Bedfordshire, England.



[Transcribed information from A Topographical Dictionary of England - Samuel Lewis - 1831]
(unless otherwise stated)

"BEDFORDSHIRE, an inland county, bounded on the north and north-east by Huntingdonshire, on the east by the county of Cambridge, on the south-east and south by that of Hertford, on the south-west and west by that of Buckingham, and on the north-west by that of Northampton. It lies between the parallels of 51deg 50' and 52deg 21' (N. Lat.), and between tie meridians of 10' and 42' (W. Lon.), and includes four hundred and sixty-three square miles, or two hundred and ninety-six thousand three hundred and twenty statute acres. The population, in 1821, amounted to 83,716.

At the period of the Roman conquest of Britain, this territory, with that included in the adjoining counties of Hertford and Bucks, was inhabited by the Cassii; and on the consolidation of the Roman dominion, it formed part of the division of southern Britain, called by these conquerors Flavia Cæariensis. During the long and sanguinary wars between the Britons and the invading Saxons, the former were defeated in a great battle fought near Bedford, in the year 580, by Cuthwulf; brother of Ceawlia, King of the West Saxons, who compelled them to abandon the districts lying immediately below the Chiltern hills, where several of their principal towns were situated, one of which, on the banks of the Ouzel in this county, was called by the Saxons Lygeanburgh, since corrupted into Leighton-Buzzard. During the Saxon Octarchy, the northern parts of this county appear to have been occupied by the South Mercians, and the southern by the East Saxons. From this period, there is no particular mention of this territory until the reign of Edward the Elder, when it was frequently the scene of contention during the furious incursions of the Danes. About the year 919, Edward came to Bedford, received the submission of the inhabitants of the surrounding country, built a fortress on the southern side of the river Ouse; and then departed after a stay of four weeks. In 921, the Danes entering from Huntingdonshire, stationed themselves at Tempsford, which place the fortified; and, in an excursion thence, attacked the town of Bedford, but the inhabitants made a vigorous sortie, and put them to flight with great slaughter. In the summer of the same year, Edward assembled a great force, and closely besieging these ravagers at Tempsford, took that city, as it is styled in the Saxon Chronicle, destroyed their fortress, and put to death their king, with a great number of his chief men. In 1009, the Danes made an incursion through the southern part of the shire to Oxford; and in the following year their army burned the towns of Bedford and Tempsford; but, in 1011, this territory was recovered by King Ethelred. In l017, however, the power of the Danes again prevailed, and under Canute it was included in the Dane-lege, or Danish jurisdiction.

The first event of national importance which occurred within the limits of the county subsequently to the Conquest, was the capture of the castle of Bedford by King Stephen, in 1138, from the Beauchamps, by whom it had been held in opposition to him. The same family held this fortress against King John, who sent his favourite, Fulk de Breant, to besiege it; and after he had taken it, gave it him as a reward for his good services. All the other castles of this county appear to have been destroyed by John, in his famous march northward; and, a few years afterwards, Bedford castle itself was taken and destroyed by Henry III., one of whose justices itinerant bad been arbitrarily imprisoned in it by Fulk. Thus left entirely without fortresses, this county was the scene of no important event during the wars of the Roses. In the great contest between Charles I. and the parliament, Bedfordshire was one of those counties in which, according to Lord Clarendon, the king had no visible party, nor a single fixed quarter; and was one of the first that associated to oppose him. It was included in the great district of the "Eastern Associates," for the embodying of which a special license was passed by the parliament, at the end of November, 1642, when the Earl of Manchester was appointed their commander-in-chief, under whom Cromwell commanded the horse. A strong party of royalist forces took possession of Bedford, in October, 1643 soon after, Col. Montague entered the town by a stratagem, and carried off some money and horses intended for the use of the king.

Bedfordshire is in the diocese of Lincoln, and province of Canterbury; it forms an archdeaconry, in which are included the deaneries of Bedford, Clapham, Dunstable, Eaton, Fleet and Shefford; and contains one hundrcd and twenty-three parishes, of which fifty six are rectories, sixty vicarages, and seven perpetual curacies and donatives. For purposes of civil government it is divided into nine hundreds, namely, Barford, Biggleswade, Clifton, Flitt, Manshead, Redbornestoke, Stodden, Willey, and Wixamtree. It contains the borough, market and county town of Bedford, the corporate and market town of Dunstable, and the market towns of Ampthill, Biggleswade, Harrold, Leighton-Buzzard, Luton, Potton, and Woburn. Two knights are returned to parliament for the shire, and two burgesses for the borough of Bedford. The county is included in the Norfolk circuit, and the assizes and sessions are held in the shire-hall at Bedford, at which town are the county gaol and old house of correction, and the penitentiary, or new house of correction. There are forty-one acting magistrates. The parochial rates raised in the county for the year ending March 25th, 1827, amounted to £92,340. 11., and the expenditure to £91,359.14., of which £81,959.18. was applied to the relief of the poor. The form of this county is a very irregular parallelogram, the circumference of which is deeply indented by projecting and in some instances nearly insulated, portions of the adjoining shires. The scenery is mostly of a pleasing, but rarely of an impressive kind: the loftier elevations afford cheering views of rich level tracts, watered by the slowly winding Ouse and the smaller rivers. Of these, the prospect from Ridgmont, over Buckinghamshire; that from Millbrook churchyard, over the Vale of Bedford, that from tht ancient encampment called Totthenhoe Castle; near Dunstable across part of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire; and that afforded by a ride along the downs, from Streatley to Barton, are the most interesting. The most striking range of hills is that of chalk, which extends across the southern part of the county from Hertfordshire into Buckinghamshire, and forms the spacious downs of Luton and Dunstable. The climate, like the surface of the county, has hardly any striking peculiarities, but it is for the most part mild and genial, and favourable to the growth of corn. The crops on the colder soils of the more elevated lands to the north of Bedford, and on the chalk hills at the southern extremity of the county, are, of course, much later in arriving at maturity than those of the richer vales. The prevailing winds blow from the south-west; and the ungenial effects of those from the opposite quarter, blowing over the exstensive levels of Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk, are experienced with unmitigated severity.

Many species of soil commonly seen on the uplands of Great Britain, from the strongest Clay to the lightest sand, may be found in this county. Although the various kinds are frequently found in remarkably small patches, and so intermixed that no accurate delineation of them can be given, yet the most extensively characteristic divisions may be described as follows. In the whole of the southernmost part or the county, separated from the rest of it by a line drawn from south-west to north-east, from the border of Buckinghamshire, near Eaton-Bray, to that of Hertfordshire, to the east of Barton, the prevailing soil is chalk, having a stratum of flint about six inches thick at the depth a foot from the surface, below which, is a bed of clay varying in thickness from six to ten feet, beneath which is found the hard chalk rock. This district is terminated on the north and north-west by the Chiltern hills, forming the abrupt extremity of the chalk strata in this direction; and contains about thirty-six thousand acres, of which four thousand acres of those elevated tracts, known by the names of Dunstable downs, Luton downs, Warden White hills, &c., are almost in a natural state. Some of the hills at Luton consist of clay towards their summits, with chalk and gravel on their deaivities towards the vales; and at Sundon and Streatley, the chalky basis is covered to various depths by strata of clay, gravel, or gravelly loams.

North-westward of the Chiltern hills lies a long tract of clays, extending without interruption from Billington, on the south-eastern confines of the county, north-eastward to Cockayne-Hatley, at the easternmost extremity, on the border of Cambridgeshire. These, like the other clays in the northern parts are mostly stiff and tenacious, but interspersed with small portions of gravel and loams on a wet basis. The clays near the Chiltern hills contain, in general a mixture of chalk, whence they are called white-lands. This district again on the north-west, is bounded by the sandy belt, which forms so distinguishing a feature in the geology of Bedfordshire and extends, with only a small interval in the valley of the Ivel, from Leighton-Buzzard, On the confines of Buckinghamshire, by Woburn, Ampthill, and Biggleswade to Potton, on those of Cambridgeshire. Its length is about twenty-five miles, while its ordinary breadth is about three, but in some places is as five, and in others not more than one. Very little sand is found out of its limits, which include about forty-two thousand acres; its surface is generally hilly, with clay and various loams in the intersecting vales, and sometimes clay on the tops of the hills, which variations, from the prevailing sandiness of the tract, added to the ferruginous peats of Tingrith, Flitwick, Westoning, Flitton, Maulden, &c., reduce the real amount of sandy surface to not more than thirty thousand acres. Many of the hills are too high and steep to be susceptible of profitable cultivation; and with regard to many others, the clay, or marl, necessary for their improvement can be obtained only at inconvenient distances. Great efforts, however, have been made towards improvement and only a very smal1 portion of it remains unenclosed. The colour or this sand, though in some spots blank, white, or grey, is in general a brownish yellow, which tinge it receives from the iron either combined with it, or loosely adhering to the surface of the particles of which it consists. The white and black sands are invariab1y barren, their natural vegetable produce being almost entirely heath, or ling, as it is called in this county, and the quantity of fern and natural grasses intermingled with it is very inconsiderable. Extensive tracts of gravelly loams are distributed over parts of the county, the principal of which are on the borders of the rivers Ouse and Ivel, and comprise an area of about thirty-four thousand acres. Indeed the soils of the meadows on the banks of the Ouse and Ivel consist entirely of gravels of various degrees of fineness, mixed with clay and sand. The continuous gravelly soils of these vales commence on the course of the Ouse, near Bletsoe, and on that of the Ivel, in the vicinity of Clifton, but they also frequently appear on the slopes of the hills enclosing the winding vale of the former river above Bletsoe, as far as Turvey. In some places the subsoil of gravel is covered with a black mould, or a reddish brown earth, both of which, are of the highest fertility: in other places the upper soil is rendered sharp by the proximity of the gravel to the surface, which makes it necessary to cultivate upon it such crops as are best for light land. The land immediately adjoining the rivers, by the waters of which it is annually inundated, consists every where of meadows of never-failing fertility, producing every year abundant crops of hay and after-grass, without the aid of manure. Northward of the gravel, at the foot of the hills which bound the vale of the Ouse on the north, there is in most places a breadth of between one and two miles of peculiarly productive black and brown soils, resting on a substratum of mild clay. The rest of the county northward of the sandy tract above described consists of clays of almost every variety, but for the most part stiff and tenacious; and, with the clayey district which separates the sand from the chalk, comprises an extent of nearly one hundred and ninety-eight thousand acres. Part of these clays occupies the southern portion of the Vale of Bedford, adjoining the gravelly soils above mentioned, which vale is separated by a range of hills on the east and south from the sandy tracts. Many of the summits and declivities of these hills have a peculiar shallow, light, clayey soil on a clayey, or marly, substratum, denominated woodland, the surface of much of which is occupied by woods. From the neighbourhood of Bedford to the northern extremity of the shire, the face of the county is tolerably uniform; and, on the upland districts, having only gentle descents, is much of this woodland, which is extremely difficult of profitable culture, and produces only the coarsest grasses. Gently rising hills of brownish clay of very various qualities bound the Vale of Bedford immediately on the north; and the smaller vallies of this part of the county have sometimes remarkably fertile soils on a substratum of gravel, more particularly that which extends from the neighbourhood of Risley through the parishes of Swineshead, Pertenhall, and Little Staughton.

The improvements that have taken place in modern times in the agriculture of this county, which have not, however, been introduced very extensively, are mainly owing to the exertions of the late Duke of Bedford. It has long been noted for its abundant produce of wheat and barley, the Vale of Bedford being one of the finest corn districts in the country. Rye and oats are very little cultivated, as beans are considered to be more profitable, and on the clay soils are less exhausting than oats. Winter and summer tares are grown in every part of the county; as also are turnips on the sandy, gravelly, and chalky soils, and sometimes on the woodlands. Much clover is sown; ray-grass, commonly called in this county bents, is in general use on the sandy lands; and sainfoin is cultivated by many farmers in the enclosed parts of the chalk district. The natural meadows on the banks of the rivers are distinguished for their richness, but the quantity of pasture land is not very considerable. In the southern parts of the county, and in the neighbourhoods of Ampthill and Woburn more especially, are many large dairy farms, the produce of which, being chiefly butter, is sent in considerable quantities to the London market. Very little butter is made in the northern parts of the county besides what is required for home consumption, much of the grass land being of very poor quality. The breeding and fattening of calves is carried on to a considerable extent in the neighbourhood of Biggleswade: the calves of the dairy district are sold at Leighton market for the purpose of suckling. The irrigation of grass land was introduced by the late Duke of Bedford, and various examples of its beneficial effects may be seen in the parishes of Woburn, Crawley, Ridgmont, Flitwick, and Maulden. Marl and clay are in common use as manures on the light sandy soils; chalk and lime, in the southern parts of the county; and peat-ashes and peat dust, in different places, more particularly in the chalk district. In addition to these and the common farm-yard manures, the farmers in the southern part of the county obtain various light dressings for their land from London. The cattle are of a mixed and generally of an inferior kind, partaking of the various qualities of the Holderness, Lancashire, Leicestershire, and Alderney sorts. The sheep are also of mixed breeds: and their fleeces are of a very indifferent kind of wool, and weigh from three to four pounds. Many of the swine partake more or less of the qualities of the Berkshire kind. The farmers are chiefly supplied with horses by dealers who bring two-years-old colts from the fens of Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire. In the southern part of the county, many road teams are kept for the purpose of conveying the produce of the soil to the metropolis, and bringing back manure. The villages of Sandy and Gritford have long been celebrated, in this and the adjacent counties, for the excellence and abundance of the culinary vegetables grown in their vicinities; for this they are chiefly indebted to the excellence of the soils in their vale lands, which consist of a fine deep sandy loam of a yellowish brown, and form the best garden grounds in the county. The soils of some parts of the parish of Potton appear to be little inferior to those of Sandy for horticultural purposes; and portions of excellent garden ground are found in other situations in the sandy district, where its surface is but little elevated, as at Biggleswade, Campton, Clophill, Maulden, &c. The produce of the extensive horticultural grounds at Sandy is sent to the surrounding markets, to the distance of sixty-miles, and in some instances even still further. The orchards are generally very small: those of cherries are most common in the southern parts of the county. The woods occupy about seven thousand acres, and are almost wholly situated on the slopes of the hills, which consist of cold wet woodland clays. A considerable portion of them clothes the hills which extend from Ampthill towards Blunham, between the sandy district and the Vale of Bedford. Others, again, are seen on the western side of the vale, at Holcutt and Marston, and nearly all the rest are dispersed over the north-western parts of the county; while, on the contrary, in many parts of the southern and eastern districts of it, wood is rarely seen. Various extensive plantations have been made by different proprietors, among which may be more particularly specified those of the Earl of Upper Ossory and Francis Moore, Esq., on the sandy district, near the western confines of the county; those of the Duke of Bedford, around Woburn Abbey; those of Lord Carteret, near his seat at Hawnes; and those of Lord St. John, in the neighbourhood of his seat at Melchbourn. Some of the sandy hills, which admit of little other improvement, have been applied in various places to the growth of furze, or whins, for the use of the bakers, lime-burners, &c. The high chalky downs, which meet the eye on every side in the southernmost part of the county, in the neighbourhoods of Luton and Dunstable, comprise about four thousand acres of bleak and barren land, which in many parts consists of nothing but a mass of hard chalk, called hurlock, or clunch, with a slight covering of loamy soil, barely sufficient to nourish a scanty crop of indifferent herbage. The northern acclivities of the Chiltern hills are, in many places, the steepest in the county, and totally inaccessible to the plough. Excepting this tract, the waste lands of Bedfordshire occupy a very small proportion of its surface.

The mineral productions are of very inferior importance. A bed of hard limestone follows the course of the river Ouse, from Turvey to Bedford, and abounds with the different kinds of shells and other marine exuviæ commonly found imbedded in the yellow limestone. This is quarried for the various purposes of building, &c. At Totternboe, near Dunstable, is a considerable quarry of freestone; and in some of the strata which cover the principal bed of stone are found cornua ammonis and other shells. A small quantity of iron-stone has been observed in some pits at Bromham; and some of the strata in the sand pits of Lidlington, &c., contain a considerable proportion of the same mineral. Small quantities of imperfect coal have been found in the parish of Goldington. Nautili and other shells are found in a chalk pit at Caddington; sharks' teeth, ammonites, belemnites, &c., in a light-coloured clay near Leighton; and echini in the fields near Eaton-Bray. The manufactures are almost entirely confined to the platting of straw and the making of thread-lace, the latter being pursued in every part of the county, excepting only in the southern districts, where it has been superseded by the straw manufacture. Straw-platting was formerly confined to the chalk district at the southernmost extremity of the county, but was so much encouraged about the commencement of the present century, as to spread rapidly over the whole southern part of it, as far as Woburn, Ampthill, and Shefford. Here many of the males, and nearly the whole female population, are employed in this manufacture, in like manner as those of the middle and northern parts of the county are in the making of thread-lace. A considerable quantity of mats is made in the vicinity of the Ouse, to the north-west of Bedford. The chief exports are the produce of the manufactures, gram, butter, and calves; the imports are horses, and the various kinds of ordinary supplies for domestic use.

The principal rivers are the Ouse and the Ivel. The former flows into this county from Buckinghamshire, in the parish of Turvey, becomes navigable at Bedford, and, passing by Tempsford, enters Huntingdonshire between Eaton-Socon and St. Neots; its course through Bedfordshire is remarkably tortuous, and about forty five miles long. The fish in it are pike, perch, bream, chubb, bleak, cray-fish, eels, dace, roach, and gudgeon: the eels, which are particularly fine, are most abundant at Stoke mill; the bleak, at Bedford bridge. The Ivel rises near Baldock in Hertfordshire, enters the county in the vicinity of Stotfold, and, being joined by other powerful streams from the west, becomes navigable at Biggleswade, and falls into the Ouse at Tempsford. The Lea has its source near Houghton-Regis, in this county, and, flowing south-eastward through the parish of Luton, enters Hertfordshire between East and West Hide, in its progress towards the Thames. The Ouzel rises near Whipsnade, on the southern confines of the county, and, leaving Eaton-Bray on the right, takes a north-westerly course by Leighton-Buzzard, forming for a considerable distance the line of boundary between the counties of Bedford and Buckingham, in the latter of which it continues its course. The Grand Junction canal crosses a small western portion of Bedfordshire, in the valley of the Ouzel, near Leighton-Buzzard, to which town and to the neighbouring country it gives all the advantages of a cheap medium of traffic with the metropolis and with the north-western counties of England, in the articles of corn, coal, iron, &c.

The roads of the gravelly districts are in general very good; those of the sandy tract being chiefly made and repaired with sandy gravel, are frequently loose and heavy; those of the north-western part of the county, which are mostly repaired with the limestone above-mentioned, are usually rough and uneven; while the principal roads of the clay districts afford to the traveller a sufficient idea of those of the adjacent country, which, in winter, are nearly impassable. The great northern road from London to Glasgow enters near the forty-first milestone, runs through Biggleswade and Tempsford, and passes into Huntingdonshire two miles beyond Eaton-Socon. The great road from London to Chester and Holyhead enters near the thirty-third milestone, and passing through Hockliffe, or Hockley in the Hole, quits it at the forty-second milestone for Buckinghamshire: the road to Liverpool branches off near Hockliffe, and enters the latter county two miles beyond Woburn. The road from London to Higham-Ferrers and Kettering runs into the county from Hertfordshire, near the thirty-sixth milestone, and passing through Bedford, enters Northamptonshire about eleven miles beyond it. A road from London to Bedford enters at the twenty-seventh milestone.

This county contained the Roman station called by Antonine Durocobrivæ and by Richard of Cirencester Forum Dianæ, at Dunstable, and that called by Ptolemy Salgnai , and by Ravennas Salivæ, near the village of Sandy. It was intersected by the great Roman roads, the Iknield-street and the Watling-street; by a military way, which runs for a considerable distance within its south-eastern borders; and by several vicinal ways. The Iknield, or Ikening, street, supposed to be of ancient British construction, and to have been afterwards adopted as a medium of communication by the Romans, enters Bedfordshire on its south-eastern border, from the country of the Iceni, from whom it derived its name, and crosses the turnpike-road from Luton to Bedford about the sixteenth milestone, where a branch bears off to the right through Great Bramingham and Houghton to the British camp at Maiden-Bower; near Dunstable, while the main road pursues its course along the side of the hills, and passing through the town of Dunstable, soon after enters Buckinghamshire. The Watling-street cannot in this part of its course, be distinguished from the great road from London to Chester and Holyhead, which is carried along it from the southern to the western confines of the county: near Dunstable, through which it passes, various Roman coins have been discovered. The third great Roman road through Bedfordshire was that which enters it near Baldock in Hertfordshire, in the line of the present north road, which, however, diverges to the right at the village of Stretton, to pass through Biggleswade, while the Roman road continues its course direct to the station Salinæ, near the village of Sandy, the site of which is now called Chesterfield. Hence it may be traced pursuing the same direction across the road from Everton to Tempsford through Tempsford marsh, by a tumultis on the htll beyond, called the Hen and Chickens, and to the left of Hardwick, to the Roman station at Godmanchester in Huntingdonshire. The station near Sandy appears to have communicated by different vicinal ways with others in the adjoining counties; and on its site have been found coins and every other ordinary relic of Roman occupation. On a hill overlooking this spot is a large Roman camp of an irregular oblong form; but the most remarkable military intrenchment is that called Tottenhoe Castle, situated on the brow of a high hill, about two miles to the north-west of Dunstable, and consisting of a lofty circular mount, surrounded by two district ramparts : a little south-eastward of this is a camp in the form of a parallelogram, about five hundred feet long, and two hundred and fifty broad. About a mile from Dunstable is the large circular encampment called Maiden-Bower, about two thousand five hundred feet in circumference, and formed by a since ditch and rampart: another extensive fortification of the same kind, and nearly of a circular form, is seen near Leighton-Buzzard; and a third circular intrenchment, one hundred and twelve feet in diameter, is situated about four miles from Bedford, adjoining the road from that town to Eaton-Socon.

At the period of the Reformation, this county contained fourteen religious houses, besides a preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers, six hospitals, and one college of priests. There are considerable remains of Elstow abbey and Dunstable priory; and smaller vestiges of Warden abbey, of the Grey friars monastery at Bedford, and of the priories of Bushmead, Harrold, Newenham, and Caldwell. The most ancient specimens of ecclesiastical architecture are seen in the church of Elstow, anciently belonging to the monastery at that place, which was founded, and the present church built, soon after the Norman Conquest. The parish church of Dunstable, also originally conventual, and built in the reign Of Henry I., yet exhibits considerable remains of its original style of architecture. The other churches possessing any remarkable architectural feature are those of St. Peter at Bedford, Caddington, Little Barford, Puddington, and Thurleigh, all of which have doorways of Saxon architecture and those of Biggleswade, Eaton-Bray, Eaton-Socon, Felmersham, Leighton-Buzzard, Luton, Marston, Northill, Odell, Studham, Willington, and Wymington. Many of the churches have richly ornamented niches, and contain fonts curiously decorated, and in some instances of great antiquity. Hardly any traces of mural fortresses now exist, excepting the strong earthworks which yet mark their ancient sites. The most remarkable of these are situated at Arlsey, Bedford, Bletsoe, Cainhoe, Meppershall, Puddington, Ridgmont, Risinghoe, Sutton, Thurleigh, Toddington, and Yielding. Among the mansions of the landed proprietors, those most worthy of particular notice are, Woburn Abbey, Ampthill Park, Luton Hoo Park, Wrest Park, Brogborongh Park, Bletsoe Park, and Melchbourn Park. There are mineral springs at Barton, Bedford, Bletsoe, Blunham, Bromham, Bushmead, Clapham, Cranfield, Holcutt, Milton-Ernest, Odell, Pertenhall, Risley, Silsoe, and Turvey; they possess different properties, some being saline, others chalybeate, but none of them are much frequented."

[Description(s) transcribed by Martin Edwards ©2003 and later edited by Colin Hinson ©2013]