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Bedford Borough records introduction

The Archives of the Borough of Bedford, Part One. The earlier documents (pre c.1650)

Charters and Letters Patent: The oldest document in the archives (indeed the oldest document in the Record Office by 22 years) is a Charter of Henry II of c.1166 confirming to the Borough "all the liberties and free customs which they had in the time of Henry I" [Ref: BorBA1/1]. Charters and later open letters (Letters Patent) were grants or instructions from the monarch, in this case to the Borough of Bedford. The mayor, aldermen, freemen and burgesses could run their own courts, levy their own tolls and be free of other tolls throughout England. Some of these documents illustrate Bedford's involvement in our national history. In 1381 a copy of Richard II's repudiation of the grants made during the Peasants' Revolt was sent to Bedford. In 1402 the Borough was instructed to send all its knights to fight against Owen Glendower's rebellion in Wales. In 1447 the Borough was allowed to pay less money for its privileges because of the large number of houses destroyed and uninhabited. This series continues into the 17th and 18th centuries, being increasingly concerned with the regulation of the Borough's Constitution. During the Civil War an attempt was made by a group of pro-Parliament freemen of the Borough to give the town more democratic government. In 1684 Charles II granted a new Charter in an attempt to get a more submissive Council.

Other Mediaeval Documents: In 1327, Edward II was deposed. In these dangerous times, 25 men from outside Bedford made an agreement with 24 from the Borough that men from the county might come into Bedford without disturbance and vice versa [Ref: BorBA5]. There is also a late 14th century roll listing the names of tradesmen owing money to the Borough for their market stalls [Ref:BorBD4]. There are six tax rolls, called Lay Subsidies, dating from the start of the 15th century. These documents give long lists of names and some occupations [Ref: BorBD1/1-6]. With the main archive came W.N. Henman's magnificent collection of mediaeval documents dating from the 1270s.

The Black Book of Bedford: In the Black Book of Bedford, started in 1562 [Ref: BorBB1], were written the "Constitutions" for regulating the Town. They include detailed instructions for the cleaning of Butchers' Row and the removal of entrails of dead animals to Offal Lane (now the Broadway) on the day they died. Other regulations insisted that all houses near "High Streets" had chimneys. People setting up shop for the first time had to pay a fine to the Borough. Those who had been apprenticed in the town could set up their own business provided that they gave the mayor and aldermen a gallon of wine. These Constitutions were periodically updated to 1649 [Ref: BorBA4/10. They show how Bedford dealt with the problems of urban life as well as the regulation of the area of agricultural land around the town. The Black Book also includes transcripts of Final Concords levied in the Borough in the 17th century at the Court of Common Pleas. These fictitious legal cases were designed to help improve an owner's title to his land. The descriptions of the property are made in general terms. There are also a number of transcripts of actual deeds included. Together they give a good idea of land ownership in the town and are therefore especially useful to the family historian.

Chamberlain's Accounts: This is the main series of accounts of the Borough from the 16th to the mid-19th century [Ref:BorBD6). They cover the years 1508-1734 (gaps) and 1803-1855. The earlier ones include the accounts of the bridgewardens, including payments towards the repair of the Bridge House and Putnoe Bridge.

Court of Pleas: These records are mainly concerned with numerous actions for debt. By the 17th century these records include detailed inventories of debtors and the appeals of those imprisoned to be let out. They date from 1496-1789, with gaps. As they sometimes give occupations they can be of considerable use to the economic and family historian. Occasionally there are indexes of cases tried within a year (e.g. 1659)

Court Leet: This Court dealt with all offenders against the Town Constitutions. Brewers or innkeepers who disregarded the Assize of Ale were fined. In the 1650s numerous people left muck heaps in the street. Even a man drawing blood in a fight was fined by this court. Records of the transfer of free burgage land (entitling the owner to a vote) are recorded and thus provide a useful source for the town's topography in the 17th century.

Sessions of the Peace (later Quarter Sessions): The Borough held sessions to try offenders against the peace. Royal Commissions of the Peace survive from 1556 [Ref:BorBF2/1]. Minutes start in 1586 and continue with some gaps until 1651. A typical case is that of William Beckett junior of the brewing family who in 1651 was accused of profane swearing and tippling and with two others of attacking William Yeomans of Bedford. He was found not guilty on all counts [Ref: BorBF11/4a-b and F 11/7-11]. Unfortunately there is a large gap until 1750 when the Quarter Sessions Rolls start and to 1771 for the minute books. These records provide a good insight into the crimes committed but detailed accounts of the evidence only occur in the Quarter Sessions rolls.

Apprenticeship Registers and Freemen's Rolls: A register of apprentices was kept from 1614-1843 [Ref:BorBC1/1-3] giving details of the apprentice and master. An indexed calendar is available in the searchroom (Classification 130). A Freemen's List for St. Mary and St. Paul parishes dates from c.1620 [Ref: BorB7/1].

Conclusion: Many of the above documents are in Latin but some transcripts have been made (see the catalogue or, for early deeds, the X67 catalogue). Documents from 1653 to 1660 are normally in English and in a legible hand. Schedule of the Records & Other Documents of the Corporation of Bedford edited by Theed William Pearse, 1883, is still useful. Genealogical Sources in the Bedford Borough Archive by C.J. Pickford (Beds. Family History Society Journal, Volume 9, Issue 3, pps. 20-23, 1994) provides a conspectus.

The Archives of the Borough of Bedford post -1650

The minute books and freemen and burgess lists: The first surviving minute book [Ref: BorBB2/1] of the deliberations of the Common Council of Bedford Borough covers the period 1647-1664 and was published by Bedfordshire Historical Record Society (BHRS) in 1949 (vol. 26). The years 1647-1663 were dominated by the struggle for power between the burgesses and the freemen. In 1663 it was decided that the Common Council Chamber should consist of the mayor, aldermen, bailiffs, recorder and his deputy, together with the Thirteen, chosen exclusively from the burgesses. The minutes show that the Borough was overseeing the Town Gaol, preventing outsiders from trading in Bedford, maintaining the Town Bridge and High Street and administering the Holborn property left by Sir William Harpur for maintaining the School (up to 1764). These areas were the mainstay of the Borough's administrative activities until the 19th century. The appointment of burgesses and freemen to bolster up support for Parliamentary candidates bulk large in the minutes. Increasingly throughout the 18th century bands of supporters of one or other of the candidates were sworn in, especially in the 1770s, from Middlesex and Hunts. The earliest surviving list of freemen and burgesses dates from 1679 [Ref: BorBB6/1], but the records are largely complete for the period 1721-1850 [Ref: BorBB6/2-3].

Bedford Borough Quarter Sessions: The Rolls, 1750-1836, contain evidence of crimes committed in the town and details of some of the administrative decisions made by the Borough [Ref: BorBF4]. The records of more than 4000 individual cases, catalogued
since the archive's deposit here, given an unrivalled picture of life in Bedford during this period. The Quarter Sessions minutes [Ref: BorBF3] cover the period 1771-1955, with a gap between 1835 and 1846 when the Borough was not empowered to hold Sessions. Records for Bedford for these years are found in the Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions papers [Ref: QSM & QSR]. Public houses were licensed at special Brewster Sessions while footpath diversions are recorded in the minutes. There were numerous cases of bastardy and binding over people to keep the peace. The trade of those involved is often given.

The Improvement Commissioners: The Commissioners were set up under a special act of Parliament in 1803 [Ref: BorB1/2] to rebuild the town bridge, build a new Market House to replace the old Guildhall, and to relocate the market to a site east of St. Paul's Church. As well as the minutes, there is a contract with John Wing for rebuilding the Town Bridge in 1810 [Ref: Bor.BI2/10]. The Commissioners' achievements are usefully summarised in minutes of 1 November 1839 [Ref: BorBB1/5). Their deeds [Ref: Bor.BE 11] give details of the sites they cleared to the east of St. Paul's church.

The 1835 Corporations Act and the Borough of Bedford: Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 the only new powers given to the Borough were the appointment of a Watch Committee [Ref: BorBB3] to police the streets of Bedford and to be responsible for the various fire engines [Ref: BorBB2/13].

Bedford Borough assumes the Powers of the Improvement Commissioners, 1839: The unelected Improvement Commissioners functioned until they were removed by a public campaign, spearheaded by the Bedford Mercury , which included a threat of non-payment of their rate. In 1839 the Borough assumed their powers and in 1860 the Commissioners were abolished, their powers being taken over by the Borough Improvement Committee. The Council continued to regulate the construction of new buildings, encroachments on the highway and the laying of pavements and the naming of roads.

Bedford Borough acting as a Local Board of Health, Sanitary Committee, and later an Urban Sanitary Authority, 1863-1902: Bedford's rapid increase in population and residential housing forced the Council to take sanitary matters seriously (Ref: Bor.B 4/2-4). In 1864 the Borough installed main sewers in the principal streets. Henceforth the plans of all new houses had to indicate how their drains linked to the main sewer. Other planning and building regulations were added over the years. The plans (complete set up to 1948: [Ref: BorBP] are a wonderful source for the history of Bedford housing. Medical Officers of Health reports cover 1860-1918 and provides data on the incidence of disease in the town [Ref: Bor.BB12].

Borough of Bedford and education: Despite the 1870 Education Act, the Borough did not provide education directly until 1897 because the Harpur Trust ran the primary and secondary schools. The Borough was then forced to take over the primary schools, acting as a School Board until 1902 (see D. Bushby's Elementary Education in Bedford, BHRS, 1975, vol. 54). The Borough continued to run the primary schools as an Education Authority until 1944. Subsequently, it acted as a divisional executive of Bedfordshire County Council [Ref: EBM] divisional executive of Bedfordshire County
Council [Ref: EBM]. Bedford Borough did, however, run a School Attendance Committee from 1877 to 1897, which monitored pupils' attendance.

Electoral Registers: Bedford Borough kept a separate register of electors from the County [Ref: RE]. These cover the years 1832-1972/3 [Ref: BorBG6]. Separate burgess rolls from 1835-1886 record those entitled to vote in municipal elections [Ref: Bor.BB8]. Ward lists for 1889-1914 [Ref: Bor.BG9] replace this series.

Records of other institutions found in the Borough Archive: In 1794, a House of Industry to relieve the poor was established by a union of Bedford parishes. The Directors' Minute Books [Ref: BorBI] cover the years 1798-1835. Some of the records of the Bedford Regatta, Young Mens' Mutual Improvement Society, the Infirmary, the Library & Scientific Institute and the Race Stand Company are all to be found in this Archive [Ref: Bor.BI3-7].

Printed Material and other items: This section includes a collection of 19th century election posters for County and Borough seats, material relating to Bedford's churches, visits of royalty and V.I.Ps and the opening of public buildings [Ref: BorBG10 & J]. There are a number of photograph albums, including one showing Bedford streets and buildings prior to demolition in 1954-1959 [Ref: Bor.BK2/5].