The borough of Bedford: Introduction

A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.

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'The borough of Bedford: Introduction', in A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3, ed. William Page( London, 1912), British History Online [accessed 22 July 2024].

'The borough of Bedford: Introduction', in A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Edited by William Page( London, 1912), British History Online, accessed July 22, 2024,

"The borough of Bedford: Introduction". A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Ed. William Page(London, 1912), , British History Online. Web. 22 July 2024.

In this section



Bedcanforda, Biedcanforda (vi cent.); Bedanforda (x cent.); (fn. 1) Beidforda, Bedeforda. (fn. 2)

Bedford, the county town, stands on both banks of the River Ouse and includes within its boundaries the five ancient parishes of St. Paul, St. Peter and St. Cuthbert on the north of the river (fn. 3) and St. John and St. Mary on the south. (fn. 4)

The present town occupies the site of an early settlement whose position (originally on the left bank only of the Ouse) was determined by the course of the river, which here makes a wide sweep to the south and which would have formed an important defensible boundary at a time when much of this low-lying district was swamp and forest. As the name indicates, a position was chosen by these first settlers close to the best ford, and some kind of defensive work appears to have been provided. The date of the first settlement is quite uncertain, but there appears to have been an inhabited site here in the Romano-British period. (fn. 5)

The great battle of 571, by which Cuthwulf, apparently a member of the West-Saxon royal house, captured from the Britons a great part of the future shires of Oxford and Buckingham, was fought at a place named Bedcanforda. (fn. 6) It is generally assumed that this may be identical with Bedford, but the form of the name is unique, and the identification must be considered doubtful. The first undoubted reference to Bedford occurs in the famous treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, by which the boundary between English and Danish territory is drawn straight from the source of the Lea to Bedford and thence up the Ouse. (fn. 7)

The town was thus left in Danish hands, but upon the reduction of Buckingham by Edward the Elder 'most of the chief men that belonged to Bedford' submitted to him, and in the next year he took possession of the borough and ordered a burh on the south of the river to be fortified. (fn. 8)

The King's Ditch, the remnant of such fortification, is still carefully preserved. Two years later the Danes again besieged Bedford, but the men of Bedford went out against them and routed them with great slaughter. (fn. 9)

The date of these events is uncertain, but the first submission of Bedford probably occurred in 913. Bedford also suffered in the Danish wars of the 11th century. In the great raid of 1010 the Danish army, moving down the Ouse, took Bedford and burned it. (fn. 10) It may well be that the 10th-century 'abbey of Bedford' came to an end as a result of this disaster. (fn. 11)

One result of Edward's fortification south of the Ouse appears to have been the formation of a township on either bank of the river. A similar instance of 'cispontine and transpontine' sides of a vill has been discussed by Maitland with regard to Cambridge, where he inclines to fix any coalescence which may have taken place as ante-Norman, (fn. 12) though like Bedford each side continued to have its proper fields. (fn. 13) It is true that Bedford, like Cambridge, was assessed as a whole at Domesday, yet separate jurisdiction for fiscal and administrative purposes can be traced much later. In tallages levied from 1199 to 1202 the 'men of Bedford' were assessed at £8 7s. 4d., whilst 'the men beyond the bridge of Bedford,' that is the dwellers on the south of the river, had a separate assessment of 116s. 4d. (fn. 14) The bridge itself, with its gate-house at either end, one serving as the borough gaol, favours the idea of separation. The division of north and south for general administrative purposes throughout the later borough history is very usual and seems to have been dictated as much by convenience as by any survival of dual government. From the 16th century onwards chamberlains, fleshsearchers, fieldmen, ale-tasters and other officers were appointed for the north and south sides of the water respectively (fn. 15); whilst in 1553 a market and fairs were granted to be held in St. Mary's market-place on the south, to supplement those already held in St. Paul's, (fn. 16) on the north side of the river.

The importance of Bedford as a trading centre is illustrated by the coins issued there in the 10th and 11th centuries. Already in the reign of Eadwig, when the mint first appears, five moneyers are known to have worked in the town; and coins struck at Bedford are preserved for every reign thenceforward to the Conquest, save that of Harthacnut. Most of the moneyers bear English names, but Grim under Eadwig, Gunni under Æthelred II and Ulcetel under Edward the Confessor are of Norse origin. (fn. 17)

Returning to the early development of the town, Domesday is found to contain little detail about Bedford. It merely asserts that the vill was assessed at half a hundred for the host and ship service and had never been hidated. (fn. 18) Nine burgesses of Bedford are mentioned elsewhere in the Survey as holding land in the county. (fn. 19) At the close of the 11th or early in the 12th century Bedford Castle was built on the north side of the river; it occupied a far larger space than appears from the present remains, for the outer bailey extended along the river-front to where a postern and causeway communicated with an island and followed the line of High Street where it touches the bridge, the whole area being inclosed by a moat. The proximity of Bedford Castle does not appear to have greatly affected the early history of the borough, which, strengthened by royal charters, retained independence of the powerful feudal lords dwelling so near. Occasionally the burgesses appear to have joined with the Beauchamps against the Crown, for an entry of 20 marks occurs in a Pipe Roll of 1155–6 due from the burgesses of Bedford 'who were in the castle against the king.' (fn. 20) With the destruction of the castle after the siege of 1224 and the division later of the barony among female heirs, all further question of friction between the barons of Bedford and the town ceased.

Meanwhile the town was developing along lines still recognizable; St. Paul's Church with its square formed the natural centre of the town, and here in the 13th century, as to day, was the market place, then adorned with a market cross. (fn. 21) The Moot Hall faced the High Street, (fn. 22) which ran north to St. Peter's Church and green. In the High Street stood the pillory, removed during the following century to a convenient place near 'le gayehole,' (fn. 23) and branching off from the market place are found 'le Bocher Row,' of which the site is to be identified with that of the old Corn Exchange built in 1849, and is now marked by an open flagged space in the north of the square, and Fuller Street. The school mentioned in the 13th century is also to be identified by means of Speed's map as standing behind St. Paul's Church. Forth Street, which was in St. Paul's parish, is possibly the 17th-century Bridge Street leading across the Ouse to the south of the town, where the parochial churches of St. Mary and St. John represented centres of life and where Potter Street (now known as the Cardington Road) was situated.

Bedford contained a Jewry during the 12th century, mention of Solomon and Jacob, Jews of Bedford, having been found on the Pipe Roll of 1184–5. (fn. 24) Several Jews are named as having taken part in the siege of 1224, suffering the extreme penalty of the law after the capture of the castle. (fn. 25) In 1258, on the levying of a tallage of £1,000 upon the Jews of England, the Bedford Jewry was assessed at 45 marks and Aaron the Jew of Lincoln at 60s. in the town. (fn. 26) An official examination of the debts of the Bedford Jews was ordered to be made in 1273 and again in 1285. (fn. 27) In 1276 the Jews in the town were declared to be exempt from pleading or impleading at the ordinary eyre, but were to appear before the justices appointed for the custody of the Jews. (fn. 28) On their expulsion in 1290 the list of houses held by Jews in Bedford contains two names—Cok son of Benedict, and Pictavus. (fn. 29) Both held land in High Street, where the Jewry must therefore have been situated. Cok held one-third of a messuage valued at 6s., and Jacob and Benedict, sons of Pictavus, who had died some time before the inquisition, held two messuages in common worth 13s. 4d. (fn. 30) These messuages were granted after 1290 to Newnham Priory. (fn. 31)

Bedford, being a convenient distance from London, was at various times during the 13th and 14th centuries the scene of tournaments, which were so often used to disguise political agitations. In 1255 a tournament that was to have taken place at Bedford was prohibited by letters patent; the reason for this was probably political, for the year had been marked by violent quarrels between the king and his subjects, and a gathering of men in arms was therefore to be avoided. (fn. 32) Some years later a tournament took place at which Henry III was probably present, for in a proof of age of Emery de St. Amand a witness states that Emery was born in 1269, the year of the tournament at Bedford, when Sir Reginald de Grey and Sir Emery, father of the Emery in question, led an ass between Bedford and Elstow, where the king then was. (fn. 33) In May 1313 Bedford, as neutral ground, was the scene of a meeting between Thomas Earl of Lancaster, one of the barons foremost in reform, and the cardinals and others who came hither 'to treat on divers matters of weight.' (fn. 34) Earlier in the same year a tournament had been forbidden in the town, from the same reasons of political prudence which ruled the earlier prohibition. (fn. 35)

The years 1329 and 1330, which witnessed the execution of Edmund Earl of Kent, the final overthrow of Queen Isabella and Mortimer, and the assumption of power by the young king, appears to have been as unsettled at Bedford as elsewhere. In May 1329 Simon Killbere, Mayor of Bedford, and the bailiffs of the town were summoned by William Latimer for assaulting his servants and carrying away his goods, (fn. 36) and later were accused by the sheriff of resisting him in the execution of his office. (fn. 37) In 1330 the bailiffs of the town were commissioned to array men capable of bearing arms against the king's rebels. (fn. 38) There appears to have been very considerable disturbance, for at the close of 1330 and the beginning of 1331 pardons are entered on the rolls for Henry Earl of Lancaster (whose recognizances were entered at £100,000), David Earl of Athol and many others, on submitting to the king's will 'after the late rebellion at Bedford.' (fn. 39) The burgesses, too, had their liberties temporarily withdrawn, to be restored the following year. (fn. 40)

In the 14th century Bedford was an agricultural town, and the revolution caused by the Black Death (which ravaged the country c. 1349) did much to bring about that decay of prosperity of which frequent mention is found in the following century. An appeal was made by the burgesses in 1440, and again in 1462, that because of the poverty of the town a portion of the fee-farm rent paid to the Crown might be remitted (fn. 41); 100 messuages, hitherto well-built and inhabited, were declared to be wasted and destroyed. The burgesses gave as one reason for this decline in prosperity the building of a new bridge over the Ouse at Great Barford, which diverted trade to other market towns. (fn. 42) The sixty-year remission of the fee-farm rent which Bedford obtained about this date (fn. 43) was on the point of expiration in 1504, when the town made a further appeal of poverty, lamentably intimating 'that if the burgesses and inhabitants had to pay the entire fee farm they would necessarily be obliged to retire from thence and leave the town totally destitute.' (fn. 44) This appeal resulted in a permanent reduction of the rent, and must have considerably lightened the burden of local taxation, but even so Bedford is mentioned in a statute passed in 1540 for the re-edifying of towns. The decay of houses in this town is specially mentioned, and stringent regulations were enacted to enforce the building of new ones. Thus if the owner of ground on which a house had stood did not rebuild within three years, the lord of whom he held might enter in, building within two years of his entry; failing the lord, anyone having a rent-charge on the land might enter in, building within one year. Should such fail to make entry, the mayor might then do so, and finally, if he failed, the first owner might return to his former estate. (fn. 45) Leland, who visited the county c. 1535–43, included Bedford in his Itinerary, but, somewhat contrary to his usual custom, he dwells exclusively on the history, and gives no description of the town, save that he mentions its division into north and south by the River Ouse. (fn. 46)

The year 1552 marks a turn in the fortunes of the town, for the mayor, bailiff and burgesses then received licence by letters patent to found the grammar school, to whose liberal endowment a few years later by Sir William Harpur Bedford was to owe its future prosperity. (fn. 47)

The 16th century was a period of State interference, especially in the regulation of the corn trade, continuous effort being made by the Government, working through the Privy Council, to keep down prices in the interest of both producer and consumer. The action of the local authorities was constantly supervised in this matter; in 1555–6 Lord St. John and others were commissioned by the Council to report without delay on the question of moderating the price of corn in Bedford. (fn. 48) In 1573 the justices of the peace and the sheriff were commanded at their next sessions in the town to call in all licences granted to bodgers, (fn. 49) who, by selling at inordinately high prices, had abused their privilege of buying up corn. They were 'to admytte only so many and soche as they shold think convenient, and in the shiere town to set up their names … that neither by forestalling, regrating or other deceiptfull and corrupt dealinges the price of corne be inhaunced.' (fn. 50) In 1631 the Mayor of Bedford sent a certificate to the Privy Council regarding the price of corn and the means taken by the town to supply the markets and relieve the poor. (fn. 51)

The question of poor relief was at this period a much vexed one in Bedford as elsewhere, owing to the suppression of the religious houses, from whom had been hitherto derived most of the charitable relief administered to the poor. The State regulation of charity on a parochial basis now began, and some attempt was made at discrimination between the deserving and undeserving poor. In pursuance of this policy directed from the central power, Bedford Corporation in 1648 appointed a new official, to be called the 'Bedell of Beggars.' His duties were 'to arrest and convey to the constable all such persons being no inhabitants of the town as he shall find begging.' He was to whip all persons sentenced to such punishment, and was to wear a coat with the town badge. His salary was to be derived from a poll-tax of 2d. on the town in the ordinary monthly tax for the relief of the poor. (fn. 52) In 1667 Robert Tilley 'kearseyman,' petitioned to be admitted to the freedom of the borough, offering 'to settle ye poor of the town on work in combing, spinning and knitting of kearsey.' The question was referred to the justices of the peace, who appear to have favoured the application. (fn. 53) This policy of self-help was further pursued, for at the House of Industry, built in 1794–6, a manufacture of flannel was established on a large scale, and in Lysons' time was in an exceedingly flourishing condition, doing much to lower the poor rates. (fn. 54)

Returning to the history of the 17th century, Bedford is found to be Parliamentary in sympathy during the Civil War. So definite was the anti-Royalist feeling that in the summer of 1642 Sir Lewis Dyve, the well-known Bedfordshire Cavalier, is reported to have had 500 bullets cast and to have come into Bedford saying, 'Now, you Roundheads, I have provided for you.' The town was attacked and taken by Prince Rupert in October 1643, (fn. 55) and the castle, temporarily restored to its original purpose of defence, was fortified by the Royalists, whose occupation was very brief. (fn. 56) In 1646 the Parliamentary garrison of the town was disbanded, (fn. 57) but in the controversy which followed the conclusion of the first part of the war the army head quarters were moved from Reading to Bedford, which at this time received frequent visits from Cromwell and Ireton. Immediately on the king's rejection of the proposals for the settlement of the kingdom in July 1647 the army left Bedford. With its removal all immediate connexion of the town with the Civil War ceased, and in October 1658 the borough presented an address of congratulation and submission 'to his highness ye Lord Protector touching his happie coming to the government.' (fn. 58)

In August 1672 there happened at Bedford 'an Horrible and unheard of Tempest, with much Terrible Thunder, Raine and Lightning to the general Amazement and Terror of all the Inhabitants.' It only lasted half an hour, but was considered noteworthy enough to be placed on record as a broadside signed by the mayor, recorder and an alderman of the borough. The damage effected does not appear abnormal, but the account is of interest because of the local touches it contains. The storm 'threw the Swan Inn gates off the Hinges into the Street … it carried a great Tree from beyond the River over our Pauls Steeple as if it had been a bundle of Feathers. … In Offell Lane the violence was such, it bore down two Houses in an instant. … The Rose Inn Gates it threw off the Hinges into the middle of the Street. The Maidenhead Inn Gates it served in like manner.… The Head Hostler at the Ram Inn and his man, was constrained to fix themselves to a Post, otherwise they had been carried away by this violence …the Church called St. Peters is much damnified also; the Church called St. John hath met with share in this Tempest.… A Tanners man coming over the Bridge, was taken up from the ground, and hardly escaped blowing over the bridge.' The storm seems to have visited Woburn and Litlington, but with less severity. (fn. 59)

The trade of the town about this time was due chiefly to water communication, and wharves were beginning to appear on the banks of the Ouse. Bedford was the head quarters of a system of navigation of this river which supplied the county with coals, salt, iron, wine, corn and other commodities, (fn. 60) sea-borne coal being brought from so far afield as the port of Lynn. This commerce, which flourished exceedingly at the beginning of the last century, (fn. 61) has become unimportant under modern conditions.

The history of Bedford during the 18th century is that of most prosperous country towns of the time and presents no special features. In 1700 the foundation of the present library was laid. The books were then kept in the vestry of St. John's Church, to be removed a few years later to St. Paul's, where they remained till 1836, when they were placed in the Bedford Subscription Library which had been founded in 1830. (fn. 62) The minutes of the meetings of the common council afford from time to time evidence of national affairs and of the part taken in them by Bedford. In 1702 the members of council with Mr. Mayor attended divine service at St. Paul's and afterwards a dinner as a public thanksgiving 'for the late great success of our Fleet and Arms …in the person of the Earl of Marlborough, the Duke of Ormond and Admiral Rook.' Many congratulatory addresses were sent from Bedford, marking various occasions, the union of England and Scotland in April 1707, the conclusion of the war in May 1713, the accession of George I in 1715 and so on. (fn. 63) An interesting minute occurs later in 1809 which may here be noted. In that year the corporation signified their approval of the conduct of Colonel Wardle, M.P. for Oakhampton, in attacking the Duke of York in Parliament with regard to army patronage; they expressed their admiration of 'the undaunted zeal, consummate ability and unwearied perseverance with which he pursued (in virtuous opposition to the threats of power and frowns of authority) an investigation so worthy of the character of an independent M.P.' Not content with this expression of their approval appearing in the minute books, the council commanded that it should be published in the Cambridgeshire and Northants. papers.

In 1745 a branch of the Moravian community established itself in this town, where it still flourishes; the brothers and sisters live in separate houses, but have a common chapel for worship. The women were at first engaged in embroidery and tambour work, and later started a very successful school for young ladies which still exists. (fn. 64)

About this time the appearance of the town was beginning to alter; in 1765 the gate-houses over the bridge had been removed in order to facilitate traffic, and the bridge itself was replaced in 1813 by that existing at the present day. This bridge spans the river with five arches, which are made up of regular rusticated voussoirs having plain keystones of a little larger size. The spandrels between the arches are filled in with deep coursed ashlar and rest on projecting keel-shaped cutwaters, there being no intermediate buttresses. Above the arches is a plain frieze and slightly projecting cornice which supports an open balustrade with intermediate panels imme diately over every keystone and cutwater. The bridge rises slightly towards the centre.

In 1802 a fire did considerable damage in the northern part of the town, seventy-two houses, described by Lysons as 'mostly mean cottages,' being destroyed. (fn. 65)

The first thirty years of the 19th century witnessed the beginning of the rapid development of Bedford which has since continued and which is well exemplified by the increase of population from 3,948 in 1801 to almost double (6,959) in 1831, between which date and 1901 it rose to 35,144. (fn. 66) The manufacture of straw plait and thread lace, together with the river trade in grains, timber and coal, had hitherto formed the main industries of the town, but by the middle of the century extensive works for the manufacture of agricultural implements, besides breweries, had been established. The importance of the educational advantages offered by Bedford in furthering its development has been discussed elsewhere. The beginning of the last century also witnessed the opening up of the country by the introduction of railways, and Bedfordshire was among the earliest to benefit by the new discovery. In 1839–40 the Midland Railway obtained powers to found the Bedford and Northampton line, (fn. 67) which was opened on 18 November 1846; the Bedford and Cambridge line was opened in 1860 and four years later amalgamated with the London and North Western, (fn. 68) whilst in 1868 the Midland main line opened a station here. This connexion of the borough with two important main lines within easy distance of London has had considerable influence on its later history, for the various industries which have developed here have migrated from the metropolis, driven thence by the pressure of increasing rates.

During the last century the establishment of various industries, such as the Britannia Iron Works, the Queen's Engineering Works, and large manufactories of agricultural and other implements, has somewhat altered the character of Bedford as a country town. In spite of this, however, it maintains an attractive and even rural appearance, for its roads, especially in the residential parts, are uniformly wide and spacious, and have been well planted with trees and shrubs, whilst it is well supplied with open spaces and parks.

Of the five ancient parishes contained within Bedford at the present day, St. Paul's, the largest and most important, occupies the north-west of the town, whose boundaries are throughout coterminous with those of the borough. It has an area of 798 acres, of which in 1905 143 acres were arable land and 101¼ permanent grass. (fn. 69) The agricultural part is in the north of the parish, and is diminishing yearly in area as this district of Bedford is rapidly being built over.

St. Peter's, the second parish in point of size, occupies the north-east of the town, and has an area of 559 acres, of which 94½ acres are arable land, 159¾ acres grass and 4 acres woods and plantations. (fn. 70) The land in the north lies high compared with the rest of the borough, Foster's Hill here attaining some 200 ft. above ordnance datum. In this elevated ground is the cemetery, while immediately at the foot of the hill is Bedford Park, opened in 1888, and consisting of some 60 acres of ornamental and recreation grounds. In St. Peter's Green stands a bronze statue of John Bunyan by Boehm, erected in 1874.

St. Cuthbert's parish, situated due south of that of St. Peter, stretches down to the north bank of the Ouse, where is Russell Park, another public recreation ground, opened in 1898. The parish includes 299 acres, of which 29¼ are arable and 45¾ permanent grass. (fn. 71)

St. Mary's Parish, with an area of 535 acres, of which 30¾ acres are arable land and 42½ acres are permanent grass, (fn. 72) occupies the main part of the south of the borough.

St. John's, a small parish of 29 acres, (fn. 73) lies in the centre of and is surrounded on all sides by St. Mary's Parish.

Bedford at the present day retains few traces of antiquity. High Street, the chief thoroughfare, is mainly modern; a few 18th-century brick houses are still to be seen in the upper part of the street. Of the houses in this street the most interesting is the George Inn, now used for storing lumber, which is described later. In St. Paul's Square the Town Hall was used till 1892 as the Grammar School. The southernmost block, dating from 1767, is a two-storied Renaissance building having a stone front and slightly projecting central bay, crowned with a low pediment. In a niche over the central door is a statue of the founder, dressed in his robes as an alderman, standing on a pedestal, on which is the following inscription:—


Additions were made to the old building in the north and west sides in 1861, when a large hall was built. When the Grammar School was moved considerable alterations were made: the school hall was converted into a town hall and fitted with a stage and proscenium, and the houses adjoining on the west were turned into a police station.

Other buildings in the square are modern, and include the Shire Hall recently much enlarged (1910), which in 1879–82 replaced a much earlier building, and the Girls' Modern School. A fine statue of John Howard the philanthropist by Gilbert faces the High Street. Running north from the High Street is De Parys Avenue, a broad thoroughfare bordered with fine trees, with good modern residences standing in their own grounds on either side. On the east, beyond these houses, is the Grammar School, the foundation-stone of which was laid in 1889, standing in about 20 acres of playing field. It is a large three-storied building, built of red brick with stone dressings, in the modern Gothic style, having a central hall 102 ft. 6 in. long by 50 ft. wide and 51 ft. 6 in. high, with class-rooms in the projecting wings so arranged that by means of galleries direct access is obtained to the hall. The gymnasium, 100 ft. by 50 ft., stands at some distance from the school to the south, and near it are the science laboratories and engineers' and carpenters' shops. On the east side of the playing fields is the school-chapel, built about 1908–9, but in the same character as the school, while on the opposite side of the ground a fine pavilion has recently been reconstructed. A new building facing St. Peter's Green provides accommodation for the Preparatory School.

This northern part of Bedford is rapidly being built over, a network of new roads having recently come into existence to supply the needs of the growing residential population attracted to this town by the educational advantages offered. South of the river, in the Cardington Road, is the Abbey, which, although greatly modernized, still contains parts of a 17th-century house. The most interesting part of the building is a back bedroom on the first floor, which is partly in the roof. The ceiling is semihexagonal, following the line of the rafters and crosscollars, while projecting down into the room, which is panelled with early 17th-century oak panelling, is a roof truss having thin solid curved braces meeting in the middle with a small carved boss. In the drawing-room at the north-west of the house is a much restored early 17th-century bay window, containing fragments of old stained glass, and in the south-east of the house, looking into Cardington Street, is an 18th-century panelled dining-room. Directly opposite is the Abbey Close, a modern building, the residence of Sir Frederick Howard. Further east, on the same side, is a plain, symmetrical fronted brick house, three stories high, bearing the date 1707. Before it leaves the town and emerges into the open country traces of the King's Ditch, dating from Saxon times, are to be seen on the south side of the Cardington Road.

The southern part of the town includes the County Hospital, standing in 10 acres of grounds. It was opened in 1899, and occupies the site of a more ancient building founded in 1803. As is the case north of the river, numerous new roads are springing up in the south, though here they consist mainly of small modern houses, supplying the needs of an industrial population.

The parishes of St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Cuthbert were inclosed by Act of Parliament in 1795 and that of St. Mary in 1797. (fn. 74)

Unlike most old towns Bedford has now comparatively few ancient inns, though the town appears to have been always well supplied, there being upwards of sixty in the middle of the 18th century. (fn. 75) At the present day by far the most interesting is the 'George' in High Street, which still preserves traces of a very early building. Its history can be traced back certainly to the 15th century, and probably dates from much earlier. In 1476 Richard Illyngworth died seised of ' a messuage called the George and four shops in Bedford,' which passed to his son Ralph. (fn. 76) Occasional mentions occur of this inn during the 16th century, (fn. 77) and in 1792 'a building commonly called the Old Chapel in the George yard, belonging to Mr. Blackwell,' was used by the Baptists as a place of worship. (fn. 78) Lysons writes of this inn: 'The Gothic building in the "George" yard is nothing more than the original structure of that ancient inn…. In the centre is a large gateway, and on one side the figure of St. George under a Gothic niche.' (fn. 79) The remains of this inn, which are now in a dilapidated condition and used for storage, stand in a courtyard entered through an archway on the west side of High Street between St. Paul's Square and Silver Street. The building, which is of the 15th century, is built of stone with a tile roof, and still preserves its original arrangement and character. It is in plan rectangular, running parallel with the high road, and is divided into two rooms on the ground floor by a central archway. Those rooms were entered through doorways in the north and south walls of the archway, which stood opposite one another but are now blocked up. The room to the south had a fireplace in its west wall, on either side of which was a window of two cinquefoiled lights with intersecting tracery under a square head, while at the north end of this wall was a small pointed arched doorway. There were no openings in the south wall, but the room was lighted on the east side by a large square-headed two-light window. In the east wall of the room on the opposite side of the archway was a corresponding window, and in the north wall was one of a similar character but with cinquefoil headed lights. In the west wall was a fireplace, to the north of which was a two-light window similar to those on the other side of the archway. The central arches are three-centred and have external drip mouldings, and on either side of the eastern one are small niches containing shields, the blazoning of which is now entirely worn off. Over the south shield and above the string course of the upper story is a bracket supporting what was once the figure of St. George slaying the dragon. The upper story was divided into two rooms by a partition that came over the north wall of the archway under, but there is no evidence now remaining to show how these rooms were reached from below. The room to the south was lighted by three windows, two in the west wall and one in the east, while the other room, which had a central fireplace in the west wall, had five windows, one on either side of the fireplace, one in the north and two in the east wall. In addition to those already described, there were two small single-light square-headed windows, one in the east and one in the opposite wall just above the upper floor level and north of the archway. Being so near the floor it is difficult to say for what purpose they were intended.

A little south of the old George Inn stands a Jacobean building now occupied by a fishmonger and at one time used as a court-house. The interior is almost entirely modernized, but the front to the High Street shows the original design. A richly moulded wooden entablature divides the shop from the upper story, and an enriched cornice marks the junction of the tile roof and the wall-head. Three oriel windows project above the shops and stop at the wall-head level, the main cornice being carried round them. In the roof, centred through with the oriels under, are three dormer windows, while in the centre of the ground floor is a small wooden arched doorway leading through a passage to the yard behind. Above this passage at the back is a gabled wall having nicely carved original oak barge-boards.

The 'Falcon,' a 16th-century hostelry, belonged to the Bourne family in 1559, when Richard Borne died seised of it. It was situated in St. Paul's parish in the Poultry Market. (fn. 80) During the 17th century it changed its name from the 'Falcon' to the 'Seven Stars,' being so alternately designated in 1664. (fn. 81) By 1710 it had undergone a further change, appearing as 'The Ship used for a coffee-house heretofore called the Seven Stars.' (fn. 82) It is enumerated in a list of Bedford inns in 1750, and an inn bearing the same sign is in St. Cuthbert's Street at the present day, though it is impossible to state with certainty that it marks the site of the ancient house.

The 'Cock' and the 'Hart' were 16th-century inns whose names were still retained in 1750. (fn. 83) The Swan Inn, an 18th-century building, stands on the site of an earlier hostelry.

The excessive number of the Bedford publichouses appears to have led to some disorderliness, and in 1832 the directors of the House of Industry are found complaining that those in receipt of parish relief were encouraged to drink. (fn. 84) By 1835 the number of licensed houses had diminished from sixty to thirty-eight, of which twenty-eight belonged to members of the Corporation. (fn. 85) At the present day the following signs in use in 1750 are still retained by public-houses in Bedford: The 'Bear,' the 'Castle,' the 'Cherry Tree,' the 'Fleur de Lys,' the 'George,' the 'Lion,' the 'Red Lion,' the 'Rose,' the 'Saracen's Head,' the 'Ship,' the 'Swan.'

The county gaol of Bedfordshire has always been situated within the borough of Bedford, and its history is of unusual interest not only because of John Bunyan's long imprisonment, but also because in Bedfordshire John Howard the philanthropist's schemes for prison reform found their original inspiration. The first mention of the gaol is found in 1165, when an entry of £4 for work connected with Bedford and Aylesbury gaols is entered on the Pipe Rolls. (fn. 86) Similar entries occur on the rolls during the next thirty years, 20s. was paid for repairs in 1178, 55s. 2d. in work in 1188. (fn. 87) The work seems, however, to have been delayed, for in 1225 a special writ was issued ordering the Sheriff of Bedfordshire to build a good and strong gaol in Bedford, the recent disorders attendant on the great siege of the castle in the preceding year having doubtless made the need strongly felt. (fn. 88) Some light is thrown on the condition of the prisoners by official documents. William Wylde of Biggleswade, accused of the murder of Nicholas Gullyng, complained in 1442 that he was imprisoned in Bedford Gaol for three years, 'where the other prisoners died for lack of food as would he have done, if he had not escaped therefrom.' (fn. 89) A Star Chamber case of 1541 relates that in a riot arising from a dispute about tenements in Dunstable prisoners were carried to the common gaol of Bedford, seven of whom, by payment of a noble weekly for their board, 'lay alone from the comen theves.' (fn. 90) In 1552 a new building appears to have been erected, when Sir John St. John received from the Crown a grant of 400 loads of stone from the late monastery of Warden towards the building. (fn. 91) John Bunyan was imprisoned in the county gaol from 1660 to 1672 and in the town gaol for six months of the year 1675. It is during the latter imprisonment that he is supposed to have begun his Pilgrim's Progress, which was not published till 1678. (fn. 92) In 1773 John Howard was nominated high sheriff for the county, and the distressed condition of prisoners at this time first came under his notice at Bedford. The circumstance which specially excited his pity was that prisoners found not guilty were dragged back to prison until they could pay the sundry fees extracted from them by gaolers, clerks of assize, &c. (fn. 93) His report on the county gaol in his visitation some years later is on the whole favourable; he notes the extreme cleanliness, but also that the Act for the preservation of the health of prisoners is not hung up. (fn. 94) In the 17th century the county gaol stood at the north-east corner of Silver Street; in 1801 it was removed to its present position in St. Loyes Street. The new building included a turnkey's lodge, cells for debtors, felons and house of correction prisoners, hot and cold baths and an oven to purify infected clothing. (fn. 95) The silence system was enforced with great severity, wooden partitions being placed between any two prisoners at work on the treadmill. Separate exercise only was allowed in the yards, and meals were taken in the cells. (fn. 96) In 1840 the gaol was enlarged; houses for the governor and chief warders were attached, whilst the Bridewell (fn. 97) was incorporated with it, the whole buildings being inclosed in one common wall.

The town gaol of Bedford, used for such offenders as came under the jurisdiction of the borough, was at one time situated in the northern of the two gatehouses on the bridge over the Ouse. In 1661 and again in 1675 it was declared to be so out of repair as not to be habitable, (fn. 98) but was repaired and remained in use till 1765. A temporary one was then fitted up under the town hall, and is possibly that referred to by John Howard as having no apartment for the gaoler, no courtyard and no water supply. (fn. 99) A new building was erected in 1796 in the northwest of the town between the Crescent and Adelaide Square. Besides the town gaol there was as late as 1831 a lock-up for temporary detention; it then stood on the site of the old county gaol in Silver Street. At the present time the town and county gaol are one. (fn. 100)

Bedford, which is at present well furnished with electric light and gas lamps, had in the 17th century a more primitive 'setting forth of lights,' which depended on individual private effort. In 1656 the minutes of the Council Hall stated that from St. Luke's Day (18 October) till Candlemas (2 February) lights were to be set forth by householders on both sides of High Street from the house called 'Ye Peacocke' in St. Peter's parish to the bridge in St. John's, probably that by which the main street crossed the King's Ditch in St. John's parish. They were to be lit at dusk and kept burning till eight, the candles were to be not more than sixteen to the pound and were to be revived when spent. The Bedell of Beggars was to make public proclamation in the streets on St. Luke's Day, and all subsequent offenders were to be fined 1d. for each offence. (fn. 101) In 1690 a further advance towards the public lighting of the streets was made when John Eston, at that time mayor, gave five lamps as night lights for St. Paul's parish and two for St. Mary's on condition that the parishioners subscribed to keep them burning from close of day until nine o'clock. The following year St. John's parish was also provided with a lamp, and in 1692 the period of lighting up the streets was extended from Candlemas to Lady Day. (fn. 102) Early in the 19th century the inhabitants of Bedford obtained an Act of Parliament which enabled them to pave and light their town and effect many other improvements. (fn. 103)

Many field and place-names have been found in documents relating to Bedford borough. The earliest and perhaps the most interesting of such names is Kingsmead, for which in 1194 Simon de Beauchamp rendered 20 marks to the Exchequer. (fn. 104) It became later the property of the Corporation, who held it until about 1880, when they sold it to Mr. S. Whitbread. Mention of a field called La Sele, which appears at the same early date, is still to be found in the 17th century. Potter Street, mentioned in the 13th century, existed until recent years, when the name of the thoroughfare was changed to Cardington Road. High Street has been so-called from the 13th century, and probably earlier, till the present day. Other place-names may be thus summarized: Barkedych, Berdes-stapel, Blakmold, Fullers Street, Hordelhide and Linensmede appear in the 13th century; Halyday in the 13th and 14th centuries; Sannedyche or Severnedich from the 13th to the 15th century; Aldermanbury, le Bocher Rowe, Colles Lane, Forth Street, Scole (later Scole Lane), Wulstondown (later Wilshamdown) from the 13th to the 16th century; Trumpton or Trumpetting Meadow from the 13th to the 18th century. Abbas, Busshopes Close, Bourden Barn Close, Dovehouse Close, Falxherbar, le Flesh Shambles, le Freers Grove, le Fisher Row, Great Ramsell, Hawkewell, Huntes Close, Mosewell, Perawtes, Piggmarket Street, Pultrie Market, Rey Lane, Rygges Street, Spicers Close, Temesse Street, Well Street belong to the 16th century; Abbots Forth is found in the 16th and 17th centuries; Caldwell Street, Castle Lane, Lurke Lane (now Street), Mill Lane (now Street) and St. Loyes, all found in 16th-century documents, exist at the present day. Little Silver Street, alias Gaol Lane, existing in the 17th century, is now represented by Silver Street. (fn. 105) Many other topographical names at present existing in Bedford serve to recall its past history and often provide valuable data for the identification of ancient sites. Among such may be mentioned All Hallows Lane (near which must have stood the church which disappeared in the 17th century), Battison (the name of a family of burgesses in the 16th and later centuries) Street, Bedesmans Lane and Place, Bunyan Place, Bushmead Avenue, Conduit Street, Dame Alice Street, De Parys Avenue, George Street, Greyfriars Walk, Harpur Street, Horne Lane, Howbery Farm, Merton Road, Newnham Road, Pattishall Street, Prebend Street, Priory Street, Roise Street and St. Leonards Avenue.

Races were formerly held in Bedford certainly as early as 1730, (fn. 106) and were much frequented. The races were held in the spring and autumn and a king's plate was run for in 1832 for the first time. (fn. 107) These races have been discontinued for some years. In 1791 the Bedford county and town magistrates, being convinced of ' the ill tendency of stage fighting or boxing matches,' resolved that public notice should be given that they were not to take place in the said county or town. (fn. 108)

The names of John Bunyan, William Harpur and John Howard are inseparably connected with the history of Bedford, but in addition to these famous persons other historical names are found associated with this town. Many of these are to be sought in the list of members whom the borough has returned from time to time. Henry Cheke, who sat for Bedford from 1572 to 1583, was secretary to the Council of the North in 1581. Another early member was Sir John Puckering, who represented Bedford in the Parliament of 1584–6. He was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth, whom he entertained with great magnificence and by whom he was appointed Keeper of the Great Seal in succession to Sir Christopher Hatton in 1592. Sir Humphrey Winch, the judge, whose name is more closely connected with Everton, was returned four times between the years 1592 and 1606. He has earned an unenviable reputation as having condemned nine women accused of witchcraft to execution in 1616. Another Keeper of the Great Seal associated with this town is Bulstrode Whitlocke, who was returned by three constituencies, Buckinghamshire, Bedford and Oxford, in the Parliament of 1654, but elected to serve for the first-named. In the 18th century the name of Whitbread first appears among the borough members; between 1768 and 1784 Samuel Whitbread represented the borough, whilst from 1790 to 1812 his son, the well-known Samuel Whitbread, was members. During the following century this name constantly recurs in the returns for Bedford. From 1868 to 1874 James Howard, the celebrated agriculturist, who was a native of Bedford and educated at the Modern School, sat in Parliament. With Bedford are associated also the names of various Nonconformist divines and writers; John Child was born here in 1638, as was William Mather (fl. 1695), at one time a well-known Quaker. Bedford is also the birth-place of Francis Oakley (1719–94), one of the first Moravian ministers in this town, and of Samuel Palmer, the Nonconformist biographer, who was educated at the Grammar School. Thomas Belsham (1750–1829), the Unitarian divine and writer, and his brother William Belsham (1752–1827), the historian and political writer, were natives of the town. The name Michael Ferrebee Sadler, vicar of St. Paul's from 1864 to 1869, is closely associated with the Tractarian movement as a strong High Churchman. (fn. 109)


  • 1. Angl.-Sax. Chron. (Rolls Ser.).
  • 2. Professor Skeat translates this name as Beda's Ford, accounting for the early Bedcanforda by the explanation that Bedeca is the diminutive form of Beda (Skeat, Place Names of Bedfordshire, 20), but this derivation has been disputed.
  • 3. The ecclesiastical parish of Holy Trinity was formed from St. Paul's parish in 1860; All Saints, a chapel of ease to the same parish, was detached in 1896; and St. Martin's, an ecclesiastical parish, was formed from Holy Trinity also in 1896.
  • 4. The ecclesiastical parish of St. Leonard was formed in 1889 from St. Mary.
  • 5. V.C.H. Beds. ii, 5.
  • 6. Angl.-Sax. Chron. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 16.
  • 7. Stubbs, Const. Hist. of Engl. i, 216.
  • 8. Angl.-Sax. Chron. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 81; Hoveden gives the date as 916 (Hoveden, Chron. [Rolls Ser.], i, 52).
  • 9. Angl.-Sax. Chron. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 81. It has been suggested by Mr. C. Gore Chambers that Barkedich which is found in the 13th century, and which appears to have been on the south side of the river, is to be identified with this 'burh' ditch. The name King's Ditch is not applied till comparatively modern times.
  • 10. Ibid. 116.
  • 11. V.C.H. Beds. i, 316.
  • 12. Maitland, Township and Borough, 53. A similar arrangement occurred at several other towns at this date.
  • 13. In the Newnham Cartulary it is easy to distinguish the Bedford fields on the north and south sides not only by the reference to the river, but also to the hill, now known as Foster's Hill.
  • 14. Rot. Canc. (Rec. Com.), 350; Pipe R. 1 John, m. 8 d.
  • 15. Extracted from the Bedford Borough Records.
  • 16. Pat. 1 Mary, pt. ii, m. 13.
  • 17. a Information supplied by Mr. F. M. Stenton.
  • 18. V.C.H. Beds. i, 221.
  • 19. Ibid. 262.
  • 20. Hunter, Great Roll of the Pipe, 22.
  • 21. Lansd. MS. 391.
  • 22. Harl. MS. 3656; cf. also Speed's map.
  • 23. Lansd. MS. 391.
  • 24. J. Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin, England, 85. Between this date and 1194, the year of the great tallage of the Jews, the names of thirteen Jews of Bedford have been collected.
  • 25. Cf. history of siege ut infra.
  • 26. Cal. Pat. 1247–58, p. 443. The sheriff was also to have the bodies of Peytevin and Fauntekin. In 1261 Belia, widow of Peytevin, received permission to pay a fine of 735 marks by yearly instalments of 40 marks to the Exchequer (Cal. Pat. 1258–66, p. 192). The following year Isaac de Bedford and Bonefaunt his brother with their wives and children were expelled from Bedford because they carried away Belia's debts and chattels and did her other damage (ibid. p. 205).
  • 27. Ibid. 1272–81, p. 6; 1281–92, p. 212.
  • 28. Ibid. 1272–9, p. 304.
  • 29. Jewish Hist. Soc. Trans. ii, 86. The list of the bonds of the Jews of Bedford for this date is lost.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Abbrev. Rot. Orig. (Rec. Com.), i, 57. Some time before the expulsion Benedict was compelled to undergo baptism in the island of Ely, and for more than twelve years Benedict held the two messuages until he was hanged for felony, when they escheated to the Crown (Jewish Hist. Soc. Trans. ii, 86).
  • 32. Cal. Pat. 1247–58, p. 506; Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 33. Cal. Inq. p.m. Edw. I, 454.
  • 34. Cal. Pat. 1307–13, p. 569.
  • 35. Ibid. p. 525; cf. also V.C.H. Beds. ii, 33, for the 'Round Table' held here in 1328.
  • 36. Cal. Pat. 1327–30, p. 428.
  • 37. Ibid. p. 431.
  • 38. Ibid. p. 572.
  • 39. Ibid. 1330–34, passim.
  • 40. Ibid. p. 178.
  • 41. Cal. Rot. Pat. (Rec. Com.), 289.
  • 42. Memo. R. (L.T.R.) 2 Edw. IV, rot. 47. In 1484 a proclamation was issued to the town of Bedford by the king commanding 'that from henceforth none of the inhabitants take any reteyndors, liveries, clothings or cognizance of any parsone or parsones of whatever degre' (Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Ric. III and Hen. VII [Rolls Ser.], ii, 288).
  • 43. Cal. Rot. Pat. (Rec. Com.), 289.
  • 44. Bedford Borough Charters; Exch. Memo. R. (L.T.R.) Mich. 22 Hen. VII, rot. 32.
  • 45. Statutes of Realm, 32 Hen. VIII, cap. 18.
  • 46. Leland, Itinerary (ed. Toulmin Smith), iv, 22, 34.
  • 47. Pat. 6 Edw. VI, pt. viii, m. 9; V.C.H. Beds. ii, 152 et seq.
  • 48. Acts of P. C. 1554 6, p. 242.
  • 49. The name was applied to a corn dealer who was licensed by a justice of the peace to buy up corn.
  • 50. Acts of P. C. 1571–5, p. 197.
  • 51. S. P. Dom. 1631–3, p. 21.
  • 52. Bedf. Corporation MSS. (Minutes of Common Hall).
  • 53. Ibid.
  • 54. Lysons (ed. 1820), Mag. Brit., i (I), 55.
  • 55. V.C.H. Beds. ii, 'Political History,' where the course of the war has been traced in detail.
  • 56. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. viii, App. i, 3; Cal. S. P. Dom. 1644–5, p. 555.
  • 57. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. xiii, App. i, 364; Cal. S. P. Dom. 1645–7, p. 463.
  • 58. Bedford Corp. MSS. (Minutes of Council).
  • 59. A True Relation of what hapned at Bedford (ed. 1672).
  • 60. A Short Demonstration that Navigation to Bedford is for the Benefit of Bedfordshire (c. 1660).
  • 61. Lysons, Mag. Brit. i (I), 50.
  • 62. Beds. N. and Q. iii, 249.
  • 63. Bedford Corp. MSS.
  • 64. Lysons, Mag. Brit. i (I), 53.
  • 65. Lysons, Mag. Brit. i (I), 49.
  • 66. a The returns of 1911 are estimated at 39, 500.
  • 67. Act Priv. and Loc. 3 Vict. cap. 108.
  • 68. Ibid. 23 & 24 Vict. cap. 87; 27 & 28 Vict. cap. 34.
  • 69. Statistics from Bd. of Agric. (1905).
  • 70. Ibid.
  • 71. Ibid.
  • 72. Ibid.
  • 73. Four and a quarter acres are permanent grass.
  • 74. Acts Priv. and Loc. 35 Geo. III, cap. 87; 37 Geo. III, cap. 5.
  • 75. Bed. Co. Rec. 1714–1832, p. 33.
  • 76. Chan. Inq. p.m. 16 Edw. IV, no. 38.
  • 77. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xx (2), p. 446.
  • 78. Bed. Co. Rec. 1714–1832, p. 33.
  • 79. Lysons, op. cit. 49.
  • 80. Chan. Inq. p.m. (Ser. 2), cxxii, 2.
  • 81. Records of Bedford Corporation.
  • 82. Ibid.
  • 83. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xx (2), p. 446; Bed. Co. Rec. 1714–1832.
  • 84. Munic. Com. Rep. 1835, p. 2116.
  • 85. Ibid.
  • 86. Pipe Roll 12 Hen. II (Pipe R. Soc.), II.
  • 87. Ibid. 25 Hen. II (Pipe R. Soc.), 73; Hunter, Great Roll of Pipe (Rec. Com.), 30.
  • 88. Rot. Lit. Claus. (Rec. Com.), ii, 44.
  • 89. Cal. Pat. 1350–4, p. 302; 1441–6, p. 74.
  • 90. Star Chamber Proc. Hen. VIII, vol. iii, fol. 86–106b.
  • 91. Acts of P. C. 1552–4, p. 71.
  • 92. a Dr. Brown, John Bunyan, his Life, Times and Work.
  • 93. Howard, State of Prisons (ed. 1784), 283.
  • 94. Ibid.
  • 95. Gent's Mag. (1807), lxxvii, 1186; Lysons, Mag. Brit. i (1), 50. Mr. Whitbread left £500 by will towards the erection of this building.
  • 96. Munic. Com. Rep. 1835, p. 2116.
  • 97. a Mention of the Bridewell or Penitentiary is found in the Corporation Records as early as 1722 and 1747.
  • 98. Minutes of Common Council of Bedford.
  • 99. Howard, State of Prisons (ed. 1784). The town hall here referred to is the building which formerly occupied the site of the present Shire Hall.
  • 100. Lysons, op. cit. 50; J. H. Matthiason, Bedford and its Environs, 45.
  • 101. Bedford Corporation MSS. (Minutes of Council Hall).
  • 102. Ibid.
  • 103. Act Priv. and Loc. 43 Geo. III, cap. 128.
  • 104. Pipe R. 6 Ric. I, m. 14d.
  • 105. Severnedich was presumably the brook marked in Speed's map running from the neighbourhood of the Priory south-east to the river behind the site of the modern school. Some twenty years ago the old mouth of a stream was cut into in Mr. Well's brewery in Horne Lane, and several minor antiquities were found in the mud. Temesse Street is to be identified with the modern castle side, along the line of the moat, east of the castle mound. Well Street is that piece of the Midland Road that runs from the west end of Silver Street to the south end of All Hallows Lane. (From information supplied by Mr. C. Gore Chambers.)
  • 106. V.C.H. Beds. i, 191. The County Records of 1812 contain various depositions concerning the loss on the racecourse by John Bennet of Peterborough of £45 in notes (Bed. Co. Rec. 1714– 1832, p. 134).
  • 107. Lewis, Topog. Dict.
  • 108. Bed. Co. Rec. 1714–1832, p. 65.
  • 109. Dict. Nat. Biog.