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Warren Farm and The Agricultural Institute Ridgmont

Warren Farm about 1880
Warren Farm about 1880

Warren Farm

Warren Farm, like much of Ridgmont, was owned by the Duke of Bedford. The first reference to it is in 1840 [R3/4194] when it was described in a letter of the Duke of Bedford's steward as: "an old wood and thatch place, half worn-out" but it could "be patched". At some point between this date and the end of the century the farmhouse was pulled down and rebuilt to give the red brick and tiled farmhouse we have today.

Directories of the county were published every few years and Warren Farm was first listed in 1877 when Henry Readman was tenant. The next directory, 1885, lists the tenant as Samuel Charles Desborough who is also listed in 1890. The directory of 1894 lists Henry Hedges as tenant. In fact he left the farm that year [SF51/40].

The Agricultural Institute about 1900 [Z50/95/42]
The Agricultural Institute about 1900 [Z50/95/42]

Ridgmont Farm School or Agricultural Institute

Herbrand, 11th Duke of Bedford was, like his predecessors, interested in modern agricultural developments. His father Hastings, the 9th Duke, had established the Experimental Farm at Husborne Crawley in 1876 and he himself set up the Experimental Fruit Farm in the same parish in 1895. This was the year that he began his 32 year term as Chairman of Bedfordshire County Council, a new body created in 1889.

The Duke leased Warren Farm to the council to create a Farm School (later known as the Agricultural Institute) for boys wishing to study to become farmers. Looking at the 6 inch Ordnance Survey maps of about 1880 and about 1900 it is clear that the Duke added considerably to the farmhouse and buildings immediately to the rear of it to create the school premises.

Warren Farm about 1900
Warren Farm about 1900

The school was run by the County Council. The first meeting of the Ridgmont Farm School Sub-Committee of the Technical Instruction Committee took place on 4th May 1895 [AG/SubM1/1]. The sub-committee decided to advertise in the newspapers for a farm manager who would be paid £1 per week as well as receiving free board and lodging. There would also be "£80 per annum to the man and wife who shall be appointed House Master and Matron respectively". Ten boys would receive scholarships to attend the farm school.

The next meeting, on 7th June selected the following boys to receive scholarships:

  • Charles Cook of Keysoe;
  • James William Cox of Westoning;
  • Charles Harry Gardner of Lidlington;
  • Ezekiel Jeeves of Sandy;
  • Herbert Kefford of Tempsford;
  • Herbert Woodhouse Saunders of Sandy;
  • William Randall of Toddington;
  • Herbert James Roberts of Barton-le-Clay;
  • Aleck Taylor of Maulden;
  • Arthur Thomas Twidell of Totternhoe.

Private Herbert James Roberts, aged 38, of 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, son of James and Martha, would be killed on 30th July 1917 near Ypres. He is buried in New Irish Farm Cemetery. He would have been sixteen when he entered the farm school.

The committee received thirty applications for the post of Farm Manager and sixty three for the posts of House Master and Matron. The meeting on 7th September appointed James Williams of Aberaeron on the west coast of Wales and his wife as House Master and Matron. Mrs. Williams was authorised to engage a maid at wages not exceeding £12 per annum. Joseph Neild Cornes of Crudgington [Shropshire] was appointed farm manager. However "Mr. Spooner [see below] … stated that the School Buildings could not be ready for admission of the Scholars by 1st October". The scholars were told that their entry into the new establishment would have to be postponed.

The next meeting fixed 18th November as the opening date and resolved that the scholars would have to be put up in the House Master's accommodation temporarily. However, this date, too, proved impossible and on 14th November the committee resolved to open the school on 1st January 1896. The school would be open to public view in an open day two days later.

Minutes of the meeting of 20th January show that the school had indeed opened. The committee ruled that the bell for bed be rung at 9.30 p. m. with lights out following fifteen minutes later. It also considered its first disciplinary offence. Ezekiel Jeeves, obviously a nonconformist, had refused to work on Sundays. "Ezekiel Jeeves was called before the Committee when he repeated his unwillingness to so such duties. The Committee after careful consideration being of opinion that such duties were reasonable resolved that Ezekiel Jeeves be dismissed and that the Secretary be instructed to inform his parents that he would leave the School on the following day". William Randall was also taken to task over "certain irregularities" in his conduct. He was more properly contrite! The committee, considering the question of supply of beer to the scholars ruled that they should not "under any circumstances" enter any of the public houses in the village. Meanwhile they would continue to receive no beer but the situation would be reviewed in a month; sadly the outcome of the review is not mentioned in the minutes. Scholars were also forbidden to smoke but daily and a local weekly newspaper were provided.

Ezekiel Jeeves, Arthur Twidell (who had resigned) and James Cox (who was ill) were replaced by Francis Huckle of Silsoe, William Charles Stanton of Riseley and Arthur Charles Thurley of Sandy in February.

The Bedfordshire Mercury of 4th July 1896 reported on the first inspection of the Institute and the following is an edited version of part of the article. "The members of the County Council on Tuesday paid their first official visit to the Ridgmont Farm School, which has recently been organised by them with the generous assistance of the Duke of Bedford. The party assembled at Ridgmont Station at 10.45, and were met by the Duke, who had provided a number of conveyances to take them to their destination".

"The first halt was made at the Experimental Fruit Farm, over which the party was conducted by Mr. Castle. The summer-houses afforded very welcome shelter, for as everybody was admiring the beauties of the farm, a heavy storm came on. Again in the brakes they were driven to the School where they were joined by Mr. Dymond, the vice-chairman of the Council".

"The farm house … borders the high road in the centre of Ridgmont. The farm land adjoins on its southern side the Experimental farm, conducted by the Royal Agricultural Society, while it is also bounded by the Experimental Fruit Farm. Entering by the main gate, on the left are the yards, stables and outbuildings, and on the right the farm-house accommodating the staff of the school. Connected with it at the rear stands the school proper, the whole being constructed of red brick. The school opens out upon a quadrangle bounded by lavatory, bath-room, boot-room and other buildings, planned so as to be quite apart from the movements connected with the farm itself. On entering the school porch, the dining room is reached, and this by good arrangement is placed in direct communication with the kitchen. Beyond is the lecture-room, built in a simple and substantial style to accommodate 20 scholars, and having its walls lined with botanical specimens and pictures of farm machinery. Above these two rooms are situated the dormitories, which are placed to direct communication with the Master's rooms. Upon Mr. and Mrs. Williams, the House Master and Matron, devolves the chief control of the institution; and whilst Mrs. Williams anxiously considers the creature comforts of those placed in her charge, Mr. Williams' care is rather to provide that intellectual equipment for life which we are now coming to believe is necessary even to the sons of Hodge. The farm, which is under the direction of Mr. Cornes, comprises about 270 acres, about half arable and half pasture. The land is of varying character, from light, sandy soil to stiff clay, to that there is every variety of treatment brought within the range of the practical experience of the scholars. Speaking generally, the four course system is adopted, though, as might naturally be expected, variety will be introduced as occasion arises, that the education element may always be kept to the front. In particular some of the light land is considered adaptable to the purposes of market gardening, and in a county such as Bedfordshire, with so large an area under market garden cultivation, it is thought desirable that the school should not entirely neglect that important branch of land cultivation. The pasturage, too, affords ample keep for a herd of cows, and it is the intention of the County Council to maintain a working dairy at the farm, and probably it will not be very long before this important side will be in full working order".

A crisis occurred in April 1912 when Frank Spooner, Director of Education, absconded with £2,476 of the FarmSchool's funds. Frank Spooner, according to the Censuses was born in Whitechapel [Middlesex]. In the 1871 Census his father John (aged 38, born Ramsden Bellhouse, Essex) and his mother Jane  (aged 30, born Downham, Essex), his brother (aged 10, born St Pancras, Middlesex), his sister Edith (aged 1, born in Whitechapel) and himself aged 4 were all living in 29 Little North Street, Whitechapel.

In the 1881 Census the family is given as residing at 10 Bucks Row, Whitechapel. Interestingly, Bucks Row was the site, on 31st August 1888, of the first killing by the infamous Jack the Ripper, when the body of Polly Nicholls was found close to BoardSchool in the street. Frank himself would go on to teach at a BritishSchool (later a BoardSchool) - the first extant Leighton British Boys' School log book [SDLeightonBuzzardBeaudesert1/1] records: "18th April 1887 Frank Spooner took charge of School today". The new headteacher gave permission on 21st April to supply every scholar with slate. On 29th April Spooner records "boys responsive to teachers". On 5th May, the school was shut at 3.00 "to prevent loss of attendance owing to Missionary meeting for Juveniles in the town".

On 18th December 1891 it is recorded in the Log Book [SDLeightonBuzzardBeaudesert1/2] that Frank Spooner as Head Master had obtained an appointment under Bedfordshire County Council. Unfortunately the Leighton Buzzard School Board Minutes only start in 1893 and so that source is unavailable to confirm what that position was. The Chairman of the County Council Technical Education Committee was Theodore Harris, an Leighton Buzzard Quaker, who would have known Spooner well (the Quakers had established the British School in Beaudesert in 1813).

Frank Spooner eventually rose to be Director of Education of the newly formed Local Education Authority in September 1903. It appeared that the County Council was running an efficient new service with a capable and energetic Director. In April 1912, Frank Spooner disappeared. Before absconding he had sold his red car, which he had been seen driving unacceptably fast round Wootton. He was unmarried but had moved his parents, sister and himself to a comfortable house at 12 Kimbolton Avenue, Bedford by 1910. [BORBP4660, dated 1906 designed by E. H. C. Inskip for H. Waller]. Letters suggest that he was taking the money to help support his brother's business in Coleman Street in London. Spooner said he would give himself up, principally in a letter to Samuel Henry Whitbread from the Hotel Russell in London on 27th April 1912. On 2nd May the Daily News published the story.

Frank Spooner wanted poster
Frank Spooner wanted poster

On 23rd August Bedfordshire County Council placed the above Wanted notice in the Bedfordshire Standard. The notice reads: "The Spooner Case. £100 REWARD. Bedford Borough Police (Detective Department) Telephone 13 August 17th, 1912. AMENDED INFORMATION. Photograph taken 2 years ago, but still a good likeness. Copy of Usual Signature Frank Spooner. WANTED Here on a Warrant for Larceny as Agent £75. (Total sum involved £2,767) on the 8th of February last, FRANK SPOONER. Age about 45, height 5 feet 7 or 8 inches, thin build, pale complexion, oval shaped face, hair black turning grey, moustache black, otherwise clean shaven but may let his whiskers grow, invariably wears gold rimmed spectacles. Usually dresses in black or blue serge jacket suit, black Bowler hat and Bertie collar. The above named has been engaged for many years as Director of Education to the Beds County Council. He is a great Free Church and Temperance worker. He absconded at mid-day on the 26th April last. The above reward will be paid to the person who gives information which leads to the arrest of the above named. F. Timbrell, Chief Constable".

Despite the reward offered, Frank Spooner was never seen again, although there was an alleged sighting in Madeira. In his state of mind however he could have committed suicide, possibly by drowning from a ferry whilst leaving the country.

A meeting of the County Agricultural Education Committee, as the Ridgmont farm School Sub-Committee had become, on 20th April minuted: "Owing to the absence of the Director of Education no Estimates were submitted". This was followed by the following minute: "The Chairman reported to the Committee that he had received information that the Committee's Account at the bank had been overdrawn to the amount of £2,060.7.3. Resolved: That the Chairman and Councillor A. Inskip be appointed a Sub-Committee to investigate the cause of the overdraft and to present a full statement to a Special Meeting to be held at the earliest possible moment".

The special meeting took place on 27th April. The minutes read: "The Sub-Committee appointed to investigate the question of the Bank overdraft submitted a verbal report together with a statement showing the apparent defalcations within the last five years. Resolved: That a warrant be issued for the arrest of Mr. Frank Spooner". As a result the committee had to severely curtail its expenditure that year.

It later transpired that the committee's account was in deficit as early as April 1911 but this had not been brought to the attention of the committee. In September the Duke of Bedford made an offer to the committee to pay off the overdraft at the bank from his own pocket provided the County Council gave up the tenancy of Warren Farm and the Institute on 29th September 1913. The offer was accepted. The end of the Agricultural Institute led to a reorganisation of agricultural education by the County Council.

Directories for 1898, 1903, 1906 and 1910 list the following employees of the Agricultural Institute:

  • 1898: Ernest W. Richardson, superintendent and house master; John Baker farm bailiff
  • 1903: Frank Walker, manager; Miss Philippa Wilkinson, dairy mistress; John Baker, bailiff
  • 1906-1910: Edric Druce, principal; Miss Philippa Wilkinson, dairy mistress; John Baker, bailiff

Warren Farm January 2011
Warren Farm January 2011

Warren Farm Again

The duke then simply leased out the Warren Farm land and agricultural buildings to a local farmer. The former Agricultural Institute buildings were added to and altered to form a Parish Hall for the village. If directories are to be believed some sort of private enterprise training farm also continued. Kelly's Directory for 1928 lists The Bruce Land Company training farm for boys and the directory for 1931 lists The Hudson Bay Company training farm for boys.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every building and piece of land in the country was to be assessed to determine its rateable value. The valuer visiting the Parish Hall [DV1/C54/151] noted that it was still owned by the Bedford Estate but run by its own managers. A dance floor occupied the ground floor and a billiard room the first floor; each floor measured 64 feet 6 inches by 20 feet. A second floor measured 50 feet by 20 feet. Central heating was provided. The managers charged "about 7/6 per night for Hall" The valuer commented: "Very good" and "No drink sold".

The valuer visiting Warren Farm [DV1/H15/8] did do on 18th and 22nd August 1926. He found that the duke leased Warren Farm together with Charity or Feoffee Farm to Charles Gurney for a combined rent of £342 per annum. He commented: "Charity Farm apparently derelict – saw nobody. Should consider distance from main road a considerable drawback". Another hand wrote, on 26th November: "A farm of many difficulties. A lot of heavy plough [land]. Not much grass and away from Road". Warren Farmhouse was simply noted as "probably" one living room and two reception rooms. The valuer noted that one needed to allow for "inconvenience of Hall next door" and that there was wasted space.

The valuer then described the homestead at Charity Farm and noted: "When inspected farm entirely derelict. House empty and boarded up. Was unable to enter house". The Warren Farm homestead comprised five blocks as follows:

  • A brick and slated cowhouse for two beasts; a loose box; a three bay open cowshed; a stable for seven horses; a chaff house and a loose box;
  • A harness room with a granary over; a barn, half of it with a loft over; a mixing house; a store house; a coachhouse for four beasts with a feeding passage and a chaff house;
  • Two cowhouse each for eleven beasts with a feeding passage; a cowhouse for two beasts; a coachhouse; a three bay open cart shed; a tool house; a three bay open hovel and a shed;
  • A mixing house; a pig house with four pens and a four bay open cow shed;
  • A brick and slated two bay open cart shed; a workshop; a garage; a harness room; a store room; a potting shed; a bull house and an earth closet

A wood and corrugated iron dairy and washhouse stood in a field behind the homestead. The valuer commented: "Buildings A. 1. order".

Directories for 1914, 1920 and 1924 give Thomas John Russell as the tenant of Warren Farm. Charles Edward Gurney is listed in 1928, 1931, 1936 and 1940, the latter being the last directory for Bedfordshire.

At the time of writing [2012] the former parish hall is being converted into a private house and the Ridgmont Charity are seeking an alternative for use as a hall. Warren Farmhouse is now a private house and the farm buildings have been converted into private dwellings. Warren Farmhouse was put up for sale in 2008. The sale particulars [Z449/2/78] listed an entrance lobby, a basement measuring 14 feet 10 inches by 14 feet 4 inches; a reception hall; a lounge measuring 14 feet 3 inches by 14 feet 7 inches; a dining room measuring 14 feet 7 inches by 14 feet 10 inches and a kitchen measuring 15 feet 3 inches by 9 feet on the ground floor. The first floor contained a landing, three bedrooms (one en-suite) and a bathroom. The second floor included a landing, two bedrooms and a bathroom.