Harpur Centre

History of Bedford

Bedford is the historic county town of Bedfordshire. This pleasant riverside town, situated near to London, Oxford and Cambridge, has many places to see and is ideally located for history, leisure, the arts, culture and quiet unspoilt countryside.  

The Borough of Bedford has a  population of just over 153,000 and  is arguably the most cosmopolitan in the UK, with some 57 ethnic groups being represented.

Today, Bedford is a lively town with plenty of opportunities and a cultural diversity suiting many tastes.

Bedford is twinned with Bamberg in Germany, Arezzo in Italy, Rovigo in Italy and Wloclawek in Poland. 


From the early Middle Ages Bedford established itself as a pivotal market town.  Bedford is steeped in history with a fortress being built by Edward the Elder on the south side of the river, which was destroyed by the Danes.  The castle remains that can be visited today was built by William II which was made of much sterner stuff.  This castle was finally destroyed in 1224, the Castle Mound on the Embankment being the final visible remains. This mound has been celebrated by Bedford and recently been renovated with a mosaic at its base.

There have been many associated industries with Bedford over its history including wool during the Middle Ages and lace during the 1500s.  This history can be viewed at The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, which was recently redeveloped and re-opened for the public in Spring 2013.  This industry continued to be a huge investment to the local economy until the early 20th century.  The most poignant industry to feature in Bedford’s late history was the introduction of the Brickworks and its influx of Italian immigrants to the area.  Brewing also has played a major role in the towns economy with one of the major brewers Charles Wells still in existence today.

Famous People

John Bunyan was born a few miles away from Bedford at Elstow.  He wrote his famous book, The Pilgrim's Progress, while imprisoned in the County Gaol for refusing to recognise the Established Church; to this day, nonconformist chapels, some dating back to Bunyan's time, are much in evidence in towns and villages all over the area.

The window commemorating the tercentenary of publication of The Pilgrim's Progress, 1678 can be seen at the Bunyan Meeting Free Church in Mill Street.

John Howard, another Bedfordshire man was a nonconformist landowner in the 18th century, denouncing the appalling conditions in the gaol and in the even more terrible prison ships.  His name lives on in the Howard League of Penal Reform.  

The Bedford reformist tradition is continued by Trevor Huddleston, born here in 1913 and whose statue placed in his honour can be seen at the top of Silver Street. As a tribute to this remarkable man the statue was unveiled in 2000 by Nelson Mandela.

Sir William Harpur was a Bedford man remembered with gratitude. Born at the turn of the 16th century, he became Lord Mayor of London and founded a school in Bedford, to be maintained by a rich endowment of London land. The Harpur Schools still flourish and Bedford today is home to four independent schools (Pilgrims School, Bedford School, Bedford Girls’ School and Bedford Modern School), run by the Harpur Trust charity.  Ex-students include famous celebrities and politicians such as Al Murray, Alastair Cook, Christopher Fry, Paddy Ashdown, Monty Panesar and Jean Muir.

Although not born in Bedford, Glenn Miller and his band were based here during the war.  It was from here that many of his morale-boosting broadcasts were made and from where he flews to entertain the Allied troops in war-torn Europe.  
A bronze bust of Glenn Miller can be seen in an alcove on the façade of Bedford Corn Exchange.

Ronnie Barker was born in Garfield Street, Bedford on 25th September 1929.  Star of Porridge, The Two Ronnies and countless other comedy and has been heralded by his fellow performers as one of the top 20 comedy acts of all time.

John Le Mesurier was born in Chaucer Road, Bedford and is most famously noted for his role in Dad’s Army as Sergeant Arthur Wilson and had a prolific acting career starring in over 100 movies. 

Historic Places

The River Great Ouse passes through Bedford Town Centre and has a number of Victorian gardens and memorials along its beautiful embankment.

The elegant home of the Higgins family has been developed into The Higgins Bedford. The building recently underwent a redevelopment and contains both art gallery and museum which house both permanent and temporary exhibitions.

Bedford Corn Exchange built in 1872 became home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and in 1944 hosted the BBC proms, in fact the BBC relocated to Bedford during this period and broadcasted from Bedford studios.  During this period a large number of celebrities were drawn to Bedford and performed live, including notable artists such as Vera Lynn, Humphrey Bogart, Gracie Fields and Glen Miller.  Glenn Miller used Studio No 1 in the Corn Exchange to broadcast live to the nation during the war years and a bust has been erected in his honour outside the Corn Exchange.

Dominating the skyline of the south of Bedford are the Cardington Hangars. In 1917 l they were originally constructed by AJ Main & Co for the Admiralty and were used for building Airships and are over 800ft tall. The first hangar was followed by a second shed which famously housed the R101 airship which tragically crashed on a voyage to India just north west of Paris.  Unfortunately the development of airships was ceased due to this disaster and the sheds became redundant. 
World War II saw the hangars being utilised to train barrage balloon operators and the hangars have also been used for training services and more recently has played a role in the filmmaking industry with the filming of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory and Batman Begins.  Both bringing notable celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Michael Caine to Bedford Town Centre where they were based during filming.

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