time bore no name, with letters being addressed to Sloane ‘at the corner of Southampton Street, towards Bloomsbury Square’.

Sloane the collector

Sloane’s collection of plant and animal specimens, books, manuscripts, and other artefacts of human creation – including coins, worked gemstones and pottery – was, according to his most recent biographer ‘perhaps the largest assembled by a single individual in the eighteenth century’.

He was active in acquiring the collections of other naturalists, which were in turn acquired through a global trading network that was heavily dependant on ships plying the slave-trade routes.

Sloane’s collection was not open to the public, but he did offer conducted tours to selected visitors, who included the young Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and the composer George Frideric Handel. The latter damaged a manuscript by putting a buttered muffin on it, which – as Handel supposedly observed – ‘put the poor old bookworm terribly out of sorts’.

Sloane has been criticised – both by his contemporaries and since – for a scattergun approach to acquisition, and his collection was unkindly called a ‘knick-knackatory’.

He did, however, make detailed catalogues and was careful about recording the provenance of items, which is key to their continuing value to science: his coral samples, for example, can now be analysed with today’s techniques to find evidence on the progress of global warming. A self-effacing and modest man, he was also notably punctilious about giving credit to other scholars.

Plaque and legacy

Sloane’s collection soon outgrew his house in Bloomsbury Street – which probably stood on the site where number 3 is today – prompting Sloane to acquire the house next door, number 4. It is this house that bears the blue plaque. He paid his landlords – the Bedford estate – an annual rent of £8 14s shillings for the first house and £9 for the annexe.

When the plaque went up, it was believed that though the present Italianate façade dated from the 1860s, fabric from Sloane’s house survived behind it. Mapping evidence has since come to light that indicates a complete demolition and rebuild, and that the present building does not date from before 1819.

Sloane bought the manor of Chelsea in 1712, and retired there with his collections in 1742. He gave the present site for the Chelsea Physic Garden to the Society of Apothecaries. Sloane Square, Sloane Street, Hans Town and Hans Crescent are all named after him.

Sloane died at his Chelsea home on 11 Jan 1753. He intended that the fruits of his collecting should stay together, and it was bought for the nation that same year by means of a lottery, and became the core holding of the British Museum. In the early 19th century – not then being highly valued – many biological specimens were destroyed. Those that remained were later transferred to the Natural History Museum, including Sloane’s herbarium of 120,000 items. His 50,000 volumes of books and manuscripts are now in the British Library.

Interest in Sloane’s mania for acquisition and the slavery-tainted wealth that funded it has grown over recent years. His amassment of items from around the globe has been linked to London’s growing status as an international city, and – more sombrely – to the asset-stripping of Britain’s colonial era, but his collection was and remains of great scientific value.

Further Reading

James Delbourgo, Collecting the world: the life and curiosity of Hans Sloane (2017)

Michael Hunter, Alison Walker and Arthur MacGregor (eds), From books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his collections (2012)

British Museum

Natural History Museum

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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