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  - A BRIEF HISTORY OF BEDFORD (Part 1) -


   LINKS to other pages in this site and to other sites in the Travelling Days series:

Autographs Home Page:      Bedford 1939 onwards Part 2:      BBC in Bedford:
BBC Symphony Orchestra Personalities:      Bedford Miscellany:       Bedford School (1940s):
Composers:      Conductors:       David Gentleman:      Glenn Miller:       Instrumentalists:
Personalities of the 1940s:       Pianists:       The RAEC in Cornwall:
Religion and Drama:       Singers:       BBC in Cornwall 1949:      Colin Day's List-O-Links:
America West Home Page:      Guest Book:


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The River Ouse at Bedford in 1988


BEDFORD, the county town of Bedfordshire, sits astride the River Ouse and is situated just fifty miles north of London. The population of Bedford in the 1990’s was approximately 76,000 (In 1911 it was only 40,000 and in the late 1940s under 60,000). In the years immediately after WWII the increase in population was largely due to an influx of Italians who were recruited to work in the brickfields, and later by immigrants from the West Indies, Pakistan and India.

    A battlefield for Britons and Saxons in the 6th century, Bedford was the scene of an important Saxon defeat in AD 571. Following the Norman Conquest the town was dominated for 150 years by a castle situated close to the river. The keep was constructed on a mound raised specifically to accommodate it. In 1224 the castle was destroyed following a seige but the mound remains to this day.

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    North of the town St Peter's Church tower is essentially of Saxon origin and the church contains examples of Saxon stone carvings. The picture taken in 1969 shows the church fronted by St Peter's Green. To the right is the Preparatory School (The 'Inky', short for 'incubator'!) a part of the large Bedford School complex.  (See next page)

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The 17th century writer and preacher John Bunyan was born in Elstow just outside Bedford. He was imprisoned in 1660 for 12 years for failing to conform to the various acts of parliament which included restricting the activities of independent (non Anglican) preachers and those refusing to take the Anglican sacrament. While in Bedford jail (situated at the corner of Silver and High Streets) Bunyan started work on his “Pilgrim’s Progress" which he completed during a second spell in jail in the mid 1670s. The Bunyan Memorial Statue was erected on a corner of St Peter's Green in 1874.

    Ardor House (below) situated opposite the Bunyan Statue was built in 1930. Shown here, shortly before the construction next door of Broadway House which housed the local Inland Revenue (Taxation) office, Ardor House was for many years the headquarters and showroom of the local gas company.

    During the war the Inter-Service Special Intelligence School was set up to give new entrants to the top-secret Enigma/Ultra decrypt centre at Bletchley Park basic training in codebreaking. BedfordArdor.jpg - 24979 BytesThe unit was located at Ardor House and became known to Bedfordians, surprisingly - in view of its secret purpose - as 'the Spy School'! From 1942 onwards the building was used by Bletchley Park for training courses for linguists in Japanese. The unit was commanded by Colonel John Tiltman and the tutor Captain Oswald Tuck. The students, after qualification, were transferred to Bletchley to work on the intercepted coded messages transmitted by the Japanese.

As well as being the local market town Bedford was, and remains, an important industrial centre, manufacturing items such as diesel engines, pumps, turbines, agricultural machinery, electrical equipment, and transistors. Firms such as the Allen's engineering works, Igranic electrical works and the munitions factory at Elstow were thought to be prime targets for the Luftwaffe although none of them sustained damage in the several air raids suffered by Bedford during the war.
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From Bedford, to the west (extending to Bletchley) and south (almost to the Chiltern Hills), the countryside was littered with brickworks with their tall chimneys. That is until comparatively recently, when extensive demolition of the works was carried out. Some of the associated claypits have now filled with water and are used for recreational water sports. (The picture was taken in 1969)

    Bedford inhabitants were able accurately to predict the coming of inclement wet weather when the prevailing winds blew the offensive sulphurous emissions from the baking bricks across the town!

Bedford has an important fruit growing history. One of the most successful plant breeders in the world, Thomas Laxton (1830-1893), developed his base at Bedford. After his death his sons and grandsons continued his work, and together they produced a large number of new varieties of apple (such as Lord Lambourne, Laxton's Superb and Barnack Orange), pear, plum, raspberry, black and redcurrant, gooseberry and strawberry. Their orchard was established on 140 acres known as 'Laxton's Land' alongside Goldington Road (now covered by Bedfordshire College of Higher Education and two schools).

    The orchardists also had a shop at 63 High Street, Bedford which remained until 1957.

    One of the grandsons living in Putnoe Lane during WWII was killed by schrapnel from a high explosive bomb while on his way to his air raid shelter.

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Bedford's pride and joy is its river. The picture above shows the River Ouse crossed by the bridge (constructed in 1813 and enlarged in the 1938/9) which carries the main A6 road from London to the North. This 1960 view is essentially the same as iit would have been in 1940. The old ‘Picturedrome’ cinema is seen at the bottom centre of the picture next to the Bedford Town Rowing Club boatsheds on its right. The cinema and adjacent buildings were later demolished to make way for a major hotel complex. Directly opposite the cinema on the other side of the river is the ‘Swan Hotel’ at the junction of High Street and The Embankment. To the left of the picture, across the road and backing on to the river, are the old Shire Offices. At the top can be seen part of St Paul’s Church and the Market Place. The Corn Exchange is just visible on the upper edge of the picture. BedfordStPauls2.jpg - 25445 Bytes

The lower picture (right) shows St Paul’s Church at about the same time. St Paul's, the Anglican Parish Church of Bedford, was probably established in the seventh century The present building contains traces of Norman work, large portions dating from the 14th and 15th centuries and parts related torestoration and extension in Victorian times. The church was used regularly during WWII by the BBC.

(Acknowledgement to Frith Photos for the pictures above and right)

A 1963 'ground level' shot of the bridge taken by Harry Wild (below left) but 'modified' to provide a 1940s look! The Picturedrome Cinema to the right of the boatsheds (shown on the left) was demolished in 1964. The Bridge Hotel, built in 1936 and shown to the left of the bridge was demolished in 1980. The Moat House Hotel and Riverside Towers now replace the space once occupied by the boatsheds and cinema.Bedfordpicturedrome.jpg - 36821 Bytes

The river, photograph (lower right) taken by the author in 1948, from under the bridge showing one of the Bedford School rowing eights. The building in the backgound is the Town and Country Club which was built in 1885, closed in 1957 and then demolished in 1971.

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The Suspension Bridge (picture taken in 1986) gives access to Mill Meadows from the Embankment. Designed by John Webster the bridge was opened in 1888, renovated in 1983, and remains a well known feature of the river scene.



Situated between the Suspension Bridge and the School Boathouses the Boat Slide Weir was constructed in 1896 and joined the upper 'town' river to the lower river, a drop of about a metre. The rustic balustrade on the bridge survived into the 1960s. Beside the weir a ramp fitted with rollers allowed rowing boats and punts to be moved from one level to the other. The ramp exit is just visible to the right of the picture.

(Photographed in 1948 - author's collection)


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