The History of Bedfords Park, Havering-atte-Bower

This week’s post is not so much about a building but more about an area of land – Bedfords Park, which is located in the Historic village of Havering-atte-Bower near Romford. The 215 acre park is managed  by Havering Council and the Essex Wildlife Trust manage a visitor centre on the site, which stands on the site of what once the old manor house. It is situated 45 meters above sea level and has  an amazing vantage point which on a clear day gives views across the five counties of Middlesex, Kent, Hertfordshire, Essex and Surrey. The park has a enclosure with a herd of Red Deer, a lake, a number of ponds and woodlands.

Map of Bedfords Park – Essex Wildlife Trust (c)

The Bedford’s Park that we know and recognise today had its origins as a medieval royal hunting forest. During the 12th and 13th centuries are least a third of southern England was designated as a royal forest including most of Essex itself and this included what we now know of as Bedford’s Park.

The Normans King William the Conquer created royal hunting forests after his invasion in 1066. The area was reserved for the monarch alone and by those who had a royal invitation to hunt. Forest law made all noble animals of the forest such as deer proceed along with the beasts of the chase such as foxes, fowl of the warren and pheasants. Any villages or land within the forest area also came under the law and anyone caught hunting without authorisation would be severely punished.

Photo credit Laura Adkins

The first mention of Bedfords Park in the archives was in 1212 under an entry with King John taking land from a John Derwin and giving it to William d’Aubigny, 3rd Earl of Arundel with the annual rent of one sparrow. D’Aubigny was an English nobleman who had been involved with the crusades and was a favourite of the King.

Bedfords enters the records again in 1245 when it passed to the Abbey of Stratford Langthrone. The Abbey was a Cistercian monastery, which was founded in 1125 and controlled over 20 manors throughout Essex. We do not know if there was a manor built at Bedford’s at this time or even before. By 1253 the area of Bedfords was 100 acres with a 15 acre wood and a 5 acre meadow.

By 1460, there was a manor at Bedford’s although we do not know anything about its size, rooms etc. Bedford’s manor was acquired by a man named Thomas Cooke who was originally from Lavenham in Suffolk. Bedford’s hall at this point was part of the Gidea park estate and came with it.

Photo credit Laura Adkins

Thomas Cooke was a warden for the Drapers Company and was also Jack Cades agent in London during Cades uprising in 1450. Cooke went on to become Lord Mayor in 1462-3 and was created a knight at the coronation of Elizabeth Woodville, wife to Edward IV, in 1465. He was granted the title of High Steward of the Liberty of Havering-atte-Bower, which was held as part of Elizabeth’s management of the area. He acquired a royal licence to build a house at Gidea hall and to enclose a park of 200 acres.

In 1468, Cooke was arrested, as he had been accused of treason. It began with the arrest of a Robert Whittingham who had been carrying a letter for Margaret of Anjou, Whittington after having his feet burnt implicated John Hawkin’s who in turn implicated Cook.

 Cooke was charge for concealing a Lancastrian plot against the government, which meant that he could only be convicted of misprision of treason. His punishment was a fine of 8000 marks. (Hawkins and another man were convicted of treason and hung!) While this was going on, the Queen’s father raided Cooks properties including Bedfords Park and seized some of his belongings including the deer. Cooke was tried at Guildhall and was held at the Bread Street Prison before being moved to Kings’ Bench. Upon the restoration of King Henry VI, Thomas put in claim for compensation of 14,600 in today’s money. Cooke’s misfortune did not end there. When Kind Edward came back to the throne in April of the same year, Cook fled to France in the hopes to escape the Kings punishment. He was captured along with his son and imprisoned for many days, and was afterwards delivered up to King Edward. Cooke died in 1478, and is buried in the church of the Augustine friars (now Dutch Church) in  Broad Street, London.

By 1646, Bedfords was still in the hands of the Cooke family and was inherited in by Lady Sydenham, a descendant of Thomas. She petitioned that Bedfords needed to be repaired, although she did not live there but let it out to tenants. During the survey it was found that ‘the house called Bedford’s, in the occupation of Thomas Drakesford, … cannot be in every particular repaired under £200.’

A succession of London Merchants owned Bedfords from that point on and none are thought to have lived at Bedfords. In 1771, Nathaniel Houlton sold Bedfords to John Heaton. Heaton was the financial advisor to the Duke of Devonshire and a lawyer at Lincolns in. He would build a new two-storey brick mansion on the site. This manor was his pride and joy. There was a two acre enclosed garden with the rest of his land covered in tress and gravel walks. His agent, John Gould described Bedfords as having “much the appearance of a park and all the uses of a farm

 Heaton was well connected in high circles although Georgiana, 5th Duchess of Devonshire did not think much of him. Heaton was not very keen on her wither due to her ever growing debts to various moneylenders. She said to her husband once – “If I ever found out that Heaton was ever so great a rascal I should be mad to quarrel with him for it would quite ruin us” His purchase of Bedfords was a status symbol showing his standing among the landed gentry. 

 Heaton learnt from those he represented gave him  the knowledge he needed to manage his new large 350 acre estates. It was enlarged further still through enclosure of common land which caused him to be an unpopular figure in the village. He was even called to the Liberty of Havering court in 1774 and then again the following year when he had closed the road to Havering itself and then locked the gates to his new road. However, he did invest in the nearby church, actually paying for its driveway to be enlarged. He died while at Bedfords in 1818 and was buried at the church.  In the church there is a monument which reads:

To the memory of John Heaton, Esq of Bedfords Park

Born 11 February 1740

By who this parish during his resident in it nearly half a century was greatly Benefited    

It can be said that is was probably the most influential man in Havering in his day.

The walled garden, a feature added during Heaton’s ownership of Bedfords, is a very unique site being the only real surviving structure from the Bedfords Park estate. It was used to provide the kitchens manor with food. It is 100m by 62 with walls which were 3.4 m high which were the perfect height to protect from the cold winds. In 1819, it was described as being ‘A well stocked garden with green houses, hot houses and a pineapple house.’ It had a water supply reservoir and an engine which supplied water and electricity to the house. Today the ponds, which were used as fisheries, still exist near the garden, along with a well. Also on the land, there exists an ice house.

In 1865 Bedfords was sold to a Mr Charles Barber who would enlarge the mansion again. Barber would also plant some exotic trees and had a tree walk created on the estate. These trees are still at the park today.

The last Lord of the manor would be Henry stone who purchased the site in 1870. He was the owner of a department store in Romford (the site of today’s Debenhams.) James Theobold, MP would also reside in the property from 1886-94. Around the end of the 17th century Bedfords manor had  a lounge, 4 reception rooms, billiard room, 17 bedrooms and drawing rooms, 2 baths an office and servant’s hall. It also had radiators and fireplaces. The stables had space for 10.

In 1935 Bedfords Manor became a natural history museum and a local records office – Romford’s first museum. The exhibits on show included prints, stuffed birds and butterflies, deer antlers and model toys. There would be a full time resident caretaker to supervise and maintain the museums facilities with three spate private tenants.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the museum would close until 1947. During this time, part of the park itself would be used by the national auxiliary fire service along with the military themselves taking over the house and 50 acres of land. Unfortunately as with many old buildings it costs a lot to maintain them and even as early as 1936 a borough survey reported that the building needed a new roof and the cost of running the building and keeping it safe to the public was getting too high. In November 1952, the museum was closed and it was agreed that the mansion was to be demolished.

A new café would be built in 1964 on the site of where the manor was situated. This cafe would eventually close in the 1980’s. Then in 2003 The Essex Wildlife Trust acquired the leasing of the old café site and built what is now the current visitor centre

Old Café at Bedfords

The front of the  Vistor Centre 2017

Today, Bedfords Park is managed by Havering Parks. The walled garden is still in existence and is managed by a volunteer group who open it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is a beautiful park with a vast history, as does the whole area of Havering-atte-Bower itself. If you would like more information on the park or the area please head over to the following links:

Havering Parks and open Spaces –  https://www.havering.gov.uk/directory_record/38/bedfords_park

Essex Wildlife Trust Bedfords Park –  https://www.essexwt.org.uk/nature-reserves/bedfords

Friends of Bedfords Park –  http://friendsofbedfordspark.blogspot.com/

Havering ate Bower Conservation Society – https://www.habcos.org.uk/

Special thanks to Simon Donaghue and Lois Amos (Friends of Bedfords Park) for their time and help with researching Bedfords

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