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Bedford Highlanders

Bedford Billets

Places > Bedford > First World War > Regiments | Bedford Highlanders Home

"There are only 40,000 inhabitants here, and with 25,000 troops billeted on them you can understand there is hardly a house without men in it: and yet they say that they hope we won't go for a long time. And that when we do go they hope they will have more Scotties come to take our place."
Letter from Capt. Stewart Coats, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Bedford 1915

Bedford rallied to support the soldiers and worked hard to look after the well-being of the men. Many households which didn't have soldiers living with them, opened their homes to men who were living in unfurnished billets, providing hot baths and laundry facilities amongst other things.

Men of the 6th Seaforth Highlanders outside billets on St.Michael's Road

Men of the 6th Seaforth Highlanders outside their unfurnished billet in St. Michael's Road, Bedford. Photographed by A. W. Pierce of Nottingham in November 1914.

As is clearly evidenced by the estate agent's signs, this house was one of the many large Victorian and Edwardian villas in the centre of town which were uninhabited when the Highlanders arrived. These properties provided excellent billets and anywhere up to 6 men would be allocated to each room. Whilst many of these new houses would have benefited from the 'mod-cons'of running water, flushing toilets, gas lighting and even electric lighting in some cases, the houses were unfurnished and living conditions were spartan. The men slept on bare floorboards and had few creature comforts. In the summer months, this was less of an issue, but as autumn 1914 gave way to a particularly cold and wet winter, the men in unfurnished billets were generally living an uncomfortable life. (Photograph: courtesy of Richard Galley)

Men of no. 3 Section 'C'Company, 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Men of no. 3 Section 'C' Company, 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who are proudly showing off their new cardigans outside an unfurnished billet at 23, Goldington Avenue. These men are from the battalion's Dumbarton company . Someone has gone so far as to ‘etch'an impression of Dumbarton in the whitener on the centre bay window! (Photograph: courtesy of Richard Galley)

Men of No. 2 Section, ‘B'Company, 6th Seaforth Highlanders photographed outside their billet on 1st November 1914

Men of No. 2 Section, 'B'Company, 6th Seaforth Highlanders photographed outside their billet on 1st November 1914, somewhere in the 'Saints' area (all streets being named after Saints) of Bedford, bordered by Kimbolton Road, Park Avenue and Pemberley Avenue.
The photograph was taken by A.W. Pierce of Nottingham who seems to have had a special affinity for the Seaforth Highlanders and walked the streets of the Seaforth and Cameron Brigade's billeting area taking photos of the men outside their accommodation. Once developed and printed in the form of Post Cards, he would then sell these back to the men featured. (Photograph: courtesy of Richard Galley)

Highlanders living in overcrowded house

When the Highlanders arrived in Bedford it had been the intention to accommodate the men in the unoccupied houses available in town. However, there were too many men for the number of vacant properties available and so the towns people were asked to open their doors to the soldiers.
"The Officer Commanding publicly expressed to the people of Bedford his grateful acknowledgement of the many acts of kindness bestowed on the men. There was no trouble in billeting them. People who had never been known to take in lodgers gladly threw open their doors, and took the strangers in. Every empty house was commandeered and filled before householders were called upon."
'The Highland Division at Bedford – An Illustrated Souvenir': Beds Times 1915
In this photograph we see Seaforth Highlanders (either 4th, or 6th Battalion) in their Bedford billet. This photograph was published in the August 1914 edition of the monthly magazine 'War Illustrated'. The man bending over the washing basin is a bagpiper. He wears the McKenzie tartan hose tops, as opposed to the red and white diced hose tops worn by non-pipers of the Regiment. His bagpipes are laid on the chaise longue behind him.
These men are accommodated in a furnished billet, where they enjoy carpeted floors and proper furniture. No doubt the house provides warmth, comfort and the additional care and attention provided by the householders which is something that the men living in unfurnished billets could only dream about.
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


Highlanders and Bedford family

The soldiers who were billeted with the townsfolk were well looked after and were often treated like family members by the householders who accommodated them. Strong, genuine and long lasting bonds were forged between the soldiers and the families they lived with.
One Highlander who joined-up whilst under age in August 1914 survived the War and returned to Bedford to marry a local girl and settle in the town. His daughter remembers that he always called the landlady who he'd been billeted with in Howbury Street, 'Mum'.
After the Division left Bedford and went into action in France and Flanders, many of the men would write to their former landlords and landladies providing updates on their well being and life in the front line. These letters were often published by the 'Bedfordshire Times'and certainly for the best part of 1915 the local papers carried as much information about how the Highlanders were getting on in action as they did about Bedfordshire's own fighting men.
In this photograph (Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service), Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are posing in front of 65 Dudley Street, with their host family.


5th Seaforth with landlady

5th Seaforth Highlanders outside no. 9 Beaconsfield Road, Bedford with their landlady and young boy. (Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service).


Argyle and Sutherland

This picture shows Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with landladies and children in the Castle Road area of Bedford. The landladies paid close attention to the welfare of the soldiers who were billeted with them and they were a force to be reckoned with when it came to protecting the well being of the men.
There are accounts of groups of landladies besieging overworked Adjutants with complaints that the men were returning home late for their suppers after a hard day's training.
When disease struck the Division in the winter of 1914/15, many of the land ladies would not allow the sick soldiers in their homes to be taken to hospital as they believed the authorities were not doing enough to look after the men and trusted only themselves to do the job properly.
The children of the town adored the Highlanders who with their distinctive uniforms, strong regional accents and different ways, had something of an exotic aura about them. This was not too dissimilar to the experience nearly 30 years later when American servicemen became a familiar sight in and around Bedford.

no. 3 section 'C' company, 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

One of the men of no. 3 Section 'C'Company, 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders outside his billet at 23, Goldington Avenue. November 1914
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


'Wee Jock'

'Wee Jock'– a diminutive Seaforth Highlander (either 4th, or 6th battalion) outside his Bedford billet.
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


5th Seaforth Highlanders

Two likely looking lads of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders outside their billet at 46, Clarendon Street, Bedford.
From head to toe, the uniform of the 5th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders differed significantly from all other Seaforth Highlander battalions. They wore a Glengarry with a different pattern of dicing (the checked band around the hat) which was similar to that worn by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The 5th Seaforth had their own cap badge and they wore the Sutherland tartan, rather than the McKenzie. Their dress sporrans were dark brown with two white tails, as opposed to white with two dark brown tails and finally, their hose tops were diced red and bottle green, rather than red and white.
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders

This photo in the form of a post card was sent to Mr. R. Welsh, 28 Grafton Street, Glasgow, by one of the men in who posed for the picture. He was a member of the 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders and was billeted at 24, De Parys Avenue (24, De Parys Avenue is located directly opposite the entrance to Burnaby Road). The message on the back of the card reads:

"24 de Parys Avenue
H Coy 4th Seaforth Highlanders Bedford -12.9.14
Dear Bob,
Getting here A1, no word of shifting yet.
We are having inoculations against typhoid fever today. Kind of vaccination business.
This photo is taken outside the empty house we stayed in. Each Co. (this is some of them) is about 100 strong now.
Piles of recruits have joined us from London and Bedford. Bn. is 30 men over strength now.
How is Jock getting on? He will be starting shortly.
Good luck,

(Photo: Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service)


Members of the 6th Seaforth Highlanders

Members of the 6th Seaforth Highlanders outside their billet in the Saints' area of Bedford. A local civilian is included in the group.
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


Sergeant A. Brownson of the  4th Cameron Highlanders.

Sergeant A. Brownson of the 4th Cameron Highlanders. Photographed outside his billet in the Clapham Road area of Bedford, by A. W. Pierce of Nottingham.
In October 1918, Assistant Quartermaster Sergeant A Brownson, Cameron Highlanders was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation for this award reading:
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Though forty-nine years of age and with twenty seven years'service, this N.C.O. has endured the rigours of the campaign for nearly three years at the front, performing his duties, often under difficult and dangerous conditions, with a zeal and ability worthy of the highest praise. He has never failed to deliver personally the stores and rations to the Brigade, when in the front line, frequently under very heavy fire, during some of the hardest fighting of the war. His devotion to duty has been a very fine example."
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


Gordon Higlanders on Spenser Road.

Gordon Highlanders photographed outside 17, Spenser Road, Bedford. This photograph is in the collection of Mr. Christopher Macdonald whose grandfather was a member of the 4th Gordon Highlanders.


Billeting slip   Billeting slip Billeting slip

Original Seaforth Highlander billeting slips for properties in Wellington Street and Foster Hill Road. Those people who had soldiers billeted with them, or in property that they owned, were paid a daily allowance by the Army. In today's money the amounts were roughly equivalent to:
Furnished billet - 4p per private soldier / Non-Commissioned Officer - 15p per officer
Unfurnished billet - 1½p per man, regardless of rank
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)


Bedford postcard

This post card was sent from Private Jack Watling to his mother in 1916, long after the Scots had left town. Although it is meant to be a humorous depiction of a soldier's life in a Bedford billet, it does accurately portray the conditions which the Highlanders who were placed in unfurnished houses had to face, particularly in the first couple of months of their time in town. Sleeping on bare floorboards, using a Great Coat as a blanket and kit bag as a pillow.
The modern houses-cum-billets offered creature comforts that many of the soldiers had never experienced before; hot and cold running water and gas to burn. "There were many men of most excellent character who came with us from Scotland, who had rarely seen a house like any one of these Bedford residential properties and who had certainly never been inside one. One such soldier after a long day in the country was washing his socks in that small compartment described by the House Agent as a 'Gent's Cloak'. "What do I do when I want any more water, Jock?" he shouted to his companion in the room outside. "Pull the Plug" [chain]. "Christ!" he exclaimed as he watched their departure." 'Behind the Lines'; Col W.N. Nicholson, CMG, DSO – Jonathan Cape Ltd 1939
(photo: courtesy of Richard Galley)

Page last updated: 15th July 2014