The history of Cumberland House

Back in 1835, the land on which Cumberland House now stands was an enclosed field known as a Pightle. The field was sold a number of times, passing through the hands of – among others – a paymaster in the army and a brewer. Eventually one buyer decided to build a house upon the land, and it was this which would go on to become known as Cumberland House.

The building itself originally consisted of two blocks and a coach house, separated by a courtyard. At the northern end of the coach house was a stable, with hay lofts accessible from the main area.

Then-owner Richard Murrell never actually lived in Cumberland House, but instead leased it to a series of army officers, their families and servants.

One such tenant was John Playfair, a Lieutenant-Colonel and later a Major-General in the Royal Engineers. During his tenancy, the central block of the house was extended and a western wing was added. This new addition had a grand reception room, whilst the central block was occupied by Playfair’s family. The smaller eastern block housed service rooms and the servants’ quarters.

Cumberland House would go on to become owned by the Playfair family, but only after John’s death. His widow Emily occupied the house for many decades, and eventually bought it from their original landlord’s nieces and nephews – who had inherited it.

Cumberland House – the museum

Our part of the story begins in 1928, following Emily’s death. At that time, Cumberland House was auctioned and bought for the city by Alderman Porter.

Between 1929 and 1931, the council converted Cumberland House into a museum and art gallery. This process involved removal of walls on the first floor separating the central and eastern wings, to open the space that had previously been servants’ and tenants’ quarters. The ground floor of the eastern wing housed a married couple, Alfred James and Ethel May Boyle, who are thought to have been caretakers and attendants.

The new museum’s first exhibitions were contemporary local artworks, displayed in three of the first-floor rooms. These were accompanied by temporary exhibitions covering art and photography. Natural history and ethnography displays were situated on the ground floor.

Cumberland House continued to display exhibitions into the Second World War. However, damage to plasterwork, windows, roofing and rendering during air raids in 1941 and 1944 forced the closure of the museum. Refurbishment works weren’t to be completed until 1951.

Following its re-opening, displays at Cumberland House included local and social history material, art, and natural history. After the opening of Southsea Castle in 1967, the focus in Cumberland House shifted towards natural history.

In the 1970s a breeze block link was built between the eastern block and the coach house. This structure is now used as a natural history store. In 1973 an aquarium was installed and, in 1986, a conservatory was built over the Victorian terrace to act as a butterfly house. This proved a hugely populate attraction at the museum, with many visitors returning to Cumberland House time and again to see the butterflies.

However, by 2017 it had grown somewhat tired. As such, the old conservatory was demolished for work to begin on a modern greenhouse – equipped with the features and technology needed to make a comfortable home for its inhabitants.

In August 2017, The Butterfly House was officially opened. It contained a state-of-the-art heating system, a host of butterfly-friendly plants, and a puparium to view new butterflies emerging. Today the greenhouse remains as popular as ever, with many parents who were inspired during their childhood now bringing their own children to see the butterflies.