“Charnwood” – how it all began.
The building in which we have such an interest began life as a private house. In 1825 the proprietor of the “Swan Inn” in the Market Place, George Kershaw, had it built it for his retirement. The busy Inn yard (now our present “Arcade”) would have been a visible reminder to him of the days when he ran the family coaching service to London. Sadly for him, he died shortly after moving in (of a “mortification of the foot”) but his widow stayed, passing the house in turn to their daughter Frances and her husband Daniel Marsh.
The next owners were the three daughters of Dr. Oswald Foster. Two generations of this medical family had tirelessly served the local population, often free of charge, and their father was a founding influence in the new Hitchin Infirmary in Bedford Road (now Thomas Bellamy House).
In 1860 the house (named in the 1861 Census as “Park Cottage”) became the property of Thomas Perkins, sometimes referred to as “Hitchin’s one-man Industrial Revolution”. A man of enormous energy and talent, he had arrived in town in 1849 and set up an ironmongery and engineering business in Exchange Yard, behind the present Corn Exchange. The “Hitchin Ironworks” expanded, prospered and eventually moved location, and family connections took Thomas beyond the town to engineering opportunities in Peterborough. However he remained a Hitchin resident, a pillar of civic responsibility and, with his wife, a notable champion of charitable causes in the town. During his ownership “Park Cottage” underwent considerable remodelling and extension and the room used as the Art Gallery was part of this work.
Thomas Perkins died in 1908, and the house was bought in 1910 by a “Retired Australian Banker” named Frederic Burt, who had in fact been born in Somerset. Quite why he renamed the house “Agadir” after the Moroccan coastal city remains a mystery! The 1911 census lists thirteen rooms to the property. The next owner, Charles George Baron, was already resident in the town. He was a Chartered Accountant by profession and transferred the name of his previous house in The Avenue, “Charnwood,” to his new home. He died in 1935.
Enter the Moss brothers, Wallace and Hubert, who were not only leading grocers in the town with “branches elsewhere”, but also tea blenders, bacon curers and owners of warehouses and a curing factory. They were also very philanthropic by nature. They bought the property and generously offered it to Hitchin Urban District Council for use by the residents as a town library and museum (and their descendant Mrs Ann Moss Adams has become our patron). The library opened July 1938 in the downstairs area of the house, and eventually in May 1941, the upstairs rooms became the new Hitchin Museum. Many of the original exhibits had been collected by the “Hitchin and District Regional Survey Association”. In 1966 the library moved into a purpose-built extension to the original house, leaving the whole building free for the expansion of the museum.
The final piece of the jigsaw saw the installation of the William Ransom Physic Garden in 1990, linking the museum with the town’s historic links to the cultivation of medicinal plants.