Bedford Borough Council logo Central Bedfordshire Council logo

The Virtual Library

Follow us on Pinterest Follow us on Twitter Contact us on Facebook Home Page What's On Contact Us Help

Shops - General
Shopping Yesterday and Today

Places > Bedford > Shops > General

Shops as we can imagine them eight hundred years ago in towns like Bedford were rough and ready affairs.  Every ground floor was an open grassless shop with a bright shutter hanging over it , and most shops made their own foods within; within or above his shop - a practice which continued in Bedford until the dawn of the 20th century.

Shopping was a noisy business in medieval times.  There were smiths' hammers ringing sharp on the anvils, coopers' hammers tapping loud and rapid, goldbeaters' hammers booming dull and slow, mason' hammers rapping against planks...Hanging signs creaked in the wind, whilst the iron rims of wagon wheels rumbled deafeningly over the cobblestones, and the air quivered to the jangling bells on the churches ringing for matins or vespers...Outside the shops the apprentices stood rattling their wares and in piping treble or uncertain basses shrieking one against the other, "What d'ye lack!"

From the map of Bedford at the beginning of the 16th century, reconstructed by W.N. Henman in his "Rental of Newnham Priory, " we see the Poultry Market (ST. Paul's Square South), Butchers Row, Fish Row, Gooseditch Lane, Pudding Lane, all in the trading centre of the town.  There were many inns including the Bell, the Christopher, the Cock, the Cresset, the Crown, the Falcon, the George, the Hart and the Swan.


Elstow Fair (immortalised by Bunyan) proved a bone of contention in the 12th century.  Henry II confirmed the nuns a yearly fair at their manor of Elstow on the vigil feast, and two days following the Invention of the Cross on May 3.  This grant caused discontent among the burgesses of Bedford, and they appear to have harassed those persons passing through the town on their way to buy or sell at the Fair, because it affected the business of Bedford shopkeepers.

A good deal of land and property in Bedford was owned by the monastic houses - Newnham Priory had over 400 acres, and the rents on houses and shops brought the monks more than 47 a year - a considerable sum in those days.  Tradesmen were quite strictly controlled by the Corporation but their rights were as strictly preserved against any threat of "foreign" competition.  The Court of Pie Powder (an offshoot of the Court Leet) disposed of any charges or complaints arising in connection with the markets.

Tradesmen engaged in "messy" jobs had to observe the health regulations of the age.  Every man having property bordering on Gooseditch (which ran through the present St. Paul's Square) was to scour and keep it clean; nor was refuse to be thrown in "the waters of the Ouse."  In 1592 Richard Pearce, glover, was presented at the Court Leet for "annoying the water by washing of his limed skins in the river."  Tallow chandlers were not to make their candles in any house near High Street, and were not to keel their tallow "untried" above 14 days.

The plague

The butchers, "early in the mornings and late in the evenings," were to carry away their waste to Offal Lane on the same day that they slaughtered, and they were to keep clean the nether end of the shambles, or Butchers' Row, "so that they do not annoye the inhabyters with any corrupt savayer or smell." But in spite of all such precautions plague occasionally visited the town and many people died from it.

The roll of taxation in the village of Bedford in the reign of King Edward I reveals names of Gilbert Carnifex, butcher; Simon le Tanner, and other tanners in Robert de Ocle, Richard Stoc, and John Super Mura; Robert le Corder, ropemaker; Robert le Careter, carter, John Wym, who dealt in sea coal (carbo maris), iron, salt and oil; Thomas Faber, smith, John le Challoner, blanket maker, John Cok, shoe maker; Bartholomer Suter, tailor: Simon Carpentarius, William Rotarius, wheel-wright; Roger le Saltere, salt dealer; Thomas le Draper, dealer in woollen cloth; John Cocus, cook; William Piscator, fisherman; and Simon de Bidenham, butcher.

from the Chamberlain's accounts in Elizabeth's reign the authority of the Corporation over the shopkeepers and tradesmen is clearly defined.  No new business must be set up without the permission of the burgesses.  The customary payment was 40s and lists of "setters-up behind" appear which show a variety of trades including pewterer, fuller, glazier, dyer, tanner, lock smith, wickermaker and apothecary.  Apprentices of Bedford town had to pay 6s 8d, and a bottle of wine for their freedom.

Prices were regulated and the interests of Bedfordians safeguarded.  One of the medieval privileges was that of the gild-merchant whose members, the freemen and the burgesses, enjoyed the exclusive right of trading.  The monopoly was maintained until the 17th century.

The trades

The "food" trades included those of fishmonger, baker, poulterer, butcher, vintner, victualler and innholder.  The "clothing" trades included mercer, shoemaker, draper, weaver, glover and tailor.  The "craft" trades were pewterer, tanner, joiner, cooper, smith, tiler, chandler and cutler.

Probably the mercers were the most well-to-do class. three generations of the Knight family carried on business with fair prosperity.  All were called Thomas.  The first who died in 1522 left little outstanding except "a shirt of canvas to every bedesman in Bedford", but from the Newnham rental he appears as the lessor of a great deal of property from the Priory.

The second Thomas, in his will in 1533, lists the property in which he had an interest which included the Ram inn and nine other tenements in Bedford.  Perhaps the third Thomas was not able to buy this property at the Dissolution for his will (1558) has monetary bequests amounting to 20 only. He also left 40s to his son John, "if he do return and come into Bedford alive and in health."

In these Elizabethan wills of Bedford worthies (from which considerable and valuable extracts have been made by Miss Joan Anderson) references to shops and tools of trade are few.  A draper in 1557 mentioned "all my ware and cloth in my shop," a wheeler (1567) bequeathed "all my iron tools except one hammer." Percival Hudson, a barber (1575) is the only one to give any details: he left to his apprentice the great chest in the shop, six shaving cloths, five basins, two ewers, eight knives, tow pairs of scissors, two chairs, the copper in the shop and the hanging candlesticks.

In Elizabeth's reign there were some business women.  Agnes Renoire widow (1575) leased a malt mill and bequeathed the lease of houses, sacks and other implements.  She left a peck of malt a week to a friend for bringing up her children for a year.  Katherine Smith, widow of Edward (1577) left to her son "my shop with all in it, and my lime pits."  Agnes Godfrey, alias Cooper, also a widow (1600) seems to have combined farming and innkeeping and made a very good thing of both.  Her monetary bequests were for such sums as 120, 30. 20 and 10, and she had a great deal of property and farm equipment.

One very well-to-do person was Robert Goodall the miller who lived in Potter Street. He had the lease of the Newnham watermill and two other mills, also a house and a malt mill in Potter Street.

His fine house in Potter Street had previously belonged to Dame Elizabeth Boyvill, the last abbess of Elstow.

There is evidence to prove that the tradesmen of Bedford prospered and gained power through the centuries of government in the town; also that there shops improved both in appearance, equipment, and storage facilities, compared with the early shops, which were merely stalls with penthouses over them.  The last survivors of this style were the lock-up shops of Butcher's Row, on the North side of the Market Place, which made way for the erection of the "old" Corn Exchange in 1849.

Especially handsome shops in the High Street still in memory were Hurst and Cutcliffe's, with busts of famous artists and sculptors adorning the frontage; Taylor and Cuthbert's, the chemists (next to Castle Lane) whose classic proportions still exist under the aegis of Lloyds Bank; and the upper part of the former furnishing establishment of Gorge Wells with its beautiful Georgian bay window.

It is interesting to learn that Bedford shops were esteemed as elegant and good in the early part of the 19th century; but sad to say, no pictorial record of the High Street about that period is known beyond Fisher's pencil sketch in 1810.

It is now a far cry to the leisurely shopping methods of our forefathers and the days when the High Street was thronged with the equipages of the "county gentry" and the shop assistants hastened out on to the pavements obsequiously to await their commands.  Shops then possessed an intriguing range of scents, particularly so at the big grocers, which is not to be found in present day supermarkets, where almost everything is packeted and odourless.  They are hygienic, doubtless; but less appealing to the nose and eye.

Moreover it is a matter for speculation as to whether modern trading techniques will ever find time for the direct and personal attention and the cheerful conversation which used to form an essential part of "going out for a morning's shopping."

Bedfordshire Times Octocentenary Supplement 1966

Bedfordshire Times, reproduced with permission.

Page last updated: 22nd January 2014