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The Reasons for Building the Bedford Estate Cottages

Willington is a village with three surviving blocks of Bedford Estate cottages - all in Church Road. One sees these in a number of parishes in the county, always built to a standard plan. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service is lucky in having the original master plans as well as the respective bills of quantities for constructing the seven different types of "Cottages for Agricultural Labourers" designed for the estate. These are in a document in the Russell (Dukes of Bedford) Archive called "Duke of Bedford's Cottages for Agricultural Labourers published in 1850.

Francis, 7th Duke of Bedford (1788-1861) wrote a foreword addressed to the Earl of Chichester, President of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, dated March 1849, which is reproduced below.

"Observing in the last volume of the Royal Agricultural Society's Journal that the Council is directing its attention to that very important subject, the improvement of Agricultural Labourer's Cottages, feeling (in common, I have no doubt, with many other proprietors of estates) greatly interested in it, and having bestowed upon it much and anxious consideration, I am desirous of giving to others the benefit of my inquiries and experience, to enable them to follow the system I am adopting, so far as they may think it expedient to do so; and I therefore beg leave to offer to the Society copies of the plans and drawings according to which I have lately erected some Cottages, and intend to erect many more, on my Bedfordshire and Devonshire estates".

"My inquiries into the condition of the Cottages on those estates led me to the conclusion, first, that notwithstanding a very considerable annual expenditure upon them, many of them were so deficient in requisite accommodation as to be inadequate to the removal of that acknowledged obstacle to the improvement of the morals and habits of agricultural labourers, which consists in the want of separate bed-rooms for grown-up boys and girls*; and, secondly, that the practice of taking in lodgers had led to still further evils. The improved methods of cultivation, extensive draining, and general improvement in husbandry (requiring additional hands), that are going on, more or less, in all parts of the country, and the breaking up of inferior grass-lands, and converting wood-land into tillage (especially since the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act), by giving work to many more labourers than were formerly employed, have caused a proportionate augmentation of their number, and, consequently, an increased want of Cottage accommodation. To meet this increased want, and at the same time to improve the habitations of the labourers, I determined to rebuild the worst of my Cottages, and to add to their number in those parts of my estate in which it appeared necessary to do so. I, therefore, directed my surveyor to prepare a series of plans of Cottages suitable for families, of different sizes and descriptions, sufficient to satisfy the reasonable wants of the labourers and their families, and to be so constructed as that (avoiding all needless expense) the Cottages shall be substantial, and not subject to premature decay, or likely to require costly repair".

"The experience obtained in erecting the new Cottages already built on my estate has enabled my surveyor to ascertain the quantities of each kind of material required for the construction, separately, of the Cottages shown in these plans; and in the hope that this information may be useful to others, I have directed those quantities to be put in detail upon the plans. I have deemed it best not to have the prices added, because prices vary in different localities, and, therefore, to furnish the prices of one locality would be useless, and might mislead. The quantities being given, it will be easy to add the prices they bear in other places in which the erection of Cottages according to those plans may be desired".

"As the Cottages of many landed proprietors may be, and probably are, in a state similar to my own, it appears to me that the information, founded on actual experience, which I have obtained on the subject of Cottage-building, and which is embodied in these plans, may be acceptable and generally useful".

"Cottage-building (except to a Cottage speculator who exacts immoderate rents for scanty and defective habitations) is, we all know, a bad investment of money; but this is not the light in which such a subject should be viewed by landlords, from whom it is, surely, not too much to expect that, while they are building and improving farm-houses, homesteads, and cattle-sheds, they will also, build and improve dwellings for their labourers, in sufficient number to meet the improved and improving cultivation of the land".

"But in adding to the number of Cottages on our estates, there should, of course, be a limit, or we may fall into evils of another kind. That limit may easily be drawn either by the proprietor himself or by an intelligent steward, and made to agree with the reasonable wants of the districts or parishes in which his employer's estates are situated".

"To improve the dwellings of the labouring class, and afford them the means of greater cleanliness, health and comfort, in their own homes – to extend education, and thus raise the social and moral habits of those most valuable members of the community, are among the first duties, and ought to be among the truest pleasures, of every landlord. While he thus cares for those whom Providence has committed to his charge, he will teach them that reliance on the exertion of the faculties with which they are endowed is the surest way to their own independence and the well-being of their families".

"I shall not dwell, as I might, on the undeniable advantages of making the rural population contented with their condition, and of promoting that mutual good-will between the landed proprietor and the tenants and labourers on his estate, which sound policy and the higher motives of humanity alike recommend".

"Having lately had the pleasure of visiting with you some of the Cottages on your estate in Sussex, knowing the interest you take in the subject, and having witnessed your success in carrying into effect the views we alike entertain upon it, it is gratifying to me to be able to address this communication to you as President of the Royal Agricultural Society for the present year".

* Today we are used to houses with separate bedrooms. The many half-timbered and thatched cottages in the county look attractive now but most would have been in quite a poor state at the time the duke was writing. Moreover, these traditional worker's cottage would have one or two (very occasionally three) rooms downstairs and a communal sleeping space in the attics, lighted by dormer windows. We may see the Bedford Estate Cottages as small today but they were more spacious than these traditional cottages and very much better built with, as the duke states, more privacy in sleeping arrangements. No wonder they became known locally as Duke of Bedford's Mansions.