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Higgins and Sons Brewery Bedford

On Lady Day 1823 Charles Higgins (c.1789-1862), a distant relation of the Higgins family of Turvey, but a native of Higham Park [Northamptonshire] became tenant of the Swann Inn, Bedford at a rent of £100 per annum. The inn was owned by the Duke of Bedford. He also rented three closes in the parish of Bedford, Saint Paul for £69 per annum from the duke [R5/1147]. The Swan had recently been rebuilt and with its advantageous position close to the market in Saint Paul's Square trade prospered, so that by 1837 Higgins had sufficient capital to build the Castle Brewery on the nearby Castle Close.

 The site of Higgins and Sons brewery in 1836
The site of Higgins and Sons brewery in 1836

Castle Close was so called because it contained the site of Bedford Castle. In 1658 "the close where the Castle of Bedford formerly stood" was given as containing four acres. The Duke of Bedford purchased it in 1787 from John Staines and in 1837 the major part of it was leased to Higgins [HF40/5/2/1] for ninety years at a rent of five shillings per annum. Higgins agreed to erect a brewery, granary, warehouses and cottages etc. with walls with eighteen inch thick stonework and from thence no less than nine inch brickwork to the plate. The roof was to be in slate or tiles and the upper part of the brewhouse to be fir framed and lever boarded. The old watercourse or ditch running to the east of the later Castle Close House (now the old building of Cecil Higgins Museum and Art Gallery) was to be arched over and walled. Boundary walls of nine inch brick were also to be built.

 Higgins and Sons Brewery and the Castle Rooms in 1841
Higgins and Sons Brewery and the Castle Rooms in 1841

All the above works were to be completed at a cost of not less than £3,300. On a draft of the contract for granting this lease (completed on 16th November 1837) in a marginal observation on title it is stated that "The Brewery is already erected and will soon be completed at the cost of about £2,200 and a Malting and outbuilding will cost £1,000". By April 1838 rate books no longer describe the land as the castle sweard but as the brewery. The ground plan of Castle Close and the outline specifications of the Buildings were prepared by W. Berrill of Bedford, builder, on 25th May 1836 and November 1837 [RBox306]. However, it is clear that the detailed arrangement of the interior of the Brewery was built in accordance with the advice of Whitbreads, the famous London brewers and a man with the intriguing name of Chuck, a maltster from Ware [Hertfordshire]. In a letter of 13th February 1842 from Thomas Bennett about a proposal to replace a malting at Woburn it is stated "that the Duke talked of Burness wishing to go to Ware to see Mr. Chuck's Malting. I said I thought he could see the plan and system at Bedford as Higgins' malting was built entirely by the advice of Messrs Whitbread and Mr. Chuck who always when at Southill comes to Bedford to inspect Higgins' concerns [R3/4506/1].

Charles Higgins had as his junior partner in the Brewery his elder son George (born in Wellingborough [Northamptonshire] about 1817 and died in Bedford on 3rd August 1883) from as early as 1838, the April rate Book refers to Charles Higgins and Company. The property was valued at £70 with a rateable value of £65/4/- per annum - the actual payment being 16 shillings 3½ pence per annum. By 1845 Charles Higgins junior, George's younger brother is listed as holding the Swan Inn as a separate venture jointly with his father. By 1852 he was the sole tenant. Despite the temporary setback at the beginning of the 1840s, when money was short, Higgins and Company had sufficient capital to buy nine public houses in the years before 1850, including six between 1844 and 1846. Four of these houses were in Bedford but the nine included the furthest houses from Bedford that the firm ever bought including The Chequer in North Crawley [Buckinghamshire], The Swan in Newton Bromswold [Northamptonshire] and The Post Boy in Biggleswade (the last intruding on the territory of the growing Biggleswade brewery of Wells and Company, later Wells and Winch). Nine more public houses were purchased in the 1850s, mainly in Bedford but including The Farriers Arms, later called The Three Horses, in Keysoe. Concentrating on Bedford and its hinterland kept transport costs to a minimum.

Charles Higgins died on 25th July 1862 at 31 Saint Cuthbert's Street, aged 73. It is probable, however, that for quite a few years previously George had been the dominant partner in the brewery. He continued to buy public houses in Bedford, Kempston and Wootton throughout the 1860s. He also bought property in Harpur Street, Bedford. Only four public houses were bought in the 1870s as well as 43 Newnham Road. Only the Coach and Horses, Shefford was purchased in the 1880s.

 Higgins and Sons Castle Brewery in 1881
Higgins and Sons Castle Brewery in 1881

George Higgins died on 3rd August 1883 and his wife Caroline, née Colburne, on 1st August 1867. The couple had three sons:

  • George Colburne Higgins (baptised on 3rd march 1847 at Bedford, Saint Paul);
  • Lawrence Read Colburne Higgins (baptised at Saint Paul's on 24th January 1849);
  • Cecil Charles Norman Colburne Higgins (baptised on 29th August 1856 at Saint Paul's)

They also had a daughter, Edith Mary. George became a commander in the Royal Navy and took no interest in the business which was run by his two younger brothers Lawrence and Cecil. They only added a public house in Woburn, one in Ravensden, one in Cardington and a club in Clapham to the portfolio. They seem to have bought a considerable amount of property in Bedford around the brewery, as well as taking leases on a number of public houses which they then sublet as tied houses.

 Higgins and Sons Castle Brewery in 1901
Higgins and Sons Castle Brewery in 1901

In 1902 the brothers dissolved their partnership and turned the brewery into a limited company [GK4/4]. They retained overall control, however, and much of the £80,000 in shares was never, in fact, issued [HF40/5/1/2]. In 1908 the firm bought the site of the brewery, the house (now The Higgins Museum), Castle Close, the old militia depot and also the site of Bedford Castle from the Duke of Bedford for £13,250 [R6/5/20/23/1].

The slowing down in the acquisition of licensed houses came to a virtual halt. They only added the White Hart in Shefford before 1914. The leasehold of the brewery itself was converted into freehold in 1908, nineteen years before the leasehold expired.

By the end of the First World War the land market in Bedfordshire was very different to that in 1914. With the virtual exceptions of the Whitbread Estate in Southill and the Shuttleworth Estate in Old Warden, landowners were trying to sell their estates as fast as they could. This created a buyer's market and Higgins and Sons capitalised on it. In the early 1920s they bought three new public houses and bought the lease to three more. They also added to the land of two more public houses and continued to expand their already substantial holdings in Bedford itself.

By the end of the 1920s, however, the market settled and the expansion of the Higgins empire again came to a virtual halt. Indeed in 1927 it appears that the brothers tried to sell the company as a comprehensive schedule of deeds [GK4/6] was drawn up at that period. On 21st September 1931 they succeeded in selling the firm with all its public houses to Wells and Winch of Biggleswade for £180,000. On 19th January 1932 the company went into voluntary liquidation [HF40/5/1/5].

Public Houses Acquired by Higgins and Sons

  • 1841-1842: The Bull and The Wheatsheaf, Harrold [GK79/1-15];
  • 1843: The Three Cups, Newnham Street, Bedford [GK75/1-13];
  • 1844: The Chequers, North Crawley [Buckinghamshire] [GK93/1-2];
  • 1845: The Swan, Newton Bromswold [Northamptonshire] [HF40/5/6/1-18]; The Post Boy, Biggleswade [GK4/6]; The George and Dragon, Mill Street, Bedford [GK72/1-18];
  • 1846: part of The Half Moon, Tavistock Street, Bedford [GK4/6];
  • 1848: The Balloon, Albert Street, Bedford [GK69/1-5];
  • 1850: The White Lion, Wootton [GK92/1-18]; The Shepherd and Dog, Cauldwell Street, Bedford [GK82/7-12]; The Farriers Arms, Keysoe [GK82/1-9];
  • 1851: The Polhill Arms, Renhold [GK4/6];
  • 1853: another part of The Half Moon, Tavistock Street [GK4/6];
  • 1855: The Compasses, Tavistock Street, Bedford [GK4/6];
  • 1857: The Wheatsheaf, Cauldwell Street, Bedford [GK76/1-4];
  • 1859: the last part of the Half Moon, Tavistock Street, Bedford [GK4/6]; The Cock, Allhallows, Bedford [sold in 1928] [GK4/6];
  • 1862: The Fox and Duck, Wootton [GK91/1-12];
  • 1863: The Star, Bedford [GK4/6]; The Commercial Tavern, Bedford [GK70/1-3];
  • 1864: the site of The Railway Swan, Bedford [GK73/1-5];
  • 1866: The Fox and Hounds, Goldington Road, Bedford [GK71/1-7];
  • 1869: The White Hart, Allhallows, Bedford [sold in 1928] [GK4/6];
  • 1870: The Gardeners Arms, Kempston [GK80/7];
  • 1879: The Bell, Woburn [GK89/1-13]; The Rising Sun, Woburn [GK89/5-13];
  • 1881: The Coach and Horses, Shefford [GK4/6];
  • 1893: The Royal Oak, Woburn [GK90/1-11];
  • 1894: The Blacksmiths Arms, Ravensden [GK4/6]; The Bricklayers Arms, New Fenlake, Cardington [GK4/6]
  • 1902: The Slaters Arms, Kempston Rural [GK81/1-2];
  • 1903: The Five Bells, Cople [GK78/1-5];
  • 1906: The White Hart, Shefford [GK84/1-3];
  • 1919: The Victoria Arms, Wilden [GK88/1-4];
  • 1922: The Griffin, Toddington [GK86/1-15];
  • 1924: The George, Silsoe [GK85]; The Bedford Arms, Souldrop [HF40/5/7/1-6];
  • The Mad Dog, Odell [GK83]

Also acquired before 1902 were: a beerhouse and baker's shop in Odell; The Case is Altered, Ravensden; The New George Inn, Cranfield; The Carpenters Arms, Wilshamstead; The Fountain Inn, Bedford

Leases for the following were acquired before 1902: The Bedford Arms, Ridgmont; The Bell, Odell; The Five Bells, Cople; The Anchor, Fenlake, Cardington; The Red Lion, Deadman's Cross, Haynes; The Black House, Ireland, Southill; The Bell, Cotton End; The Red Lion, Elstow.

Leases for the following were acquired between 1902 and 1927: The Three Cranes, Turvey; The Cat and Custard Pot, Shelton.

 Former brewery of Higgins and Sons Limited May 2009
The former brewery of Higgins and Sons Limited May 2009

Brewing ceased in Castle Lane on 5th October 1928 and the brewery was sold soon after the company was acquired by Wells and Winch and a substantial part was bought by Consumers Tea Company (their name is still visible on a small outbuilding on Castle Lane). Another Bedford brewer, Charles Wells, acquired another part of the site for use as a malting, offices and bottle washing shed. Later occupiers included Bennetts clothing factory and the Post Office who used it as a sorting office. The building was converted to house BedfordMuseum in 1982 when that institution's old premises on the Embankment were sold and the museum remains in residence at the time of writing [2009].