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Brickhill House

Brickhill House in the 1930s [Z50/9/809]
Brickhill House in the 1930s [Z50/9/809]

Brickhill House was the farmhouse to Brickhill Farm and stood immediately to the west of what is now 131 Brickhill Drive. It was demolished when Brickhill Drive and its attendant houses were built between 1957 and 1961 [Hi/PL/10/17]. At least in its early years the farm seems to have formed part of the Manor of Newnham. It is possible that some of the early references may refer to different farms called Brickhill Farm but it is clear that the farmhouse demolished in the 1950s belonged for many years to the Foster family.

The first mention of the farm comes in 1745 in Labourers Conference minutes from the Moravian church in Bedford which note [MO2]: “Brickhill Farm is a very pretty farm if only Mr Hill had a mind to leave it, which we should be glad to hear”.

About 1750 “a Perfect Terrier and Correct Survey of the Brickiln Farm” was put together. It describes lands in Berry, Hill, Conduit, Newenham and Oak Fields, giving bounds and acreages [WE601a]. The terrier is not in the best condition, some of it being missing but the farmhouse is described as “A Farm House situate in the Parish of Saint Peter about a Measured Mile from Saint Peter’s Church in Bedford. Built with Brick & Tile containing Four Rooms on a Floor besides Garrets, Closets, Cellars & other convenient Offices, a Court yard, Farm Yards wherein is four Barns of three Bays for the storeing of Corn &c with a Hay Barn of [missing] Bays & Little Stable  adjoining, with a large Stable [missing] Grainery, Wheat House of two Bays [missing] Hogscoats, Hovels &c. In the Courtyard a [missing] Hen House with other Conveniences, some buildings look somewhat Ragged for want of [missing]”.The gutters at the farmhouse were repaired in 1765 [WE601b].

A solicitor’s bill survives from the same year [X439/36]. It is to Mr Joseph Goodhall concerning the purchase of Brickhill Farm in Bedfordshire, from the devisees of Benjamin Willis, mentioning that one of the heirs, Bartham Willis, was insane, so Counsel's opinion had to be sought as to how to proceed regarding his share. Also dating from 1765 is a will by Mary Wootton of Harrold, widow [X439/36]. To son William she left her part in Brickhill Farm, Saint Peter's, Bedford, left by her uncle Benjamin Willis, deceased.

By 1769 the farm, which must have been copyhold, seems to have belonged to John Hill (probably the Mr Hill mentioned in 1745) as a manorial document [R6/1/12/1a] records his death and that of Martha his wife at a farmhouse called The Brickhills, Bedford and the succession to the farm of the children of John Willis (perhaps the brother or other relation of Martha Hill). In 1778 Joseph Willis is mentioned as the owner [R6/1/12/1b] and in 1793 Joseph seems to have sold it to Jeremy Fish Palmer [R6/1/12/1c] who died in 1799. Finally in 1800 Miss Foster is stated to have acquired the farm from Fish Palmer’s estate [R6/1/12/5]. There is no indication as to when the farm was enfranchised as freehold though this would have occurred at the very latest just before World War Two copyhold land tenure was finally abolished in a series of acts in the 1920s.

In 1829 [Z759/79] John Foster left the farm in his will to his wife Amelia and children. He died in 1831. It seems as if a man named Pressland was tenant of the farm as a labourer called John Rainbow recalled hiring himself out to him in 1831 [PUBZ3/8/57]. In 1868 the farm was conveyed by the children and trustees of John Foster to deputy paymaster general Morgan Hugh Foster for £10,000. The farm then comprised 171 acres, 2 roods, 26 poles.

In 1900 the tenant was Henry Manton [SF6/31] and in 1917 it was Frank Brightman [WW1/AC/OP2/24]. Owner Arthur Foster died and his furniture was auctioned in 1922 [BMB4/1/27/11/4].

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 farm [DV1/R72/22-24] found that the owner and occupier was now Frank Brightman. The farm comprised a homestead of a brick and tiled cowshed (not used), an open hovel, an implement hovel with a loft over; a  five-bay open hovel; a brick and tiled stable for seven horses, a calf box with a loft over; a wood and tiled four-bay open hovel, piggery and open cowshed for twelve and a small shed. The valuer commented: “very poor buildings indeed”. The farm acreage was 170.

William Jennings leased a building with a parlour, living room, kitchen, box room and five bedrooms upstairs. A barn and an earth closet stood outside and water came from a well. The valuer noted: “Main house derelict. Small house occupied by Bailiff. Buildings fair only. Lot of ground very wet. Labourer 1, Tenant Down (trenches during war). Disadvantages trespassers, wet, dogs (can’t keep sheep), labour difficult. 22/10/27”.

The Bedfordshire Times of December 1946 told the story of the end of the old house, it is unclear as to whether this old house was the one occupied by the bailiff in 1927 or whether the main house had been repaired and was now being lived in, probably the latter: “Five people were rendered homeless in a fire which gutted Brickhill farm just north of Bedford, on Boxing Day morning. The NFS [National Fire Service] received the alarm at about eight o’clock, after Mr R J Skirton, one of the occupants of the farmhouse, had run three-quarters of a mile in his stockinged feet along muddy farm tracks to reach a telephone booth. Because of the delay in receiving the alarm and the highly inflammable structure of the old house, which dated from the 17th century, the firemen were unable to do more than prevent the fire spreading to the outbuildings”.

“Mr Frank Brightman, whose home it had been for many years, told a reporter of this newspaper that he woke up just after seven o’clock thinking he heard a crackling noise. He was not at first suspicious, but later he investigated and found the kitchen full of smoke. Deciding at once to warn the other occupants of the house - Mr and Mrs R J Skirton and their three-weeks old daughter Jennifer, and Miss Bond - he left the kitchen and went to other rooms”.

“In the moments which followed the fire spread rapidly, and by the time the Skirton family were dressed their room was cut off. They decided to drop from the first-floor room which they occupied to the ground. They wrapped up the baby and Mrs Skirton dropped the child into the arms of her husband. She was then helped down”

“Mr Brightman returning to the kitchen was driven back by a sheet of flame which singed his face and it was obvious that they would not be able to save the building with buckets of water. So in his stockinged feet Mr Skirton ran along the muddy farm track towards Kimbolton Road. The others set about salvaging what they could of the house’s contents”.

“The NFS rescued more property from the house, including the ration books. In very difficult conditions they pumped water from a nearby pond and soon had the fire controlled, so that other farm buildings were not touched off by flying sparks. The wonderful panelling of the rambling old house, and the ancient beams had blazed away rapidly, and walls began to collapse making the firemen’s task a dangerous one”.

“As the flames died down only the shell of the house remained. Mr Brightman had only the clothes in which he was dressed and the other occupants were able to salvage little more. The mother and the baby were taken to a friend’s house in Clapham, where, it was stated, the baby was found to be little the worse for the alarming experience. Most of the child’s clothes were lost in the blaze”.

Frank Brightman died in 1956 at 42 de Parys Avenue, Bedford [Z1578/Bed/19/1] leaving his estate to trustees who conveyed the greater part of Brickhill Farm (153.697 acres) to Bedford Borough in that same year for £17,650 leading to its development for housing [Z1578/Bed/19/1].