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Celebrating Hampshire's Historians

Curtis, William

6 March 1803 – 7 October 1881

William Curtis was born in Alton, Hampshire one of ten children of William Curtis and Elizabeth (nee Heath). Privately educated, then apprenticed to his father, an apothecary/surgeon, he spent time in Edinburgh and London before joining his father’s practice.

Like many educated men of his time, he was interested in natural history and geology and he was instrumental in forming The Alton Mechanics and Apprentices’ Library in September 1837 and a series of lectures followed. A move to larger premises enabled a Reading Room and Library to be opened in 1855 and on 1 January 1856 a Museum with a collection of 4000 items was opened to the public. It was extended five years later with a local museum on the top floor of the three-storey building in Market Street, Alton.

As the years progressed more room was needed and a purpose-built Mechanics Institute, part of a scheme for three community facilities was opened on 27 October 1881 comprising a Cottage Hospital and Assembly Rooms in addition to the Mechanics Institute.

Curtis gifted his large collection of local history and geological material to the Institution and following his death on 7 October 1881, it was agreed that the museum be known for the future as the Curtis Museum.

Sources

  • Curtis, WH, (1961), A Quaker Doctor and Naturalist in the 19th Century; Bannisdale Press, London

  • Cross, T, (1981), A Local Geologist of the Last Century, Journal of the Farnham Geol Soc, I, (I), 5-6

Portrait

William Curtis

Contribution to county’s history

The collections of the Curtis Museum eventually became part of the Hampshire County Council Museums Service following the Education Act (1944). The former family house at 4, High Street bears a blue plaque with the wording:-  Home of William Curtis 1770 - 1849 Surgeon Apothecary to Jane Austen and William Curtis 1803 - 1881 a Founder of the Curtis Museum

Relevant published works

  • Curtis, W, (1861), Notes on the fossils of the Gault from Alice Holt Forest, Proc. Geol. Ass. Lond. I, 152-153

  • Curtis, W, (1877), The Geology of Selborne in Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (T Bell, ed), 374-377

  • Hurst, J, William Curtis: Altonian and Botanist, Alton, ND

Critical Comments

Other Comments

He was related to the famous botanist, William Curtis (1746-1799), author of Flora Londiniensis, founder of the longest running botanical magazine, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and much else.  His house at 51, Gracechurch Road, Alton, is marked with a national Blue Plaque. Jane Hurst’s pamphlet, William Curtis, includes a family tree.

Sadly, the Curtis Museum may be forced to close in 2026, due to local government budget cuts brought about by central government reducing funds to local authorities.

Contributor

Tony Cross, February 2024

Keywords

Alton, Geology, Alice Holt, Selborne, Curtis Museum

Any queries or further suggestions for this part of the list should be addressed to celebrating@hantsfieldclub.org.uk.

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