The History of The Kendal Museum

From 1796 through to the present day

The History of The Kendal Museum

In 1913 the current building, a former wool warehouse, was offered to the Town Council to house the museum collections. After the end of the First World War, the Stricklandgate House collection and the Sessions collection were moved into it.


William Todhunter’s Museum was earliest museum in Kendal was founded by William Todhunter in 1796. Originally in one room, near Abbot Hall, it later moved to larger premises on Finkle Street. Todhunter was a taxidermist and collected stones from which he made musically tuned sets, for sale.

His museum contained thousands of specimens, including minerals, fossils, preserved birds, antiquities, and paintings. After his death in 1835, the collection was sold, some items going to other museums (the British Museum has a C9th runic stone from this collection).

A month later, Kendal Natural History & Scientific Society resolved to form a museum. Some objects purchased from the Todhunter sale were donated to it but recorded simply with the name of the donor so that no items can be proved to be from the earlier museum.


Kendal Natural History & Scientific Society was formed in 1835, by a group of eminent men, including William Wordsworth, the poet Southey, the famous scientist Dr. John Dalton and Professor Adam Sedgwick (founder of modern geology), who was its president.

The Society’s museum started with a few stuffed birds and antiquities, in a room in Lowther Street (then called New Street) but soon grew with donated items. In 1838 the collections were moved to a building in Stramongate, originally a warehouse but in the years before 1837 used as a Roman Catholic church.

In the 1850s the Society considered building a new museum for its growing collections but, instead, took a lease of Stricklandgate House, which was home to the museum from 1854 to 1914.


In the early 1900, Mr. Frederick Sessions had a private museum in three rooms at Stramongate School (then a boarding school where his son was headmaster).
He had begun his collection while travelling in the East as a Quaker missionary, but added local material relating to technology, geology, and natural history.
He aimed to provide an educational experience not only for the pupils of Stramongate School but also for adult visitors and for the many elementary school children who were brought to see it. After his death, his son offered the collection to the Town as a gift.


In 1913 the current building, a former wool warehouse, was offered to the Town Council to house the museum collections. After the end of the First World War, the Stricklandgate House collection and the Sessions collection were moved into it. The museum was run on behalf of the Town Council by a series of honorary curators, notably Alfred Wainwright for 30 years (1945-1974).

Natural History

In the early decades of Kendal museum, its natural history collections were enlarged by the efforts of members of the founding Society, especially Thomas Gough. Members of the short-lived
Kendal and District Microscopical and Natural History Association (1868-9) added more specimens and began a herbarium which was extended and classified by Mr J.A. Martindale.

In 1938 Colonel Harrison donated a collection of hunting trophies and provided an annexe to house them. This is now the World Wildlife Gallery, containing not only the hunting trophies but also some of the museum’s earlier taxidermy.

A series of dioramas in the form of a nature trail show various habitats, from a Kendal garden to the high fells. In 1986, the museum won a special prize in the annual Museum of the Year Awards.



Geological collections have been important throughout the museum’s history. In 1861, Cornelius Nicholson, one of the founders, wrote “The specimens of fossils, illustrating the palaeontology of the Cambrian, Silurian, and Carboniferous rocks of the district, are most complete, being all carefully arranged in classes, orders, genera, and species, in accordance with modern zoological classification.”

Recently, Kendal Museum acquired a very important geological collection. Mr. John Hamer of Ingleton, a potholer and mineral enthusiast, accumulated during his long life a superb mineral collection of over 2000 specimens. They include beautiful and spectacular minerals from foreign countries and many specimens from northern England, some from disused mines in the Lake District, where mineral collecting is now banned.

In the 1980s there was a major change when the then curator, Mr William Grange, modernised the displays and created the Natural History Gallery.

John Hamer rescued irreplaceable specimens preventing deterioration from exposure. After his death, his entire collection was rescued by the present natural history curator, Carol Davies.


Some notable curators in the nineteenth century

Mrs. ANN WALKER (1810-72)

Mrs. Ann Walker was employed by the Kendal Natural History and Scientific Society as Sub-curator of the Museum from 1837 to 1870. She was the wife of Harriman Walker, a wool-warehouseman.
The Walkers were given rent-free accommodation in Stramongate and later in Stricklandgate. Mrs Walker’s duties were to attend the museum daily, except Sunday, to deliver notices of meetings,to keep the rooms clean and in order, to clean out the cases in the museum and to take proper measures for preserving the specimens. In 1860, Cornelius Nicholson described Mrs Walker as a most obliging and efficient keeper, but a few years later she was reprimanded for not allowing Dr Gough ‘to prepare a seal, caught in Morecambe Bay, upon the premises’.

Mr SAMUEL MARSHALL (1791-1869)

Mr Samuel Mashall held the position of Honorary Curator for 14 of the years between 1844 and 1869. Mr Marshall was headmaster of the Friends School, where his predecessor, John Dalton, had established his pioneering rain- gauge. Mr Marshall continued the rainfall observations so that, between them, they kept 45 years’ continuous records.

Dr THOMAS GOUGH (1804-1880)

Dr Thomas Gough was the eldest son of the famous blind philosopher, John Gough, who married at the age of 43 and then had nine children. Thomas studied medicine at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and returned to Kendal as a general practitioner.
He was a founding member of the Kendal Natural History and Scientific Society and was elected the first Honorary Curator of the museum. He soon found the demands on his time too great and, from 1838, the Society elected 3 or even 4 curators annually. Dr Gough served as secretary as well as acting as an Honorary Curator for many years.
He donated exhibits, especially fossils, as well as arranging those donated by others.


Mr Joseph Anthony Martindale was a keen member of the successive natural history societies in Kendal and master of Staveley School from 1859 to 1902. He was a knowledgeable botanist and his herbarium, still held in the Museum, comprises over 3000 plant specimens. As one of the Honorary Curators, he spent many hours arranging and preserving the flora and mosses. His second wife was a grand-daughter of John Ruthven.

In 1884 and 1886, the Kendal Literary and Scientific Institution paid for a geologist from the Natural History Museum in London, Mr R. B. Nelson, to sort the fossil collection and to arrange it systematically. The cost put the Society in debt to the bank but the money was recouped by subscription and was judged to have been well spent.

Mr JOHN RUTHVEN (1793-1868)

Among the names of Honorary Curators in the 1840s and 1850s is that of Mr John Ruthven. Local historian Cornelius Nicholson (also an occasional Honorary Curator) described him as ‘a local geologist, who… proves how a man may overcome the want of education, and render important services to science, by the bent of natural genius.’ John Ruthven had been a shoemaker but became such an expert geologist that he was able to make a living as a collector of fossils. He produced a pioneering geological map of the Lake District, published in 1855.


The Revd George Crewdson a member of a local banking family, was vicar of St George’s Church in Kendal in the 1880’s. Particularly interested in geology, he served as an Honorary Curator for more years than any of the others and took personal charge of moving the geological specimens from Stricklandgate to the present building in 1918.

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