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Bedford, Bedfordshire

Historical Description

Bedford, a municipal and parliamentary borough in the northern division of Bedfordshire, and the capital of the county. It stands on the river Ouse, in a pleasant fertile valley, 47¼ miles NNW of London. The Ouse is navigable hence to the sea, but the traffic has ceased, though regattas are still held. The M.R. has a large station here, and a branch of the L. & N.W.R. from Oxford to Cambridge to join the G.E.R. passes through the town. This line also communicates with the G.N.R. at Sandy. The town is thus well served by railways, there being no less than six outlets by the different lines.

Bedford was known to the Saxons as Bedanford or Bedicanford, signifying "the lodging or fortress at the ford." Cuthwulf defeated the Britons near it in 571. The Danes attacked it in 911 and 921, and burned it in 1010. A castle was built at it near the river soon after the Conquest, figured in the wars of the Barons, was taken in 1138 by King Stephen, again in 1216 by Fulk de Brent, and destroyed in 1224 by Henry III. Nothing of the castle remains except a portion of the entrenchments, and the site of its keep is occupied by a bowling-green. Hugh de Bellemont, son of the Earl of Leicester, was made Earl of Bedford by King Stephen, but fell from his allegiance and was degraded. Ingelram de Coucy was raised to the earldom by Edward III. John Plantagenet, third son of Henry IV., was made Duke of Bedford by Henry V., but died without issue. The Russell family were raised to the Dukedom in 1694, and have their chief seat at Woburn Abbey. Three men who have shed great lustre upon Bedford were Sir W. Harpur, some time Lord Mayor of London, who died in 1574; S. Palmer the nonconformist, and John Bunyan, the author of the "Pilgrim's Progress." The first and the second were natives, and the third was born at Elstow, 1½ mile to the S, and achieved at Bedford the chief experiences of his remarkable life.

The town consists of a principal street, above a mile long, several intersecting streets, and some suburbs; has undergone great recent improvement and considerable increase; contains many old substantial houses, and some handsome new ones; and presents altogether a pleasing appearance. The bridge across the Ouse, connecting High Street and Mary Street, occupies the site of one which stood nearly 600 years, has five arches, and was built in 1813 at a cost of £15,000. There is also a second bridge of three arches in wrought-iron and stone, carrying a roadway 40 feet wide, the foundations of which were laid in 1883, and which was opened in 1884, and an iron foot bridge opened in 1888; the Shire Hall, originally erected in 1753, was rebuilt 1879-82, at a cost of £20,000. It contains rooms for the sessions and the assizes, and the meetings of the county council are held here. The Corn Exchange, a commodious building of white brick and Bath stone, was completed in 1874. It is used for social and political purposes, as well as for a corn market. The old one is now used as a covered market for fruit and flowers. The county jail, on the site of the prison in which it is believed Bunyan wrote his "Pilgrim's Progress," was rebuilt in 1849 at a cost of £23,000; is of three storeys, and has 176 cells for males and 8 for females, houses for the chief warders being attached. The Bedford Infirmary stands in spacious grounds on the Ampthill Road; is a brick edifice with stone front dating from 1803, and has accommodation for about 100 in-patients. The Bedford Rooms, a fine building in Harpur Street, which became the property of the Bedford Literary and Scientific Institute in 1884, contains a fine library, and affords accommodation to the County Archaeological, Natural History, and Agricultural Societies. There are also three good club-houses occupied by the Bedford Town and County, Conservative, and Liberal Clubs. The cemetery, Foster's Hill, opened in 1855, contains two mortuary chapels, and covers an area of 36 acres, and at the foot of the Cemetery Hill an ornamental park and recreation ground has been laid out, having an area of 61 acres. The latter was opened in 1888 by the Marquis of Tavistock, and is a great acquisition to the town; it has recently become the property of the Corporation by Act of Parliament. There is also a handsome promenade along the north margin of the Ouse, which extends as far as Newnham. Remains of an interesting edifice of the 14th century, with window-tracery and other decorations, stand at the foot of a yard leading out at High Street, and now form part of the George Inn. The river Ouse is a most charming feature in the town, and affords abundant amusement in boating, fishing, and swimming. The embankment, with the long promenades on both sides of the river, is well planted with flowers and shrubs. A meadow, called King's Mead, belonging in old times to the town, lies about 2 miles distant, on the right bank of the Ouse, and contains a sulphuretted saline spring. It is now, however, in private hands. The town is well supplied with water, drawn through a horizontal shaft in the oolite limestone, at the northern boundary of the borough, and has a thorough system of drainage on modern principles.

The town, as defined by its borough boundaries, comprises 2223 acres; and it is divided into two wards and five parishes. The wards are Eastern and Western; and the parishes are St Cuthbert, St Peter, St Paul, St Mary, and St John, with the ecclesiastical parishes of the Holy Trinity and St Leonard, and the ecclesiastical district of St Martin. St Cuthbert parish is wholly in the Eastern ward, while each of the other parishes is partly in both wards. All the livings are in the diocese of Ely. St Cuthbert is a rectory; net yearly value, £350 with residence, in the gift of the Lord Chancellor. St Peter is also a rectory; gross yearly value, £549 with residence, in the gift of the Lord Chancellor. St Paul's is a vicarage; gross yearly value, £350 with residence, in the gift of the Bishop of Ely. St Mary's is a rectory; gross yearly value, £436 with residence, in the gift of the Bishop of London (two turns) and of Balliol College, Oxford (one turn). St John's is a rectory; net yearly value, £370 with residence, in the gift of a private patron. Holy Trinity is a vicarage; gross value, £409 with residence, in the gift of the Vicar of St Paul's. St Leonard's is a vicarage; gross value, £150 with residence, in the gift of the Eector of St Mary's, Bedford. St Cuthbert's Church was rebuilt in 1847, is in the Norman style, and was enlarged in 18G5, and again in 1877. St Peter's is Norman and Early English, and has been several times repaired and enlarged. St Paul's is Early and Decorated English, and has a handsome tower and octagonal spire. Trinity Church was built in 1840, and made a separate charge in 1860. St Mary's is Later English with a Norman tower. St John's is Later English, and was thoroughly restored in 1869-70. St Martin's Church, a modern edifice of brick and Bath stone, was opened in 1889. Population of the ecclesiastical parishes of Holy Trinity, 9390; of St Cuthbert, 3324; of St John, 672; of St Leonards, 2329; of St Mary, 2549; of St Paul, 5061; and of St Peter Martin, 4698. The Bunyan Cliapel was rebuilt in 1849, on the site of the " Old Meeting " in which John Bunyan preached from 1671 till 1688, and has a tablet to him on its side and his chair in the vestry. In 1876 the Duke of Bedford gave two massive bronze doors, having ten panels, by Bochm, representing in relief scenes from the " Pilgrim's Progress," to this chapel. The town has also eighteen dissenting chapels and places of worship used by the Baptists, Brethren, Catholics, Congregationalists, Catholic Apostolic Church, Christadel-phians, Huntingdonians, Moravians, Primitive Methodists, Salvation Army, Theistic church, and Wcslcyan Methodists. The Roman Catholic church is a lofty edifice of stone in the Earlyand Decorated style. Among the public monuments of the town the most noteworthy is a fine bronze statue of John Bunyan, designed by Sir J. E. Boehm, and presented to the town by the Duke of Bedford in 1874, and placed in St Peter's Green. A monastery seems to have been founded on the bank of the Ouse to the W of the town, pretty early in the Saxon times; and a chapel, probably connected with it, was the burial-place of King Offa, and was swept away in an inundation. Caldwell Priory, near this, was founded in the time of King John for brethren of the order of the Holy Cross, and some vestiges of it remain. A Franciscan friary, an hospital of St Leonard, and an hospital or priory of St John the Baptist, stood in the S part of the town, and the last was endowed in the time of Edward II.

The charities and the educational advantages of Bedford are remarkably rich and numerous. A bequest by Sir William Harpur, in the time of Edward VI., of some property in Bedford and of 13 acres of land within the parish of St Andrew, Holborn in London, has increased enormously in value, and is disbursed under a scheme of the Endowed Schools Commissioners, approved in 1873, in supporting a grammar-school organised in four departments-viz. Preparatory, Junior, Classical, and Civil and Military- a high school for girls, a modern school for boys and girls, and elementary schools for boys, girls, and infants. All the Bedford schools are under the Harpur Trust, and it further affords support to forty-six almshouses for aged couples, a sum of money distributed yearly to decayed housekeepers, and other charities. The grammar-school furnishes the highest education to free boarders and scholars; the other schools are conducted with signal efficiency; and all are accessible to the children of all classes of the townspeople. The school buildings were considerably enlarged in 1861, and they form a handsome range in the Tudor style. A new building, to furnish accommodation for 1000 boys, was opened in 1891 at a cost of about £25,000, in front of which is a cricket field of 11 acres. The old grammar-school was purchased by the corporation for municipal purposes. The educational advantages of Bedford have attracted large numbers of retired officers, and widows of clergymen and professional men to the town. Other charities exist of considerable value, and include-schools and almshouses. Scientific, artistic, philanthropic, and religious societies are numerous.

Bedford is the marketing centre of a great agricultural district, and it possesses also several breweries, mailings, and coach factories, and numerous workers in the making of shoes, straw-plait, and pillow lace, but its chief industry is the manufacture of agricultural implements. The Britannia Ironworks here occupy an area of some 20 acres, are admirably built, and thoroughly furnished throughout with modern machinery. All kinds of agricultural machinery are produced, both for the home and foreign trade. There are also other factories for the making of lifting and travelling machinery, and brick and tile making machines. Weekly markets are held every Saturday; and fairs on the 21 and; 22 April and 12 and 13 October principally for cattle, but also as pleasure fairs, and on the first Tuesday in July for wool. All are well attended. The town has a head post, money order, and telegraph office, and several banking-offices; it publishes four newspapers; and it is the political capital of the county, the seat of assizes and sessions, the headquarters of the militia, and the head of an excise collection. It is a borough by prescription; was chartered by Henry II.;. is governed by a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors. From the 23rd of Edward I. until 1885 Bedford sent two. members to Parliament, but in the latter year the Redistribution of Seats Act reduced the number to one. Population of the municipal and parliamentary borough, 28,023; of the civil parish of St Cuthbert, 3324; of St John, 672; of St Mary, 4878; of St Paul, 14,451; and of St Peter, 4698.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyBedfordshire 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

The register of Holy Trinity dates from the year 1841, that of St. Leonard's from 1889, and that of St. Martin's from 1896.


Church of England

St. Leonard the Confessor, Victoria Road (parish church)

The church of St. Leonard the Confessor, in the Victoria road, is a temporary iron structure seating 450 persons.

St. Martin, Clapham Road (parish church)

The church of St. Martin, which stands on the Clapham road, erected at a cost, including site, of £5,200, was dedicated October, 1889, by the Lord Bishop of Ely, and is an edifice of brick, with Bath stone dressings, in the Early English style, from the designs of Mr. J. A. Chatwin, architect, of Birmingham, and consists of chancel, with side chapel, organ chamber, vestry, nave of four bays, aisles, transepts, eastern baptistery, and a detached wooden belfry containing one bell: in 1898 a stained memorial window was placed in the south aisle, and in 1902 a stained east window was erected at a cost of £116, as a memorial to the Rev. Alfred Hawkins Jones LL.B. first vicar 1896-1900: there are 740 sittings.

The Holy Trinity, Bromham Road (parish church)

Holy Trinity church, in Bromham road, erected in 1839-40, is a spacious edifice of stone in the Early English style, consisting of chancel, nave, north and south porches, and a lofty western tower containing a clock and one bell: in the chancel is a memorial window to the first vicar of the parish: in 1891 the organ was enlarged and moved from the west gallery to the east end: there are sittings for 1,400 persons.


Bunyan Meeting Chapel, Mill Street

The Bunyan Meeting (Union of Baptists and Congregationalists), in Mill street, was rebuilt in 1849 on the site of the former chapel, known as the "Old Meeting," itself erected in 1707 on the site of the building of which John Bunyan was the minister (1672-1688): his chair is preserved in the chapel, and a tablet in the porch records that he was for 12 years a prisoner in Bedford County Gaol: the church was established in 1650: in 1876, Francis, 9th Duke of Bedford, gave two massive bronze doors for the principal entrance; these have 10 panels, each of which, by Thrupp, represents in bold relief a scene from his famous allegory, "The Pilgrim's Progress," the first part of which was written during his second imprisonment in the town gaol on Bedford bridge (1675-6): the chapel has sittings for 1,100 persons. A hall for school and other purposes was attached to this chapel in the year 1866.


Howard Congregational Chapel, Mill Street

The Howard Congregational chapel, in Mill street, was originally founded by John Howard, the philanthropist, and others in 1772, and enlarged in 1849. In 1862 a school-room and various class-rooms were erected to celebrate the thirty years' ministry of the Rev. William Alliott: the chapel will seat 700 persons.


Baptist Chapel, Rothsay Road

The Baptist chapel, Rothsay road, built in 1894 at a cost exceeding £4,000, is of red brick and stone, and will seat 600; attached is a Sunday school for 150 children, with class rooms beneath.


Wesleyan Chapel, Harpur Street

The Wesleyan chapel, in Harpur street, built in 1832, was restored in 1889 at a cost of £1,600, and will seat 1,000.

Wesleyan Chapel, Bromham Road

The Wesleyan chapel, in Bromham road, built in 1877, will seat 650.

Wesleyan Chapel, Cauldwell Street

The Wesleyan chapel, Cauldwell street, was built in 1862 at a cost of £4,000, and will seat 400.

Roman Catholic

Holy Child Jesus and St. Joseph, Midland Road

The Catholic church, in Midland and Brereton roads, and dedicated to the Holy Child Jesus and St. Joseph, is a lofty building of stone in the Early Decorated style, consisting of chancel, clerestoried nave and aisles: the altar, dedicated to the Holy Child, was erected in 1874, and is of Bath stone, with the figures, in canopied niches, of King David, St. Gregory the Great, St. Andrew and St. Nicholas: over the high altar is a stained window, exhibiting incidents in the life of Our Lord: the side chapels, dedicated to the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin, have stone and marble altars, erected in 1887 from designs by Mr. A. E. Purdie, and adorned with figures of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin and various saints; these were the gifts of the late E. de V. Corcoran esq. and Mrs. Corcoran: in 1891 a fine stained window was erected in the chapel as a memorial: there are 250 sittings.

Civil Registration

Bedford was in Bedford Registration District from 1837 to 1974

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Bedford from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Bedfordshire is available to browse.


Online maps of Bedford are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Bedfordshire papers online:

Poor Law

Bedford was the head of a Poor Law Union, which was formed in 1835. It originally contained the following parishes: Bedford St Cuthbert, Bedford St John, Bedford St Mary, Bedford St Paul, Bedford St Peter, Biddenham, Bletsoe, Bolnhurst, Bromham, Cardington, Carlton, Chellington, Clapham, Colmworth, Cople, Eastcots, Elstow, Felmersham-cum-Radwell, Goldington, Great Barford, Harrold, Kempston, Keysoe, Knotting, Melchbourn, Milton Ernest, Oakley, Odell, Pavenham, Ravensden, Renhold, Riseley, Roxton, Sharnbrook, Souldrop, Stagsden, Stevington, Thurleigh, Turvey, Wilden, Wilhampstead, Willington, Wootton, Yielden.
For further detailed history of the Bedford Union see Peter Higginbotham's excellent resource: Bedford Poor Law Union and Workhouse.


We have transcribed the list of Private Residents in Bedford, from Kelly's Directory of Bedfordshire, 1890 and 1910.

Visitations Heraldic

A full transcript of the Visitations of Bedfordshire 1566, 1582, and 1634 is available online.

Postal districtMK40
Post TownBedford