Mark Rutherford's Bedford, by Nick Wilde
The Birthplace Plaque and the Swan Hotel
Mark Rutherford was born William Hale White on 22nd December 1831.The plaque
marking this is close to Bedford's only surviving independent new bookshop
"County Town Books". The original building has been demolished but the Swan
Hotel survives. This is where the Bedford Times Coach deposited and picked
up its passengers to and from London. "It was horsed with four magnificent
cream-coloured horses, and did the fifty miles from Bedford to London at
very nearly ten miles an hour or twelve miles actual speed, excluding
stoppages for change. Barring accidents it was always punctual to a minute,
and every evening, except Sundays, exactly as the clock of St. Paul's struck
eight, it crossed the bridge. I have know it wait before entering the town
if it were five or six minutes too soon, a kind of polish or artistic
completeness being thereby given to a performance in which much pride was
taken". (Early Life of Mark Rutherford 1913)
Mill Street is to home of Bunyan Meeting and Howard Chapel, the latter now
beautifully restored as a nightclub called "The Mission". Bunyan Meeting is
well worth a visit with the Bunyan Museum behind it, small but well thought
out and full of interest. In the church itself is the original stained
window the postcard of which was sent to Terry Waite whilst he was in
prison. If you have time, in the Bedford Museum entrance hall is a
grandfather clock, which once belonged to William Hale White.
The River Ouse
"The water above the bridge was strictly preserved, and the fishing was
good." You can walk as far as Kempston Mill following the river upstream on
the town sides along a riverside path. If you have time it is worth going
beyond the made up path and through the fields till you reach the site of
Kempston Mill and then back down the other side re-crossing the river at the
wooden bridge. You can really imagine the young Hale with his boat along
this stretch. Going on to Kempston Church End and All Saints Church adds a
pleasant extra if you have a whole afternoon.
In Bromham Road stands Priory Terrace which is probably where Catherine
Furze's parents moved to in the novel of that name.
Readers of Catherine Furze will remember the scene on the bridge and
Catherine "tearing to pieces a water lily, and letting the beautiful white
petals fall bit by bit into the river..." I am sure that this is Oakley
Bridge since this is where he visited and stayed with Nurse Jane and it is
also the site of the quotation from Notes on the Book of Job: "in
one of the shires of this country stands, or used to stand, a tablet with a
mark on it twenty or thirty feet above the level of the river which runs
beneath, and on the tablet is recorded, incredible almost to the present
inhabitants, that on a certain day the water in a great flood reached that
mark." This stone, marking the great flood of 1823 still stands.
Is Bedford Eastthorpe, Cowfold or Fenmarket?
Many of the descriptions of
the towns that form the subject matter for Mark Rutherford's novels are much
like Bedford but could also pass as descriptions of many other small towns.
Bedford is the small town he knew best so it may be safe to assume that it
forms a basis for his novels. Catherine Furze is the most Bedfordshire of
all with Oakley Bridge playing its part as well as the shop in the High
Street and the Terrace nearby.
The Mark Rutherford Collection, Bedford Central Library
My interest in
Mark Rutherford began when I opened two large leather suitcases that had
belonged to him which contained an assortment to cuttings files, letters and
notebooks as well as books and pamphlets. This discovery coincided with the
150th anniversary of his birth and it was agreed that we should mount an
exhibition and run a one-day seminar. All this took place in October of 1981
with local historian Richard Wildman, David Keep and John Lucas.
Subsequently in later years talks were given by Claire Tomalin, David Keep,
again and Don Cupitt. Much correspondence took place with Charles Swann,
Sally Ledger and other enthusiasts. Charles Swann, Catherine Harland, Mark
Crees, and most recently David French made visits to the collection. Nick
Jacobs launched his Libris edition in the library and all these people are
part of that circle who appreciate Mark Rutherford.
With the help of a grant from the British Library all the original letters
and much other material was re-bound or mounted and now forms what we call
The Mark Rutherford Collection and it is visited by scholars from far and
I had some correspondence with some surviving relatives and obtained and
added to the material but subsequently as a result of an increasing workload
and then a move to Luton lost touch. In semi-retirement I hope to pick up
these people as correspondents again.
Nick Wilde can be contacted at