Biddenham History Society – Historical Dance

The January meeting of the Biddenham History Society was both informative and fun. Our speaker, Dr Anne Daye, is an expert on historical dance. She began by giving us an overview of aspects of dance as a source of entertainment as it would have been in a village like Biddenham from about 1750 to about 1850. Dances were one of the main means of meeting new people or renewing social connections. Dances were held in private houses – floor space was cleared – and in public venues, Assembly Rooms. There were  Assembly Rooms in Bedford in 1834.

The style of dancing changed considerably during this period. In the late eighteenth century, the minuet was still in vogue. Attention was focused on the performing couple: others stood around and watched.  Gradually other dances were introduced that involved all those present. These were country dances with their long sets and most shocking of all, the waltz, which necessitated close contact with a partner.

The new dances required instruction as it was too difficult to learn them at the ball. Dancing masters, they were generally men, were employed by wealthy families. Anne told us about Queen Victoria’s dancing master who travelled to Windsor and Balmoral when required. He sometimes taught the ladies-in-waiting and other times, the young royals. If there was no need for his services that day, he went fishing. In Bedford, the dancing masters were based in the Crescent and taught families like the Russells and St Johns.

Once we had some background information, Anne took on the role of dancing master, so that we could try out a couple of the Country Dances. One of them was regularly danced by a 14 year old girl in the  nineteenth century, but we soon realized that the young can learn moves and remember them faster than older people! We did try valiantly to remember where to go and when and Anne was very patient with us. We had plenty of laughter as well as gentle exercise!  Thank you Anne for being such a good teacher as well as lecturer!

After the meeting, we looked at an aerial photograph of the village taken in about 1960, that belongs to the Gardeners’ Association. Paula had brought it along for everyone to see. Three ponds were clearly visible in the centre of the village as well as the old farm buildings for Grove Farm.

The next meeting of the Society will be on Monday, April 29th at 8pm in the Church Barn. Our speaker will be Jean Fullerton who will tell us about Victorian Medicine. Jean has been a nurse and lecturer in
nursing. She is now a published novelist and a regular lecturer on cruise ships. I hope you will be able to come and hear her.

Kathy Fricker


Meeting on November 19th , 2018

Now that the days are getting shorter and we are putting our gardens to bed for the winter, we start to think of how we might change and develop our gardens in the Spring. Amanda Goody’s fascinating and  very well researched talk on Margery Fish gave us some inspiration as to how we might revamp our gardens for the New Year.

It was reassuring to learn that Margery only became a serious gardener when she was 60, after the death of her husband, Walter Fish, a former editor of the Daily Mail. Margery had not responded to her parents’ desire for help in the garden when she was a girl. She had attended secretarial college and focused on a career as a top secretary in London. When her husband decided that they should move out of London in the late 1930s, because he feared that they would not be safe if another war broke out, they found East Lambrook Manor in South Petherton, Somerset.

At first, it was Margery’s husband who controlled the development of the garden. He organized the clearing of heaps of rubbish that had been dumped in the garden of what was an empty property. Margery had to help with this task and go along with his master plan for structure and order. Amanda described Walter as a micromanager! Paths were constructed and trees planted. Margery gradually began to rebel and infiltrate her own taste. She acquired some clematis of her own choice in addition to those selected by her husband. She neglected the watering of his dahlias, which she hated, in favour of nurturing the cottage plants which were her passion. Walter was older than her and he gradually became less and less able to direct the gardening. After his death from a heart attack in 1947, Margery went through a period of grieving, when the garden got neglected. She did travel to America though, and got inspiration from the gardens she saw there, and the designers she met.

Eventually, when she was 60, Margery was back in England and she put all her energy into developing her garden. She was gardening until a week before her death in 1969, and her family remembers her going out to garden in her evening dress, so obsessed was she with her plants. Amanda was not suggesting that we copy this approach, but some of Margery’s other ideas are more transferable to our gardens! She loved snowdrops and cultivated over 200 varieties. She also liked other spring and late winter plants such as hellebores. Summer planting included aquilegias and astrantias. She wanted every space filled in the borders and even in the cracks and crevices in walls and paths.

Margery was very friendly and sociable, so she rapidly made good relations with the owners of nearby properties in Somerset like Brympton D’Evercy and Tintinhull as well as famous garden designers from further afield such as Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter and Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst. Margery copied the use of silver, white and soft colours from Sissinghurst. By the end of the talk, we had plenty to inspire us in our gardens and several of us would like to visit East Lambrook Manor.

The next meeting of the History Society will be on Monday, January 21 st 2019, at 8.00pm in the Church Barn. Our speaker will be Dr Anne Daye who is an expert on historical dance. She will talk about Dance as an Entertainment 1750 – 1850, as before modern media, it would have been a popular entertainment in Biddenham. This should be a lively and interesting talk and may contain some practical elements! I hope you will be able to come. I will have the programme cards for 2019 -2020 available at this meeting.

Kathy Fricker

Biddenham History Society – Heritage Walk

We had been hoping for a fine day on 2nd July 2018 for our Heritage Walk, but we did not expect the heat that we encountered! The Church Barn was pleasantly cool and it provided a welcome venue to discuss  Biddenham 100 Years Ago and the men who died during the First World War. We also enjoyed refreshments there after our walk.

In 1918, Biddenham was a much smaller community (451 inhabitants in the 1911 census). The Church Barn was a real barn, part of a thriving farm, Church Farm, tenanted by Bobby Whitworth. The wheat and barley grown on the farm were stored in the barn and the barley was sent to Charles Wells brewery in Horne Lane, Bedford after it had been threshed. We know from Ted Pile’s memoirs that he had been sent to the Saunderson Works in 1916 to learn how to drive and repair a tractor, and with the shortage of men and horses as a result of World War One, tractors were being used on Church Farm.

As we walked from the Barn to the Coffin Path, we noted that the new churchyard would not have been there in 1918. The Cedar of Lebanon trees in the main churchyard were much smaller and there was no vestry attached to the church. One member of our group remembered that his grandparents were married in the church in 1910.

The Coffin Path was there in 1918, as it was the main way of taking the coffins of the deceased from the cottages to the churchyard for burial. Looking across from the Coffin Path, there would have been more cottages near the church in 1918. Three cottages attached to 55, Church End, Church Cottage, were burnt down in 1959. We admired the view of 17, Church End, White Cottage, which was finished in 1909 and must have been very new and smart looking in 1918. Before we reached the pond, we noted that the dovecote would have been there in 1918 as well as the pond.

The area around the pond provided shade and seating and we decided to talk about the War Memorial area there, as there was no shade by the War Memorial. Dawn Cottage was home to the Shaw family. In 1918, Robert Shaw was serving with the Royal Veterinary Corps in the Middle East. His wife, Alice, was waiting for news of him, but he did return safely. The Davison family, who lived at the Smithy on the Green, were not so fortunate. The blacksmith, Bill Davison’s son, John, died of wounds on 8 th June 1918 whilst serving in France with the 6 th battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.

1918 was a difficult year for those living in the village. There was uncertainty about those serving in the forces – would they come home? Some were prisoners of war and money was raised to get them adequate help. Private Ernest Smith was in hospital in Darmstadt, Germany with a bullet wound in his foot and ankle.

By the cessation of hostilities in November, 1918, 9 men with Biddenham connections had been killed or died later of their wounds: Thomas Riddy, James Plain, Giles Havergal Shaw, Alfred Dudley, Wilfred Herring, Algermon Armstrong, Richard Wright, John Davison and Greville Shaw. A tenth man, Walter Rowney, was to die of his wounds in January, 1919, before he could come home. All these men had relatives who wanted their loved ones to be commemorated on the new War Memorial when it was unveiled in 1922.

Other men from Biddenham returned home as can be seen on the photograph taken in 1919 of those who had served in the forces. Several suffered from the effects of their wounds for the rest of their lives: Willie Dowler for example, lost his right arm and his right eye. Thomas Riddy’s widow had to bring up three daughters and earn her living teaching at the Village School.

Before and during our walk, by looking at the buildings and through discussion, we realized how much Biddenham was affected by the First World War and the social and economic changes it brought about.

The next meeting of the Biddenham History Society will be on Monday 19th November, 2018 at 8pm in the Church Barn. Amanda Goody who is one of the Bedford Town Guides will talk to us about  Margery Fish – Cottage Garden. We have many lovely cottage gardens in Biddenham and this talk will give us their historical background and perhaps provide some inspiration! I hope you will be able to come.

Kathy Fricker

Biddenham’s Women Group – The History of Women’s Underwear

The Biddenham Women’s group had a presentation on the 12th June 2018 about “The History of Women’s Underwear”.

Ann Wise, a social dress historian of 30 years (though one would never have guessed it) had such a soporific voice that she might have lulled us off to sleep had it not been for the humorous pictures she showed us.

We started off with some ‘Medieval modesty’, depicted in a woodcut from 1474, showing women wearing a simple loin cloth but, for hundreds of years, the only undergarment worn was a simple chemise, made of coarse linen or cotton. Its sole purpose was to absorb perspiration and protect the expensive fabric of the beautiful dresses worn at that time. Natural fabrics had the advantage of being hard- wearing, could be cut down or passed on to siblings.

Everything was hand made. Sewing machines appeared in the 1850s and by 1870 patterns became available. A bride’s trousseau consisted of a chemise, silk stockings – held up with ribbons – and a corset with hooks at the front and laces at the back which, if you were lucky enough to have a maid, would be tied by her. Individual pockets, often elaborately embroidered and passed down as heirlooms, would be tied around the waist underneath the dress.

Corsets created a foundation for clothes, ensured a small waistline and upright posture making it very hard to bend. They were worn day in and day out and were wiped with a damp cloth.

A cotton-lined quilted petticoat was worn under an open robe in the 18th century. Many examples of women’s clothes are on display in museums, we were informed by Ann, who has worked in the heritage section of several museums. We can only assume the men wore theirs out!

The 1800s saw a change in fashion and a change in the shape of corsets. In the Regency period waists were out but after about 30 years waists were back in vogue again because they had become ‘a marriageable asset’. Young girls from the age of six had to wear a corset for the entire week!

Dry cleaning had become available if you were wealthy; failing that you could use gin and ammonia (and you can only guess where that came from).

Natural dyes were being substituted by artificial ones in the 1850s. Unfortunately, the chemicals reacted with the fabrics and few survived from that time. You could, however, knit your own corset! You would need to add a few extra rows of knitting though because by the 1890s corsets became longer and suspenders could be attached.

Open drawers, like Queen Victoria’s two-legged garments, developed from the 1930s and by the 60s and 70s elastic, rayon and nylon garments were being manufactured.

By the 1920s laced and boned corsets gave way to girdles and stockings were made of more natural colours and artificial fabrics. Ready-to-wear garments were now appearing and enabled women to have more freedom for their more active lifestyles.

This is just a brief summary (if you will pardon the pun) of the presentation we enjoyed in our group. If the subject matter of future talks appeals to you, do come along and join us. In the new year our group name will change and become more inclusive. Watch this space!

At our Summer Social, on 10th July, we shall ‘Party Like Royalty’ and raise funds for TIBBS Dementia Foundation, which is our chosen charity this year. If you wish to join us and are not a member the fee will be £5 for tea and entertainment – plus a quiz on royalty. Please remember to bring cash for a ‘Regal Raffle’. TIBBS, winners of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, needs your support.

Biddenham History Society – Women’s Suffrage Movement

It is a hundred years since some women were given the right to vote, so we decided to mark this event by inviting Bob Ricketts, who many may know from the Bedford Architectural, Archaeological and Local History Society and the Historical Association to come to talk about the women’s suffrage movement in Bedfordshire. Bob started by testing our knowledge about women’s suffrage both nationally and locally and then detailed the progress women had made in terms of economic status and representation by the early twentieth century but not in terms of being able to vote in parliamentary elections. Women were well represented in teaching, though they had to resign on marriage and in the post office, a considerable employer, and they could help administer the Poor Law and be active in local  government. It was the right to elect MPs and sit in Parliament that was lacking.

Bob showed that the suffrage movement had its roots in the North of England during the nineteenth century. However, it was well established in Bedford by the early twentieth century, and the women who supported the suffrage came from teaching such as Amy Walmsley and Margaret Stansfeld, and medicine such as Dora Mason.
The meetings that they held were not uneventful. Bob described one meeting at which Dora Mason was the speaker, where unruly youths from the town caused trouble. Dora had to retreat into Bank Buildings (near the Swan Hotel) and then make her escape from the roof wearing the long skirted fashion of the time! In the period 1909 – 1913, Bedford was not an easy town in which to hold meetings. The women frequently faced insults and garbage being thrown at them by local youths.

Bob’s researches have shown that the suffrage movement in Bedford was largely based on the suffragists, the followers of Millicent Fawcett, who believed in making their point by non-violent means. The Duchess of Bedford lent them her support. There were not many suffragettes, the members of Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU (The
Women’s Social and Political Union) who advocated more violent tactics. However, Christabel, Emmeline’s daughter, did come and speak in Bedford.

Bob did not have any information about the suffrage movement and Biddenham. He did say that the suffragists often became early members of the Women’s Institute. Biddenham had a Women’s  Institute in 1922, which was early in the movement’s history, so it would be worth doing some research into these early members of the WI to see if they had a link with the suffrage movement.

Bob’s talk was very stimulating and has opened up other areas for research. It should also inspire us to visit the Women in Bedfordshire Exhibition which is at the Higgins until September.

The next meeting of the Biddenham History Society will be on Monday, July 2nd . We will meet at the Church Barn at 2.30pm and then have a walk to the War Memorial to reflect on Biddenham one hundred years ago, in 1918. We will then return to the Barn for refreshments. I hope you will be able to join us.

Kathy Fricker

Biddenham History Society – The Bletchley Park Trust

When we came to the meeting on January 22nd , 2018 to listen to a talk by Jonathan Byrne, the Oral History Officer at the Bletchley Park Trust, we knew that in Biddenham we were living near the scene of important code breaking work during the Second World War. We learnt more about this work from Jonathan and we found out that several people who came to the talk had connections with war time Bletchley.

By the early 1990s, Bletchley Park had fallen into disrepair and there was a threat that it would be turned into a housing estate. However, a new Trust Board was formed at the beginning of 2000 and since then 28 acres of the historic site have been acquired, there has been renovation of the wartime code breaking huts and the Trust’s Oral
History project, which Jonathan is in charge of, has provided a rich and vital archive of veterans’ memories.

Jonathan described the difficulties in tracing the thousands of people who worked at Bletchley. There are over 12,000 people on the Roll of Honour and since 2009, they or their relatives can apply for a badge to commemorate their service. Three quarters of the people who worked at Bletchley were women, which because of marriage and
name change can make checking and tracing personnel more difficult. The allocation of jobs in a stereotyped way has made matters easier, especially if only initials for someone who worked at Bletchley have been provided. Jonathan can then decide whether the initials can belong to a man or a woman by the nature of the job.

Since 2011, nearly 400 people who worked at Bletchley have been interviewed in locations all over the world, most in their own homes. Skype has been useful for interviewing veterans in Australia. To help him, Jonathan relies on a team of volunteers, one of whom lives in Biddenham and came to the talk. He sends the veteran who has agreed to be interviewed, usually as a result of a visit to Bletchley, a questionnaire to prompt memory. He said that the replies are usually very detailed and precise. They include information about selection for Bletchley, lodgings, the work undertaken and leisure activities (some of the young women would cycle a long way for a concert or the chance to sing or join in drama). Sometimes a family member sits in with the interviewee to prompt memory, though Jonathan finds that peoples’ long term memory is usually very good. The main problems he finds are modesty – veterans understate the value of the work they did – and sometimes sadness and emotion as friends and colleagues are remembered fondly, who have since died.

Some of the recordings of the interviews can be heard at Bletchley Park and they highlight the broad range of roles people were fulfilling from code breakers to machine operators and clerical staff. Jonathan would like more veterans who provided support services like meals for those working at Bletchley to come forward. Every interview recorded contributes essential and valuable information which is helping to build a complete account of what happened at Bletchley Park. To add to the picture, Jonathan now wants to interview people who lived in the Bletchley area during World War Two and whose family perhaps provided a billet for someone who worked at the park. If you know someone who would like to be interviewed, do get in touch with Jonathan at Bletchley Park 01908 – 272685

The next meeting of the History Society will be on Monday, April 16th , 2018 at 8pm in the Church Barn. Bob Ricketts will talk about the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Bedfordshire to mark the centenary of some women getting the vote in 1918. I hope you will be able to come. Programme cards for 2018 – 2019 will be available.

Kathy Fricker

If you require a hard copy of this report to print, please click here.


Biddenham History Society – The Roman Villa complex at Manton Lane

On Monday, November 20th , Steven Cockings and Elizabeth Sayer from the Bedford Roman Villa Project gave a fascinating and very well illustrated presentation about their work to the History SocietyWe learnt that Biddenham was the powerhouse of agriculture in Roman Britain in the mid-fourth century AD. The rich soil and the proximity to the River Ouse for transport made it the centre for growing spelt which was distributed to the Roman garrisons on the Rhine and throughout Britain including those on Hadrian’s Wall, using flat bottomed boats.

The wealth generated by the grain trade was reflected in the relatively dense settlement and the Roman Villa complex at Manton Lane that Steven and Elizabeth have been working on since 2011. They pointed out that as late as 2010 it was possible to write that there were no known Roman villas in Bedfordshire, only farmsteads. However, that was to change in 2011, when work started to build a disability ramp at Edith Cavell School on Manton Lane. A utilities trench uncovered a section of Roman wall. This find made further exploration of the site and of the land across the road in Manton Lane desirable and this was undertaken in 2013 and 2016. Funding was provided by donations from individuals and Bedford Borough Council, and Mike Luke of Albion Archaeology provided expert professional help and guidance.

The objects found revealed a wealthy settlement in a south facing location and near to a natural spring with links to mainland Europe. For instance, a piece of pottery was discovered that came from Trier in Germany. High status items were found such as pieces of elaborate freestyle stucco plasterwork of a type that has not been found elsewhere in Roman Britain and rarely outside Italy. A fragment of window glass, high in iron, manganese and titanium can be traced back to sand found in Egypt. It would have been used probably in a bath house from about 350AD. The print of a small shoe or boot discovered on a tile was also a high status item.

Steven and Elizabeth depicted a wealthy complex that was thriving in the mid-fourth century AD. Steven would like to think that the Emperor Constantine might have been a visitor as he would have had luxury accommodation, and that the Eusebius named on the beautiful gold ring found in 1980 in the Biddenham Loop, had a connection with the villa. Sadly, the life there came to an end in 392AD when Steven said, the Romans  themselves systematically destroyed the villa for political and economic reasons. This is why only small pieces of glass and stucco survive. Some of the stone may have been used to build St Peter’s Church in Bedford. Steven and Elizabeth would like to find out more about this fascinating complex at Manton Lane and they did discover some more walls in the Spring of this year. We hope their project will continue to yield interesting information about our past.

The next meeting of the Society will be on Monday, January 22nd , 2018 at 8pm in the Church Barn.  Jonathan Byrne, the Oral History Officer at the Bletchley Park Trust will talk about the work of the Bletchley Park Trust. We hope you will be able to come as the mysteries of Bletchley Park in the Second World War are now being revealed!

K Fricker

Biddenham History Society – Visit to King’s Close

The afternoon of Friday, 7th July 2017 was an excellent afternoon for many of us. We started with a delicious First Friday lunch in the Village Hall at 12.30pm. Thank you to Liz Watson and Judith O’Quinn and all your helpers. Some of the helpers managed to clear up in record time, so that we could all assemble at King’s Close at 2.30pm and meet Helen and Jeremy Humphreys. They welcomed us to their beautiful Arts and Crafts house, designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie-Scott in 1907. They have been working hard to restore many of the Arts and Crafts features since buying the property about 3 years ago.

kings-close-garden-pictureOne of the key principles in Baillie-Scott’s design was that the garden should be linked to the house – serving as an extra room – so vistas from the house to the garden were very important. Helen and Jeremy have restored the brick path that leads from the front gate to the gravel area in front of the front door. The brick path continues at the back of the house and leads the eye to the orchard at the bottom of the garden.

At the front, borders, edged with box in the shape of the Union Jack, have been restored, and the yew by the front gate has been cut back so the gate can be opened. There is a lovely walk along the brick path, past the box hedges with seasonal planting, to the front door. A beautiful climbing rose sets off the front of the house and the Tudor style beams and front door.

Before going to the back garden, Helen and Jeremy very kindly let us look at their living room which still has the original twentieth century paneling. Helen showed us the settle by the window that was designed by Baillie-Scott and the wooden doors with the original door furniture that can be used to divide the room from the rest of the house.

Seeing the room also gave a vista of the back garden. Jeremy and Helen have worked very hard in this area, reinstating the brick path down the middle and removing ivy and conifers. The pink roses climbing over the original metal arches looked stunning as the main feature leading the eye down the garden. Helen and Jeremy have been busy planting the borders that edge the path with lavender and lilies, which were coming into flower and attracting the bees.

The final room at the bottom of the garden was the orchard and meadow area. The trees were already laden with fruit. On a hot summer day, it was a lovely place to rest and admire the views to the house. We were indeed in another beautiful room.

Thank you once again Helen and Jeremy for your kindness in allowing us to come and see your lovely garden. We now have a better appreciation of what the Arts and Crafts architects were seeking to achieve and wish Helen and Jeremy every success in what they describe as their ‘work in progress’.

The next meeting of the Society is on Monday 20th November, 2017 at 8pm in the Church Barn when Steven Cockings, the Chairman of the Bedford Roman Villa Project will talk about the Roman Villa complex at Manton Lane, which may well have been linked to evidence of Roman settlement in Biddenham. I hope you will be able to come.

Kathy Fricker

Heritage plaque commemorates Biddenham’s historic coffin Path

The Biddenham Society has commissioned and installed the village’s first historic green plaque to commemorate and identify the C16th Coffin Path which runs from Gold Lane to St James’ Church, forming an important part of the Biddenham Heritage Trail which was opened in 2015.

The book The Village of Biddenham through the ages, describes The Coffin Path, or Causeway, as historically being a vital amenity for the village as it was the shortest way for relatives of the working class to carry the coffin of the deceased to the churchyard for burial.  The path and gates were kept at a width of six feet to allow a coffin with a man on either side to pass through comfortably. In the C18th the Botelers left £2 per annum with the vicar to ensure regular maintenance was carried out to keep the path to the requisite width.

Unfortunately, in 2016 successive ploughing by the land owner destroyed a large part of it, since when the route has relied on villagers and other walkers marking it out with their feet. Meanwhile, with the support of the society and other local groups, the parish council continues to engage in dialogue with the land owner to seek reassurances that this important part of our heritage will be properly preserved in the future – and at six feet wide, not just the width of a tractor wheel!

The plaque is mounted on the north wall of Dawn Cottage at the Gold Lane end of the path, and we thank Peggy Groves for agreeing to have it on her property.  The Biddenham Society is also grateful to the Biddenham History Society and the Biddenham Show Committee for their sponsorship of this project.