Leighton Buzzard Historical Society gives a fascinating insight to the town’s unique and colourful past
Leighton’s sand is the finest in the world and provided all the raw material for the glass in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the windows of the Houses of Parliament and the face of Big Ben. RAF Stanbridge housed the largest telephone exchange in the world in 1942 and thousands of teleprinters were installed to communicate with every theatre of war in Britain, Europe, Africa and the Far East.
A thousand years of history
Strolling down Leighton Buzzard’s High Street into the wide Market Square takes the visitor through a thousand years of history. The town had the most valuable market in Bedfordshire before William the Conquerer invaded in 1066.
Many of the shop fronts today are on the same plots as those when the original market place was laid out. These long thin strips with alleyways in between allowed room for workshops and living quarters behind the narrow frontages. The layout was designed to give as many tradesmen as possible access to the crowds thronging the twice weekly markets.
Church Square and Bridge Street go further back in history. These are the sites of the original Saxon town on a bluff overlooking the river. The town’s market then would have been smaller, sited in the traditional place outside the churchyard gates.
At the the edge of the Saxon town the River Ouzel that now runs through the middle of
Leighton Buzzard and Linslade was for more than 1,500 years an important barrier, boundary, and sometimes even a border between peoples. The river was on the front line when Britons fought off invading Saxons in the fifth century and then again four hundred years later when the Saxons faced the aggressive Vikings.
In 906 its importance was recorded when the Saxons and Danes signed a peace treaty at Yttingaford. This ancient ford on the river between Leighton and Linslade was near Tiddenfoot Leisure Centre and nearby country park which take their names from this crossing point. The Town Council has now bought a riverside field near the site of the ford as an addition to the country park, and called it Peace Meadow.
The ford was on one of the most ancient roads in Britain, the Thiodweg (the people’s way) that ran east west towards Wales from East Anglia. It was a main route that would have been followed by invading armies.
By the time the Norman invaders came in 1066 both Leighton and Linslade were royal estates, Leighton owned by the King and Linslade by Queen Edith, the widow of the Saxon, Edward the Confessor.
The important status of Leighton was underlined by its prominence in the Domesday book of 1086. It is listed under “The Land of the King.”
Leighton’s history took another twist in 1164 when Henry II gave Leighton to a French Abbey, Fontevrault. This led to the establishment of a daughter house of the Abbey south of the town at Grovebury, where monks built a modest priory and substantial farm buildings, a windmill and fish ponds.
The magnificant All Saints church had been completed by 1288, paid for by an official of Lincoln Cathedral known as the Prebend.
This link with the Cathedral is important to Leighton because an early Lincoln Prebend, Theobald de Busar – parson of the church at the time of Richard the Lionheart – gave his name to the town. Lincoln was such a large sprawling diocese that it had more than one Leighton (a Saxon name for a clearing in the wildwood). For ease of identification and to differentiate his estate from Leighton Bromswold near Huntington, this town became Leighton de Busar. Over the centuries the spelling changed dozens of times but the local people finally settled on Buzzard.
Across the river in Linslade a thriving village had grown up around the church of St Mary’s, built in 1165, and the oldest building in the two towns.
Linslade had its own market and annual fair and its affluence appears to have been based on a Holy Well which drew pilgrims from all parts of the country. The Bishop of Lincoln condemning pagan practices forbade pilgrimages to the well in 1299.
Since Henry II’s time, the ownership of Leighton had reverted to the Crown and back to the French Abbey several times because of the constant wars with France over disputed territories. During this period, English Kings frequently stayed at the abbey and many state papers were signed in Leighton.
By Tudor times the estate was owned by the Dean and Canons of Windsor’s who leased it to a series of landlords, some of whom were colourful characters. One Christopher Hoddesdon, who is buried in All Saints’ Church, travelled to the Russian court of Ivan the Terrible and was a spy for Elizabeth I. Hoddesden’s successors, the Leigh family, were more traditional and the family remained Lords of the Manor for 250 years.
During the Civil War in the mid 17th century, the town was on the frontline between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. The merchants and traders of the High Street supported Cromwell’s army in opposition to the Leighs who owned the manor. A disastrous fire broke out in March 1645 during a Roundhead occupation of the Leigh’s manor house and part of the High Street was destroyed.
The town recovered its fortunes following the restitution of the monarchy and during the 18th century was a prosperous market town again. Two major coaching inns, the Swan and the Eagle and Child were rebuilt in this period and thrived. The Swan continues this tradition of welcoming visitors.
Leighton and particularly Linslade changed forever with the coming of the canal in 1800. For the first time both towns were on a major north-south trading route. It brought coal from the north and allowed Leighton’s sand industry to grow from a local to a national business.
All the nation’s water supplies are still filtered through Leighton sand. Leighton’s sand is the finest in the world and provided all the raw material for the glass in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the windows of the Houses of Parliament and the face of Big Ben.
The people of Leighton have always been of an independent spirit and this flourished in the late 18th century when the dissenting faiths, Baptists, Quakers and Methodists all built chapels for their fast- growing congregations.
One result of this was the founding of a school by local Quakers, and also the town’s first bank in 1812. A leading Quaker family, the Bassetts, rose from being drapers to owning the bank and building and supporting major town projects. Their Temperance Hall still stands in Lake Street and their bank, now Barclays, continues in business. Their home, The Cedars, facing down the High Street, is now a school, and the grounds of their later mansions in Plantation Road are today beautiful woodland.
The railway, which opened in 1839, further added to the industrial development of the district and also opened up rapid travel to London. It was not long before businessmen were commuting to London and the gentry, including the Prince of Wales, were using Linslade as a base for week-ends of hunting with the Rothshilds.
Linslade had declined for centuries following the abolition of the pilgrim trade migrated from the sandy fields in the north of the parish to a new town laid out near the railway station. Now it boomed.
Leighton remained a market town and agriculture continued to be an important part of the economy. Produce from orchards and market gardens around the town could be easily and profitably sent to London.
Many other new businesses grew up including brick and tile making, iron works, carriage making, adding to the traditional trades straw plaiting for hats, basket weaving and lace making.
The shock of the First World War saw the Morgan Carriage and Car Works in Linslade turned over to making nearly 500 fighter aeroplanes and the Vimy bomber, which gave its name to one of the town’s roads. Peace brought reversion to the pre-war industries and the development of the town as a transport hub, with eventually more lorries per head of population than any other town in England. As road transport grew the importance of the canal declined.
In the Second World War, Leighton Buzzard became the communication centre for the whole of Britain. Q Central, later renamed RAF Stanbridge, housed the largest telephone exchange in the world in 1942 and thousands of teleprinters were installed to communicate with every theatre of war in Britain, Europe, Africa and the Far East.
Mansions along Plantation Road were requisitioned become the headquarters of RAF 60 Group, which controlled the nations radar stations, instrumental in directing our fighters in the Battle of Britain and the subsequent bombing campaign. Nearby Bletchley Park was one of Q Central’s satellite stations and many other secret establishments including MI6 and MI5
communications were run from the town.
The town was crammed with service personnel and in addition thousands of London
evacuees were billeted in the district.
The population of the two towns drew dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1960s the Boundary Commission decided that the river Ouzel was no longer a sensible boundary between two centres of population that had grown together.
The government decided to bring Linslade into Bedfordshire, thus amalgamating the two towns on April 1st 1965.