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Houghton Regis
General History
A short history of Houghton Regis

Places > Houghton Regis > General History

The name Houghton comes from the Saxon word 'hoe' meaning the spur of a hill, and 'tun' meaning a village. It would have been an attractive area for the Saxons to settle in with its fertile land and abundant water supply as the source of the River Lea was nearby.


By the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), much of South Bedfordshire had become royal land and the shires (counties) were established. Houghton became Houghton Regis or King's Houghton.

The Domesday survey of 1086, taken in order to record all the land owned by William I in each shire and therefore establish what taxes he was owed annually, listed Houghton as a royal property with its own church. It paid a sizable amount in tax suggesting it was a prosperous village.

12th Century

In the 12th century, Henry I was advised to establish a market town where the Icknield Way crossed Watling Street, as a good source of revenue. The town, Dunstable, built on land from the royal Houghton estate, flourished which in turn benefitted Houghton. (There had been a Roman town of Durocobrivae here but this had disappeared). Eventually Henry I divided Houghton between three landlords. The woods and some grazing land was given to the Priory at Dunstable, church lands were given to Robert Earl of Gloucester (Henry's illegitimate son) who eventually gave them to St Albans Abbey in 1153 and the village itself was rented to Hugh de Gurnay. Over the next 250 years, Houghton and its surrounding land changed hands frequently.

13th Century

During the 1200s, England was experiencing an exceptionally favourable climate which was particularly important for agricultural communities like Houghton. Dunstable was continuing to thrive with many trades established there. The town and its visitors would have been a ready market for Houghton produce.

14th & 15th Century

In 1347, the Black Death arrived in England killing nearly 50% of the population. After the plague struck, labour was in short supply and land workers were able to demand a reasonable wage. Prosperity returned to Houghton in the 1400s as people travelling up and down Watling street, and pilgrims to the Priory, needed overnight accommodation. There was plenty of work for those producing or selling food and goods for men and horses.

17th Century

During the 17th century, much of Houghton was gradually brought together under the ownership of the Brandreth family who remained a major influence in the village until the 1900s. Henry Brandreth, a London merchant, made his fortune about the time of the civil war and decided to become a country gentleman. From 1612, he began to invest in property in Houghton and bought the manor houses of Houghton and Sewell. His family consisted of two sons and a daughter. In March 1673, Henry Brandeth died. His daughter Alice, had by this time married and built a handsome new home south of the green, the present Houghton Hall. Here she died in 1729, in her eightieth year, and her executors erected a number of memorials to the family in All Saints Church.

In 1654, Thomas Whitehead, a native of Houghton Regis, founded one of the earliest schools in England - an elementary school to educate, free of charge, twenty poor boys of the village. It had to compete with the 'plait schools' where children from as young as 4 years of age, were paid for the plaiting of straw.

More schools were eventually built in the area, including Chews school in Dunstable in 1715, but in Houghton, apart from a few wealthy pupils who could afford private tutors, education was limited to the twenty boys at the elementary school. At around 1857 the Church of England built a 'National' school at the northern boundary of the churchyard and later a 'British' school for wealthy nonconformists (those not of the Church of England faith such as Methodists, Quakers and Baptists) opened. By this time the buildings of the elementary school were becoming dilapidated so after much wrangling it was decided to close both this and the National School and build a new 'Free' (charity) school on Houghton Green which was opened in 1881 and provided a suitable school for both boys and girls since the 1870 Education Act made school attendance compulsory from the age of 5. This eventually became known as the Thomas Whitehead VA primary school (it moved to its new site behind Bedford Square in 1967).

In the late 1600s, many of Houghton's residents, particularly women and children, were employed in straw-plaiting for the hat trade in Luton. In a week, the fastest plaiters could produce as many as 400 metres of the simpler plaits, and would have earned around 7 shillings (35p). By the turn of the century, the Luton hat trade was getting most of its plait from China and Japan because it was cheaper and this eventually led to the end of the straw-plaiting business.

The main occupation for men was farm labouring. This was hard, tedious work which involved being out from dawn till dusk in all weathers. Many jobs such as ploughing were done by hand or by using horse power. By the early 1900s, steam engines were beginning to be used for some tasks.

19th Century

As the Hat industry declined in importance, new industry took its place on the outskirts of Houghton.

The arrival of the railways in the mid 1800s brought people and industries to Dunstable and Houghton and between 1891 and 1901 Houghton's population almost doubled. Waterlow's printing works arrived in 1891and JD Forder developed lime works which he sold to Blue Circle Cement in 1912. Blue Circle also opened a large cement works by what was Townsend Farm and began to cut away the chalk from Puddlehill as this chalk rich soil was ideal for creating cement. In later years, the huge chimney and processing plant dominated the skyline of Houghton Regis.

20th Century

Many young men volunteered to fight in World War I. The Dunstable Gazette of 16th September 1914 lists the names of 29 men from Houghton Regis who joined up. Most of them went into the 5th Bedfordshire Regiment and Bedfordshire Yeomanry. A memorial tablet can be seen in All Saints Church in memory of those men who never came back.

The Brandreth family sold Houghton Hall to Sir Dealtry Part in 1913 who lived there until well after the second World War. He loved hunting and became Master of the Hertfordshire Hunt. The kennels for the hounds were kept on Houghton Green and it is said that the hounds could even be heard in Dunstable. The footpath from Dunstable to Houghton is known as Dog Kennel Walk because it used to lead to the kennels.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought both adult and child evacuees from London to Houghton.

Until the 1950s, there were few changes in Houghton. The village green was overlooked by Houghton Hall (the original manor house had disappeared sometime in the last century), the school and schoolmaster's house and the 18th century Red House. Across the road were 19th century cottages built for the servants of Houghton Hall and a little way along the Church of All Saints. Past the green was the old thatched Crown Inn, still there and beautifully maintained. Many of the shops and cottages lining the High Street were 17th century, some of which still remain today.

In 1959, the population of Houghton was 3,750. Today (2006) it is around 16,000. Great changes began to take place. In the early 1960s, Tithe Barn Estate was built. It took its name from the huge tithe barn standing on what has now become Tithe Farm Road. At first it was planned to include the ancient barn into the new development but it was found to be in too rotten a condition and so it had to be pulled down. This new estate and Parkside estate rehoused Londoners who came to work in the car and truck factories in and around Dunstable and Luton. For many it was the only chance of owning a home of their own in a time of acute housing shortage.

By 1970, the town centre had been modernized to include a youth centre, Library and clinic. The old High Street was largely demolished and redeveloped and the village farmland turned into housing and industrial estates. Houghton Regis officially became a town in 1980. The town has continued to grow and expand but reminders of the past are still in evidence.


  • A father and his daughter by P Bell, in Bedfordshire Magazine, vol. 9, pages 201-204
  • Houghton Regis by E Rayner, in Bedfordshire Magazine, vol. 13, pages 349-354
  • Old Houghton, by P Lovering (Book Castle, 1988)
  • Old Houghton Regis, by D Lowe (Beds Education Service, 1980)
  • Royal Houghton, by P Lovering (Book Castle, 1986)
  • The parish of Houghton Regis, by L Blackburn (Parish Church, 1976)

A short history of Houghton Regis by Bedfordshire Libraries, 2006

Page last updated: 29th January 2014