Brief History of Bedford

Bedford probably takes its name from a little known Saxon chief called Beda who settled with his followers where the River Great Ouse was fordable some thirteen centuries ago. One of the most distinctive and oldest landmarks is the Castle Mound – the site of the former Bedford Castle - which is thought to have been constructed following the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Castle led a chequered history and was subject to a six week siege in 1224 by King John’s men to evict a rebel Baron and his cohorts. The keep and walls were destroyed but the mound remains.

Alongside this historic town landmark lies the refurbished Higgins Gallery. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, as it was formerly known, opened its doors in 1949 housed in the Higgins former family home. The gallery was founded by the philanthropic brewer Cecil Higgins to house his collection of ceramics, art and objet d’art for the benefit of the people of Bedford. In 2005, the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery merged with Bedford Museum and, in recent years, has undergone a major refurbishment programme aided by lottery funding. Reopening its doors in 2013, the attraction now boasts interactive features, private gardens and a bistro restaurant.

Bedford is particularly famous for its connection with John Bunyan (born at Elstow, near Bedford in 1628) and the author of ‘The Pilgrims Progress’. After the Restoration in the 1660’s, Bunyan was imprisoned in the County Gaol for 12 years for illegal preaching, eventually being released in 1672. Here, it is believed, he started his composition for his famous works which was first published in 1678. His birthplace, which still exists today, is popular with tourists and pilgrims.

The County Gaol had scarcely improved since Bunyan’s time a century earlier and was the inspiration for another of Bedford’s favourite sons – John Howard – to devote his life to prison reform. A wealthy landowner from nearby Cardington, John Howard was High Sheriff of the County when he visited the Gaol and was moved to bring about change. He published ‘The State of Prisons in 1777’ and is widely regarded as the forerunner of penal reform both at home and abroad. He is immortalised by a statue on St Paul’s Square.

Bedford’s schools also enjoy an illustrious history. In 1566, Sir William Harpur – a Bedford-born merchant and former Lord Mayor of London – conveyed land in Holborn in support of an endowment for a grammar school provided by Edward VI in 1552. Two centuries later in 1764 the Harpur Trust was created by Act of Parliament to administer the endowment. Today, Bedford’s independent schools have a strong reputation and cater for both boarders and day pupils from home and abroad.

The focal point of the town is the River Great Ouse which meanders through its centre. In 1888 the Suspension Bridge was opened linking Embankment Gardens to Mill Meadows. Bedford Park was inaugurated on the same day as the bridge opening; a Victorian ensemble with café, lake, bandstand and lodges.