John’s Place: The Incredible Story Behind Hastings Museum and Art Gallery

John’s Place, just off Bohemia Road, Hastings. Seen here not long after completion in 1925, it is a truly stunning piece of architecture but what stories do those bricks hold? (Credit: Used under fair use, via Historical Hastings, if you are the copyright holder and wish it removed please contact me.)

Just Bricks and Mortar?

A beautiful view of John’s Place, the oriel window in the centre, the loggia to the right, the chimneys up above. It has so many interesting characteristics. The area to the left is an extension from 1932 and the building had reconstruction work done in 2006-2007. (Credit: © Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Seldom do I start a little look at a museum with a focus on the building itself but it struck me immediately. This was an amazing building, and amazing buildings do not spring up from nowhere. Somebody must build them, and they must build them for someone. I wanted to know these people, and find out the story of this wonderful building.

John’s Place, as the house is known, is stunning.

The gulls are massing on the battlements! These crenellations are likely purely decorative and not for shooting from between. (Credit: © Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

It has a stout, stoic, almost square main building with many interesting features. Most obvious is the crenellated roof, the style of jutting battlements most commonly associated with castles or fortifications.

There is an oriel window, like a bay window but suspended rather than touching the ground, on the approach-side, just above the main entrance, giving the impression that a Lord or Lady of the manor may well be observing visitors driving in from Bohemia Road.

The small loggia, a sort-of exterior roofed gallery (big fancy porch! Shh! don’t say that to architecture people) framed by scroll-topped ionic columns adds another touch of grandiosity.

Despite the fact that it looks like a tiny castle, the red-brick and sandstone used to build the bulk of the structure should give away the relatively modern construction date.  

The loggia, a roofed, often collonaded gallery stands at what may at one time have been the main entrance (which is now beneath the oriel window). Also I sat on that bench to the left. (Credit: © Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

But I didn’t need it to be ancient to be interesting. I recognised what an odd and amazing building this was, I recognised that there was probably an interesting story behind it, but I could not have predicted the rabbit-hole it would send me down. I intended to write a short introduction on the architect of the place, a little bit about and the family who commissioned the building and then I was going to write about the museum itself and its various exhibits. Instead the story just kept getting bigger, the rabbit hole became a warren. 

I hope my research is correct. I am sadly locked behind paywalls from a lot of the archives to find the specifics and details. I would much rather have access to more of the primary sources, but there are sufficient threads out there that I believe this to be fairly well researched. If you know better of the history I go through, if I have made any errors or provided any falsehoods please do get in touch (Twitter is probably best) and let me know.

Who Was The Architect?

Bohemia Road, this portion is in St. Leonards-on-Sea, a town adjoining Hastings. Just off of this road, back in Hastings, is John’s Place. Records of architectural business show H. W. Coussens, the architect of John’s Place, worked on several properties on Bohemia Road. (Credit: © Copyright Chris Whippet and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Plans for a dwelling on the site that would be John’s Place were first noted in 1923 in the local newspaper the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer. The to-be owner was one Mrs. Kidd and the architect was one H. W. Coussens.

H. W. Coussens was an architect local to Hastings and Sussex, indeed the surname is incredibly common in the area and there are still local building or construction companies with the name. I am unsure if they are related.

This Coussens is likely Henry Walter Coussens (1870-1949), born in Hastings to Walter Coussens and Elizabeth Long.

According to The British Architect from 1891 he appears to have passed his preliminary architecture qualifications in 1891. The Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects backs this up by suggesting a Henry Walter Coussens of Hastings was a Preliminary Associate in 1891 and a Student Associate in 1892. The Directory of British Architects 1834-1914 suggests he began independent practice in 1903.

Now you may think an architect bold enough to work on John’s Place would go on to great fame and fortune but it appears, more or less, that Coussens stuck around the Hastings and East Sussex area, sometimes building houses and the like, but more often performing alterations and extensions. He may even have been a council appointed architect for rural areas at one point. There seems to be a decent amount of information about things he worked on that I, sadly, do not have access to.

No doubt there are many buildings around Hastings and Sussex that bear the fruits of his work, whether he built them or assisted in their conversions into workshops, retail spaces or just stuck in an extension or two.

News just in (around 100 years ago!) but in looking for images related to Coussens I discovered that this former cinema, the Regent in Rye, was designed by a ‘Henry Coussens’ of Hastings! Possibly the same Coussens as the cinema was commissioned and built during his lifetime. It is itself an interesting building, both austere and decorative. It looks like a cross between a Victorian red-brick factory and art deco. The cinema was opened in 1932 but was sadly bombed to ruin in 1942, during World War II. The direct hit destroyed the building and killed the assistant manager. Every building has stories! (Credit: Mike_Blakemore, by Creative Commons)

I wish I could find out more. The building, John’s Place, is stunning in its features. It is almost a composite of styles that somehow defies sense and yet ties together into a perfect whole. This odd, squat 11th century keep style of a square house, with tall, Victorian stacks of chimneys, the medieval style oriel window and heavy, studded doors, and neo-classical, Ionic columned loggia – It shouldn’t work and yet it really does, so well is it executed.

Certainly I would like to know if Coussens ever built anything else like it. If not then what a remarkable building from someone whose body of work is otherwise so humble.

If you have any more information, I’d love to know. Please get in touch.

But that’s the story of the architect. What of the story of the owner, Mrs. Kidd?

The Remarkable Kidd Family

Note: I have often found competing dates for births and deaths – Dates may not be accurate

Frances Octavia Kidd (1857-1940?)
The birth and death years of Frances Kidd are hard to pin down!

Mrs. Kidd was the person who instructed Coussens to prepare, and build John’s Place. The house was named after her deceased son Gerald Christobel Kidd, called ‘John’ by his family, a medical student who died in 1909 aged just 24.

Given the size of the house the family clearly had money, so who were they?

Well to the best of my research Mrs. Kidd was Mrs. Frances Octavia Kidd, née Rouse. Sadly whilst I could find information on a lot of the men of the family, information about the women was very much lacking. So to tie things together let’s find out about her husband.

Joseph Kidd (1824-1918)

Dr Joseph Kidd in a family portrait photograph. Looking every bit the Victorian era doctor! (Credit: Public Domain)

Frances was the second wife of Joseph Kidd.

He was an Irish doctor born in Limerick and one of fifteen children.  He trained locally before moving to Dublin, and from there moved to London and worked at the Homeopathic Hospital.

However around this time the Great Famine happened in Ireland and he chose to move back to Ireland in order to help those suffering due to the famine conditions.

He moved back to London afterwards left the Homeopathic Hospital and appears to have mainly stopped prescribing homeopathic treatments.

In 1850 he married his first wife, Sophia McKern (1823-1872) and they had eight children together.

He established clinics in the City of London and Blackheath (then Kent, becoming part of the County of London in 1889) and became a very successful doctor, including being statesman and two-time Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s personal physician from 1877 up until Disraeli’s death in 1881.

The following information is mostly taken from:
Whitfield (1980), Disraeli’s Doctors, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians London, Jul: 14 (3), pp. 202-204.

Disraeli seemed a sickly sort, so he had many doctors to help treat his ailments through his life. He seems to have suffered from depressive symptoms in his early 20s, as well as later suffering gout and respiratory difficulties associated with asthma. He was very unhappy with his doctors at the time, Sir William Jenner (best known for discovering the distinction between typhus and typhoid fever) and Sir William Gull (appointed a physician-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria and more oddly embroiled in many conspiracies and theories regarding Whitechapel serial killer Jack the Ripper!).

“They are all alike,” Disraeli says in a letter to Lady Bradford, “First of all they throw it on the weather: then there must be a change of scene. So Sir W. Jenner after blundering and plundering in the usual way sent me to Bournemouth, and Gull wants to send me to Ems. I should like to send them both to Jericho.”

Benjamine Disraeli – Two time Conservative Prime Minister of the UK – He was baptised at age 12, which assisted him in a career in politics since, at the time, everyone had to swear into office by their “true faith as a Christian” making the occupation undesirable to practicing jews (though some did pursue the career). It’s all a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the basics. He is the only ever British Prime Minister who was jewish by birth. Despite his baptism he was still subject to much anti-semitic abuse in his life and career. (Credit: Public Domain)

Clearly unhappy with his treatments he was recommended Kidd by friends. Kidd recognised the asthma, as well as diagnosing Bright’s disease (nowadays called nephritis, inflammation of the kidneys that can have many causes) and bronchitis.

He prescribed something I wished I could have got on the NHS back when I had a kidney infection, the finest Chateau Lafite wine! This was to replace the previously prescribed port Disraeli had been drinking! On top of this he prescribed potassium iodide (nowadays more associated with treatment of hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland) and arsenic (nowadays pretty much only used to treat deadlier things than arsenic poisoning, such as certain leukaemias – it was also once used to treat syphilis).

Not available on NHS prescription! This is an 1861 Chateau Lafite. Approximate values are difficult (as supply/demand makes the prices vary wildly) but in 2010 three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite sold for a shade over $230,000 dollars each. (Credit: Ryan O’Connell, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

I’m not sure a modern GP would prescribe minimum £250 bottles of wine, potassium salts and poisonous metalloid chemical elements but this was the late 19th century and we have come a long way since then. Regardless Disraeli was very happy with his new doctor, saying, again in a letter to Lady Bradford, “I entertain the highest opinion of Dr Kidd.”

Naturally, though, Disraeli’s condition deteriorated and other medical opinions were sought. Because of his association with homeopathy many other doctors at the time refused to consult with Kidd regarding Disraeli, who maintained regular visits with the former Prime Minister. Upon being given assurances that Kidd was not prescribing homeopathically, and having checked on the ethics with his medical boards, one Dr Richard Quain did attend, at the request of Queen Victoria. Quain confirmed Kidd’s diagnoses of asthma and renal (kidney) failure.

By this point, though, all Disraeli’s doctors could do was offer comfort and on 19th April 1881, in the presence of Kidd, Quain, and others, Disraeli died. Kidd is sometimes reported to have been holding his hand when he died.

Just before all of this, though, in 1875, three years after the death of his first wife, Sophia, Kidd married Frances Octavia Rouse. They had seven children together.

On 20th August 1918 Joseph Kidd died in Hastings.

This cross marks the grave of Dr Joseph Kidd, and that of his son Gerald Christobel Kidd, known as “John” after whom John’s Place was named. The humble slab to the left marks the grave of Joseph’s second wife, the person who had John’s Place built, Frances Octavia Kidd. This is in Eltham Cemetary, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, London. (Credit: Used under fair use, via the Brethren Archive – If you own the copyright of this image and would like it removed please contact us)

So what became of his family?

Well, five years later we know his wife commissioned the amazing building of John’s Place. But many of his children also went on to influence society both locally and nationally.

A lot of them, funnily enough, became doctors!

The Kidd Kids

Sadly, having had around 15 children in total, an awful lot of them have little-to-no record. But here is quick look at a selection of a few of the children of Joseph Kidd, by both Sophia and Frances, and a couple of grandchildren too.

Percy Marmaduke Kidd (1851-1942)

The oldest child, by Joseph and Sophia Kidd, became a successful London doctor. He also tried his hand at first-class cricket but made only one appearance for Kent against Middlesex and, thanks to two ducks, ended with a first-class career batting average of 0.00!

Walter Aubrey Kidd (1852-1929)  

Another child of Joseph and Sophia who also became a successful London doctor and was also a supporter of Lamarckian evolution – A system of evolution that, unlike Natural Selection, proposes characteristics can be encouraged and passed on through use and disuse.

Eric Leslie Kidd (1889-1984)

What a dapper chap! Photographed around 1910 this is Eric Leslie Kidd in his cricket whites. Sadly his potential England cricket career was halted by World War I and subsequently he moved to Dublin where he worked at Guinness. He played internationally for Ireland instead, debuting for them against Scotland in August 1921. He continued to make sporadic appearances for Middlesex, too. (Credit: Peter Kidd, Eric’s Grandson – believed Public Domain)

The grandson of Joseph Kidd and son of Percy and (I believe?) Gertrude Eleanor Harrison. He was a first-class cricketer and played for Middlesex and Ireland. He moved to Ireland after World War I where he eventually became a director at Guinness – Yes, that Guinness!

Leonard Joseph Kidd (1858-1926)

Another child of Joseph and Sophia who went on to become a surgeon. There is little information available but he fathered quite a notable child;

Ronald Hubert Kidd (1889-1942)

A half-plate film negative of Ronald Kidd, by Howard Coster, 1940. The Council for Civil Liberties he would found, in 1934, with Sylvia Crowther-Smith, would include such founder members as author E. M. Forster, Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee, nurse and writer Vera Brittain, Aneurin Bevan whose time as Labour Minister for Health saw the establishment of the NHS, polymath Bertrand Russel, Doctor and politician Edith Summerskill and many, many more. It was a ‘Who’s Who?’ of left-leaning, liberal thinkers and activists and under the name ‘Liberty’ is still active today. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Grandson of Joseph Kidd, son of Leonard Joseph Kidd, an activist and campaigner against injustice who went on to found the Council for Civil Liberties (today known as Liberty) following his anger at the police response to the Hunger Marchers.

Francis Seymour Kidd (1878-1934)

Francis Seymour Kidd – he would go on to revolutionise urology in the UK after spending time in Berlin and seeing the success of the German School of Urology. (Credit: Used under fair use, image via the British Association of Urological Surgeons – If you own the copyright of this image and would like it removed please contact us.)

The son of Joseph and Frances who became a successful urologist, founding the British Journal of Urology and becoming its first editor.

And finally the remarkable story of;

Beatrice Mary Kidd (1876-1957)

Possibly the first child of Joseph and Frances, though I can’t be sure, she seems to have a very unsung but fascinating story. I am also unsure if sexism or privacy is the reason behind the lack of information about her, my suspicion would be the former. Regardless what I found was someone with quite an incredible tale.

You see Beatrice followed in the family footsteps and became a doctor herself.

Dr Elizabeth Garret Anderson in 1889. She and others helped blaze a trail for the misogynistic universities and medical associations to accept female students and doctors. (Credit: Public Domain)

To put her life and career in some kind of perspective the first recognised, licensed female practitioner of medicine was Dr Elizabeth Garret Anderson, who obtained her licence from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1865. This was somewhat of a loophole, as the society’s charter did not allow for discrimination. This loophole was closed the very following year.

There had been at least one licensed female doctor prior to this, however Margaret Ann Bulkley was not known as Dr Margaret, but Dr James Barry! She adopted a male persona and disguise. Women had long been associated with medical practice but the formalisation of the discipline created their exclusion as early as the 16th century and thus any woman seeking to get into medical practice, at least licensed medical practice, would have to resort to such methods.

Dr Anderson’s qualification hardly swung the doors open for women doctors. The likes of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake and the rest of the Edinburgh Seven would continue the struggle for women to be admitted to medical study and caused uproar, protest, riot and, eventually, change through their persistence. By 1876, thanks to the painstaking work of Dr Anderson, Dr Jex-Blake and many others the ‘Enabling Act’ or Medical Act 1876 finally, legally, allowed for the licensing of all qualified applicants regardless of gender.

Whilst the doors may have finally been opened, this did not remove the obstacles of organised, structural misogyny. It was an ‘enabling act’, that is to say whilst organisations could license female doctors they did not have to, and many didn’t. Even Queen Victoria was said to be quite opposed to women studying medicine, so you can only imagine the social pressures for organisations to continue denying women the right to become doctors.

These seven women would cause uproar, and even a riot, for daring to pursue a career in medicine. The Edinburgh Seven, along with many other women activists, including Elizabeth Garret Anderson, struggled for decades for the right to study medicine and be recognised as qualified medical professionals. (Credit: Believed Public Domain (if you own the copyright to this image and would like it removed please contact us), via Museums and Galleries Edinburgh)

It would not be until 1892, when our Dr Beatrice Mary Kidd was 16 years old, that the British Medical Association finally accepted female doctors.

Obviously the discrimination doesn’t end there, though. Medical association acceptance does not equal social acceptance, especially after hundreds of years of specific discrimination and a vociferous campaign against it in the 50-or-so years prior. Women doctors would still have faced huge social stigma, harassment and discrimination.

This is the context of Dr Beatrice Mary Kidd getting into the profession. Perhaps not one who blazed the trail, but still a pioneer of modern women’s medicinal practice, among the first wave of brave women willing to stand up to social castigation and pursue a passion for helping others using scientific knowledge and technical skill.

Much of the following information comes from Lady Doctors of the Malta Garrison; Beatrice Mary Kidd 1876-1957, accessed Dec. 14 2021, online.

Dr. Kidd passed her preliminary examinations in 1898 (link to PDF), aged 22, from Westfield College and Bedford College London. In 1904, aged around 28, she qualified from the London School of Medicine for Women as a Bachelor of Medicine.

The London School of Medicine for Women was set up in 1874 by many of the women we have already mentioned, and others. It was to provide a place free from the hostility those women had suffered as they struggled to learn and start a career in the medical field. The organisation would go on to be incorporated into the University College London Medical School. (Credit: Wellcome Images, CC-BY-4.0)

For the next ten years it seems that she took up a post as clinical assistant at two hospitals, and travelled to India for a residency at the Kinnaird Hospital in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh State.

By 1914 she seems to be a Schools Medical Officer in Bromley.

Shortly after this, having already made quite a bold trip to India, she seems to have joined the Lady Doctors of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) when they were sent to Malta in 1916. Casualties from the ill-fated operation at Gallipoli, and Salonika, were often sent to Malta for treatment.

The whole era around World War I was a time of dramatic change for women in the UK. The huge numbers of men who enlisted for the war, the huge numbers of men injured or killed, meant women had to step in and fill roles previously denied to them, and out of necessity even men who opposed this had to step aside. One of the roles where women excelled was as doctors.

Beatrice left Britain in September of 1916, having been employed by the RAMC as a civilian surgeon, on the Hospital Ship Essequibo. She returned to England around a year later, having served her residency, in September 1917.  

His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Essequibo, originally built as a Royal Mail carrier ship, here seen in Naples in 1916. This is the ship that would have carried Dr Beatrice and her colleagues to Malta to serve as doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps. (Credit: Believed public domain (if you own the copyright to this image and would like it removed please contact us) via Birtwhistle Wiki)

If I am not mistaken (and I may be) this record is that of the daughter of Frances and Joseph Kidd. A woman with a remarkable story. What is most unbelievable is that there is not more information about her but I can tell you some of her brother’s cricket records!

What’s more, to link back to the very building this all started with, one Dr B. M. Kidd was reported to be accessible by telephone at John’s Place – the very site of this wonderful museum – in the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer on 25th April 1925! Surely this, too, is our Dr Beatrice?

What stories of her experiences did this woman carry? What tales of her travels to India, or her time serving as a doctor in Malta? What trials, tribulations and discrimination did she endure to pursue a career she clearly felt a passion, as well as a strong familial connection, for?

Sadly I don’t know. Whether through social ignorance or her own desire for privacy there is little information out there about her. But if my research is correct and I’ve connected the right dots, what an absolutely incredible story all from being interested in one oddly beautiful house. A house connected to what must be one of the most prestigious medical families in UK history, given the number of doctors they produced. How many other grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of Joseph and Sophia or Joseph and Frances are currently practicing in the UK, or around the world?

Back Home, to John’s Place

So how come, in 1927, only 4 years after work was begun, the house was sold?

I don’t know.

Via Historial Hastings I know our friends at the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, and council records, tell us that the house at John’s Place and it’s 2¾ acres of land were sold to Hastings council for a very reasonable £7,500 on the 19th July 1927.

A snippet from the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer regarding the sale of John’s Place to the council for the purpose of using it as a museum. (Credit: Used under fair use, via Historical Hastings, if you are the copyright holder and wish it removed please contact me.)

One might ask why, when you have so many successful children and step-children you wouldn’t keep a house like that. There could be many reasons. Perhaps in supporting those children Frances’ funds got short. Perhaps the success of the children, their moving away to London and elsewhere, meant a large house and estate was not practical for the few who remained. Perhaps, knowing the council were looking for a new location to house their local museum collection Frances merely thought it’d be nice to sell it for such a purpose and move elsewhere.

The Observer, again, makes it apparent that she was at the museum opening ceremony in 1928, so clearly this was not an acrimonious sale by any means.

There is probably a lot to the story that I don’t know. There is probably much more I could find out. Sadly there is likely an awful lot of it now lost to time. I think there is a case to be made to try and find out more.

Finally

One of the things I love about researching is getting lost!

That’s exactly what happened here.

I was intending to write about the museum itself, the building, the interior, the various things on display. The place is one of those weird and wonderful local collections with a little bit of everything. I’m not much of a pottery guy (unless it’s Samian ware) but even I was converted by their gallery on working with clay!

I didn’t get to do that, though. Maybe some other time? Instead I popped down a rabbit hole just trying to find out who Kidd, the first owner of the building, and Coussen, the architect, were.

If you think the stories of this building end here, I didn’t even touch the Durbar Hall! Originally on display as part of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, South Kensington, 1868 it was purchased by Lord Brassey, gifted to the Borough of Hastings in 1919 by its inheritor the second Lord Brassey and installed at John’s Place in 1931 as part of the extension works. It is a replica of what the interior of an Indian palace would look like, two Punjabi woodcarvers were brought to Britain to help make this incredible room. If there aren’t dozens of stories attached to these ornate carved wood structures alone I’d be surprised! (Credit: Phil Sellens CC-BY-2.0)

I did not expect to find what I found, which is a mind-blowing tale that potentially links the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery to a significant family in UK medical history, potentially two Prime Ministers (Joseph Kidd is said to have also been a physician for Gladstone as well), a globetrotting female medical pioneer, many cricketers including one who played for the MCC, a globally famous Irish Stout company, an early supporter of evolutionary theory and a man who founded a civil liberties group in the UK!

I hope beyond all hope, as a total amateur historian, whose main tool and archive is a search engine, that I have not made a catastrophic error in these discoveries and deductions. If I have erred, please correct me.

But surely you can see by all the little threads, the connections that sew this amazing family into the very fabric of the history of Hastings and beyond that if I have made a mistake it would be because of one massive coincidence!

So here’s to John’s Place and the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery – A building that already houses enough stories from elsewhere via its amazing collections, but seems to have an incredible story of its own.

To find out more about the museum and its collections, or to book a visit, click here.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - https://www.patreon.com/WeLackDiscipline Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) - https://ko-fi.com/welackdiscipline

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