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Bedford History

The history of Bedford and specially selected photographs

Until the mid 18th century Bedford was a remarkably compact town, little more than two thirds of a mile from north to south and a quarter of a mile wide at various points. Bedford had, like most English towns, a relatively small population. In the 1670s it was about 2,150, and by 1800 it had increased to nearer 3,000. That is the population of a largish village nowadays; yet that population was sufficient to sustain five parish churches and a number of Nonconformist congregations. Nowadays a population that small would barely support a parish church and a village shop. The town expanded considerably in the 19th century, a growth reflected in the population figures: these increased from 6,959 in the 1831 census to 16,850 in 1871 and 39,183 by 1911. The population has since doubled; the town has expanded in most directions, but particularly to the east, absorbing the village of Goldington and large acreages of farmland. However, despite all this change, the historic core around the Ouse bridge is still recognisable, and the town is a pleasant one to visit.

There have been architectural and planning disasters in Bedford, and that great god the internal combustion engine has been propitiated rather too readily in the last forty years. Architecturally there have been some sad losses: these include some of the old inns, such as the part-medieval George Inn and the White Horse, while the old town south of the river has suffered most. Modern buildings have often been ill-judged and aggressive: it is difficult to forgive the Moat House Hotel on the south bank of the Ouse by the bridge, a monstrous fourteen-storey concrete carbuncle that is an insult to the river and the town. However, enough survives to help us catch much of the flavour of this ancient county town - but to do so we must walk, not drive. The core is small enough to make this an attractive option, especially in the form of two pedestrian routes,:one alongside the Ouse as it passes through the town, the other a walk from south of the river through the town northwards to finish in Bedford Park, a mile or so from north to south.

Although there have been finds of Roman material such as coins, there is little evidence of any substantial settlement before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the 5th century AD, although there was apparently a Romano-British community at nearby Kempston. The name of the town tells it all: Beda's ford across the Ouse, Beda presumably being an Anglo-Saxon leader who settled here on the north bank. When the Danes invaded in the 9th century, the country was eventually divided up at the Treaty of Wedmore in 886 AD between King Alfred's Wessex and English Mercia and the Danelaw to the north-east. The Ouse formed part of the agreed boundary: Bedford was under Danish rule as part of the Danish Guthrum's kingdom, while south of the Ouse was English territory.

In the midst of these turbulent years of Anglo-Danish struggle, Bedford springs into written history in 'The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', that vivid and extraordinary contemporary record of English history as it unfolded up to 1154. Under the entry for the year 918 AD, during King Edward the Elder's systematic reconquest of the Danish areas, it records that 'Jarl Thurcytel submitted to him and all the Danish barons, and almost all the chief men who owed allegiance to Bedford'. In November 919 AD 'King Edward went with his army to Bedford and occupied the fortress: most of the garrison who had previously occupied it submitted to him. He remained there for four weeks, and before he left he ordered the fortress on the south bank of the river to be built'. Thus Bedford assumed its medieval shape on both sides of the river; indeed, part of the King's Ditch, built for Edward, still remains filled with water, but the stockades have long gone. All was not sweetness and light thereafter. Under 921 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a marauding Danish army reached Bedford having ravaged the Huntingdon area; 'the [Bedford] garrison sallied out to meet them, fought against them and put them to flight, slaying a good part of them'. These entries are of great interest, for they show that the town existed well before 918 AD and that it was well fortified; more crucially, the entries give a precise date for the southern expansion of the town.

When administrative areas were set up after the English re-conquest, Bedford was important enough to be selected as the chief town of the new shire, Bedfordshire. In the 11th century the town prospered as a trading centre as well, and even minted its own coins. Architectural evidence of the pre-Norman town is scanty but significant: it includes the present chancel of St Peter de Merton, and some re-used stones and walling in St Mary's south of the river. (St Cuthbert is an Anglo-Saxon dedication, but the medieval church was rebuilt in the 1840s). After the Norman Conquest, the town underwent a radical change: the south-east part of the north bank town was cleared to make way for a large castle with a motte and the bailey, which extended to St Paul's Square. The motte, or castle mound, survives to the north of the little park at Castle Close, and there is some 12th-century masonry still to be seen. It saw action during the Civil Wars of King Stephen's reign - there were sieges in 1137, 1141 and in 1153, when Henry, later King Henry II, captured it and the town; after plundering it, he 'delivered it to the flames'.

More peacefully, the rebuilt town received a Royal charter from Henry II, now king, in 1166; this confirmed the town's market and trading rights which had been granted by Henry I some years before. By 1200, Bedford had a river bridge with a nearby chapel, a hospital, St John's (south of the river and founded by Robert de Parys, and still retaining its early 13th-century structure), a county gaol, and two monasteries outside the town, Newnham Priory to the east and Caldwell Priory in Kempston parish. Nearby to the south was the Norman foundation of Elstow Abbey. Within the town there were now several parishes, as befitted a county town: St Peter de Dunstable, St Mary, and St John south of the river, the last in effect the chapel to St John's Hospital. To the north of the river were the main church of St Paul, St Peter de Merton, and St Cuthbert, besides the bridge chapel and the Herne Chapel. During the 13th century the town acquired a Franciscan Friary (1238) and a leper hospital, St Leonard's Hospital, just outside the southern part of town on the Ampthill road.

The castle endured its last siege in 1224 when the young king, Henry III, was outraged by the seizure of one of his judges, Henry de Braybrooke, by the castellan, the over-mighty subject par excellence, Falkes de Breaute. The siege was described in lingering detail by a bloodthirsty monk at Dunstable Priory, and is one of the best contemporary sources for a medieval siege. It lasted eight weeks, and included the excommunication of the garrison by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the siege and their hanging afterwards. The castle was slighted, and some of the stonework was used in repairs to St Paul's church and other Bedford buildings.

What remains now of medieval Bedford? The churches survive in various degrees of authenticity, apart from St Cuthbert's, which was rebuilt entirely in the 1840s; some of St John's Hospital also survives, and so do other fragments. The stone bridge, which was probably repaired with castle stone after 1224, and which originally dated from the later 12th century, was replaced in the 19th century, and the part-medieval George Inn off the High Street was also demolished.

During Tudor times the prosperous market and county town saw two major developments that had a profound effect on the town's future: one was the rise of Protestantism and the closure of the religious houses, and the other was the endowment of a school by Sir William Harpur. The religious houses were closed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII: Caldwell Priory in 1536, the Friary in 1538, Elstow Abbey (where the laxity and luxurious life-style of the nuns was somewhat notorious) in 1539 and Newnham in 1541. St John's Hospital survived as a type of almshouse. Puritans and Calvinists are recorded from the middle of the century, but this had more impact in the following century.

Of greater long-term and continuing significance was Sir William Harpur and his wife Dame Alice's endowment of a school in 1566. Harpur had been Lord Mayor of London in 1561; he gave land in Holborn, whose income was to fund the school, and any surplus was to go to the poor of Bedford. The income turned out to be considerable, and the Harpur endowment prospered over the centuries. A new Harpur Trust was set up in 1764 which worked in collaboration with the town over succeeding years. It funded several schools, such as Bedford School itself, Bedford High School and the Harpur Schools in Harpur Street, as well as funding other charity work and almshouses, such as those in Dame Alice Street of 1801-06. For many years the Harpur Trust was in effect the provider of virtually all education in Bedford. Its role cannot be over-emphasised in the shaping of the town. Sir William died in 1573; his brass and that to Dame Alice is in St Paul's Church. More oddly, there is a statue of him in a niche in the facade of the former school in St Paul's Square, which was built in 1756 (it is now the Town Hall). This statue shows him dressed in 18th-century clothes, rather than in Tudor ones!

In the 17th century, Bedford was staunchly Parliamentarian during the Civil War. A soldier in the Parliamentary garrison at Newport Pagnell was an Elstow man, one John Bunyan. After the war he moved to Bedford, and sought spiritual help from John Gifford, the Puritan vicar of St John's Church, as a plaque informs us. The Independents prospered, but Bunyan was imprisoned in 1660. While he was in Bedford Gaol he wrote 'Grace Abounding' in 1666, and started work on 'The Pilgrim's Progress'. Released in 1672, and now Pastor of the Independents, he was again imprisoned, this time for not taking Church of England communion; he finished 'The Pilgrim's Progress' in 1678. He wrote much more, but this book fired the public imagination; it remained very widely read until well into the 20th century.

Bedford continued to do well as a trading town: Daniel Defoe described it as 'a large, populous, well-built and thriving town'. The river was made navigable in the 1680s, and wharves and warehouses and stores appeared. Coal, fish brought up-river in perforated metal trunks towed behind the barges, salt, millstones, tar, iron, timber and brick were landed at the wharves, while mainly agricultural produce such as wheat, malt, beans and apples in season were loaded for transport down-river. Coal was the main import in the 18th century, and brewing grew in importance as an industry.

The Dukes of Bedford became steadily more influential in the town's affairs. Their great estate was at Woburn, and they owned land all over the county and in London, some of it in Bloomsbury quite near the Holborn estate owned by the Harpur foundation. Thus the Dukes saw the mismanagement of the Harpur endowment by the town corporation at close hand; the Harpur Trust was set up in 1764 to administer better the Tudor endowment and its income. The story of the Trust from the later 18th century onwards is one of increased educational provision for the children of the town and, by the introduction of boarding, for children from further away. Indeed, in the 19th century large numbers of children of officials of the East India Company and the subsequent government of India were boarded in Bedford School and at other schools with boarding facilities.

The town also began to acquire other public buildings and facilities in this period, including the House of Industry on the Kimbolton Road, later converted to a workhouse. In 1801 the much-needed rebuilding of the old typhus-infested Gaol was achieved, and on the Ampthill Road an Infirmary was built in 1803 and a lunatic asylum nearby in 1811. In 1803 a private Act of Parliament set up Improvement Commissioners; they eventually had the new bridge built and opened in 1813, and cleared away squalid tenements from St Paul's Square. The railway arrived in 1846; then in 1862 the Bedford to Cambridge line was opened, and in 1872 a line to Northampton.

Later in the 19th century, the new Corn Exchange was opened in 1874. In the 1880s, during the vigorous mayoralty of Joshua Hawkins, the river banks east of the bridge were converted into parks, the Suspension Bridge was built, and Bedford Park was laid out; virtually everything was opened by the Duke of Bedford or his sons. In the 20th century the industrial riverside disappeared, and more parks and walkways were developed along the western part of the river, including St Mary's Park on the south bank and the the north bank walkway in more recent times.

After World War II there was considerable destruction and demolition in the name of progress, and much of the old town south of the river was seriously compromised. However, the tide has now turned, and there is greater appreciation of what gives a town its distinctive character. For example, the Harpur Schools in Harpur Street were kept as the frontage block to a new shopping centre in the 1990s: this would not have happened in the gung-ho 1960s, when site clearance was the norm in any development.

On a sunny summer's day or a brisk autumn one, the riverside parks are a delight; they and Bedford Park itself are immensely popular still. The townscape is rewarding, with St Paul's Square and St Peter's Green the highlights. The historic core is, as I wrote earlier, not large by any means, and merits a day's wandering around.

More Bedford history

What you are reading here about Bedford are excerpts from our book Bedford Photographic Memories by Martin Andrew, just one of our Photographic Memories books.

Bedford Photographic Memories

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