Hugh Beavin

Looking into the history of the museum cottages

THE NEW season for Hinckley and District Museum begins on Easter Monday, 24th April. The history of the cottages in which the museum is housed seemed to be an appropriate topic for two articles in the Hinckley Independent.

The cottages that house Hinckley and District Museum, opposite what is now Counterpart Hosiery and previously Atkins, have a history which dates back for at least 300 years. Research has indicated that there were at least three cottages which had been built at the end of the 17th century.

Many people assume the cottages are of Elizabethan origin but we have no evidence of this.

The cottages are of box-frame construction with vertical timber posts which carry wall plates bearing the trusses on which the roof is supported. There were two floors and an attic in the original cottages.

The one large cottage is now the main gallery of the museum and the first floor and attic have been removed. It is possible that at one time this also consisted of two cottages but all evidence of this has now disappeared.

The two smaller cottages, also part of the museum, have an attic above one of the cottages and also a small cellar.

When the cottages were originally constructed the infilling in the walls would probably have been wattle and daub but at a later date brick replaced this original material and incidently had the effect of making the building much colder.

The early history of the building is difficult to trace because of the loss of the deeds. Originally the cottages may have been occupied in connection with farming but by the second half of the 18th century, after the enclosure of the open fields in 1761, occupancy by framework knitters began to take place.

Unfortunately we do not know the first framework knitters to reside in any of the cottages but by the 19th century they are recorded in the census returns which date from 1801. The yard which developed behind the cottages was called Brown's Yard by the 1860s, possibly after James Brown who owned the cottages in Bond Street.

A hosier, named Joseph Mason, probably lived in the larger of the three cottages (no. 30) in the terrible conditions of the "Hungry Forties". This is indicated in the 1841 census. By 1847 the cottage had become John Moore's the butcher's shop.

The two smaller cottages (nos. 32 to 34), made up of two rooms and an attic, had one family of framework knitters in residence in the 1840s. Thomas and Lydia Harrison lived in no. 32 with seven children while no. 34 was occupied by Joseph Stretton, a retired woolcomber and his wife Anne, according to the 1841 census.

Later in the century the cottages had a variety of residents and the larger cottage was used by Thomas Humphreys at the end of the 19th century for his business as a Marine Store and General Dealer.

By the beginning of the 20th century the cottages were in a ruinous condition.

A photograph taken in about 1900 gives a clear indication of this while other properties in the area were also suffering the effects of time and needed renovation or demolition.

In 1919, Atkins Bros. purchased properties opposite their factory, at first intending to demolish them all with the idea of developing their business on both sides of Bond Street.

Colonel Clive Atkins decided to restore and preserve the cottages, which are now the museum, and the work was carried out in 1927 and 1928.

During the renovation, coins dating back to the beginning of the 18th century were discovered and these are on display at the museum. The original three doors, which opened onto Bond Street, were replaced with two doors in new locations.

In the larger cottage, the first floor and attic were removed and the small windows replaced with large windows with leaded panes that can be seen today. Some of the timbers were restored and the position of some existing timbers was changed.

Wooden shutters on the ground floor windows were removed and all the windows were given leaded lights. Chimney stacks were rebuilt in positions on the apex of the roof which had slates removed and the thatching, which had the original covering, was also restored.

The two small cottages now became one and in contrast to the antiquity of the building, a bathroom was built on at the back. Thus the restoration combined ancient and modern with a large hall which could be used by Atkins and a cottage for a tenant who could also act as a caretaker.

During the Second World War the building was used for a period as a base for the Home Guard and later the large hall became a boardroom for Atkins Ltd.

Photographs of the Atkins family adorned the walls of the boardroom and an ancient stocking-frame, possibly the oldest still in existence, was placed at one end of the hall. The frame, probably 250-years-old, was rebuilt by Bill Partridge as an employee of Atkins.

In 1991, a group of people, who had arranged a gathering at the Great Meeting, decided to set up a Museum Group. Tom Atkins chaired the group and Bill Partridge acted as vice-chairman.

Initially, meetings of the group were held in the framework knitters' cottages and by 1993 the group had become a limited liability company and a charity.

In that year the possibility of leasing the framework knitters' cottages arose and in 1995 Hinckley and District Museum acquired the lease from Atkins at a peppercorn rent. In June 1996 the museum opening to the public and "the rest is history".

Now you know the history, please visit your local museum. It is open on Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 10am to 4pm and on Sundays from 2pm to 5pm. It opens from Easter Monday to the end of October and admission is 50p, 25p concessions. Enjoy your visit!

Author: Hugh Beavin

Written for: Hinckley-on-line