The Grosvenor Museum holds Chester’s biggest collection of local and international history. It covers 2,000 years of Cestrian life spread over three floors of a classic 19th century building. And best of all – it’s completely free!
The Museums Act of 1845 authorised borough councils to collect a 1/2d rate for the purpose of establishing and running a Museum (provided that the population in the vicinity was over 10,000), for the instruction and amusement of the public. The Grosvenor Museum was founded in 1885, and its origins are linked to those of the Chester Society for Natural Science, Literature and Art, founded by Charles Kingsley(1819-1875). Charles Kingsley was a Canon of Chester Cathedral from 1871 to 1874, but is better known for his didactic moral fable The Water Babies. Kingsley enrolled as founder members in the Chester Society such eminent scientists as:
Thomas Huxley (4 May 1825 – 29 June 1895), known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of “natural selection”;
Joseph Hooker (30 June 1817 – 10 December 1911), who had joined renowned polar explorer Captain James Clark Ross’s Antarctic expedition to the South Magnetic Pole;
John Tyndall (2 August 1820 – 4 December 1893), a prominent 19th century physicist; and,
Charles Lyell (14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875), the foremost geologist of his day, who had been an influence on the young Charles Darwin and was a major protagonist of Uniformitarianism
It is worth noting that many of these eminent scientists did not share the Creationist views of those opposed to Darwinism – Kingsley could evidently separate, or perhaps harmonise, science and religion, or secular and sacramental, quite well. Kingsley also brought together many local naturalists, and the Society built up large and important natural history collections. The building of a local museum was first suggested in 1871, to house the collections and use them for teaching. Kingsley himself wrote an interesting “Town Geology” book. In 1873, the Natural Science Society joined forces with the Chester Archaeological Society and the Schools of Science and Art to raise money for the museum. The plan was to build a museum with lecture rooms, and to house the collections and libraries from all three groups. A plot of land was bought in Grosvenor Street and £11,000 was raised, including a donation of £4,000 from the first Duke of Westminster. The architect was Thomas Meakin Lockwood of Chester. The museum, which is a listed building, is built of red brick with sandstone dressings in a free Renaissance style. On the façade, the reclining spandrels of the portal represent science and art, whilst the Dutch gables are carved with peacocks flanked by the talbot supporters of the Grosvenor arms. In the entrance hall, the mosaic decoration featuring the city arms, was made by Italian craftsmen from the Manchester firm of Ludwig Oppenheimer, and each of the four Shap granite columns was turned from a single piece of stone. The foundation stone was laid by the Duke on 3 February 1885, and he officially opened the museum on 9 August 1886. Named after the Duke’s family, the building’s full title was “The Grosvenor Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, with Schools of Science and Art, for Chester, Cheshire and North Wales”.
Robert Newstead held the post of curator from 1886-1913 and then from 1922 to 1947. Newstead was supported in this work by his brother Alfred. Robert Newstead later became Professor Emeritus of Entomology at Liverpool University. He was also a scholar of considerable distinction in the field of archaeology, and was made a freeman of the city in 1936. The City of Chester officially took over the administration of the museum in 1915, and total control of the collections and displays in 1938. Graham Webster was appointed curator after Robert Newstead died in 1947. The Society of Antiquaries hints at the somewhat eclectic nature of the collection in a report from 1950 that they were “much impressed by the remarkable progress of the Curator since his appointment. Though the work of rearrangement is far from complete, sufficient has already been accomplished to justify the belief that, when the present plans have been carried out, the Museum will rank with the most modern and attractive displays of archaeological material in the country.”
Graham Webster devised the Newstead Gallery, which was opened in 1953 and named after Robert Newstead. In 1955 the first period room, the Victorian Parlour, was opened to the public in the Period House at number 20 Castle Street, which Webster had saved from demolition. In 1989, the new Art Gallery was created, and the museum came under the new Leisure Services section of the City Council. Major structural work in 1990 was the perfect opportunity to refurbish all the public areas, including the entrance hall and main galleries. The Roman Stones and Natural History Galleries were redisplayed and a new Silver Gallery created. In 1992, the Prince of Wales (Earl of Chester) reopened the museum after refurbishment. In 1993, the Webster Roman Stones Gallery won the North West Museum of the Year Award. In 1999, the Museum was awarded a £300,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to undertake a scheme of access improvements to the ground floor, which included installing a disabled toilet and stair lifts, and building a new conservatory to house the shop. The museum now has over 100,000 visitors each year.
Newstead and Lockwood are both buried in Overleigh Cemetery.
In April 2007, there was a public outcry when Chester City Council mooted the idea of moving the Grosvenor Museum to a new site outside the city centre, possibly to the Greyhound Park trading estate development at Sealand. The reason given was that the current premises are too small now. It remains to be seen what the future holds.