A History of Bedford

By Tim Lambert

Danish and Saxon Bedford

The town of Bedford was founded by the Danes. There may have been an existing settlement when they conquered this part of England in the late 9th century. Whether there was or not the Danes created a town at Bedford. They made a burh or fortified settlement north of the River Great Ouse by a ford. The burh was surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top.

However, Bedfordshire was recaptured by the English king Edward in 915 AD. He then created another burh or fortified settlement south of the river. A ditch called the king’s ditch surrounded it. Afterward, Bedford prospered. It was more than just a fortified settlement. It also had a weekly market and a mint. However, Bedford was pillaged by the Danes in 1010.

Bedford in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages Bedford was a small market town with a population of probably no more than 1,500. To us, it would seem tiny. Even by the standards of the time, Bedford was a small and unimportant town.

However, the Normans built a wooden castle to keep the people of Bedford in order. (It was later rebuilt in stone). However, in 1224 a rebellious baron held the castle against the king. When the king captured it Bedford Castle was destroyed.

In 1166 Bedford was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). In the Middle Ages Bedford had a weekly market and an annual fair. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Bedfordshire to attend a Bedford fair.

The main industry in Medieval Bedford was making wool. Wool was woven in the town. Then it was fulled. That means the wool was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of clay and water. Afterward, the wool was dyed.

In the 13th century, the friars arrived in England. They were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. The Franciscan friars arrived in Bedford by 1238. They were known as grey friars because of their grey costumes. There was also a priory (small abbey) called Caldwell Priory just outside Bedford and a leper hostel dedicated to St Leonard. Furthermore, from 1295 Bedford sent 2 MPs to parliament.

Bedford 1500-1800

Henry VIII closed the friary and the priory in Bedford. However, during the 16th and 17th centuries, Bedford grew in size. By the mid-17th century, Bedford probably had a population of about 2,000. This was despite outbreaks of the plague in 1575-76 and 1578-79. (Like all Tudor towns Bedford suffered from the plague. However, although each time the plague struck it killed many people the population always recovered).

In the 16th century, wool was still the main industry in Bedford. It was still woven, fulled, and dyed in the town. However, in the 17th century, the wool industry declined.

Meanwhile, in 1554, Bedford was allowed an extra weekly market and 2 more annual fairs. Then in 1566, a man named Sir William Harpur founded a school in Bedford.

Furthermore, the famous writer John Bunyan was born in the village of Elstow near Bedford in 1628. Bunyan was imprisoned in Bedford jail between 1660 and 1672.

Then in 1642, there was a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Bedford supported parliament. However, although a fort was built on the castle mound the royalists captured Bedford in October 1643. Yet they only held the town for a short time before withdrawing.

Then in 1689, the Great Ouse was made navigable as far as Bedford. That was a huge boost to the town. In those days it was cheaper and easier to transport goods by river than by road. Once the river was navigable goods could be brought to and from Bedford much more easily. As a result, Bedford began to grow more rapidly.

In the 18th century, Bedford became known for its brewing industry and the first bank in Bedford opened in 1799.

Meanwhile, in 1773, John Howard was made High Sheriff of Bedford. He was so appalled by the conditions in Bedford jail he became a dedicated prison reformer.

Bedford in the 19th Century

In 1801 Bedford was still a relatively small town with a population of 3,948. However, it grew rapidly during the 19th century, and by 1831 Bedford had a population of 6,959. In 1801 a new Bedford jail was built. Then in 1803, an Act of Parliament created a body of men called Improvement Commissioners to pave and light the streets. They also demolished some old buildings to ease congestion in Bedford.

During the 19th century amenities in Bedford improved. After 1832 Bedford had gaslight. In 1834 Assembly Rooms were built for balls and card games. In 1849 a corn exchange was built where grain was bought and sold. Bunyan Meeting House was built in 1850.

Like all towns in the early 19th century, Bedford was dirty and unsanitary. There were outbreaks of cholera in Bedford in 1832 and 1849.

However, conditions in 19th century Bedford gradually improved. After 1864 Bedford Corporation dug a network of drains and sewers. In 1866 a water company was created to provide piped water. The first cemetery in Bedford opened in 1855. Furthermore, The Park was opened in 1888. Shire Hall was built in 1882 and a hospital opened in Bedford in 1899.

Meanwhile, in the early 19th century grain and wool were taken from Bedford along the river. Coal and iron were brought to the town. However, in 1846, the railway reached Bedford.

Yet in the 19th century, Bedford remained an agricultural market town. Its main industries were brewing and making farm implements.

Bedford in the 20th Century

Bedford grew rapidly in the 20th century. In 1901 the population of Bedford was 35,000. By the end of the century, it had grown to 74,000. In 1934 the boundaries of Bedford were extended to include Goldington and after 1945 new estates were built at Brickhill and Manton Heights.

However, Bedford remained an agricultural town. Farm implements were made in Bedford. So were other machines. In the 20th century, bricks were also made in the town.

Conditions in Bedford continued to improve in the 20th century. The first public library in Bedford opened in 1935. Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opened in 1949. Bedford is also an important local shopping centre. The Harpur Centre opened in 1976. Furthermore, Bedford Museum opened on its present site in 1962 and The Bunyan Museum opened in 1998.

Bedford in the 21st Century

In 2000 a statue of Trevor Huddleston (1913-1998), who fought against apartheid in South Africa was erected on Silver Street.

Today Bedford is a flourishing town. In 2023 the population of Bedford was 187,000.

A view of Bedford Embankment
Bedford Embankment

A Timeline of Bedford

Late 9th Century The Danes found a burh or fortified settlement at Bedford, north of the river

915 The English recapture Bedfordshire from the Danes. They found a new settlement south of the river. Bedford becomes a busy little market town.

1010 The Danes pillage Bedford

1166 Bedford is given a charter

1238 Franciscan friars arrive in Bedford

1300 Bedford is a little town with a population of about 1,500. Its main industry is making wool.

1554 Bedford is given an extra weekly market

1575-76 Plague strikes Bedford

1643 The royalists capture Bedford but they soon withdraw

1650 Bedford has a population of about 2,000

1689 The River Great Ouse is made navigable as far as Bedford. The wool industry is declining but new industries grow up.

1799 The first bank opens in Bedford

1801 Bedford has a population of 3,948. A new Bedford jail is built.

1803 A body of men is formed to pave, clean, and light the streets of Bedford

1832 Bedford gains gas light. Cholera strikes Bedford.

1846 The railway reaches Bedford

1849 Cholera strikes again

1850 Bunyan Meeting House is built

1855 A cemetery opens in Bedford

1866 A piped water supply is created in Bedford

1882 Shire Hall is built

1888 The Park opens

1899 A hospital opens in Bedford

1901 Bedford has a population of about 35,000

1935 The first public library opens in Bedford

1949 Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opens

1962 Bedford Museum opens on its present site

1976 The Harpur Centre opens

1998 The Bunyan Museum opens in Bedford

2000 A statue of Trevor Huddleston is erected in Silver Street