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An inland county of England, situated nearly in the centre of the island, between the parallels of 51° 50′, and 52° 21′ N. lat. It is bounded on the north west and north by the county of Northampton; on the north-east by Huntingdonshire; on the east by the county of Cambridge; on the south-east and south by Hertfordshire; and on the west and south west by Buckinghamshire. Its greatest length is 36 miles; its greatest breadth 23. Its circuit is about 150 miles. The general aspect of the country is undulating and diversified, the hills being numerous, but not lofty, and the valleys neither-deep nor extensive. The Chiltern hills cross it in a north eastern direction; and to the east of these is another small range running in the same direction. The vale of Bedford lies between these ranges; it is a strong clay soil, and is intersected by the Ouse, which flows in a very winding course through it.
Rivers, &c. — This county is watered by three principal rivers: the Ouse, the Ivel, and the Lea. The Ouse rises in the county of Northampton, and, after passing through the county of Buckingham, enters Bedfordshire near Turvey, 8 miles west of Bedford, but, from its windings, does not reach that town till after a course of above 25 miles. At Bedford it begins to be navigable, and proceeds in a north-eastern direction towards St. Neots in Huntingdonshire. This stream is remarkable for the slowness as well as tortuousness of its course; and it is subject to sudden overflows after heavy rains. It receives a few small streams from both sides; but its principal tributary is the Ivel, one branch of which rises a little to the north of Dunstable in this county, and another in the vicinity of Baldoch, in Hertfordshire. The Ivel flows north-east, becomes navigable at Biggleswade, and falls into the Ouse at Tempsford, 6 miles north-west of Biggleswade, after a course of 30 miles. It is connected with the town of Shefford by the Ivel navigation. See articles Ouse and Lea. The Lea rises in this county, in the neighbourhood of Houghton-Regis; flows east to Limbury, and then south-east to Luton, and enters Hertfordshire between East and West Hide.
Area and Soil. — The county of Bedford contains an area of 463 square statute miles, or 296,320 acres, of which 80,000 are stated to be arable, and 168,000 pasture or common, mostly upon a cold clay soil. The vale of Bedford is considered one of the finest corn-districts in the kingdom. On the south, the country is much less fertile, being crossed by a ridge of chalk hills, and covered with a very thin soil. Towards the south-eastern corner of the county, there is some rich dairy land. The general aspect of the western portion is flat and sandy, but is favourable to the culture of turnips and beans. In the more favourable parts of the county — as in the vicinity of Biggleswade and in the parish of Sandy — large quantities of vegetables and garden-produce are raised for the supply of the metropolis, as well as the local markets. To the north of Bedford the land is very poor, and presents large tracts of iron sand. Farms in this county are seldom of large extent; the average size is about 150 acres. The extent of woodland is now much less than formerly. — The mineral products of this county are of comparatively little value. Fuller’s earth abounds in the neighbourhood of Woburn, and was anciently known by the name of Woburn earth. Limestone and coarse marble are abundant. There are numerous mineral springs in this county; some saline, others chalybeate; but none have attained any degree of celebrity. They occur at Bedford, Bletsoe, Bromham, Clapham, Cranfield, Milton-Ernest, Odell, and Turvey.
Hundreds, Rates, &c. — Bedfordshire is divided into 9 hundreds, namely: Barford, Biggleswade, Clifton, Flitt, Manshead, Redborne-Stoke, Stodden, Wllley, and Wixamtree : which see. The county-town is Bedford; besides which there are the market-towns of Dunstable, Ampthill, Biggleswade, Harrold, Leighton-Buzzard, Luton, Potton, Toddington, and Woburn. See these articles. Two members of parliament are returned for the county; and two for the borough of Bedford. The influential families of Bedfordshire are those of Russell, Osborn, Pym, St John, Fox, and Whitbread. The county is included in the Norfolk-circuit; and the assizes and sessions are held in the shire-hall at Bedford on the 2d of January, 10th April, 3d July, and 16th October. The county-rates and poor-rates in 1815, were £72,782, raised by an assessment on rent at the rate of 4s. in the pound; in 1827, the whole amount was £92,340 11s., of which £81,959 was applied to the relief of the poor; in 1830, it was £96,994; in 1834, £77,819; and in 1837, £37,530, being an expenditure of 8s. per head on an average. The amount of money invested in Savings’ banks in this county, in 1837, was £68,668; average amount of each deposit £33. The total amount of real property, returned in 1815, was £343,685.
Population. — The population of the county, in 1801, was 63,393; in 1811, it was 70,213; of whom 9,431 families were returned as engaged in agriculture, 4,155 in manufactures, and 1,341 otherwise employed. In 1821, the population was 83,716; and in 1831, 95,383, of whom 56.8 per cent. were engaged in agriculture, and 25.7 in trade. Houses, in 1831, 17,978. A large proportion of the female population is employed in the plaiting of straw, for which Dunstable in particular is famous, and in the manufacture of thread-lace; but this latter branch has much declined since the application of machinery to its processes. A considerable number of mats are made, and a pretty extensive trade in corn, timber, and seed is carried on. The county is reckoned healthy; the rate of mortality, on an average of ten years, is estimated at 1 in 56.
Roads. — The following are the principal roads in Bedfordshire. The Great Northern road from London to Glasgow enters near the 41st mile-stone, and, after passing Biggleswade, Tempsford, and Eaton-Socon, enters Huntingdonshire about 2 miles north of Eaton-Socon. The great road from London to Chester and Holyhead enters at Dunstable, near the 33d mile-stone, and, passing through Hockley, quits it at the 42d mile-stone. The road from London to Higham-Ferrers and Kettering, enters from Kitchin in the county of Hertford, near the 36th mile-stone, and passes through Shefford, and Bedford, 11 miles beyond which it enters Northamptonshire. There are about 240 miles of turnpike-roads in the county. The Grand Junction canal, and the London and Birmingham railway, skirt the county to the west of Leighton-Buzzard.
Ecclesiastical Affairs. — Bedford is in the province of Canterbury, and was formerly in the dio. of Lincoln, but has been recently transferred to that of Ely. It forms an archd., valued at £60 12s. 3½d.; and is divided into the rural deaneries of Bedford, Clapham, Dunstable, Eaton, Fleet, and Shefford. It is divided into 124 parishes, of which 56 are rectories, 61 vicarages, and 7 are perpetual curacies and donatives. The number of dissenting congregations in this county, in 1828, was 71; up to the end of 1838, 19 dissenting places of worship had been licensed under the marriage-act in this county. Bedfordshire, in 1835, contained 208 daily schools, with an aggregate of 6,009 scholars; and 198 Sunday, and 36 infant-schools, comprising in all 15,918 children.
Antiquities. — This county is crossed in the southern extremity by the ancient British road known by the name of Iknield street, or way. Watling street, which stretched across the island, from the Kentish coast to the country of the Guetheli, enters this county near Luton; and turns north-west, passing a little to the north of Dunstable, to Fenny-Stratford, in the county of Buckingham. Another Roman military way enters the county near Baldock, and, keeping the line of the Great North road, leads in a direct line to Chesterfield. There are various other remains of Roman, Saxon, and Danish origin. Of castles, the most important was Bedford castle, built by the family of Beauchamp, and dismantled by order of Henry III. The keeps and extensive earth-works of the castles of Risinghoe and Cainhoe still remain; and at Bletsoe, Ridgmont, Meppershall, Puddington, and Thurleigh, vestiges of castles or castellated mansions may be seen. Some of the old churches, such as that of Puddington, Felmersham, Eaton-Bray, and Elstow, exhibit interesting remains of early architecture. Previous to the Reformation, this county contained 15 religious houses, including one alien-priory and a preceptory of Knights-Hospitallers. See articles Bedford, Dunstable, Eaton, Elstow, Newnham, &c.
History. — Previous to the Roman invasion, this county was inhabited by the Cassii, or Cattieuchlani. When the Roman dominion was established, it be came part of Britannia Superior, and afterwards of Britannia Prima; subsequently, in 310, it was added to the district of Flavia Caesariensis. During the Saxon heptarchy, it belonged to the kingdom of Mercia; and, on the abolition of two of these kingdoms, it was equally divided between Mercia and Essex. When England was united under one monarchy, Bedfordshire was included within the Denelege, or Danish jurisdiction. It was the scene of many conflicts with the Danes, in the reign of Edward the Elder. Bedford was one of the first counties to declare against Charles I., at the beginning of the parliamentary war.
Source: The Parliamentary Gazetteer of England and Wales; A Fullarton & Co. Glasgow; 1840.