BOOK REVIEW by Bob Ricketts CBE

By Dick Dawson.

Publishers: Bright Pen, 2007. Price: 9.99

This is Dick Dawson’s third book about Bedfordshire, following the excellent Lost Villages of Bedfordshire. Barmy Bedfordshire is very different in nature, but nonetheless a similarly ‘good read’. It provides a series of humorous, sometimes also touching, vignettes of some odd and unusual Bedfordians. These range from itinerants and tramps to vicars (some very odd indeed), squires and peers.

These include:
• Sir Albert Richardson – ‘The Professor’ – former President of the Royal Academy, architect, writer and collector, who lived at Avenue House, Ampthill, who took travelled around the town in a sedan chair (which was stopped by the police because ‘there was no red light’;
• Charlie Irons, Luton’s Town Crier for 55 years from 1881, who every Spring would announce “the winter is over and past”;
• Reverend William Dodd, rector of Hockliffe, the only Bedfordshire clergyman to be executed for a criminal offence. A popular and eloquent speaker, he was also a spendthrift and continually in debt. He was known as the “macaroni parson”. He forged a letter which purported to recommend him for a wealthy parish in London; he was found out, disgraced, and went to the Continent until the furore died down. On his return, he forged a bond for £4,200 in the name of an old pupil, now Lord Chesterfield. He was tried, sentenced, and hung at Tyburn in 1777;
• Professor W. M. Safford, who arrived in Bedfordshire in 1905 and started to tunnel into the Pegsdon Hills. He refused to tell bemused locals what he was looking for, but later revealed to a local reporter that he believed that Lord Bacon had engraved some of his secrets on flinty pebbles and had placed them in various hiding places;
• Reverend Edward Drax Free, rector of Sutton, who – to finance an extravagant lifestyle – stripped the lead from the church roof and sold it, felled and sold 300 trees belonging to the church, and turned the churchyard into a farmyard. His congregation eventually shrank to three. He was rumoured to have fathered five illegitimate children, and took pride in displaying his collection of pornography. Driven to distraction, the Parish Council had the churchyard patrolled to keep him a prisoner in the church and starve him out. When he was finally dismissed, he barricaded himself in the vicarage with his mistress and fired at anyone who came near. He left in 1830, and died in 1843 having been run over by a basketmaker’s cart.

There are many more stories, equally quirky and entertaining. The book also contains a fascinating section on ‘The Local Press’, giving some telling insights into how reporters plied their trade.

Recommendation. A good read and good present. An entertaining, off-beat collection of little-told stories and personalities.

Illustration of book cover