Bedfordshire - Encyclopedia

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BEDFORDSHIRE [abbreviated Beds], a south midland county of England, bounded N. E. by Huntingdonshire, E. by Cambridgeshire, S.E. by Hertfordshire, W. by Buckinghamshire and N.W. by Northamptonshire. It is the fourth smallest English county, having an area of 466.4 sq. m. It lies principally in the middle part of the basin of the river Ouse, which, entering in the northwest, traverses the rich and beautiful Vale of Bedford with a serpentine course past the county town of Bedford to the northeastern corner near St Neots. North of it the land is undulating, but low; to the south, a well-wooded spur of the Chiltern Hills separates the Vale of Bedford from the flat open tributary valley of the Ivel. A small part of the main line of the Chilterns is included in the south of the county, the hills rising sharply from the lowland to bare heights exceeding 600 ft. above Dunstable. In this neighbourhood the county includes the headwaters of the Lea, and thus a small portion of it falls within the Thames basin. In the north a few streams are tributary to the Nene.

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The general trend of the outcrops of the various formations is from south-west to north-east; the dip is south-easterly. In the northern portion of the county, the Middle Oolites are the most important, and of these, the Oxford Clay predominates over most of the low ground upon which Bedford is situated. At Ampthill a development of clay, the Ampthill clay, represents the Corallian limestones of neighbouring counties. The Cornbrash is represented by no more than about 2 ft. of limestone; but the Kellaways Rock is well exposed near Bedford; the sandy parts of this rock are frequently cemented to form hard masses called "doggers." The Great Ouse, from the point where it enters the county on the west, has carved through the Middle Oolites and exposed the Great Oolite as far as Bedford; their alternating limestones and clays may be seen in the quarries not far from the town. From Woburn through Ampthill to Potton a more elevated tract is formed by the Lower Greensand. These rocks are sandy throughout. At Leighton Buzzard they are dug on a large scale for various purposes. Beds of fuller's earth occur in this formation at Woburn. At Potton, phosphatized nodules may be obtained, and here a hard bed, the "Carstone," lies at the top of the formation. Above the Lower Greensand comes the Gault Clay, which lies in the broad vale south-east of the former and north-west of the Chalk hills. The Chalk rises up above the Gault and forms the high ground of Dunshill Moors and the Chiltern Hills. At the base of the Chalk is the Chalk Marl, above this is the Totternhoe Stone, which, on account of its great hardness, usually stands out as a well-marked feature. The Lower Chalk, which comes next in the upward succession, is capped in a similar manner by the hard Chalk Rock, as at Royston and elsewhere. The upper Chalk-with-Flints occurs near the south-eastern boundary. Patches of glacial boulder clay and gravel lie upon the older rocks over most of the area. Many interesting mammalian fossils, rhinoceros, mammoth, &c., with palaeolithic implements, have been found in the valley gravels of the river Ouse and its tributaries.


Agriculture is important, nearly nine-tenths of the total area being under cultivation. The chief crop is wheat, for which the soil in the Vale of Bedford is specially suited; while on the sandy loam of the Ivel valley, in the neighbourhood of Biggleswade, market-gardening is extensively carried on, the produce going principally to London, whither a considerable quantity of butter and other dairy-produce is also sent. The manufacture of agricultural machinery and implements employs a large number of hands at Bedford and Luton. Luton, however, is specially noted for the manufacture of straw hats. Strawplaiting was once extensively carried on in this neighbourhood by women and girls in their cottage homes, but has now almost entirely disappeared owing to the importation of Chinese and Japanese plaited straw. Another local industry in the county is the manufacture of pillow-lace. Many of the lace designs are French, as a number of French refugees settled in and near Cranfield. Mechlin and Maltese patterns are also copied.

Communications are provided in the east by the Great Northern main line, passing Biggleswade, and in the centre by that of the Midland railway, serving Ampthill and Bedford. The Bletchley and Cambridge branch of the London & North-Western railway crosses these main lines at Bedford and Sandy respectively. The main line of the same company serves Leighton Buzzard in the south-west, and there is a branch thence to Dunstable, which, with Luton, is also served by a branch of the Great Northern line. A branch of the Midland railway south from Bedford connects with the Great Northern line at Hitchin, and formerly afforded the Midland access to London over Great Northern metals.

Population and Administration

The area of the ancient county is 2 98,494 acres, with a population in 1891 of 161,704 and in 1901 of 171,240. The area of the administrative county is 302,947 acres. The municipal boroughs are Bedford (pop. 35,144), Dunstable (5157) and Luton (36,404). The other urban districts are - Ampthill (2,77), Biggleswade (5120), Kempston, connected with Bedford to the south-west (4729), and Leighton Buzzard (6331). Potton (2033), Shefford (874), and Woburn (1129) are lesser towns, and local centres of the agricultural trade. The county is the midland circuit, and assizes are held at Bedford. It has one court of quarter-sessions, and is divided into eight petty sessional divisions. The boroughs of Bedford, Dunstable and Luton have separate commissions of the peace, and Bedford has a separate court of quarter-sessions. There are 133 civil parishes. Bedfordshire forms an archdeaconry in the diocese of Ely, with 125 ecclesiastical parishes and parts of 6 others. The county has two parliamentary divisions, Northern (or Biggleswade), and Southern (or Luton), each returning one member; and Bedford is a parliamentary borough, returning one member. The principal institution, apart from those in the towns, is the great Three Counties asylum (for Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Huntingdonshire), in the south-east of the county near Arlesey.


Although the Saxon invaders were naturally attracted to Bedfordshire by its abundant water supply and facilities for agriculture, the remains of their settlements are few and scattered. They occur, with one exception, south of the Ouse, the most important being a cemetery at Kempston, where two systems - cremation and earth-burial - are found side by side. Early reference to Bedfordshire political history is scanty. In S71 Cuthwulf inflicted a severe defeat on the Britons at Bedford and took four towns. During the Heptarchy what is now the shire formed part of Mercia; by the treaty of Wedmore, however, it became Danish territory, but was recovered by King Edward (919-921). The first actual mention of the county comes in 1016 when King Canute laid waste to the whole shire. There was no organized resistance to the conqueror within Bedfordshire, though the Domesday survey reveals an almost complete substitution of Norman for English holders. In the civil war of Stephen's reign the county suffered severely; the great Roll of the Exchequer of 1165 proves the shire receipts had depreciated in value to two-thirds of the assessment for the Danegeld. Again the county was thrown into the barons' war when Bedford Castle, seized from the Beauchamps by Falkes de Breaute, one of the royal partisans, was the scene of three sieges before it was demolished by the king's orders in 1224. The peasants' revolt (1377-1381) was marked by less violence here than in neighbouring counties; the Annals of Dunstable make brief mention of a rising in that town and the demand for and granting of a charter. In 1638 ship-money was levied on Bedfordshire, and in the Civil War that followed, the county was one of the foremost in opposing the king. Clarendon observes that here Charles had no visible party or fixed quarter.

Bedfordshire is divided into nine hundreds, Barford, Biggleswade, Clifton, Flitt, Manshead, Redbornestoke, Stodden, Willey and Wiscamtree, and the liberty, half hundred or borough of Bedford. From the Domesday survey it appears that in the 11th century there were three additional half hundreds, viz. Stanburge, Buchelai and Weneslai, which had by the 14th century become parts of the hundreds of Manshead, Willey and Biggleswade respectively. Until 1574 one sheriff did duty for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the shire court of the former being held at Bedford. The jurisdiction of the hundred courts, excepting Flitt, remained in the king's possession. Flitt was parcel of the manor of Luton, and formed part of the marriage portion of Eleanor, sister of Henry III. and wife of William Marshall. The burgesses of Bedford and the prior of Dunstable claimed jurisdictional freedom in those two boroughs. The Hundred Rolls and the Placita de quo warranto show that important jurisdiction had accrued to the great over-lordships, such as those of Beauchamp, Wahull and Caynho, and to several religious houses, the prior of St John of Jerusalem claiming rights in more than fifty places in the county.

With regard to parliamentary representation, the first original writ which has been discovered was issued in 1290 when two members were returned for the county. In 1295 in addition to the county members, writs are found for two members to represent Bedford borough. Subsequently until modern times two county and two borough members were returned regularly.

Owing to its favourable situation Bedfordshire has always been a prominent agricultural rather than manufacturing county. From the 13th to the 15th century sheep farming flourished, Bedfordshire wool being in request and plentiful. Surviving records show that in assessments of wool to the king, Bedfordshire always provided its full quota. Tradition says that the straw-plait industry owes its introduction to James I., who transferred to Luton the colony of Lorraine plaiters whom Mary queen of Scots had settled in Scotland. Similarly the lace industry is associated with Catherine of Aragon, who, when trade was dull, burnt her lace and ordered new to be made. As late as the r9th century the lace makers kept "Cattern's Day" as the holiday of their craft. The Flemings, expelled by Alva's persecutions (1569), brought the manufacture of Flemish lace to Cranfield, whence it spread to surrounding districts. The revocation of the edict of Nantes, and consequent French immigration, gave further impetus to the industry. Defoe writing in 1724-1727 mentions the recent improvements in the Bedfordshire bone-lace manufacture. In 1794 further French refugees joined the Bedfordshire lace makers.

Woburn Abbey, belonging to the Russells since 1547, is the seat of the duke of Bedford, the greatest landowner in the county. The Burgoynes of Sutton, whose baronetcy dates from 1641, have been in Bedfordshire since the 15th century, whilst the Osborn family have owned Chicksands Priory since its purchase by Peter Osborn in 1576. Sir Phillip Monoux Payne represents the ancient Monoux family of Wootton. Other county families are the Crawleys of Stockwood near Luton, the Brandreths of Houghton Regis, and the Orlebars of Hinwick.

With the division of the Mercian diocese in 679 Bedfordshire fell naturally to the new see of Dorchester. It formed part of Lincoln diocese from 1075 until 1837, when it was finally transferred to Ely. In 1291 Bedfordshire was an archdeaconry including six rural deaneries, which remained practically unaltered until i 880, when they were increased to eleven with a new schedule of parishes.


The monastic remains in Bedfordshire include the fine fragment of the church of the Augustinian priory at Dunstable, serving as the parish church; the church (also imperfect) of Elstow near Bedford, which belonged to a Benedictine nunnery founded by Judith, niece of William the Conqueror; and portions of the Gilbertine Chicksands Priory and of a Cistercian foundation at Old Warden. In the parish churches, many of which are of great interest, the predominant styles are Decorated and Perpendicular. Work of pre-Conquest date, however, is found in the massive tower of Clapham church, near Bedford on the north, and in a door of Stevington church. Fine Norman and Early English work is seen at Dunstable and Elstow, and the later style is illustrated by the large cruciform churches at Leighton Buzzard and at Felmersham on the Ouse above Bedford. Among the Perpendicular additions to the church last named may be noted a very beautiful oaken roodscreen. To illustrate Decorated and Perpendicular the churches of Clifton and of Marston Moretaine, with its massive detached campanile, may be mentioned; and Cople church is a good specimen of fine Perpendicular work. The church of Cockayne Hatley, near Potton, is fitted with rich Flemish carved wood, mostly from the abbey of Alne near Charleroi, and dating from 1689, but brought here by a former rector early in the 19th century. In medieval domestic architecture the county is not rich. The mansion of Woburn Abbey dates from the middle of the 18th century.


Victoria County History (London, 1904, &c.); Fishe, Collections, Historical, Genealogical and Topographical, for Bedfordshire (London, 1812-1816, and also 1812-1836); J. D. Parry, Select Illustrations of Bedfordshire (London, 1827); Bedfordshire Domesday Book (Bedford, 1881); Visitation of Bedford, 1566, 1582, and 1634, in Harleian Society's Publications, vol. xiv. (London, 1884); Genealogica Bedfordiensis, 1538, 1800 (London, 1890); and Illustrated Bedfordshire (Nottingham, 1895). See also Bedfordshire Notes and Queries, ed. F. A. Blades, and Transactions of the Bedfordshire Natural History and Field Club.

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