Chapter 21. Famous Bedford Clangers

The traditional nickname for people from Bedfordshire is “Clangers”, deriving from a local dish comprising a suet crust pastry filled with meat in one end and jam in the other. Bedford has during the centuries been home to some incredibly famous clangers such as John Bunyan who was born a few miles away from Bedford at Elstow. He wrote his famous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, while imprisoned in Bedford jail for refusing to recognise the established Church; to this day, nonconformist chapels, some dating back to Bunyan’s time, are much in evidence in towns and villages all over the area.

John Howard was born in Hackney, in east London in 1726, the son of a partner in an upholstery business. On his father’s death in 1742, he inherited considerable wealth and settled on an estate in Bedfordshire. In 1773, he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and supervision of the county jail became one of his responsibilities. He was shocked by the conditions he found and visited others in England, where the situation was no better. Jailers were not salaried but lived off fees paid by prisoners for food, bedding and other facilities. This system meant that poorer prisoners lived in terrible conditions. Howard’s concerns led to two 1774 parliamentary acts – one abolished jailers’ fees, the other enforced improvements in the system leading to better prisoner health. John Howard visited many countries around the world to see how they dealt with prisoners and during a visit to the Ukraine he contracted typhus and died there on 20 January 1790. In 1866, the Howard League for Penal Reform was founded in his honour.

The Bedford reformist tradition was continued by Trevor Huddleston, born in Bedford in 1913 and a statue placed in his honour can be seen at the top of Silver Street. As a tribute to this remarkable man the statue was unveiled in 2000 by Nelson Mandela.

Sir William Harpur was a Bedford man remembered with gratitude. Born at the turn of the 16th century, he became Lord Mayor of London and founded a school in Bedford, to be maintained by a rich endowment of London land. The Harpur Schools still flourish in Bedford today and are home to four public schools named Pilgrims School, Bedford School, Bedford Girls’ School and Bedford Modern School are all run by the Harpur Trust charity which has seen famous celebrities and politicians such as Al Murray, Alastair Cook, Christopher Fry, Paddy Ashdown, Monty Panesar and Jean Muir.

Ronnie Barker was born in Garfield Street, Bedford on 25th September 1929. Star of Porridge, The Two Ronnies and countless other comedy shows and has been heralded by his fellow performers as one of the top 20 comedy acts of all time. One of the most popular tv programs watched inside the prison was the very funny show called Porridge which was a comedy based on the prison life of Fletcher, a criminal serving a five-year sentence, as he strives to bide his time, keep his record clean, and refuses to be ground down by the prison system.

John Le Mesurier was born in Chaucer Road, Bedford and is most famously noted for his role in Dad’s Army as Sergeant Arthur Wilson and had a prolific acting career starring in over 100 movies.

Another ‘clanger’ that should be mentioned is Frank Branston, who was Bedford’s first directly elected mayor until his sad death in August 2009 after he suffered an aortic aneurysm. Most Clangers will remember Frank for his journalistic work and being editor of the award-winning Beds on Sunday newspaper. One story that he was indirectly involved with was the headline that made the nationals in 2001 where it was reported that deceased patients were inappropriately kept in a chapel of rest at Bedford hospital instead of the usual refrigerated mortuary. This raised question in Parliament and the then Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn) had to apologise to the house and assured the house that a full investigation would take place. This was just one of Franks highlights and I was glad to see that a new section of the A428 trunk road bypassing the west of Bedford was named The Branston Way in his memory.

Bedford Corn Exchange built in 1872 became home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and in 1944 hosted the BBC proms, in fact the BBC relocated to Bedford during this period and broadcasted from its Bedford studios. During this period, many celebrities were drawn to Bedford and performed live, including notable artists such as Vera Lynn, Humphrey Bogart, Gracie Fields and Glen Miller. Glenn Miller used Studio No 1 in the Corn Exchange to broadcast live to the nation during the war years and a bust has been erected in his honour outside the Corn Exchange.

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