Some Notes on the History of Kempston High Street
By Peter C. Horn
The High Street is one of the oldest streets in Kempston, stretching from the Memorial, near the roundabout at the east end, to the Biddenham turn at the west end (Bell End). The Conservation Area stretches from Wyatt Road down to Bell End.
The Great Fire
This fire started on the 27th February 1826 and destroyed 40 houses. A fund for the victims raised £344. 13. 00. No account of the fire has come down to us but, from certain records discussed below, it probably affected the dwellings on the north side of the High Street and to the west of the King William Public House.
According to the History compiled by the Kempston Town Council, the fire included part of the King William Public House. This suggests that the King William was at the end of the 40 dwellings affected by the fire. According to the information that came down the generations to Eve Church, who lived c1910 in the large house (30 High Street; a site later renumbered 54 High Street) just to the east of the King William, most of the high street was demolished, only the King William Inn and my home (30 High Street) surviving. Of course this is an exaggeration because the High Street, one would think, would have consisted of more than 40 dwellings. However, it seems that 30 High Street was not affected by the fire and therefore it looks likely that the fire was to the west of the King William Public House. The next thing to establish is how far west of the King William did the fire extend.
The former pub, the Three Fishes, (on the corner of the old Mill Lane near the King William), was a former Beerhouse, built by Thomas Francis in 1829, on a piece of orchard formerly belonging to the King William. Therefore this pub was not there when the fire in 1826 occurred. Instead an orchard was there and the fire, if it was to the west of the King William, probably went through the orchard and slightly damaging the King William.
The Half Moon Public House stands on a site of ancient property, which has been traced back to at least 1595; therefore a building would have been on this site when the Great Fire occurred in 1826. In 1745 the owner was John Cooper (also known as Farrer); upon his death in 1782 Mary Cooper Mackiness became the owner and there is no mention of the pub being demolished or affected by fire between 1782 and 1829 when William Moore became the licensee. Therefore it seems likely that the Great Fire destroyed 40 houses between the King William and the Half Moon Public House, though the fire may also have damaged some dwellings east of the King William.
Unfortunately the old Half Moon, which was at least 300 years old, was completely destroyed by fire in 1904 and replaced by the, not unattractive, building standing there today.
Up and Down the High Street
Eve Church, born in 1901, describes the High Street, mainly as she knew it when a child. It is interesting to compare her High Street from the one I knew in 1951 and later.
Eve Church says: At the Bedford end of the High Street was the Post Office run by Mrs Rignall, a real autocrat.
(Today the site is occupied by ‘Caffe latte.’ This building is the original Post Office (Carnall). The building was still a Post Office in the 1950s and run by Mr and Mrs Fielding. Mr Fielding, I recall, had a somewhat whimsical, not to say slightly subversive, sense of humour. The late Geoff Cambers related that, when a lad, he was sent to get change for a pound note from Mr Fielder at the Post Office. He said to Mr Fielder”Can you please change this note?” Mr Fielder said “Certainly” then took the note and gave him another pound note in exchange. )
Eve Church says: Next a building called the Coffee Tavern.
(This name still persists in local memory today, but, like me, Eve obviously never frequented this Tavern and the building, which still stands, is situated further down from the Post Office than she states. She does not mention John Robinson’s Blacksmith shop, which was demolished in 1899 (Walker). This was 19a High Street. The detached house, which was to the left of the Blacksmith’s shop, is still standing; it is to the right of the old Post Office building. It is numbered 19 High Street.)
Then, says Eve Church, after a few private houses, where there is now a garage was Joe Robinson’s yard. Joe repaired carts and traps, especially wheels. Next to the yard came a row of cottages. (This would take is up to Wyatt Road, which did not exist in Eve’s childhood.)
Eve Church continues: Then Gilbert the Bakers and a Sweetshop owned by Miss Simco and then Mr White the butcher who slaughtered his own animals.
(In the 1950’s, Gilbert the Bakers was located at the north end of Elstow Road.)
Eve Church continues: Next was a Blacksmith’s forge; the forge is still there but covered in and now a flower shop. (Eve Church is writing this in 1993 and the shop is now again a flower shop, but was for a while a fruit and vegetable shop run by Mr Whittemore. The shop is roughly opposite the King William, but more accurately it is opposite the brick building that was at one time the Conservative club. )
(The flower shop is quite old and, together with surrounding buildings, is part of the Conservation area. There is a photo of this shop, when it was a Blacksmith’s shop, in John Hillson Smith’s book “Kempston Memories,” on Page 58. The photo shows the blacksmith, Frank Evans, who seems to have been mainly a farrier. Hillson Smith says ‘often the horses were shod in the street, next to John White the butchers with meat hanging outside on hooks.’). The late Peter Ashpole informed me that there is still a metal ring on the wall to which they tied the horses.Also the building to the left of this shop has early air vents incorporated at top of window.
Eve Church continues her description: Next more cottages with long front gardens. (In these gardens, opposite the King William, Bushby Builders built the Care Home ‘Brookside,’, in the 1960s. I can remember these cottages and the late Peter Ashpole informed me that he was born in the centre cottage.
Eve Church continues: four cottages adjacent to the road, then the big farm house called The Barns, which remains and is now a County Council children’s home. When I pass I see the old tree in the garden that we used to climb to watch traffic going past. (The Barns has been altered and extended as a hostel for teenage girls. It was listed Grade 2 in 1964. There are a number of trees adjacent to the road; the oldest seems to be a Lime tree, which may be the tree Eve climbed.
Eve Church now describes the other side of the High Street thus: On the other side of the High Street at the Bedford end was the road to the Manor (Manor Drive). Then, there was a long row of cottages. (She does not mention the War Memorial because she is dealing with an earlier time.)
(A photo showing the east end of the High Street looking west at this time (c 1908) can be seen in 8000 Years, a Kempston History, on Page 22. The cottages shown on the extreme right in this photo were replaced by the present large, unattractive, building called ‘Camford Court.’ More accurately, Camford Court, and also Alpha Court next to it, replaced these cottages and the thatched houses that were nearer Manor Road. These thatched houses, which were demolished in 1961,
are shown in a photo in ‘Kempston Memories,’ Page 30/31, by Hillson Smith.
I saw these thatched houses prior to demolition and I seem to remember them as being not quite so attractive as shown in the above-mentioned photograph.)
Eve Church does mention a Public House pulled down and replaced by a new one.
(This would be the Fox and Hounds, the new one later also pulled down.) She does not mention the Albany Café building, which was built when she was 50 years old (see below) and would have been next in her sequence of buildings.
Eve Church continues: there was Redmond’s bicycle shop and then further along the Wesleyan Chapel, since rebuilt, then our orchard, house and buildings.
(This latter house she mentions would be 30 High Street (later 54 High Street), which ended up as the home of W J Bushby the Builder. See photograph of this house associated with the Eve Church article in Bedfordshire Magazine. Bushby Builders demolished this very attractive building in the 1960s to make way for a new Office Block, which later was also demolished to make way for the houses in Molly Moore Avenue.)
Eve Church continues: next to our house was a brick house, the Conservative Club (still standing) and Foster’s builder’s yard – the only builder in Kempston then (i.e. c 1910).
(The Conservative Club building became the home of Mr Garner the director of Samuel Foster Builders and later used as offices by Bushby Builders when the latter bought and took over the land and buildings belonging to Fosters in 1966.
As an employee of Bushbys, the ground floor room at the front, right-hand side, of the building was the writer’s office between 1966 and 1985.)
(The white-rendered building that stands today between the King William and the former Conservative Club building looks like a late conversion of a former Samuel Foster building).
Bushby the Builders, over a period of some 40 years, built a large number of dwellings and schools in Bedford and Kempston, before going out of business in the late 1980s. The writer noticed that in the Town Council minutes of the 24th September a firm of Solicitors ‘enquired if Council had ever used the services of William J Bushby Ltd in the 1960s.’ The Council replied ‘Do not know this firm. This brief exchange tells us something about the lack of local knowledge in certain quarters and the transience of local building firms.
Eve Church continues: The King William was next to that , then a field and another pub, the Three Fishes on the corner of Mill Lane. (King William Road, not in the same position, replaced Mill Lane (see below)).
(The Landlord of the King William in the 1960s was Mr Rodgers, who served no food – not even crisps. His son, Budge Rodgers, the well-known rugby player, also lived in the King William at that time.)
Eve Church concludes her descriptions of the High Street with: There were cottages for workers at Kempston Mill, run by the Horns, which was down Mill Lane. There was another baker, Clark, a small shop run by the Tory family and another pub, the Half Moon.
The south west side of the street in one area has no houses adjacent to the road because the Brook sometimes floods. Halfway down High Street the Brook is channelled under the road and down Water Lane to the River Ouse. Eve Church says that Water Lane was always flooding. There was a stream running through to the Ouse, fed by a brook running under the High Street from the farm on the other side. There was usually room to ride a bike or walk by the stream and it led to a row of cottages, many still there, and into “Ladies Walk”, a footpath to the parish church (Church 1993). In 1993 Eve Church was 92 years old and she was describing Kempston as it was in her childhood. The farm she refers to is “The Barns,” which at that time was a big farmhouse. She says that Ladies Walk leads to the Church, but this is incorrect (see below). The floods still continue, for example in January 2007, following a prolonged period of rain, part of the High Street was flooded to a depth of 3 feet and the road was closed in both directions. I can remember, during the 1960s, when I was working for Bushbys Builders near the King William, the floods were such that we often had to carry the office girls through the water to the other side of the road.
In 1951 it was recorded that a proposed Café was to be built at 26a High Street for Arthur Mallinson (KUDC Archives). This is an extension to an old house, which became the Albany Café. Tema Music now occupies the site.
During the early fifties, as a young lad, I frequented this Café at lunchtime, it being just down the road from where I worked at that time. The Café was divided into two parts. Down the east side of the Café was a door (it is still there) which led into the workingman’s Caff; in which a main course, sweet course and cup of tea cost two shillings and sixpence. At the front of the Café the entrance was to a more up market area, where a similar menu and tablecloths warranted a price of, I think, three shillings and sixpence. I used the more expensive section only when entertaining a guest.
Old Lanes and Walks leading off the High Street.
Water Lane leads off the High Street, immediately to the west of the Half Moon Public House. It runs north and at the north end it leads into Church Walk. The whole of Water Lane is in the Conservation Area.
Church Walk and the Causeway
Church Walk leads off the High Street, starting as a narrow, unsigned alley to
the left of, what is now, McKenzie Butchers. The Walk does, further along, have a signpost. Church Walk goes past the north end of Water Lane and on to a gate and, at the point where built-up Kempston ends and the countryside begins, Church Walk leads into the Causeway, which is not signposted. Church Walk follows much the same path as is shown in early maps. The Causeway leads towards Church End. The name ‘Causeway’ used in this location probably indicates that at some early time in the past it was a paved highway and/or was a track raised above a flood plain.
Although not part of the High Street, it is perhaps appropriate here to clarify the location of Ladies Walk. Eve Church says that Ladies Walk leads to the Church at Church End and other views expressed today by people living locally is that Church Walk leads into Ladies Walk, or is another name for Church Walk. But the maps show that Ladies Walk, which is a path with trees on both sides, goes from the Causeway, westwards, and directly towards the Bury and was, probably, originally associated with the Bury. Like the Causeway, Ladies Walk is in need of a signpost.
The old Mill Lane started from the High Street, immediately to the west of the former Three Fishes Public House. The lane led more or less directly to Kempston Mill. Mill Lane no longer exists; it has disappeared under new roads and buildings. It was not wide enough to provide access to the new dwellings built around Riverview Way and was replaced by that part of King William Road
which runs from the High Street (which is more to the east than the former Mill Lane) and Riverview Way, which leads into the modern development of the old Mill area.
The above is partly based on personal memories and experiences and deals with certain aspects of the High Street that the writer finds particularly interesting. Many, including more modern, changes to the High Street, are not dealt with here and are left for others to record.
Kelly’s Directory of Bedford & Kempston, 1975
Victoria Walker, Old Kempston, 2001
Edward Wilmot Williams, Kempston near Bedford, Recollections &Traditions,
Ed. H A Carnall, 8000 Years, a Kempston History
John Wood, Kempston, 1984
John Hillson Smith, Kempston Memories, 2005
Eve Church, Kempston Memories, Beds Mag 23/184, 1993.