Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Higgins’s of Castle Close

Work has been quite hectic these last few months, with moving the collections off site but when we are not doing that the curatorials are all working hard on the redevelopment project, looking at what stories we can explore and researching which objects best tell them.

I’ve been working predominantly on the fine and decorative art galleries, such as a new William Burges Gallery and a Design Gallery, but for the last month I’ve been working on the Victorian House, ‘Castle Close’ and researching its previous residents.

Castle Close forms part of the gallery and museum complex (complex being the operative word!), a mixture of an early Victorian villa, brewery buildings, a hexagonally-shaped former militia depot, Bedford Gallery, and a 1970s gallery extension.

The Higgins family may not be as well known today as other Bedford philanthropists such as William Harpur and John Howard, but if you live in the borough you may well have stepped inside one of the many buildings associated with them.

Hopefully it will have been the Art Gallery and Museum, but if not then it could have been one of the many public houses once owned by the Higgins & Sons brewery, including the Embankment Hotel, the Swan Hotel, the George and Dragon on Mill Street, the Slaters Arms in Box End, the Bell in Odell and the Royal Oak in Woburn. Even when you’re buying sandwiches in Bedford’s Marks & Spencers you’re standing on the remains of one of their pubs ‘The Star’. Others, such as the brilliantly named ‘Cat and Custard Pot’ in Shelton and ‘The Mad Dog’ in Odell are still there but have long-since become private residences.

The Bedford Times Coach, Bradford Rudge, 1846

Charles Higgins Jnr is in the forground tying a handkerchief around his face to protect from dust.
Charles Higgins Snr is at the door of the Swan Hotel, wearing red carpet slippers
seeing his son off on his journey.

But it’s not just their successful business that I have been finding so interesting whilst researching the family. It’s also the individuals themselves. They are all so intertwined with Bedford’s history: Charles Higgins (Cecil Higgins’s grandfather) was Mayor of Bedford in 1848 and was honoured for his work in saving the town from a cholera epidemic; his son George (Cecil’s father) was a Councillor, Alderman, Justice of the Peace and a County Magistrate; George’s second wife Mary (Cecil’s stepmother) was sister to another of Bedford’s Mayors and was on the Governing body of the Harpur Charity’s girls school.

The last of Higgins’s to live at Castle Close were Cecil, his two brothers and his sister. George, the eldest, was a Commander in the Navy. Lawrence spent most of his life at Castle Close running the brewery and like his father was a Justice of the Peace. Edith, the only daughter, is more of a mystery. She lived at Castle Close all her life but her obituary mentions only her being a keen member of the Oakley Hunt in her younger days.

And then there is Cecil Norman Colburne Higgins himself, who even after moving to London in 1902 was still an active member of the Bedford community, for instance acting as a local magistrate. When he decided to start collecting ceramics and glass it was in Bedford that he wished his collection to be housed.

It has long been my desire that there should be founded in Bedford for the benefit of the inhabitants of that town a museum of works of art of all kinds and that if practicable such museum should be housed in the Castle Close at Bedford which for many years belonged to my family.’

We’ve got a lot more finding-out to do about the Higgins family and we’ll be using this blog to share the interesting stories we come across.


No comments:

Post a Comment