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Birchmoor Farm

The glimpses one catches of Birchmoor Farm, for example from the recreation ground on Crawley Road, show it as an impressive building. It was listed by the former Ministry of Works in January 1961 as Grade II, of special interest. It dates from the late 16th century and was the home of the Staunton family through the next century. The farmhouse, though impressive enough to be a small manor house was not one. The farm was owned by the Cistercian Abbey of Woburn and when the Court of Augmentations drew up accounts of all the abbey’s holdings before it was dissolved in 1537/38 the Staunton family, specifically Edward and his son Robert, were acting as the abbey’s bailiffs, or rent-collectors.

In 1793 the Duke of Bedford’s architect Henry Holland reworked the building and many of the windows were altered in the 19th century. It is built of red brick with diamond and hexagonal patterns made by vitrified bricks. The roof is covered in 20th century tiles. The house was built in an H-plan with two storeys and attics.

In 1583 John Staunton of Birchmoor was buried [CRT130Woburn15] and he was, probably, the son of Robert and grandson of Edward. John’s eldest son was Francis, knighted at Bletsoe by King James I (1603-1625) on 24th July 1621. In 1661 Sir Jonas Moore’s survey of lands in Woburn says the following of Birchmoor (note the original spelling): “a pretended Mannor or Seigniory under Wooborne there is a faire howse with gardens and all convenient howses to it and very many pritty closes which were formerly Comon Feildes but by the Lord Francis Earle of Bedfordes favour Sir Francis Staunton enclosed and built the howse it contains 100 acres”. Moore’s statement about Sir Francis building the house must surely be wrong; presumably he extended or greatly repaired it.

The Staunton family had Puritan and parliamentary leanings and Sir Francis’ third son, Edmund (born 1600), became a noted puritan divine and preacher. In his diary he wrote: “When about fourteen years old swinging in a rope in my father’s kitchen at Birchmore, which was paved with freestone, and of an high roof, which I endeavouring to touch with my back and belly; when I was very high the rope broke, I fell down flat; but anon (the Lord appearing for my help) I brake out into a violent bleeding at the mouth or nose, or both, and so by degrees (through the blessing of God) revived and recovered”.

Sir Francis’s eldest son Robert was on the Parliamentarian County Committee for Bedfordshire during the English Civil War. In June 1644 there was a raid by a Royalist flying column on Woburn. Birchmoor House was plundered, not for the first time in the war. Robert was buried in 1656 and the last Staunton known to inhabit the place was Staveley Staunton, his grandson, who was buried in 1678.

A book giving dues owed by Woburn inhabitants towards the support of the perpetual curate covers most of the 18th century [P118/3/1]. The following people are given as farmers at Birchmoor:

  • Roger Brooks: 1710-1729;
  • Sir Gilbert Pickering: 1731-1736;
  • Lady Pickering: 1736-1741;
  • Sir Edward Pickering: 1741-1747.

In 1747 Sir Edward Pickering, a descendant of the Stauntons, sold Birchmoor Farm to the Duke of Bedford. In 1831 J. D. Parry in his History of Woburn, wrote: “The house of Birchmore is now converted into a handsome farm house, the oldest part of the architecture being that of Queen Elizabeth, or James Ist’s reign, when the arched windows of the later Gothic were superseded by upright mullions with transoms. It was formerly noted as the residence of Mr. Runciman, of agricultural celebrity, and general talents and information”.

A register of parochial assessments for Woburn, showing who should pay what [P118/28/2] shows the farmer at Birchmoor in 1822 as George Gascoyne. Directories for Bedfordshire were published every few years from the early 19th to mid 20th centuries. Birchmoor is first listed in 1847 when George Gascoyne or Gascoyen was still tenant; he was also listed in 1853, 1854, 1862 and 1864. By 1877 Zachariah Phillips was tenant then in 1878 Edward Blundell became tenant [R4/151]. He was listed in 1885 and 1890. In 1898 Newland Francis Fountaine was listed as tenant and in 1900 Joseph Bailey took over the tenancy from him [BML10/81/4]. He is listed in 1903 and 1906 but by 1910 Arthur John Hawkes was tenant and was also listed in 1914. In 1920, 1924 and 1928 Herbert Peto was in residence, as we will see he was not a tenant but the Duke of Bedford’s bailiff, whilst the last directories for the county, those of 1931, 1936 and 1940 list the occupier as the duke’s bailiff, Henry Hobbs.

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 farm was valued in1926 and the valuer visiting Birchmoor Farm [DV1/H5/20] found it owned by the Duke of Bedford’s London and Devon Estates Company and farmed directly by the estate without a tenant.

The farm comprised 346 acres before the Great War which had been reduced by 325 acres by 1927. The valuer noted: “Water laid on : Lighting lamps. Drainage – Cesspool system. Markets; - Bedford 14 miles: Leighton Buzzard 7 miles. Station Woburn Sands 1½ miles. Saw Mr. Peto (Duke’s bailiff). Farm was been in hand since about 1906”. Another hand added on 5th November 1926: “A useful mixed Farm except the bad land towards Crawley”.

The farmhouse comprised a lounge hall, two reception rooms, a kitchen, a dairy, a pantry, a scullery and two cellars beneath. Upstairs were four bedrooms, a bathroom and W. C. There was a landing and two attics on the second floor. The farm buildings were described as below (with blocks labelled on the map, also as below):

  • A: brick and tiled egg store house, mixing house, wood house, coal house and tool shed;
  • B: brick and slate office, nag stable for two, harness room, two coachhouses, very large coachhouse, three bay open implement shed, fowl house, loose box and men’s messroom;
  • C: brick and slate loose box, four bay open shed, cowshed, carthorse stable for ten, three chaff houses with a hayloft over, cow barn, engine house with a moving engine on wheels, large barn, granary with a loft over, five bay open Cartshed, earth closet, pig house with four pens and mixing house;
  • E: cowhouse for ten and two calf pens;
  • F: three bay open cowshed and three looseboxes;
  • G: two open cowsheds each of three bays;
  • H: a cowhouse for eleven.

“Water laid on throughout buildings”.

Birchmoor Farm buildings on the valuation map annotated in 1926
Birchmoor Farm buildings on the valuation map annotated in 1926