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Walking along Bedford’s streets, if you look out for them, you can see commemorative plaques – some blue, some brown, older ones in bronze, even some carved on pavement slabs – hinting at people and events in the town’s fascinating history. The older ones tend to record significant events such as the rebuilding of the town bridge in 1813, the ending of its toll charges in 1835 or its widening in 1938-40.
John Bunyan, the town’s world-famous religious author of the 1600s, is recorded at numerous places. At St John House in St John’s Street, where he was ‘born again’, a joint plaque records that he came under the influence of the Protestant minister John Gifford. His adult baptism by immersion in the river is marked at Duckmill Weir. The site of the cottage where he lived with his second wife and daughter (when not imprisoned for illegal preaching) is to be found in St Cuthbert Street. In Silver Street, a pavement plaque close to the ‘Reflections of Bedford’ sculpture marks the site where he suffered his 12 years of imprisonment in the County Gaol.
Bedford’s other two outstanding sons, immortalised in St Paul’s Square, not only have plaques but also statues, namely Sir William Harpur, the town’s great benefactor, and John Howard, the prison reformer, after whom the present-day Howard League for Penal Reform is named.
Working forward to more modern times, two well-known twentieth century entertainers were born or lived for a time in Bedford – comedy actor Ronnie Barker (of the Two Ronnies) and actor John Le Mesurier of Dad’s Army fame. Sportsmen Harold Abrahams, Olympic athlete (now remembered through the Chariots of Fire film) is remembered and Stephen ‘Etienne’ Stott, the Olympic canoeist is celebrated by a small plaque on the gold post box in St Paul’s Square. An unusual plastic canopy over the entrance to Church Arcade commemorates the names of other Bedford sportsmen and women: Martin Bayfield, Stephanie Cook, Gail Emms, Tim Foster, Geoffrey Millman, Derek ‘Budge’ Rogers and Matt Skelton. (Paula Radcliffe, Bedford’s world-class runner, is immortalised by a road sign on the Clapham side of the town on a stretch of the A6 road known as the Paula Radcliffe Way.)
For a land-locked county it is perhaps surprising that there are connections with Admiral William Smyth, sailor and astronomer and two famous polar explorers, recorded by commemorative wall plaques where they lived for a time in Bedford: Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Aeneas Macintosh.
The First World War is remembered by a plaque in St John’s Street to the only Bedford-born recipient of the Victoria Cross, Private William Buckingham, an unassuming hero who was raised in Bedford Workhouse as a child. Close to that plaque is the sculptured relief of a mythical bird with a plaque recording the Great Flood of November 1823, on the wall of what used to be The Phoenix public house.
Life in Bedford during the Second World War is recognised with a plaque recording the BBC’s music residency here in the early 1940s with a blue plaque on the Corn Exchange façade. The nearby bust of American band leader Glenn Millar is another reminder of the importance of music in maintaining morale during those difficult wartime years. Although it was secret at the time, we now know what a vital part Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes played in the war, listening in to enemy forces’ communications and decoding them. Bedford had its part in this through hosting intensive Japanese language training courses for specialist recruits. A plaque in De Parys Avenue commemorates both this and the BBC Staff Club from that wartime period.
Trevor Huddleston, archbishop and anti-apartheid campaigner, not only has a bust sculpture in Silver Street but also a plaque at 44 Chaucer Road. Mark Rutherford, after whom the local secondary school is named, was the pen-name of Victorian writer William Hale White. Unusually, he has two plaques close together, an old one and a newer one, on the High Street, facing the Howard statue. There are also two plaques to a childhood resident who became world-famous, at houses where the Italian scientist and radio pioneer, Guglielmo Marconi, lived at 42 Harpur Street and at 79 Bromham Road.
Local nineteenth century architect John Usher, whose distinctive houses you can see in the town, has a plaque at Holly Lodge, a lovely private residence in The Grove. There are plaques also to buildings which have since disappeared such as the medieval Bedford Castle on the Embankment and to the Art-Deco Granada cinema on St Peter’s Street, now the site of a Lidl supermarket.
Plaques to outstanding women in the town have until recently been almost non-existent. Margaret Stansfeld was remembered by her former physical-training teacher students with a plaque in Lansdowne Road. Now, Dora Carrington, the early-twentieth century artist whose life was dramatized in the film “Carrington”, has a plaque in De Parys Avenue where she lived while attending the Girls High School. Dame Bertha Phillpotts, the Scandinavian scholar, Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge University and an active proponent of higher education for women, has a plaque at the Horne Lane entrance to the new Riverside Square.
Other significant women with Bedford connections who have been recognised nationally but not celebrated locally are to be finally commemorated in the town in 2018. This is appropriate since it is the year of centenary celebrations of women getting the vote in this country. It is hoped that plaques will be unveiled to Amy Walmsley, the educationalist who devoted her life to developing primary education; Theresa Stannard, the popular watercolour painter of garden scenes; Charlotte Bousfield, the nineteenth century diarist and temperance campaigner; Sister Fanny Eagles, the Church of England deaconess who founded St Etheldreda’s Home for Orphans in Bedford; and Hester Hawkins, astronomer and hymn writer.
It is easy to walk past commemorative plaques when intent on getting from A to B but just to take our time and look out for them as we walk around Bedford can be very rewarding and introduce us to people, places and events worth finding more about. Fortunately, local historian Stuart Antrobus has listed them all and where to find them. Just look online via Bedfordshire Virtual Library, under Local History/Places/Bedford and you will find over 50 plaques.
Thanks to Bedford town guide David Fowler there are also free-standing illustrated history interpretation boards located on pavements about the town, giving fascinating insights into the historic buildings and street scenes you can see around you. Treat yourself to a good look around Bedford’s streets, looking for these – you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn while enjoying a pleasant stroll round the county town.
Statue by Joseph Boehm was completed in 1874. It was unveiled on 10 June at St Peter’s Green, Bedford, by Lady Augusta Stanley, before a crowd of 10,000.
“The Meeting” or “The Kids’ Statue” is a bronze statue by sculptor John Mills of a group of schoolchildren outside the Harpur Centre
Image by Simon Speed
Statue in bronze, erected in 1890, St Pauls Square, Bedford by Victorian artist Alfred Gilbert (1854–1934)
Image by Simon Speed
Trevor Huddleston statue Silver Street Bedford. The statue in his honour was unveiled by Nelson Mandela on his visit to Bedford in 2000, who said at the time: No white man has done more for Africa than Trevor Huddleston.
The Italian Statue – by Professor Giuseppe Martignetti, Greyfriars roundabout. This large, striking and unusual, semi-abstract group sculpture in the Futurist style represents young families from the predominantly rural south of Italy (hence the animals) symbolically striding forward to a new life abroad. It caused a lot of controversy as many Italians reported to the Beds on Sunday local paper that they would have preferred to see a statue that was relevant to the brick works and not farmers and peasants. It is made of reinforced concrete covered with a metallic sheen and protected with an acrylic overglaze. Its title is Verso Domani, which means Towards Tomorrow. Its situation on a busy roundabout prevents us from safely taking a close look at it. The accompanying plaque reads (in the English translation): “In Memory of the Italian immigrants who came to Bedford. For those that left their home: our respect. For those who took a risk to find something better: our thanks. For those that are no longer with us: we remember them.” Its original temporary location, at the northern end of the town bridge, almost opposite the Swan Hotel and the South African War statue, from 13 September 2009, proved not to be suitable, due to vulnerability to vandalism and it was moved to its present position in August 2011. This is appropriate since the annual saints day procession from the Italian Church passes the spot, not far from where Italian immigrants first settled in Bedford, an area which became known as Little Italy.
Reflections of Bedford
Reflections Of Bedford, High Street end of Silver Street, Sculptor: Rick Kirby, 2009. This very large, five metre-high, abstract work in stainless welded-steel, featuring two enormous faces staring at each other, almost nose to nose, was erected on 12 December 2009. It was meant to represent the diversity of ethnic backgrounds in the town and its links with brick and lace. At night it is illuminated with coloured lights. The faces, etched with brick shapes and with a lace design, are designed to be viewed from the High Street, on entering the pedestrian precinct of Silver Street.
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