Dunstable (St. Peter and St. Paul)

DUNSTABLE (St. Peter and St. Paul), a market-town and parish, in the union of Luton, hundred of Manshead, county of Bedford, 18 miles (S. by W.) from Bedford, and 32¼ (N. W. by N.) from London; containing 2582 inhabitants. The origin of this town may be traced to the ancient Britons, who are supposed to have had a settlement here, which they named Maes Gwyn, or "White Field," as descriptive of the chalky soil of the vicinity: it is thought to have been the Magiovinium of Antoninus, a term of similar import. That it was a place of great importance is evident from its situation at the very point of contact between the Watling and Ikeneld streets, as also from immense adjacent ramparts of earth which mark the ancient circular fortifications. Its modern appellation was bestowed after the Danes had desolated the town, and, according to Hearne and Bishop Gibson, is derived from Dunum or Dun, a hill, and Staple, a commercial mart; by others it is considered to have been taken from Dun, the name of a notorious robber in the time of Henry I., who with his associates became so much the object of terror, that the destruction of the neighbouring forest was resorted to as the only effectual means of their dispersion. This object being accomplished, Henry erected a royal residence at Kingsbury, rebuilt the town of Dunstable, and, having invited settlers, constituted it a borough, endowing it with a grant of lands at a trifling nominal rent, and investing the inhabitants with various privileges, among which was an exemption from the jurisdiction of justices itinerant at any place throughout the realm, except within their own town and liberty. During this reign, markets were held weekly on Sunday and Wednesday, and a fair on St. Peter's day.

The priory of Black canons, near the royal palace, was founded by Henry, under the authority of Pope Eugenius III., was extensively endowed, and enjoyed many privileges; the priors had a gaol, possessed the power of life and death, and usually sat as judges at Dunstable, with the king's justices itinerant. These circumstances gave occasion to the exercise of great tyranny, and the townsmen became entirely subject to the monks; hence arose dissatisfaction and tumults, so that, in the reign of Richard II., the inhabitants revolted against the prior, and extorted a charter of liberties from him, which he soon afterwards revoked. In 1204, King John conferred his palace on the prior, on condition that royal visiters should be freely entitled to the hospitality of the priory, in which many of the English sovereigns were subsequently entertained. In 1290, the corpse of Queen Eleanor, consort of Edward I., rested at the marketplace, on being conveyed through the town; and in commemoration of the event a handsome cross was erected, which was demolished in the reign of Charles I. as a relic of popery. In the chapel of Our Lady, at the priory, the sentence of divorce between Henry VIII. and Catharine of Arragon was pronounced by Archbishop Cranmer; and Gervase Markham, who was the last prior, having assisted to effect that measure, was in consequence treated with comparative liberality.

The town is pleasantly situated near the Chiltern hills, and consists mainly of four streets, which intersect each other at right angles, and correspond exactly with the four cardinal points. The inhabitants formerly procured water from public reservoirs, there being one in each street; but a supply is now obtained from wells, which, from the chalky nature of the substratum, are sunk to a great depth. The manufacture of articles in straw, both useful and ornamental, is extensively carried on, employing upwards of 500 females, in general farmers' daughters, who are required to pay two guineas each, and to give three months of their time at entering, in order to learn the business; there are also some large manufactories for whitening, from which most of the manufacturing towns are supplied. The town was once distinguished for the number of its inns and posting establishments, about 200 horses, with the requisite number of post-boys, being kept for the use of travellers; the traffic, however, was almost entirely annihilated by the formation of the Birmingham railway. A branch railway, seven miles long, for which an act was passed in 1845, has been opened to Dunstable from the Birmingham line near Leighton-Buzzard; this may in some measure compensate for the lost traffic. The place is celebrated for its fine larks, which are prepared for conveyance in tin cases to all parts of the kingdom, and with which travellers are supplied from October till February. The market is on Wednesday and Saturday, for straw plat, commencing at eight o'clock in the morning; and fairs are held on Ash-Wednesday, May 22nd, Aug. 12th, and Nov. 12th, the last being the largest fair for sheep in the county. Dunstable was anciently under the government of a mayor, but it has now only the ordinary parochial authorities. The manor belongs to the crown; and the Duke of Bedford, as lessee, holds courts leet and baron, but at no stated periods.

The parish comprises 410 acres, of which 176 are in tillage, and 214 pasture and meadow; the soil is light, resting on chalk. The living is a rectory not in charge, in the patronage of the Crown: the tithes have been commuted for £115, and the glebe contains about 1½ acre, with a good house, built by the rector, aided by contributions from the inhabitants and a grant of £600 from Queen Anne's Bounty. The church, which, with some rooms having vaulted and groined stone roofs, forms the only remains of the ancient priory, was originally a magnificent and extensive cruciform structure, with a tower rising from the intersection: Henry VIII. having abandoned his design of making it a cathedral, a considerable part of the edifice was demolished. The remains consist of the west front, nave, and two aisles; each of the latter extends from the western doors to the entrance to what was once the choir, being about 120 feet long: at the north-west angle is a tower embellished with a double row of niches, which formerly contained statues. The architecture combines some portions in the Norman, with others in the early and later English styles; the windows are of comparatively modern dates. Over the communion-table is a painting of the Lord's Supper, by Sir James Thornhill; and among the monuments are several to the Chew family, who were great benefactors to the town. There are places of worship for Baptists and Wesleyans. A charity school, founded by the direction of Mr. William Chew, was built in 1727, and is endowed with an income of more than £300. Adjoining are six almshouses, founded and endowed by Mrs. Cart, for the residence and maintenance of widows; and in West-street are six others, endowed by Mrs. Ashton for a similar purpose. Nearly opposite the church are six houses founded by Mrs. Blandina Marsh, in 1713, and designated "The Maidens' Lodge," for six unmarried gentlewomen, whose income has been increased by a benefaction from another lady, to £120. In 1770, a great quantity of coins of Antoninus and Constantine, with ornaments of bridles and armour, were dug up on an adjacent down; and several antiquities were lately discovered in a field, supposed to belong to the church of the Grey friars, comprising coins, rings, swords, &c. The first dramatic representations in England, called "Mysteries," are said to have taken place here under the direction of a priest, or friar. Elkanah Settle, a dramatist and political writer of notoriety in the reign of Charles II., was a native of Dunstable.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.