Bedford - Encyclopedia

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See Bedford (disambiguation) for articles sharing the titleBedford.

BEDFORD, a municipal and parliamentary borough, and the county town of Bedfordshire, England, 50 m. north-north-west of London by the Midland railway; served also by a branch of the London & North-Western. Pop. (1901) 35,144. It lies in the fertile valley of the Ouse, on both banks, but mainly on the north, on which stands the mound which marks the site of the ancient castle. The church of St Paul is Decorated and Perpendicular, but its central tower and spire are modern; it contains the tomb of Sir William Harper or Harpur (c. 1496-1573), lord mayor of London, a notable benefactor of his native town of Bedford. St Peter's church has in its central tower masonry probably of pre-Conquest date; that of St Mary's is in part Norman, and that of St John's Decorated; but the bodies of these churches are largely restored. There are some remains of a Franciscan friary of the 14th century. The Congregational chapel called Bunyan's or the "Old Meeting" stands on the site of the building in which John Bunyan preached from 1656 onward. His chair is preserved here, and a tablet records his life in the town, where he underwent a long but in part nominal imprisonment. He was born at Elstow, 12 m. from Bedford, where, while playing on the green, he believed himself to have received the divine summons to renounce sin. In the panels of a fine pair of bronze doors in the chapel are scenes illustrative of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Bedford is noted for its grammar school, founded by Edward VI. in 1552, and endowed by Sir William Harper. The existing buildings date from 1891, and have been increased since that date, and the school is one of the important public schools of England. Harper's endowment includes land in London, and is now of great value, and the Harper Trust supports in addition modern and elementary schools for boys and girls, a girls' high school, and almshouses. The grammar school annually awards both entrance exhibitions and two exhibitions to a university or other higher educational institution. The old grammar school buildings are used as a town hall; and among other modern buildings may be mentioned the shire hall and county hospital. There are statues of John Bunyan (1874) and John Howard (1894) the philanthropist (1726-1790), who founded the Congregational chapel which bears his name, and resided at Cardington in the vicinity. There are two parks. Bedford has a large trade as a market town for agricultural produce, and extensive engineering works and manufactures of agricultural implements. The parliamentary borough returns one member. The municipal borough is under a mayor, 6 aldermen and 18 councillors. Area, 2223 acres.

Bedford (Bedcanforda, Bedanforda, Bedeford) is first mentioned in 571, when Cuthwulf defeated the Britons here. It subsequently became a Danish borough, which in 914 was captured by Edward the Elder. In Domesday, as the county town, it was entered apart from the rest of the shire, and was assessed at half a hundred for the host and for ship service. The prescriptive borough received its first charter from Henry II., who gave the town to the burgesses to hold at a fee-farm rent of £40 in lieu of all service. The privileges included a gild-merchant, all tolls, and liberties and laws in common with the citizens of Oxford. This charter was confirmed by successive sovereigns down to Charles II. During the 15th century, owing to the rise of other market towns, Bedford became less prosperous, and the fee-farm rent was finally reduced to £20 by charter of Henry VII. Henry VIII. granted a November fair to St Leonard's hospital, which was still held in the 19th century at St Leonard's farm, the site of the hospital. Mary granted two fairs, one in Lent and one on the Feast of the Conception, and also a weekly market.

A 17th century pamphlet on river navigation in Bedfordshire mentions the trade which Bedford carried on in coal, brought by the Ouse from Lynn and Yarmouth. The town was also one of the earliest centres of the lace trade, to the success of which French refugees in the 17th and 18th centuries largely contributed.

Bedford was represented in the parliament of 1295, and after that date two members were returned regularly, until by the Redistribution of Seats Act in 1885 Bedford lost one of its members. The unlimited power of creating freemen, an inherent right of the borough, led to great abuse, noticeably in 1769 when 500 freemen' were created to support the political interest of Sir Robert Barnard, afterwards recorder of the borough.

Bedford castle, of which mention is first heard during Stephen's reign (1136), was destroyed by order of Henry III. in 1224. The mound marking its site is famous as a bowling-green.

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