Mother Town

[ house sketch ]
Bunyan’s Cottage, Elstow.



The Mother Town of Bedford.


[The author is happy to give place to a chapter descriptive of Bedford, England, prepared at his request by Rev. Edward G. Porter of Lexington.]

Bedford, the county seat of Bedfordshire, is situated in the heart of England, about fifty miles north of London, on the main line of the Midland railway. Camden, who wrote three hundred years ago, says Bedford is

“more eminent for the pleasantness of its situation and

[ p 78 ]

antiquity than anything of beauty or stateliness.” [*1]

Agriculture has always been the chief occupation of the people of this district. The country is slightly undulating, well cultivated, and watered by the river Ouse, which winds

“more maeandrous than Maeander.” [*2]

Speaking of these serpentine windings, an old author observes that the Ouse runs a distance of eighty miles to reach a distance of eighteen, and then humorously exclaims,

“Blame it not, if sensible of its sad condition, and presaging its fall into the foggy fens of the next county, it be loath to leave this pleasant place; as who would not prolong their own happiness?” [*2]

The Ouse is navigable from Bedford to the sea, flowing by St. Neots, Huntingdon, St. Ives, Ely, and Lynn, and emptying into the German Ocean at the Wash. [^1] Although rather narrow, like the Cam and the Isis, it affords excellent facilities for boating.

The ancient history of Bedford naturally falls into four distinct periods,— the British, the Roman, the Saxon, and the Norman. Of the first we know but little. The site was occupied by a sturdy people called Cassii, whose chief, Cassivellaunus, commanded the united forces of all the tribes to oppose the invasion of Julius Caesar (B.C. 54). [^2] Whether the Roman town of Lactodorum stood here has been questioned, but from all accounts it could not have been far away. Two of the great Roman roads, Watling Street and Icknield Way, ran through this county, crossing each other at Dunstable. A pitched battle was fought near Bedford, in 572, between Cuthwolf, the Saxon, and the Britons, in which the latter were defeated. The territory was attached to the kingdom of Mercia till 827, when it became subject to the West Saxons, under Egbert.

The name of Bedford can be traced back to this period, when there was a military station on the river here called Bedicanford, shortened into Bed-an-ford, meaning the Fortress-on-the-ford. Offa, king of Mercia, chose this for his burial place, and his remains were deposited in a small chapel on the river’s brink, which was afterward undermined and swept away by a flood. This incident has suggested to some antiquaries the possibility of another derivation. Bede is the Saxon word for prayer, or praying-place. Hence Bedford may mean the prayer-ford, or the chapel-at-the-ford. “Bede-houses” were not uncommon then, and when built near a ford, or bridge, they would suggest prayer for a safe passage. The earliest record extant of the present orthography is found in a Latin manuscript of the time of Edward III

(1345), where the inhabitants of Bedford are spoken of as “Homines Bedfordiae.” [^3]

The town was plundered by the Danes in the reign of Edward the Elder, who rebuilt it, and joined it to the little village of Mikesgate, on the opposite bank of the river. Since then both places have borne the name of Bedford.

After the Norman conquest a strong castle was built here by Payn Beauchamp, third Baron of Bedford. It was a frowning, massive structure, with enormous walls and earthworks, and its important situation involved it for a long time in many of the internal struggles of England. The haughty lords of the keep exercised their feudal powers with little regard to the inhabitants, whom they regarded only as their retainers. Encased in armor, they sallied forth from their stronghold in search of booty, roaming at will, and compelling tribute at the edge of the sword. During the civil war between King Stephen and Matilda, Bedford Castle was the scene of many fierce conflicts.

The first municipal charter was granted to Bedford in 1166, subject to a payment of forty pounds a year as a fee-farm rent to the crown. It became a representative borough in the reign of Edward I, the suffrage being limited to free-men and householders not receiving alms. [^4]

William de Beauchamp, Lord of Bedford, was one of the insurgent barons against King John in support of the struggle for Magna Charta. In consequence his castle was besieged by the royalists, and compelled to capitulate. But the greatest event in its history was the memorable siege conducted by Henry III in person. [^5] The chroniclers describe the siege-engines used on this occasion, some for hurling stones, some for making breaches in the wall; others were swung high in the air, for scouts and cross-bowmen. Miners sapped the walls, protected by the “cat.” [*3] Slingers also did effective service. After a siege of sixty days, the castle was taken by assault, and completely dismantled. The stones were afterward used in the construction of Newnham Abbey, Caldwell Priory, St. Paul’s, and other Bedford churches. The picturesque old bridge and gate-houses, which stood until 1765, were built of the same materials. No remains of the old fortress are visible, but the circuit can be traced in the rear of the Swan Inn. The keep is now a bowling-green.

The arms of the corporation of Bedford represent a castle overshadowed by the imperial Roman eagle, with spread wings, suggesting two important periods in the history of the town.

The loss of the castle seems to have been a gain to Bedford. Its citizens were now free to

[ tipped-in page ]

[ house photo ]
Abner Stearns Homestead.

[ p 79 ]

pursue the peaceful occupations of life, to develop the rich agricultural lands in the vicinity, and to encourage commercial relations, especially with the other towns on the river.

A mercantile guild and other privileges and immunities were granted by different monarchs. In the charter of Richard II the corporation is styled

“The mayor, bailiff, and burgesses.” [^6]

The barony of Bedford was given to the famous warrior, John Plantagenet (third son of Henry IV), called by Shakespere “Prince John of Lancaster,” who won his spurs at Shrewsbury (1403). [^7] He was created Duke of Bedford, and became Regent of France for the English. With the aid of the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, he waged war against France, and was baffled only by the interposition of Joan of Arc. He succeeded, however, in capturing the maiden, and was one of the principal agents in securing her tragic death.

In those days Bedfordshire was famous for the number and wealth of its religious houses. After the Dissolution, the chief part of the monastic property was bestowed upon the Russell family, with the Earldom of Bedford. In 1694 the dukedom was restored by William III, in consideration of the services of the family in the struggle for civil and religious liberty. The title continues to the present time. [^8]

Bedford has long been distinguished for its numerous charitable endowments. One of its most eminent sons was Sir William Harper, who became master of the Merchant Tailors’ Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1561, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. [*4] He made a remarkable gift to his native town by a deed, dated 1566, conveying thirteen and one-quarter acres of land lying in Holborn, to provide a free education for the youth of Bedford of both sexes and every grade. He had bought the land for £180, and it was then yielding £40 a year. Eighteen years later it brought a rental, on a long lease, of £150 a year. Many streets were laid out, and new houses built upon the land, so that it rapidly advanced in value, producing in the year 1800 £4,000, and at the present time the handsome revenue of £15,000 a year! Some of the streets on Sir William’s land are among the best known in London, as Bedford Street, Bedford Row, Bedford Court, Prince’s Street, Queen Street, Boswell Court, Harper Street, Theobald’s Road, and Gray’s Inn Passage. [*5] The objects to which this large income is given have been very properly extended by Parliament. It is administered by a board of eighteen trustees, in a rotation of six each year. Sir William’s first wife was “Dame Alice,”

for whom a street in Bedford was named. In the chancel of St. Paul’s, the mother church of Bedford, is an altar tomb, with brass figures of Sir William and his second wife, both standing with folded hands. He has on a suit of armor, partly covered by an aldermanic gown. The inscription is as follows:—

Obiit 27° die February 1573. Anno aetatis suae 77°. [*6]

Here under lieth buried the body of Sir William Harper, Knight, Allderman and late Lorde Maior of the citie of London withe dame Margarett his last wife, W^w.

Sir William was borne in this towne of Bedford & here founded & gave lande for the mayntenance of a grammer schoole.

The most illustrious name connected with Bedford is that of John Bunyan, who was born in 1628 in the neighboring village of Elstow, over the river, on the road to Luton. The old “moot-house” still stands on the spacious village green,— a quaint structure of brick and oak, once the court house of the manor, and used in Bunyan’s time for romps and dances, and now for public meetings, fairs, and Sunday-schools. On the green may also be seen the stone stump of the ancient market-cross, near which the sheep are wont to graze and children to play.

The Elstow church is a well-preserved monument of the Norman and early English periods. It has two memorial windows to Bunyan, illustrating scenes from his “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Holy War.” The massive tower, like some others in England, is a detached campanile, twenty-two feet from the church, in the perpendicular style, heavily buttressed at the four corners, and contains a chime of bells and a large village clock. Here Bunyan practiced the art of bell-ringing. The English had become at that time enthusiastic lovers of the melody produced by a ring of bells. It was in consequence of their invention of “changes” that England became known as “the ringing island.” Bedford was foremost in this national taste.

Bunyan was brought up as a white-smith, or brazier, a mender of pots and kettles. He had a forge and workshop at Elstow, and went out as a journeyman “tinker.” He was largely possessed of the Puritan spirit, and at the age of sixteen we find him enlisted in the army, during the decisive campaign of 1645. After his return he married the daughter of a worthy family, and began to relinquish his favorite amusements. His conscience, he tells us, was suddenly aroused one Sunday afternoon as he was playing “tip cat” on the village green. His profound experience and fervent devotional

[ p 80 ]

spirit gave him great influence with the people. He moved into Bedford, and became a deacon of the non-conformist body there. He was soon set apart as a preacher, and his fame spread rapidly, causing his enemies to complain,

“because he strove to mend souls as well as kettles.” [*7]

After the Restoration he gave such offence to the authorities that he was imprisoned in the county jail, an old structure that stood in High Street, on the now vacant lot, used as a market place, at the corner of Silver Street. This jail was taken down in 1801. Here he was confined for twelve years, and again, three years later, for a period of six months, during which time, it is thought, he wrote his immortal allegory.* His indictment charges him with the crime of

“devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to church to hear divine service, and for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of the kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord the King.”

The only books Bunyan had in jail were the Bible and Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs.” After his release he often went to London to preach, and was urged to remain there, but he never consented to remove his residence from Bedford, to which he was sincerely attached. He lived in a small, one-story cottage, on the east side of the town, in the parish of St. Cuthbert. His earlier home, after his marriage, is still standing on the Elstow road. The place of worship which bears his name is in Mill Lane, on the site of the one in which he preached. It is a plain brick edifice, rebuilt in 1771, with a small porch in front and a vestry behind. An inscription states that Bunyan was minister here thirty-two years, including the period of his imprisonment. In 1876 a fine bronze door, in two sections, with ten scenes from “Pilgrim’s Progress,” in relief, was given by the Duke of Bedford. Dr. Brown, Bunyan’s best biographer, and the present Congregational minister here, has several interesting relics of the great author, for example, his will, and chair; his cabinet, staff, and jug; the heavy doors of the

* The popular tradition that Bunyan was incarcerated in the town jail on the old bridge (removed in 1765) does not seem to be well established. That was a mere “lock-up,” fourteen feet square, and could not have contained as many prisoners as Bunyan had for companions. Moreover the warrant for his release speaks of him as

“a prisoner in the common gaol for our county of Bedford.” [^9]

Dr. Brown concedes this, but argues that, when imprisoned for the second time, the “dreamer” may have been put into the corporation jail on the bridge, and there he may have written his wonderful dream. History furnishes many examples of an apparent fact, sustained by documents, contradicting a widely accepted and tenacious tradition.

county jail, and versions of “Pilgrim’s Progress” in nearly eighty different languages! With the exception of the Bible, no book in the English tongue has passed through so many editions as this. The Bedford Literary and Scientific Institute, in Harper Street, has Bunyan’s copy of Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” (ed. 1641), with his autograph and annotations. Bunyan died in London, in 1688, and was buried in Bunhill Fields. Many Puritans afterward begged the privilege of being buried as near his grave as possible.

One of the chief objects of interest in Bedford is the fine bronze statue of Bunyan, by Boehm, erected on St. Peter’s Green, at the upper end of High Street. The face is modelled after the well-known portrait by Robert White in the British Museum. It is a commanding figure, in the Puritan dress, with the open Bible in hand. On the pedestal is a relief representing the conflict of Christian with Apollyon, under which is the inscription:—

Presented to the
June 10, 1874,
in the Mayoralty

John Howard, the philanthropist, lived at Cardington, near Bedford. He was sheriff for the county, and for many years an active member of the Bunyan church. The Moravians, who settled here in 1745, have maintained their organization with characteristic zeal.

There are few towns in any country so well provided with educational and charitable institutions as Bedford. The grammar school in Harper Street has six hundred and fifty students, and is considered one of the leading public schools of England. It has eight “exhibitions” of seventy pounds each per annum at Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin. Over the entrance to the building is a statue of the founder, Sir William Harper, in civic robes. Near by is the modern school, so called, with five hundred and fifty pupils. There are also a high and a modern school for girls, with ample equipments, and a green-coat school.

Among the charities should be mentioned the dowry of twenty pounds a year to each of forty poor maidens of good character between the ages of eighteen and fifty. Those who are dis-appointed are entitled to the preference at the

[ p 81 ]

next apportionment. The condition is that they are to marry within two months, and the money is paid on the wedding day.

A widow’s pension of ten shillings and six-pence is paid out regularly to a certain number of applicants. The Harper Street almshouses are famous. They number forty-six, and have four rooms each, two below and two above. Each house has a garden forty feet long. Seven shillings a week are given to each inmate, besides two pounds a year for clothing. There are many other almshouses, both old and new. Perhaps there are too many for the best interests of the people. It is said that in proportion to its size Bedford has more public endowments than any other place in the kingdom.

The municipal government is vested in a mayor, elected annually, a recorder and deputy, six aldermen, two bailiffs, and eighteen common councilmen. The bailiffs for the time being are lords of the manor. Two members are returned to Parliament. Most of the county business is carried on here, and there is a steady influx of visitors, who add not a little to its life and wealth.

Among the public buildings may be mentioned several fine old churches, schools, the courts, the jail, the corn exchange, the hospital, the infirmary, the banks, the assembly hall, the public library, reading room and museum (founded in 1830.) Bedford maintains an historical society, a home missionary society, branches of the Church missionary society, the Bible society (of which the Duke of Bedford is president), and the Religious Tract society; a ladies’ clothing society, and a horticultural society, to say nothing of various literary, musical, and athletic clubs. The town has two weekly markets, seven annual fairs, an agricultural association, and regular races which have always been popular. The water works and sanitary arrangements are particularly good, the sewage being conveyed to a farm a mile away, and utilized at once for raising crops of cereals, grass, and vegetables.

The old staple industry of the town is the manufacture of straw goods and thread lace; but in recent years the large agricultural implement factory of the Howard company seems to have attracted more attention.

The principal thoroughfare is High Street, which bisects the town, and leads to the bridge. The streets generally are narrow, like those of most old European towns, but they are well kept and provided with good sidewalks. The houses are mostly of brick, two or three stories high, very plain, but substantial and comforta-

ble. Many new houses and villas are springing up of late on the West side. *

The George Inn is the old hostelry of coaching days. It has a quaint stone figure of St. George and the Dragon in a conspicuous niche. Travellers to-day find “The Swan,” near the river, an agreeable resort. The “Embankment Promenade,” on a pleasant afternoon in summer, is the chief rendezvous for the citizens. It is tastefully laid out as a public park along the river whose placid waters reflect the five graceful arches of the bridge. Pleasure boats are passing continually, and the meadow landscape, with its abundant foliage and hawthorne hedges and grazing cattle, is a fine type of the rural beauty of old England, so dear to our fathers. [*8]

The population of Bedford has increased during this century from four thousand to about twenty thousand.

The most important estate in Bedfordshire is Woburn Abbey, the lordly seat of the Duke of Bedford, in the midst of a beautiful park well stocked with deer.

[ nature sketch ]
The Embankment Promenade, Bedford.

* Since the act of Parliament for the improvement of the town of Bedford, thatched buildings are not allowed either to be constructed or repaired.



  1. Huntingdon ∨ Huntington
  2. Cassivellaunus, ∨ Cassivellanus,
  3. Edward III ∨ Edward III.
  4. Edward I, ∨ Edward I.,
  5. Henry III ∨ Henry III.
  6. Richard II ∨ Richard II.
  7. Henry IV), ∨ Henry IV.),
  8. William III, ∨ William III.,
  9. Bedford.” ∨ Bedford.


  • Camden’s Britain (1610) [ no scan ]


  1. cf. Matthiason’s Bedford and its environs (1831) p 7 [ poor scan ]
    NB: This quotation originates with William Camden’s (16th-century) Britannia.
    Bedford, England is therein described as a town “to be commended more for the pleasant situation and ancienty thereof, then for beauty or largenesse”. (Camden) p 399
  2. cf. Matthiason’s Bedford and its environs (1831) pp 8-9 [ poor scan ]
    NB: Both of these quotations originate with Thomas Fuller.
    cf. Fuller’s History of the worthies of England (1662) p 114
  3. “cat”: movable shelter (employed during a siege)
  4. “Sir William Harper”: [ an error for ] Sir William Harpur
  5. “Theobald’s Road”: [ an error for ] Theobalds Road
  6. “Obiit 27° die February 1573. Anno aetatis suae 77°.”: [ Latin ]:
    Died the 27th day of February 1573. The 77th year of his age.
  7. cf. Brown’s John Bunyan (1885) p 124 [ poor scan ]
  8. “hawthorne”: [ an error for ] hawthorn
Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close