Higgins and Sons – Hoteliers and Brewers
by Linda Ayres
Charles Higgins (1789-1862) and his wife Mary (née Branson) (1791-1862) were born in Northamptonshire. In 1817 Charles was the landlord of the 17th century Hind Inn in Sheep Street, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. In 1823, Charles and Mary with their four children, Mary Ann, George, Charles, and Louisa moved to Bedford, where Charles became tenant of the Swan Hotel.
In 1787 Francis the 5th Duke of Bedford purchased what was known then as the Swan Inn. The Swan Inn, with the ground attached to it, occupied the site of Bedford Castle. The Duke had the Swan Inn pulled down and, in its place he built the Swan Hotel 1794-1796. The Duke owned Houghton House at Ampthill in Bedfordshire and in 1794 the Duke gave the orders to have the house partially dismantled. He had the main staircase from Houghton House put up in the Swan Hotel.
The Bedford Times Coach
Charles Higgins was the joint owner of the Bedford Times Coach with Benjamin Worthington Horne, who horsed the coach out of London. Passengers who could afford it took a seat inside the coach at a cost of 18 shillings. The less well-off passengers travelled outside the coach at a cheaper fare of 10 shillings and sixpence. The Bedford Times Coach set out from the Swan Hotel at 8.am every day, except Sundays, and arrived at the George and Blue Boar, Holborn, at 2 p.m. The coach arrived back in Bedford the same day at 7.30 p.m. The coach was considered fast, at a speed of ten and a half miles an hour and in good weather it could achieve twelve miles per hour. The Bedford Times Coach stopped running on the 17th November 1846, four days after the opening of the London and North Western and Bedford Railway.
The well- known Lithograph by Bradford Rudge in 1842 shows the Bedford Times Coach leaving the Swan Hotel.
Prisoners sentenced to Transportation
The Northampton Mercury, 2nd July 1836, reported the following trial at the Bedford Assizes: “James Lee and Samuel Lee were charged with stealing three bushels of bean flour, two pails, and other articles, the property of Charles Higgins, of Bedford, and were sentenced to be Transported for Life”. James and Samuel Lee were from Colmworth in Bedfordshire. This was not their first offence. In January 1833 Samuel served 3 months imprisonment with hard labour for stealing a fowl at Colmworth. In September 1834 James and Samuel served time in the House of Correction for stealing fowl.
The Tasmanian Archive Office records that brothers Samuel aged 19 and James aged 37, left Plymouth, England, on the 7th September 1836, with 303 male convicts on board the convict ship Eden. They arrived at Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania) on the 22nd December 1836.
Charles Higgins builds Castle Brewery
In 1838 Charles rented Castle Close from the Duke of Bedford and built a brewery, granary, warehouses, and cottages. Charles retired from the Swan Hotel in 1844. A hundred people attended a dinner held in his honour at the Hotel, and also welcomed his youngest son, Charles Higgins Jnr. as the new landlord. The family moved to Crofton House in St. Cuthbert’s, the grounds of which then went back as far as The Grove. Charles was also a sheep farmer. He farmed 500 acres on the Kimbolton Road, Bedford. He employed 25 farm workers, as well as four house servants.
In 1846 Charles built Castle Close House next door to the brewery for his eldest son, George. The house comprised of five rooms on the ground floor, twelve bedrooms, stables, coach houses, and beautiful gardens. The grounds of Castle Close occupied the mound where the Castle Keep once stood. For centuries people played bowls on the flat top of the mound. It was said to be one of the oldest bowling greens in England.
In 1848 Charles became the Mayor of Bedford. He was a magistrate and the Guardian for St. Cuthbert’s Parish. From the 21st September to the 18th November 1849 cholera broke out in Bedford. During this time Charles as Chairman of the Board of Health, took measures in the prevention of the illness and the care and treatment of those who were ill with cholera. Of the thirty-nine people who went down with the cholera, four survived.
Charles’s good works was appreciated by the town and a silver salver was presented to him bearing his coat of arms, with the following inscription:
“To CHARLES HIGGINS, ESQUIRE,
MAYOR OF BEDFORD
PRESENTED BY HIS GRATEFUL FELLOW TOWNSMEN
IN TESTOMONY OF
THE ZEAL, ABILITY, AND HUMANITY
ASSIDUOUSLY EXERTED BY HIM DURING THE VISITATION
IN SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, AND NOVEMBER,
In April 1862 Mary Higgins died, aged 71. Charles died, aged 73, three months later in July. Their burials took place in the family grave at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E4.15-19
The Children of Charles and Mary Higgins
Mary Ann Higgins
Mary Ann was born 1815 in Welford, Northamptonshire. Sadly, she died aged 14 in 1829. Her burial took place on the 1st May 1829 at St. Paul’s Churchyard, Bedford.
Louisa, their youngest surviving daughter, was born in 1821 in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. She died aged 42 on the 11th May 1863. Louisa’s burial took place in the grave with Sarah Burditt at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Section E4. 16 -20
Sarah Burditt was the housekeeper for 45 years to Charles and Mary Higgins. On the 17th February 1861 Sarah, aged 69 collapsed while she was walking along Goldington Road. People ran to her aid and helped her back to the Higgins House in St. Cuthbert’s Street, where she died soon after. At the inquest held at the Ship Inn the following day, the jury returned a verdict of “Death from heart disease.”
Charles Higgins Jnr.
Charles was born in 1819 in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. On the 25th February 1841 Charles married Mary Ann Brettell at All Saints Church, Northampton. Their only child, Charles Clark Higgins was born in 1842 in Bedford.
In 1859 Charles Higgins Jnr resigned as the landlord of the Swan Hotel, and moved to Stowe in Buckinghamshire. In 1862 he re-built Boycott Manor House that stood about 400 yards from the old Manor House. The gardens and the terraces occupied two acres. Charles also owned the 114-acre Boycott Manor Farm and three cottages. The 1871 census records that Charles and Sarah are living at Boycott Manor. He is a magistrate and a landowner, and he has in his employ a cook, housemaid and a footman.
Mary Ann died on the 3rd March 1880. Her burial took place in St. Giles Churchyard, Water Stratford, Buckinghamshire. Grave Ref: B3. EW.
In 1891 Charles dedicated a stained-glass window in memory of Mary Ann at St. Giles Church, Water Stratford.
Charles died aged 74 on the 17th July 1893. Among the mourners were his nephews, Lawrence, and Cecil Higgins. His burial took place in the grave with that of his wife at St. Giles churchyard, Water Stratford. Grave Ref: C 26 N
George was born in 1816 at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. George was the eldest son and his father made him a partner in the brewery. After his father died George carried on the business. He bought public houses in Bedford, Kempston, Wootton and Shefford.
The marriage of George Higgins and Caroline George Colburn
On the 12th April 1844 George married Caroline George Colburn at St. Marylebone Church, London. Caroline was born in 1820 in Dublin, Ireland, and was the daughter of John Colburn (1790-1840) and Ellen Lawrence (née Dundas) (1796 -1879). John Colburn was a solicitor by profession of South Mall, County Cork, Ireland. The 1861 census records Ellen and her son, John living at 2 St. Peter’s Street, Bedford. John was born in Ireland in 1832 and was a Captain in the Army. On the 28th January 1879 Ellen died aged 84 at Cheltenham Gloucestershire. Her funeral took place at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Bedford.
Before and after his marriage George had lived at Brickhill House, Bedford. George and Caroline had five children, Frances Caroline, George, Lawrence, Edith, and Cecil. Sadly, their first child, Frances Colburn Higgins died soon after she was born at Brickhill house. Her burial took place at Holy Trinity Churchyard on the 7th March 1845. In 1846 George and Caroline moved into Castle Close House, the house his father had built for him next to the Castle Brewery.
On the 1st August 1867 Caroline died, aged 47. Her burial took place in the Higgins family grave at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E4.15-19
George’s second marriage to Mary Sophia Couchman
On the 5th July 1870 George married his second wife, Mary Sophia Couchman at St. Nicholas Church, Hulcote, Bedfordshire. The Rev. John Couchman who was the Rector of Thornby, Northamptonshire, conducted the service; assisted by the Rev Boteler Chernock Smith, Rector of Hulcote, and Vicar of Salford Bedfordshire. He was also the Lord of the Manor of Hulcote. The Rev Couchman was Mary’s eldest brother and the Rev. B. C. Smith was Mary’s brother-in-law.
Mary was born in 1828 at Temple Balsall in Warwickshire. She was one of the 13 children of Henry Couchman, a surveyor and a farmer and his wife Elizabeth née Short. Henry died in 1839 at Temple Balsall and Elizabeth subsequently moved to St. Peter’s Street, Bedford. It seems that Elizabeth came to Bedford, to live near to her brother, Dr. Charles Short who was in practice with Dr. Isaac Hurst in the High Street, Bedford.
Dr. Short had served as the Mayor of Bedford, from 1836 to 1837. Dr. Robert Couchman, the son of Elizabeth succeeded Dr. Charles Short when he died in 1844. The medical practice became known as Hurst and Couchman. In 1862 Dr. Henry Couchman became the Mayor of Bedford.
On the 18th May 1883 Mary Sophia died at Castle Close. George died three months later on the 3rd August 1883. Their burials took place in the Higgins family grave at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E4.15 -19
The Children of Caroline and George Higgins
Caroline and George changed the name from Colburn to Colburne and added it to four of their children’s Christian names.
Edith Mary Colburne Higgins
Edith was born on the 23rd July 1851 in Bedford. Her christening took place on the 10th September at St. Paul’s Church, Bedford. Edith was known for her work among the poor in the parish of St. Cuthbert’s. Edith was an accomplished horse rider and she would often join her father in the Oakley Hunt. In March 1868 the Grand National Hunt Steeplechase took place over Higgins farm in Kimbolton Road, Bedford.
Edith died aged 54 on the 5th September 1905 at Castle Close. The funeral service at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Bedford, preceded Edith’s burial in the family grave in Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E4.15 -19
George Colburne Higgins Jnr.
George was born in 1847 in Bedford. His christening took place on the 3rd March 1847 at St Paul’s Church, Bedford. George was the eldest son, and had no interest in the family business, and joined the Royal Navy. In 1871 he served as a Lieutenant on HMS Excellent at Portsmouth. He became a Captain and retired as a Commander. George died, aged 71 on the 22nd November 1918 at Toe Moorings, Westbrook Margate, Kent
Lawrence Read Colburne Higgins
Lawrence was born in Bedford in 1849. His christening took place on the 24th January 1849 at St Paul’s Church, Bedford. Lawrence and his sister, Edith carried on living at Castle Close House after their parents died. He succeeded his father in the Castle Brewery, with his brother, Cecil who lived in London. Lawrence and Cecil continued to purchase public houses. The Embankment Hotel was built by Higgins and Sons in 1892. The architects were Messrs. Anthony, and Usher. In 1902 Lawrence and Cecil dissolved their partnership and turned the brewery into a limited company. In 1908 Higgins and Sons Limited bought the brewery, Castle Close and its grounds, including the castle mound, and a house from the Duke of Bedford.
In 1909 Lawrence moved to Wootton House, Butleigh Wootton, Somerset. The 1911 Census records that the house had twenty rooms and he employed four servants which included a butler. Lawrence was the last of the Higgins family to live in Castle Close House.
On the 7th May 1930 Lawrence died, aged 81 at his home in Somerset. His funeral service at St. Paul’s Church Bedford preceded his burial in the Higgins family grave at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E4.15 -19
Cecil Charles Norman Colburne Higgins
Cecil was born in 1856 in Bedford. His christening took place on the 29th August 1856 at St. Paul’s Church, Bedford. Though Cecil had not lived in Bedford for many years he was a local magistrate and frequently sat on the Quarter Sessions Bench. He was Chairman of Higgins and Sons Limited. On the 9th April 1941 Cecil died at his home at Exmouth in Devon. His burial took place in the family grave at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E4.15-19.
The Final Years of Higgins and Sons Brewery
On the 20th March 1924 Bedford Corporation bought the Castle Close estate comprising of two and a quarter-acres, a house, buildings, and the castle mound, for £4,350. In 1928 Wells and Winch acquired Higgins and Sons Brewery Ltd. In 1931 the clothing factory of H. H. Bennett & Co., occupied Higgins Brewery. Later the GPO used the building for its sorting office.
Opening of the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum
In 1942 Cecil stated in his Will that the gardens of Castle Close should be open to the public and a museum should be housed in Castle Close. Cecil left to the Trustees of his Will a part of his collection of porcelain, glass, furniture, and other articles, valued at over £10,000 to assist in the foundation of the museum. He made provision for a fund to cover the maintenance of a museum. Cecil left a collection of his museum exhibits to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He left the large silver salver presented to his grandfather, Charles Higgins by the Town of Bedford during his mayoralty in 1848, to the Corporation of Bedford.
On the 25th July 1949 Lord Luke opened The Cecil Higgins Museum in Castle Close House. An extension built 1977-1978 on the side of The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, housed two large exhibition areas, a conservation studio, picture store, library, and a shop. In the lower exhibition area, the show cases displayed water-coloured paintings. Displayed in the upper exhibition area were porcelain, ceramics, and glass, with a pond setting with a fine collection of swan and duck tureens. In 1982 Castle Brewery was converted to house the Bedford Museum.
Photography by Linda S. Ayres
Northampton Mercury 5th April 1823 and 3rd Feb 1844 and 20th April 1844 and
Northampton Mercury 21st November 1846 and 29th April 1848
Bedfordshire Mercury 21st October 1843 and 15th December 1848 and15th April 1862 and 3rd August 1867
The Bedfordshire Mercury 26th July 1862 and 18th February 1871 and Sept 15 1905 and 13th Dec 1907 and
Bedfordshire Times and Standard 18th April 1941 and 21st January 1944 and 19th February 1943
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 17th March 1868 and 9th July 1870 and 9th November 1895
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 4th Jan 1929 and 16th May 1930 and 13th Sept 1940
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 20th December 1940 and 19th February 1943 and
Bedfordshire Times and Standard 2nd January 1942 and 22nd November 1946
Biggleswade Chronical and Gazette 29th Feb 1924
Bedford Borough Council
Wells and Winch Prospectus Biggleswade Chronicle 26th Oct 1928
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August 04, 2021