A History of Dunstable

By Tim Lambert

Roman Dunstable

Dunstable began as a Roman town. Long before the Romans came to Britain there was a track called the Icknield Way, which crossed the middle of England. In the 2nd century, the Romans built a road called Watling Street, which crossed Icknield Way at the point where Dunstable stands today. The Romans built a posting station where travelers could change their horses.

A little market town grew up at the crossroads. The Romans called it Durocobrivis. However, the Romans left Britain in the 5th century and the Roman Dunstable was abandoned. Soon the site was overgrown with trees and bushes.

Dunstable in the Middle Ages

The site lay derelict for centuries. In the year 1100, it was just a crossroads in a forest. However, trade and commerce were growing in England and the country was growing richer. The number of travelers was also increasing. Sooner or later it was likely somebody would build a new settlement at the ancient crossroads. In 1109 King Henry I deliberately created a new town at Dunstable.

He invited men to rent land in the area at 12 pence an acre (a considerable sum in those days). He also promised that anyone who lived in the town would have the same privileges as the people of London. (They had considerable privileges in those days so Henry’s promise would have attracted many people to the new town).

Medieval Dunstable had a market. (In those days there were very few shops so if you wished to buy or sell anything you normally had to go to a market). The name Dunstable is probably derived from Dun staple. Dun is an old word for hill and staple means a wooden post. There may have been a post to mark the site of the market.

There is a legend that there was once an outlaw called Dun. One day the king fixed a ring to a wooden post with a staple and dared Dun to steal it. Audaciously Dun took the ring and the town became known as Dun’s staple. However, it is only a myth.

Dunstable flourished though it would have been very small with a population of no more than 1,000. That might seem tiny to us but in the Middle Ages, towns and villages were much smaller than they are today. A typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants. In the Middle Ages Dunstable consisted of four streets forming a cross and some small lanes leading off them.

Dunstable had a market and it also had fairs. A fair was like a market but was held only once a year for a few days. People would come from as far away as London to buy and sell at the fairs. (Of course, the journey would have taken much longer than it does today and would have been far less comfortable).

In 1213 Dunstable suffered a disastrous fire. In those days most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs so a fire was a constant hazard. On the other hand, wooden buildings could be easily rebuilt if they burned.

The prosperity of Dunstable was based on wool. Sheep grazed in the nearby hills and their wool was woven into cloth in Dunstable.

In 1123 King Henry built a royal residence at Dunstable. He also founded a priory (a small monastery) in 1131. The king granted the prior control of the town. However, he had already promised the townspeople the same freedoms as the citizens of London. As a result, there were endless arguments over who ran Dunstable, the prior or the merchants.

However, the Dunstable priory did bring some benefits to the town. In the Middle Ages, people went on long journeys called pilgrimages. Some traveled to Dunstable Priory to see holy relics there. The pilgrims spent money in the town adding to its prosperity.

As well as the priory there was also a leper hostel, built in 1208 south of Dunstable (Leprosy was a common disease in England until the 15th century when it declined. It disappeared in the 16th century). In 1259 Dominican friars, known as black friars because of the color of their costumes arrived in Dunstable. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach.

There was also a considerable Jewish community in Dunstable in the 12th and 13th centuries. However, all Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

Dunstable has one other distinction. The first recorded play in England was performed in the town before 1119.

Queen Eleanor died in 1290 and her body stayed in Dunstable overnight on its journey to London. In 1291 the king built a cross to mark the site where her body had rested. In 1643 the Puritans demolished it. (They disapproved of all crosses).

Dunstable 1500-1900

In 1533 Archbishop Cramner announced the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon in the Priory church. Henry VIII closed the priory in 1539. Local people helped themselves to stone for building. However, the closure of the priory led to the decline of Dunstable. In the Middle Ages, many pilgrims came to the priory and spent money in the town. Those visitors were now gone.

Like all Tudor towns, Dunstable suffered from outbreaks of plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1582.

The wool cloth industry declined in the 17th century in the face of competition from the north of England. However, some new industries grew up in Dunstable. One was lark catching. Another was making straw hats. Yet another industry was brewing. There was also a lace-making industry in Dunstable. Yet in the 18th century, Dunstable remained a small and unimportant market town and the population hardly grew at all.

In the 18th century, Dunstable was quite prosperous but it was very small. In 1801, at the time of the first census it still only had a population of 1,296. It was hardly larger than it was in the Middle Ages. Despite its small size Dunstable was an important stage coaching town. There had always been people travelling in private coaches but now you could pay to travel in a stagecoach. From 1742 stagecoaches made regular stops in the town and travelers stayed in the inns.

Meanwhile, lace-making and straw hat-making boomed in Dunstable boomed.

A straw hat

In 1712 William Chew died. He left money in his will to build a school for 40 poor boys. It opened in 1715 but closed in 1905. Also in 1715, Frances Ashton built almshouses (she gave her name to Ashton Square). In 1723 Jane Cart, a wealthy widow built the Cart almshouses. Furthermore, Church Street was built in 1784.

From 1836 there was a gas supply in Dunstable. If you could afford it you could have gas light in your home. From 1865 the streets were lit by gas. In 1855 Dunstable gained its first newspaper.

In the 1870s the town gained a piped water supply and in 1897-1902 sewers were built. A cemetery was laid out in 1861. Then in 1864, Dunstable was made a borough. A police force was formed in 1865. The first telephone exchange opened in 1897.

Dunstable in the 20th century

Dunstable continued to grow rapidly in this century. The old industry of straw hat-making ended in 1931. Brewing also came to an end in this century. However new industries came to replace them. In the early 20th century chain making and paper making began in Dunstable and a cement works opened in Houghton. Vauxhall Motors came to Dunstable in 1954. Today there is also a light engineering industry.

Bennetts Recreation Ground opened in 1920 (it was named after a local family). A museum and library opened in Dunstable in 1927. Whipsnade Zoo opened in 1931.

When the Second World War began several thousand schoolchildren were evacuated to Dunstable from the big cities but most of them soon returned home. Dunstable escaped the bombing. In 1947 priory gardens opened to the public. In 1952 a war memorial was built there.

Until 1960 the area east of High Street North was still undeveloped. In that year the council bought the area and began building. Dunstable College of Further Education was built in 1961. The Magistrates Court was built in 1963. A new post office was built the same year and Queensway Hall was built in 1964. St Mary’s Catholic Church was also built in 1964 and Quadrant Shopping Centre followed in 1966.

The recreation centre was built in 1975 and a new health centre was built in 1976. Eleanors Cross Shopping Centre was built in Dunstable in 1985 and Grove Theatre opened in 12007. In 2023 the population of Dunstable was 35,000.

A Timeline of Dunstable

2nd Century AD A Roman town grows up at Dunstable. It is called Durocobrivis.

5th Century AD The Romans withdraw from Britain. Roman Dunstable is abandoned.

1109 King Henry I founds a new town at Dunstable

1119 The first recorded play in England is performed in Dunstable

1131 Dunstable Priory is founded

1200 Dunstable has a population of about 1,00. Weekly markets and annual fairs are held in the town.

1208 A leper hostel is built south of the town

1213 Dunstable is badly damaged by a fire

1259 Dominican friars arrive in Dunstable

1533 Archbishop Cranmer announces the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon in the Priory Church

1539 Henry VIII closes Dunstable Priory

1582 Dunstable suffers an outbreak of plague

1723 Cart Almshouses are built

1770 Dunstable is a stage coaching town. There is an industry making straw hats.

1784 Church Street is built

1801 Dunstable has a population of 1,296

1836 Dunstable gains a gas supply

1848 The railway reaches Dunstable and the town grows rapidly

1864 Dunstable is made a borough

1897-1902 Sewers are built.

1897 The first telephone exchange opens.

1901 Dunstable has a population of 5,157

1920 Bennetts Recreation Ground opens

1927 A museum and library opens

1931 Straw hat making in Dunstable ends. Whipsnade Zoo opens.

1947 Priory Gardens opens to the public

1954 Vauxhall comes to Dunstable

1961 Dunstable College of Further Education opens

1963 Dunstable Magistrates Court opens

1964 Queensway Hall is built

1966 Quadrant Shopping Centre

1985 Eleanor Cross Shopping Centre is built