Topographical Dictionary of England, Lewis, 1831
BEDFORD, a borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, in the county of BEDFORD, of which it is the capital, 50 miles (N.N.W.) from London, containing 5466 inhabitants. This place, called by the later Britons Lettuydur, and by the Saxons Bedanford (both which terms are expressive of its character as a place of public accommodation at the passage of a river), derives its name from its situation near an ancient ford on the river Ouse. In 571, a battle was fought here, between the Britons and the West Saxons, the latter being commanded by Ceolfulf, brother of Ceawlin, third king of Wessex, in which the Britons were defeated with considerable loss. The town having been almost destroyed by the Danes, was restored by Edward the Elder, who greatly enlarged it by erecting buildings on the opposite side of the river; but in 1010, it suffered again from an irruption of the Danes, who committed the most dreadful ravages in their progress through the country. After the Conquest, PAyne de Beauchamp, third baron of Bedford, built a strong castle here, which was besieged and taken by Stephen in the war with the Empress Matilda; and when the barons took up arms against King John, William de Beauchamp, who then possessed it, having taken part with the insurgents, delivered the castle into their possession, but it was subsequently besieged and ultimately taken for the king by Falco de Breant, upon whom that monarch bestowed it, as a reward for his services. In the reign of Henry III., Falco having committed excessive outrages, for which he was fined £3000 by the king's itinerant justiciaries at Dunstable, seized the principal judge and imprisoned him in the castle, which, after a vigorous siege and an obstinate defence, memorable in the history of those times, was taken, and, by the king's order, demolished, with the exception of the inner part, which was given for a residence to William de Beauchamp, to whom Henry restored the barony, which he had forfeited in the preceding reign. Of this fortress, only a part of the intrenchments, and the site of the keep, now converted into a bowling-green, remain. The ancient barons of Bedford were Lord Almoners at the coronation of the kings of England, and, as an inheritor of part of the barony, the Marquis of Exeter officiated at that of George IV., receiving the usual perquisite of a silver alms-bason, and the cloth upon which the sovereign walked from Westminster Hall to the Abbey. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., this town, which had been garrisoned for the parliament, surrendered to Prince Rupert, in 1643: the parliamentary troops, under Col. Montague, afterwards entered it by stratagem, and carried off some money and horses, which had been brought thither for the use of the royalists.
The town is pleasantly situated in a fertile vale, watered by the river Ouse, over which a handsome stone bridge of five arches was erected in 1813, at an expense of £15,137, replacing a former bridge of great antiquity: it consists of one spacious street, nearly a mile in length, intersected at right angles by several smaller streets; the houses, many of which are ancient, are in general well built, interspersed with several of modern erection. A crescent is at present being formed on the northern side of the bridge, and the general appearance of the town is rapidly improving: it is well paved and lighted, and amply supplied with water. Races are held in the spring and autumn; assemblies take place during the winter; and a small theatre is opened occasionally. The principal branches of manufacture are those of lace and straw-plat, in which many women and children are employed; and a considerable trade in corn and coal, by means of the Ouse, is carried on with Lynn-Regis and the intermediate places. The market days are Monday, for cattle; and Saturday, for corn and provisions: the former market is held in the southern, and the latter in the northern, division of the town. The fairs are on the first Tuesday in Lent, April 21st, July 5th, August 21st, October 12th, and December 19th, for cattle; and there is a wool fair on the 17th of November. The government, by charter of incorporation, granted by Charles II., by which the prescriptive privileges of the borough were confirmed, is vested in a mayor, recorder, deputy recorder, two bailiffs (who act as sheriffs), two chamberlains, an indefinite number of aldermen, and thirteen common council-men, assisted by a town clerk, three serjants at mace, and subordinate officers. The mayor, who is a justice of the peace, and the two bailiffs, are elected annually from among the freemen: the aldermen, whose number is by custom limited to twelve, are chosen from among those who have served the office of mayor. The corporation hold a court of session quarterly, at which the deputy recorder, or, in his absence, the mayor, presides. The borough gaol has been pulled down, an arrangement having been made whereby offenders committed by the magistrates for the borough are sent to the county gaol; and a lock-up house has been built for the temporary confinement of disorderly persons. The borough first sent representatives to parliament in the 23rd of Edward I., since which time it has returned two members: the right of election is vested in the freemen and burgesses, whether resident or not, and in inhabitants, being householders and not receiving alms, in number about four hundred: the mayor and bailiffs are the returning officers. The assizes and quarter sessions for the county are held in this town. The sessions-house, rebuilt in 1753, is a neat stone edifice, in St. Paul's square: the county gaol and old house of correction, rebuilt in 1801, is a handsome structure, surrounded by a high stone wall at the north-western entrance into the town; it contains a tread-mill for grinding corn, worked by prisoners sentenced to hard labour. The county penitentiary, or [page 126] new house of correction, a large brick building on the road to Kettering, was erected in 1819. The house of industry, erected by act of parliament, in 1796, at an expense of £5000, is under the control of thirteen directors resident in the town, to whom, by an act passed in the 34th of George III., the expenditure of the poor rates is entrusted. The county lunatic asylum, a handsome brick building on the road to Ampthill, was erected, by act of parliament, in 1812, at an expense of £13,000, and will accommodate sixty-five patients; private patients are admitted on paying 14s. each per week. The county infirmary, on the same road, is a substantial brick building, with a stone front, towards the erection and endowment of which the late Samuel Whitbread, Esq. gave £10,000, Lord Hampden £1000, and the Duke of Bedford contributes £100 per annum. The Marquis of Tavistock, at the parliamentary election for the county in 1826, presented £2000 to this institution, in lieu of entertaining the freeholders.
The town comprises the parishes of St. Cuthbert, St. John, St. Mary, St. Paul, and St. Peter Martin within the archdeaconry of Bedford, and diocese of Lincoln. The living of St. Cuthbert's is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £5. 9. 4½., endowed with £400 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Crown. The living of St. John's is a rectory not in charge, in the patronage of the Corporation: the church is a neat structure in the later style of English architecture, with a handsome tower, but it has been much modernized. The living of St. Mary's is a rectory, rated in the king's books at £11. 4. 9½., endowed with £400 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Bishop of Lincoln: the church is in the later style of English architecture, with a plain square tower. The living of St. Paul's is a vicarage, rated in the king's books at £10, and in the patronage of Lord Carteret. The church is a spacious and venerable structure, partly in the early, and partly in the decorated, style of English architecture, having a handsome tower surmounted by an octagonal spire, and a north and south porch in the later style: the interior, which is chiefly in the early English style, contains a stone pulpit, embellished with gilt tracery, on a blue ground, and some interesting monuments and brass plates: over the south porch there is a chamber, in which the records of the corporation are deposited, and over the northern side of the chancel, a library of valuable books. The living of St. Peter's Martin is a rectory, rated in the king's books at £11. 13. 1½., and in the patronage of the Crown: the church is an ancient edifice, with a tower, the upper part of which has been recently restored, and having, at the southern entrance, a beautiful Norman arch. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Wesleyan Methodists, and Moravians.
The free grammar school was founded in 1556, and endowed with property consisting of some houses and land in Bedford, and in the united parishes of St. George the Martyr and St. Andrew above the Bars, Holborn, London, by Sir William Harpur, a native of this town, and lord mayor of London in 1561, whose statue, in white marble, is placed in a niche over the entrance. It has eight scholarships of £80 per annum each, tenable for four years, in either of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, or Dublin, six of which are restricted to boys whose parents are inhabitants of the town, and the remaining two are open to all scholars on the foundation. The school is under the inspection of the Warden and Fellows of New College, Oxford, who appoint the master and the usher, and under the management of eighteen trustees resident in the town, six of whom retire annually, in rotation, six others being elected in their stead. Under the same endowment there are an English school for boys, a National school for boys and girls, and an hospital for the maintenance and education of fifty children of both sexes; an apprentice fee of £30 each is given annually with ten of the boys, and one of £15 each with five of the girls, who, at the expiration of their apprenticeship, on producing a certificate of good conduct, receive a sum not less than £10, nor exceeding £20 each, to assist in setting them up in business. From the same fund were founded and endwoed twenty almshouses, each containing four apartments, for ten aged men and ten aged women, decayed housekeepers, each of whom received a weekly allowance of 10s., and £3 annually for clothing; and forty-six additional almshouses have since been erected, on the northern side of Harpur-street, for aged men and women, who receive a weekly allowance of 7s. each, and £2 annually for clothing: small pensions are also granted to the widows who quit the almshouses on the death of their husbands. The sum of £800 is annually given, in marriage portions of £20 each, to maidens of good character, resident in the town, £500 for the relief of decayed housekeepers, and other pecuniary donations to the poor, all arising from the same endowment, which, owing to the increased rental of the estate, yields an annual income of more than £11,000. A school, for ten boys and ten girls, was founded in 1727, and endowed with lands producing £46. 10. per annum, by Mr. Alexander Leith; and a Blue-coat school, now united to the National school, was founded in 1760, and endowed with £33. 15. 6. per annum, by Alderman Newton, of Leicester, for twenty-five boys, for clothing whom the endowment is now appropriated. Eight almshouses, for unmarried persons of either sex, were founded and endowed in 1679, by Mr. Thomas Christie. An hospital, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was founded and endowed by the inhabitants of Bedford, in the reign of Edward II., for a master and ten brethren; its revenue, at the dissolution of religious houses, was £21. 0. 8., but the charity was then confirmed, and the mastership is now annexed to the rectory of St. John's. A monastery of uncertain foundation existed here at a very early period, in the chapel of which, Offa, King of Mercia, who had been a great benefactor to it, was buried; the chapel being afterwards undermined by the Ouse, sunk with the tomb of that monarch into the river. Near St. Paul's church stands an ancient building, supposed to have been one of the prebendal houses noticed by Leland: about three quarters of a mile west of the town, on the bank of the river, are some remains of the conventual buildings of Caldwell priory, which was founded in the reign of John, by Robert, son of William de Houghton, for brethren of the order of the Holy Cross, the revenue of which, at the dissolution, was £148. 15. 10. At Newenham, a mile east of the town, are considerable remains of a priory of Black canons, which, in the reign of Henry II., was removed thither [page 127] from Bedford, where it had been originally founded by Simon Beauchamp; and at Elstow church, formerly Helenestowe, two miles distant, on the road to Clophill, are the interesting ruins of a nunnery, founded by Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and to St. Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, the revenue of which, at the dissolution, was £325. 2. 1. John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim's Progress, was confined for twelve years and a half in the county gaol at Bedford, from which he was ultimately released on the intercession of the Bishop of Lincoln. Bedford confers the title of duke on the noble family of Russell.