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Elstow Moot Hall

Elstow Moot Hall February 2012
Elstow Moot Hall February 2012

Elstow Moot Hall was listed by the former Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in 1964 as Grade II* - a particularly important building of special interest. The ministry dated the building to about 1500, noting that a bay was added at a slightly later date. It is timber-framed with red brick infilling and a clay tiled roof. The original structure had four bays (now five with the addition of a bay at the east end). It comprises two storeys and the first floor is jettied (that is it overhangs the ground floor) on all sides except the east. The windows and doors are 20th century. The original building had a hall running the length of the building on the first floor and six shops occupying three bays of the ground floor.

Ground floor plan of The Moot Hall [Lei/Pu1/2]
Ground floor plan of the Moot Hall [Lei/Pu1/2]

Former County Archivist Joyce Godber wrote of the Moot Hall as follows [CRT130Elstow6]: “We have no documents of early date which throw light on the date of the building of the green house [its old name - house on the Green]; and its date is for an architect to determine. It is found later in the possession of the lord of the manor, and so, if it was built before the dissolution of the Abbey, it was transferred, either immediately or after an interval, to the new lay owners of the manor. The site of the monastery and the demesne lands and fairs were granted by Henry VIII to Edmund Harvey in 1541; but the manorial rights were retained by the crown till the reign of Edward VI. Edmund Harvey’s daughter married Sir Humphrey Radcliffe, and the property remained with the Radcliffes till in 1616 it was transferred to Thomas Hillersdon”.

“In 1699 we find among the orders of the manor court of William Hillersdon, lord of the manor of Elstow, a prohibition against putting dung on the green (fine 12d.). During the 18th century the court rolls give the meeting place of the manor court for the first time; in 1732 it is described as "at Elstow in a location called the Greenhouse”.

“How often the green house and the tolls of the fair were leased by the lord of the manor to tenants we do not know, because leases were rarely preserved; but one for 1773 has survived among the Whitbread papers. Denis Farrer Hillersdon in that year leased to Thomas Coleman: “That house … commonly known by the name of the Green House standing and being on the green in Elstow … together with all the hurdles, poles, boards, and stall gear … and all manner of tolls … at the several fairs and to be holden there on the 14th May and 5th November, and all tolls … from any hawkers, pedlars and other persons”. The rent was £15 per annum”.

“A terrier of 1794 refers to the “Green house, brick, stud and tile, in good repair, and tolls of fairs” let to Thomas Coleman for £15 per annum”.

“When Elstow was inclosed in 1800 the following allotment was made to the lord of the manor, now Samuel Whitbread II: An allotment no. 18 called the Green, containing 2 acres, 1 rood, 36 poles, bounded on the West by the farmhouse and homestall of the said Samuel Whitbread in the occupation of Samuel Cumberland and Dixie Cumberland, and on the North by cottages and gardens of the said Samuel Whitbread and of William Pendred, on the east by cottages and gardens of the said Samuel Whitbread and of Edward Chapman and Dixie Cumberland, and by the common street of Elstow, and on the South by the Churchyard and by a cottage of the said Samuel Whitbread and by the Swan Inn, the property of Thomas Eyles. And I direct that the fences of that part of this allotment which adjoins the said street shall be made and kept in repair by the owners and occupiers of this allotment”.

“The fairs were no doubt by this time of comparatively much less value, and we find that the use of the building was allowed for another purpose also. Elstow Bunyan Meeting met there from 1812, for we find this entry in the Archdeacon’s list of certified dissenting meeting-houses: Certified the Green house at Elstow November 7th 1812”.

“During the 19th century the fairs continued to decline. They are mentioned in the directories up to 1850 “Fairs are held on the 15th and 16th May and 5th and 6th November, chiefly for cattle” but the 1854 directory apparently does not think them worth mentioning. In 1855 George Hurst read a paper on Elstow Abbey and church to the Bedfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society in which he referred to the building as “an ancient moor or market hall”. Bucley in the Chronicles of Elstow, 1885, merely refers to it as “a large building of wood and brick”. Buckley, however, in his Architectural Notes … put forward the theory that it was a guest house or hospitium for travellers, “being situated close to the public highway, but within the ballium or outer court of the abbey”. A specialist on monastic buildings would be able to say whether this was at all possible; but on the face of it, it seems unlikely”.

“The term Moot Hall as a definite appellation dates from the publication of John Brown’s Life of Bunyan in 1885. Even he only put it forward tentatively “what we may call the Moot Hall”; but his book went into 3 editions in 3 years; and since then the term has come into general use, till the tercentenary History of Bunyan Meeting published this year [1950], which returns to the older associations with “Market House””.

By 1949 the Moot Hall was in quite a poor condition. The Bunyan Meeting, although no longer using the building to hold it services in, was interested in it being restored and passed to them and approached Sir Malcolm Stewart, chairman of London Brick Company to finance the repairs [BY15/19].

In the event the Moot Hall was acquired for the people of Bedfordshire by Bedfordshire County Council, which undertook a programme of restoration as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 [Lei/Pu1/2]. It was a gift from its owner Major Simon Whitbread. Further restoration work was carried out in the 1970s. When the county council was abolished on 1st April 2009 the Moot Hall passed to its successor body in the north of the county Bedford Borough Council.

The upper floor in 1974 [Lei/Pu1/2]
The upper floor in 1974 [Lei/Pu1/2]