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The History of Biggleswade

Early historical writings suggested that the Gifle tribe settled in the area around the turn of the century, and by the Norman invasion of 1066 there were three manors; Biggleswade - Anglo Saxon from a personal name ‘Biceil’ & ‘Waed’, meaning ford. Stratton - Roman from ‘Straet Tun’ meaning ‘road by the settlement of farmstead’. Holme - taken from the Old Norse name, ‘Holm’ meaning Island.

The Manors of Biggleswade passed through the de Insula family until 1132 when King Henry I granted it and the Manor of Holme to the Bishop of Lincoln as an endowment for Lincoln Cathedral, and Biggleswade began to properly develop as a town between 1190 and 1200, with burgage plots rented out at one shilling per year.

In 1227, King Henry III granted Biggleswade full market town status after an original confirmation from King John and the town’s market was held every Monday before being altered to a Wednesday by King Charles II in 1662. By 1631 there were five fairs with corn, livestock, and plait markets up to the 20th century, while the ancient horse fair continued until 1958. The main charter market continues to the present day, and is held every Saturday in the Market Square. There is also a farmers’ market on the third Wednesday of each month.

Its geographical and territorial position has proved pivotal to Biggleswade’s development as a town and its sense of identity. From the early Roman road, linking Baldock with Godmanchester, transport has been key and in the 1700’s the Great North Road from Edinburgh to London came through the town. Biggleswade owed much of its early prosperity to highway coach trade and the town became a staging post of inns, which allowed travellers to rest while coach horses were changed on long journeys.

The creation of a navigable route on the river through Biggleswade in 1758 offered greater trade and transport links and three wharfs were built to allow the carrying of local agricultural produce, coal and timber. River trade continued to flourish until the 1876 when the Ivel Navigation Trust, who opened that stretch of the river, went into liquidation.

The opening of the Great Northern Railway, which linked London with York and Scotland in 1850 gave the growing local market gardening industry access to the bustling London markets, such as Covent Garden, with fresh vegetables flowing from the town, while Biggleswade received horse manure, sent by rail from London stables to enrich the sandy soil.

Biggleswade’s agricultural links are still strong to this day, with many arable farmers working the local land, including NFU President Peter Kendall, while the Jordan family have been producing their world famous cereal products in the town for well over 150 years. The conversion of local barley to malt also proved a vital ingredient in Bedfordshire’s brewing industry, and Samuel Wells established his Biggleswade brewery in 1764, which later became the Greene King brewery in 1961, prior to its closure in 1997.

The town’s darkest day fell on 16 June 1785 when the Great Fire of Biggleswade gripped the town. The seat of the fire was The Crown Inn, and apparently started due to the carelessness of a servant who dumped ashes from the kitchen fire in the yard near some dry straw. It took hold exceptionally quickly and the fire spread to St Andrew’s Street, Holme Lane and Langford Lane (now Hitchin Street) before moving onto Back Street, the Market Square, Foundry Lane and Bonds Lane. In all, it took some four hours for the townspeople to bring the fire under control.

The damage was widespread; nearly one third of the town was destroyed, including nine maltings and 103 houses. The cost of the fire was put at £22,500 and 332 people were homeless. A national appeal was launched as a result to help the many people who had lost their homes and livelihoods.

Among the buildings destroyed was the Old Meeting Baptist Chapel, and it was lovingly rebuilt and stood until 1968 when it was replaced by a more modern church. Among other churches in the town the present parish church of St Andrews dates back to the 13th century, but there is evidence of a previous Saxon Church on the site. The founder of the Battersea Dogs Home, Mary Tealby, is buried in the churchyard.

Biggleswade was home to Daniel Albone (1860-1906), champion cyclist and inventor, who founded the Ivel Cycle Works, where he created early bicycles, the tandem and motorcycles and built the first lightweight tractor - the Ivel Agriculture Motor - in 1902, the forerunner to the modern tractor of today. Charles Penrose, the inspiration for the song ‘The Laughing Policeman’, was born in Biggleswade High Street, while the pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Ryland was born in the town’s Hitchin Street.

After the end of the Second World War a major house building programme increased the size, catchment and confidence of the town and since then there has been a steady growth in population, accelerated on the 1990’s with the start of a large development at the eastern side, now known as Saxon Gate.

As a result the town’s population has positioned itself as a blend of commuter and locally employed, the current total of 19,500 inhabitants will be increased by the large development  taking place on land to the east of Biggleswade. A large retail park, opposite Stratton Business Park, is home to a number of well known national stores and the Market Square is a thriving and lively place with a tempting range of shops, cafes and pubs available.