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Black Tom is Bedford’s most famous ghost. Despite being hanged for his crimes, most Bedfordians have a soft spot for Tom, and few historians have anything bad to say about him. In fact, Tom’s demise highlighted terrible corruption in the justice system of the time, and prompted John Howard‘s prison reform work.
There have reputedly been many sightings of Black Tom around the Tavistock Street area, and many locals refer to the Prime Ministers’ streets as “Black Tom”. You can read his story here, and those of other local spooks.
Tavistock Street, Union Street and Clapham Road Intersection – Black Tom
If there was ever such a thing as a “genial highwayman” than that would be Black Tom. But his criminal activities caught up with him and he was arrested and jailed in Bedford’s prison. As was usual in the 18th Century, people sentenced to death could plea for mercy, and if the plea was accepted, the convict was usually sent to the Australian penal colony instead. Because Tom was such a likeable fellow, many of the people of Bedford signed his petition.
Alas, this was to no avail, he was sentenced to death anyway. As he was led to the gallows on a cart, Black Tom was stopped by a local landlord, who offered the condemned man a bottle of wine. Black Tom drank a glass, then handed the rest of the bottle to the many friends and family gathered in the streets, saying “I’ll pay for it on my way back”. But he didn’t return, and those words were Tom’s last joke. Tom was fully expecting to return, but Bedford Prison’s gaoler was a corrupt man. He had chosen not to pass Tom’s petition on, and his plea had therefore not been heard. The reason was that Black Tom’s friends had not given the gaoler a big enough bribe.
Local gentleman and philanthropist, John Howard, was appalled that this was allowed to happen, and he took up Tom’s case, albeit too late to save the highwayman. He discovered that gaolers were not paid; rather they extorted their money from prisoners and their families, receiving bribes in exchange for basics such as food and drink for the prisoners. John Howard’s work eventually led to the Prison Reform Act of 1774, mandating that food, water and basic sanitation should be afforded to all prisoners, and that gaolers should be paid.
Black Tom was hanged at the spot where the roundabout now stands linking Clapham Road, Roff Avenue, Tavistock Street and Union Street. He was also buried here, with a stake driven through his heart, which people believed would prevent him returning. But it didn’t. There have been many many sightings of Black Tom since his death, sometimes alone, sometimes with another ghost. Sometimes Tom simply stands quietly, head bowed, beside the road; others he staggers along, his neck broken. Most witnesses say they thought saw a drunk in fancy dress until he vanished. One of the most documented sightings happened in the 1960s. It was a busy daytime and there were many witnesses, all with similar stories.
Bedford Hospital: The Gliding Girl
In the early 1970s, two nurses followed a beautiful girl into the toilets. She was wearing a long dress and a coat. When they went in, the toilet was empty. Both nurses gave the same description of the woman. Over a quarter of a century later, 3 members of staff reported seeing a woman walk through the wall of a store room – she was wearing a long dress. It is also reported that the sound of footsteps shuffling can be heard on The Shand Ward.
Bedford School: Samuel Whitbread
The name Samuel Whitbread is more associated with another Bedford school, but a Samuel Whitbread was the headmaster of Bedford School in 1903, when he met an untimely death. Several sighting have been made on the upper floors of the main school building – rooms which he had commissioned. Sightings are mostly at night, and he frequently asks visitors the way out. One boy reported leading him politely to the exit before he suddenly disappeared.
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery
The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery is allegedly home to many ghosts, with several sightings reported throughout the gallery’s history.
Among them are a man in a dark suit, a dappily dressed man from the 1930s, complete with bowler hat, and a child, probably a stable boy, who haunts the library.
For some reason, there seem to be a lot of nun ghosts. Cineworld was built on the site of the Newnham priory, so it is not surprising that a lot of paranormal activity has been reported. Reportings include a hooded figure in Screen 4 and in the toilets, as well as several instances of strange and unexplained sounds and sudden drops in temperature.
Newnham Avenue Methodist Church
There are several contradictory ghostly reportings in the church, so it is difficult to ascertain exactly how haunted it is. A gentleman dressed in tweed, and a “well dressed” gentleman could both be the same ghost. One was seen wandering around and the other creeping along the back of the church before walking through the wall in a puff of smoke.
The King’s Arms, St Mary’s Street
Well, the pub was built on the site of a mortuary, there are bound to be ghosts! Again, the many reports conflict, and there could be one, two or several ghosts.
The cellar is reputed to be haunted by an elderly gentleman whilst a much younger ghost frequents the street level areas of the pub.
Ghosts in Private Residences
A Tavistock Street, the resident came home from work several times to discover that the furniture had been rearranged. He thought nothing of it until the day he arrived home and his music system was on, and a record playing.
Many people report seeing family members after their deaths, but the story told by a resident in Ram Yard is more comforting than spooky. She woke up in the middle of the night, and her grandmother was sitting by her bed. The lady momentarily forgot that her grandmother had in fact died two years earlier. She then realised that there was a car on fire outside the flat, the exit was blocked by the flames, and the apartment was starting to fill with smoke. To this day the lady believes that her grandmother saved her life.
A more sinister ghost was reported by a woman in Chaucer Road. She was awoken by the sound of her baby screaming. She noticed a shadowy hand – we don’t know if it was attached to a shadowy body or not – crossing the wall of the room before coming to rest on her baby’s face. She was able to grab her baby and run, but from that day on, mother and child shared the same bed.
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