BEDFORD, a borough and market-town, and the head of a union, in the county of Bedford, of which it is the capital, 50 miles (N. N. W.) from London; containing 9178 inhabitants. This place, called by the later Britons Lettuydur, and by the Saxons Bedanford or Bedicanford (expressive of its character as a place of public accommodation at the passage of a river), derives its name from its situation near an ancient ford over the Ouse. In the year 571, a battle was fought here between the Britons and the West Saxons, the latter being commanded by Cuthwulf, brother of Ceawlin, third king of Wessex; in which the Britons were defeated with considerable loss. The town having been almost destroyed by the Danes, was restored by Edward the Elder, who greatly enlarged it by erecting a fort and other buildings on the opposite side of the river; but in 1010 it suffered again from an irruption of the Danes, who committed dreadful ravages in their progress through the country. After the Conquest, Payne de Beauchamp, third baron of Bedford, built a strong castle here, which was besieged and taken by Stephen in the war with the Empress Matilda; and when the barons took up arms against King John, William de Beauchamp, who then possessed it, having sided with the insurgents, delivered the castle into their possession; but it was subsequently besieged and ultimately taken for the king by Falco de Brent, upon whom that monarch bestowed it, as a reward for his services. In the reign of Henry III., Falco having committed excessive outrages for which he was fined £3000 by the king's itinerant justiciaries at Dunstable, seized the principal judge and imprisoned him in the castle, which, after a vigorous siege, and an obstinate defence, memorable in the history of those times, was taken, and, by the king's order, demolished, with the exception of the inner part, which was given for a residence to William de Beauchamp, to whom Henry restored the barony which he had forfeited in the preceding reign. Of this fortress, only a part of the intrenchments, and the site of the keep, now converted into a bowling-green, remain. The ancient barons of Bedford were lord almoners at the coronation of the kings of England; and as an inheritor of part of the barony, the Marquess of Exeter officiated at that of George IV., receiving the usual perquisite of a silver alms-basin, and the cloth upon which the sovereign walked from Westminster Hall to the Abbey. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., this town, which had been garrisoned for the parliament, surrendered to Prince Rupert, in 1643; the parliamentary troops, under Col. Montague, afterwards entered it by stratagem, and carried off some money and horses, which had been brought thither for the use of the royalists.
The town is pleasantly situated in a fertile vale watered by the river Ouse, which is here navigable for barges, and over which is a handsome stone bridge of five arches, erected in 1813 at an expense of £15,137, and replacing a former bridge of great antiquity. It consists of one spacious street, nearly a mile in length, intersected at right angles by several smaller streets; and is rapidly increasing, from the advantages of gratuitous education at the excellent and richly endowed free schools, adapted to every class of the community, operating as an inducement to families to settle here. The town is well paved, lighted with gas, and amply supplied with water. Races are held in the spring and autumn, a king's plate having been run for, the first time, at the autumnal meeting of 1832; assemblies take place during the winter, and a small theatre is opened occasionally. There is a public library, with an extensive and well-assorted collection of valuable books, and a museum; and several book-clubs have been established.
The principal branches of manufacture are those of lace and straw-plat, in which many women and children are employed; a good deal of iron is manufactured into agricultural implements, and a considerable trade in corn and coal, by means of the Ouse, is carried on with Lynn and the intermediate places. A railway from Bedford to the Bletchley station of the London and North-Western line, was opened in November, 1846; it is about 16½ miles long, almost a dead level, and cost between £16,000 and £17,000 per mile. In 1846, an act was passed for making a branch of nearly eight miles from the great London and York railway, to Bedford. The market-days are Monday, for pigs only; and Saturday, for corn and provisions: the former market is held in the southern, and the latter in the northern, division of the town. The fairs are on the first Tuesday in Lent, April 21st, July 6th, Aug. 21st, Oct. 12th, and Dec. 19th, for cattle; and there is a wool-fair also on the 6th of July. The government, until 1836, was in accordance with a charter of incorporation granted by Charles II., confirming the prescriptive privileges of the borough and the charters previously granted; but by the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, the corporation now consists of a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 17 councillors, exclusively of the mayor, who belongs to the last-named class; and the borough is now divided into two wards, the municipal and parliamentary boundaries being the same. The mayor is a justice of the peace by virtue of his office, and four other gentlemen have been appointed justices, concurrently with the county magistrates. The borough first sent representatives to parliament in the 23rd of Edward I., since which time it has returned two members; the mayor is returning officer. The county debt-court of Bedford, established in 1847, has jurisdiction over the registration-district of Bedford. The assizes and quarter-sessions for the county are held in the town, where also the election of the knights of the shire takes place; the sessions-house, rebuilt in 1753, is a neat stone edifice, in St. Paul's square. The county gaol, rebuilt in 1801, is a handsome structure surrounded by a high brick wall, at the north-western entrance into the town, and contains seven wards or divisions for the classification of prisoners, with airing-yards, in one of which is a tread-mill. The county penitentiary, or new house of correction, a large brick building on the road to Kettering, was erected in 1819.
The borough comprises the parishes of St. Cuthbert, St. John, St. Mary, St. Paul, and St. Peter Martin. The parish of St. Cuthbert comprises about 250 acres by measurement. The living is a discharged rectory, valued in the king's books at £5. 9. 4½., and in the patronage of the Crown, with a net income of £129: the tithes were commuted for land and annual money payments in 1795. The church, rebuilt in 1846 in the Anglo-Saxon style, is a neat edifice, and cost £1600. The parish of St. John contains by computation 18 acres. The living is a rectory not in charge, with the mastership of St. John's hospital, in the town, annexed; net income, about £380: the advowson till lately belonged to the corporation. The church is a neat structure in the later English style, with a handsome tower, but it has been much modernised. The parish of St. Mary contains 490 acres, of which 275 acres are plough land, and 215 pasture; the soil is gravel. The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £11. 4. 9½.; net income, £273; patron, the Bishop of Lincoln: the tithes were commuted for land and a money payment in 1797. The church, which is of early date, shows few marks of its antiquity, except in the tower, in which are good specimens of the Norman arch, recently discovered: great improvements have of late been made in the interior of the edifice, by removing the wall which divided the nave from the north aisle, and substituting stone arches and columns of light and handsome structure; the chancel, also, has been fitted up with stalls, in oak, with sculptured finials, and the nave and aisle with open sittings. In the immediate neighbourhood of this church stood, until the reign of Edward VI., another church, dedicated to St. Peter Dunstable: from its materials the aisle of the surviving church was built; and in the late alterations, a doorway was discovered in the outer wall of this aisle, in one of the spandrils of which are the clear marks of St. Peter's emblem, the cross keys.
The parish of St. Paul contains 771a. lr. 34p., the greater part of which is arable, the pasture being chiefly on the banks of the Ouse; the surface is level, rising gradually on the north towards Clapham hill. The living is a vicarage, valued in the king's books at £10, and in the patronage of Lord Carteret, with a net income of £230; the glebe consists of about 63 acres. The church, a portion of which was built in the 12th century, is a spacious and venerable structure, partly in the early and partly in the decorated English style, with a handsome tower surmounted by an octagonal spire, and a north and south porch in the later style. An additional church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was erected in the pointed style, in 1839-40, by subscription, aided by £500 from the Incorporated Society; it contains 1000 sittings, of which 500 are free, and Lord Carteret has contributed £2700 towards its endowment. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of the Vicar of St. Paul's. The parish of St. Peter Martin comprises 547a. 3r. 18p. The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £11. 13. 1½., and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £204: the tithes were commuted for land and annual money payments in 1795. The church is an ancient edifice, with a tower, the upper part of which has been recently restored, and having at the southern entrance a beautiful Norman arch: the first stone of an enlargement of the building, was laid in October, 1845. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Wesleyans, and Moravians; and a chapel lately erected, denominated the Primitive Episcopal or Reformed Church of England, the minister of which styles himself Bishop.
The Free Grammar school of the Bedford charity was founded in 1556, and endowed with property, consisting of houses and land, by Sir William Harpur, a native of the town, and lord mayor of London in 1561, whose statue, in white marble, is placed in a niche over the entrance. It has eight exhibitions of £80 per annum each, tenable for four years, in any one of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, or Dublin, six of which are restricted to boys whose parents are inhabitants of the town, and the remaining two are open to all scholars educated in the school, whether or not children of inhabitants. Under the same endowment there are an English commercial school, confined to the children of the settled inhabitants of the town; a national school for boys and girls; and an hospital for the maintenance and education of fifty children of both sexes: the entire amount given annually in apprentice fees is £1500. Handsome school premises in connexion with the charity were lately erected, to which an extensive addition in a corresponding style of architecture has been since made. From the same fund were founded and endowed twenty almshouses, each containing four apartments, for ten aged men and ten aged women, decayed housekeepers; and forty-six additional houses have since been erected, on the northern side of Dame Alice-street, so called in honour of the founder's lady. The sum of £800 is annually given, in marriage portions of £20 each, to maidens of good character in the town, being daughters of resident householders belonging to any of the parishes; £500 for the relief of decayed housekeepers; and other pecuniary donations to the poor; all arising from the same endowment, which, owing to the increased rental of the estate, yields an annual income of more than £13,000. A school was founded in 1727, and endowed with lands producing £46. 10. per annum, by Mr. Alexander Leith; and a Green-coat school, now united to the national school, was established in 1760, and endowed with £33. 15. per annum, by Alderman Newton, of Leicester, for twenty-five boys, for clothing whom the endowment is now appropriated. The house of industry, erected by act of parliament, in 1796, at a cost of £5000, is now the workhouse of the Bedford union, which comprises forty-four parishes and places, and contains a population of 31,767. The county lunatic asylum, a handsome brick building on the road to Ampthill, was erected in 1812, at an expense, including the furniture, of £17,975; and a wing being added in 1842, it will now accommodate sixty-five patients. The county infirmary, on the same road, is a substantial edifice with a stone front, towards the erection and endowment of which the late Samuel Whitbread, Esq., gave £10,000, and Lord Hampden £1000; it contains a small museum, and a medical library consisting of nearly 2000 volumes. The Marquess of Tavistock, at the election for the county in 1826, presented £2000 to the institution, in lieu of entertaining the freeholders; and the Duke of Bedford contributes £100 per annum. Eight almshouses, for unmarried persons of either sex, were founded and endowed in 1679, by Mr. Thomas Christie. An hospital, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is supposed to have been established and partly endowed by Robert de Parys; its revenue, at the dissolution of religious houses, was £21. 0. 8.; the charity was then confirmed, and the mastership is now annexed to the rectory of St. John's.
A monastery of uncertain foundation existed here at a very early period, in the chapel of which, Offa, King of Mercia, who had been a great benefactor to it, was buried; the chapel being afterwards undermined by the Ouse, sank with the tomb of that monarch into the river. About three-quarters of a mile west of the town, on the bank of the river, are some remains of the conventual buildings of Caldwell Priory, which was instituted in the reign of John, by Robert, son of William de Houghton, for brethren of the order of the Holy Cross, and the revenue of which, at the Dissolution, was £148. 15. 10. At Newenham, a mile east of the town, are considerable vestiges of a priory of Black canons, which, in the reign of Henry II., was removed thither from Bedford, where it had been originally founded by Simeon Beauchamp; and at Elstow church, formerly Helenstowe, two miles distant, on the road to Clophill, are the interesting ruins of a nunnery established by Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and to St. Helen, mother of Constantine the Great; the revenue, at the Dissolution, was £325. 2. 1. John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim's Progress, was confined for twelve years and a half in the county gaol, from which he was ultimately released on the intercession of the Bishop of Lincoln. Bedford confers the title of Duke on the noble family of Russell.