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Famous Sons & Daughters
Bedford has a history spanning more than a thousand years and through the centuries strong characters have emerged to lead and shape the town.
Bedford takes its name from an Anglo-Saxon named Beda, but developed and prospered as part of the kingdom of Mercia and especially under King Offa, who legend has it was buried in a chapel near the banks of the river near the centre of the town.
Bedford has been home to tinkers, tailors, soldiers and spies!
Born in the parish of Elstow, John Bunyan, the 17th century tinker- turned preacher and author of, one of the most well known books of all time, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. His work as a tinker took him all over the county of Bedfordshire and it is believed that many of the hamlets and villages he visited influenced his writing. He was imprisoned in Bedford for a total of 12 years for unlicensed preaching and it was during his imprisonment that he wrote some of his greatest works.
A century later John Howard was fighting to improve prisons and between 1775 and 1790 he made seven journeys across Europe in search of a humane prison system for English gaols to follow. The Howard League for Penal Reform is named after him.
Sir William Harpur, a tailor from Bedford, was Lord Mayor of London during the reign of Elizabeth 1st. He was a member of one of the City of London’s twelve great livery companies, the Merchant Taylor’s Guild, and like many other wealthy philanthropists of his day, he endowed a trust for the provision of education, relief of the sick or needy. Today the Harpur Trust is one of the largest charities in the UK.
During the Second World War Bedford became 'liberty town' to hundreds of soldiers and military personnel who came from the many surrounding base camps. Bedford became the centre for the nation’s entertainment with the evacuation of the BBC to the town in 1942, indeed Sir Henry Wood the founder of the proms concerts gave his last ever performance from Bedford’s Corn Exchange. But no one could have imagined that Glenn Miller, one of the world’s most popular entertainers, would be billeted in the town in 1944. Following him and his band’s arrival, there began a steady stream of stars from stage and screen, including David Niven, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and many others. Bedford’s wartime story is unique, and includes the training of decoding agents and the dispatch of spies behind enemy lines.
Through the decades to more recent times, Bedford people have continued to achieve greatness like, Archbishop Trevor Huddelston, who campaigned tirelessly against apartheid and lead the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela. On his visit to Bedford in 2000, Nelson Mandela unveiled a statue of Trevor Huddleston and said of him ‘no white person has done more for South Africa’.
Bedford was the birthplace to two of Britain’s most loved comic actors John Le Mesurier and Ronnie Barker. Bedford has a proud heritage in the field of sporting excellence too with great Olympians past and present. Harold Abrahams, the 1924 gold medallist and central character of ‘Chariots of Fire’, Tim Foster, Stephanie Cook, Gail Emms and Paula Radcliffe, recognised for her numerous sporting achievements by being voted ‘BBC Television Sports Personality of the Year 2002’, all hailed from Bedford.
Bedford has a story waiting to be told around every corner, with many secrets ready to reveal themselves to those who care to look. The Bedford Association of Tour Guides has a regular programme of guided walks and the Tourist Information Centre stocks a wide range of local history books for those who wish to find out more.Click here for the Guided Walks programme