All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Bedfordshire is a small, low-lying, and predominantly agricultural county, drained largely by the river Ouse, which meanders across it from west to east, and its tributaries, the Ivel, Ouzel, Flit, and Hiz. The southern boundary runs along the chalk ridge of the Chilterns. In pre-Roman times it formed part of the kingdom of the Catuvellauni. The Roman road Watling Street crossed the south-west corner. In 571 a victory of the English over the Britons seems to have secured the northern parts of the area for the kingdom of the Middle Angles, and later for Mercia. In the 9th cent., Alfred, king of Wessex, divided the region with Guthrum, the Danish leader, who took the lands east and north of a line from the Lea to Bedford and up the Ouse to Stony Stratford. Forty years later, it was recovered by Edward the Elder, king of Wessex, who fortified the town of Bedford in 919. It proved strong enough to beat off a Danish raid in 921 but succumbed once more to the Danes in the early 11th cent. By that time Bedfordshire was taking shape as a county and was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1011. Bedford itself commanded an important river crossing over the Ouse, became a local route centre, and was the point from which the river was navigable by barges. In Domesday Book it was, like the other county towns nearby, given separate treatment, but the report was unusually brief.

County and borough received parliamentary representation in the 13th cent. There were several long-established county interests. The Greys held Wrest Park from the 13th cent. onwards; the St Johns Bletso and Melchbourne Park from the 15th cent.; the Osborns Chicksands Priory from the 16th; and the owners of estates at Luton Hoo, Southill, and Ampthill also had influence. But the emerging and dominating interest was that of the Russells, whose acquisitions at the dissolution of the monasteries included Covent Garden and Woburn abbey, and who became earls of Bedford in 1550 and dukes in 1694.

Despite its nearness to London, Bedfordshire remained something of a backwater. Celia Fiennes in the 1690s and Defoe in the 1720s found Bedford a pleasant town, with a sprinkling of gentry, and Defoe admired the quantities of wheat the county produced. The cottage industry of straw-plaiting brought a modest prosperity, but in 1793 John Byng described Bedford as a ‘vile, unimproved place’. The 19th cent. saw dramatic changes. By 1851 Luton had overtaken Bedford as the largest town. A boost to the local economy was the coming of the railways: the line from Bedford to St Pancras opened in 1868. Brick-making developed as an alternative to the declining hat trade and Luton turned to engineering. The Vauxhall car company established its headquarters in the town in 1907. In the extreme south of the county, on Dunstable downs, lies Whipsnade Zoo, opened in 1931. By 1961 Bedford's population had risen to 63,000, Luton's to 131,000.

The most famous native of the county was John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim's Progress. He was born at Elstow, just south of Bedford, and his cottage survives in the village. He spent twelve years in Bedford gaol after the Restoration for his nonconformist views but in 1874 a statue was erected in the town in his honour.

The Banham commission proposal of 1994 to abolish the county was not accepted, and Bedfordshire remains, with Luton as a unitary authority.

J. A. Cannon

views updated

Bedfordshirecassia, glacier •apraxia, dyspraxia •banksia • eclampsia •estancia, fancier, financier, Landseer •intarsia, mahseer, Marcia, tarsier •bartsia, bilharzia •anorexia, dyslexia •intelligentsia • dyspepsia •Dacia, fascia •Felicia, Galicia, indicia, Lycia, Mysia •asphyxia, elixir, ixia •dossier • nausea •Andalusia, Lucia •overseer • Mercia • Hampshire •Berkshire • Caernarvonshire •Cheshire • differentia • Breconshire •Devonshire • Ayrshire •Galatia, Hypatia, solatia •alopecia, godetia, Helvetia •Alicia, Leticia •Derbyshire • Berwickshire •Cambridgeshire • Warwickshire •Argyllshire • quassia • Shropshire •Yorkshire • Staffordshire •Hertfordshire • Bedfordshire •Herefordshire • Oxfordshire •Forfarshire • Lancashire •Lincolnshire • Monmouthshire •Buckinghamshire • Nottinghamshire •Northamptonshire • Leicestershire •Wigtownshire • Worcestershire

views updated

Bedfordshire County in central s England; the county town is Bedford, other major towns include Luton and Dunstable. There are traces of early Bronze Age settlements. The land is mostly flat with low chalk hills, the Chilterns, in the s. The region (drained by the River Ouse) is fertile, and agriculture is the chief economic activity. This includes the growing of cereal crops, cattle raising and market gardening. Industries: motor-vehicle manufacture, electrical equipment, precision instruments. Area: 1235sq km (477sq mi). Pop. (2000 est/) 560,000.