Cardington, Bedfordshire – St Mary the Virgin

february c 043We are driving south to the festival at Bloxham near Banbury, so the A1 and then south past Bedford is a reasonable route. St Mary’s church, Cardington (TL086479) has a church website here. This website has lots of photos, but no mention of who the photographer is.

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It seems a little odd that there is a Benefice magazine and a Parish magazine. Lots of different booklets on sale inside – a good use for the coffin trolley.february c 006

There has been a church on this site since Anglo-Saxon times. The porch is impressive – it dates to the late C19 when the church had a major rebuilding. On the tower you easily spot the sundial which dates to 1782 and was added by Samuel Whitbread (more of him in a minute). Below this, and I’m glad I read the guidebook otherwise I’d have missed it, is a Saxon sundial. There are some lovely carved figures as you walk round the outside, and the East window is quite splendid.

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february c 036february c 037february c 038february c 042Once inside – and I know we sneaked a look at the coffin trolley book stall – above the door hangs a Royal coat of arms dating to 1779, and next to it is a memorial plaque made of twelve Delft tiles. It was presented by the synod of the Netherlands Reformed Church after thousands of airmen were stationed here during the War.

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The first of many rather nice memorial tablets, and this window by the font is dedicated to Martha Jackson Hillier, wife of a past Vicar. The lady in the middle is a portrait of Martha. There is a useful room, the Centenary Room, at the west end of the church, plus a kitchen, plus a loo (for this relief much thanks).

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Looking east, it is a lovely high church. We worked our way up the north side – with a nice memorial tablet to previous clergy. On the north side is the Whitbread chapel. Samuel Whitbread I (1720-1796) was the founder of Whitbread’s brewery. His memorial, by John Bacon, is the large one on the north wall – the figure of charity kneels, grief-stricken, by his feet.

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february c 013february c 015february c 016At the age of 16 he had been apprenticed to a London brewer, John Wightman, then Master of the Brewers’ Company. At the end of his apprenticeship, he left and set up his own brewery, in partnership with Godfrey and Thomas Shewell. It was located at the corner of Old Street and Upper Whitecross Street, then on the outskirts of London, where there was a supply of good water. In the first year they produced 18,000 barrels – which sounds like a lot of beer to me! In 1750 they moved to Chiswell Street. The brewery still functions, though not as a brewery – website. 135 years later I too worked on Chiswell Street – for the solicitors firm of Bischoff & Co. I was their librarian, which was a smashing job. The lawyers did their legal research, and I trotted off round London to find the things they couldn’t. No mobile phones in those days, so I had a wonderful time … and no one could find me. There were 50 law librarians employed by London solicitors’ firms … and the other 49 were female. There was always someone to have lunch with!

Happy memories … back to history. 1761 Samuel Whitbread was sole partner. Here is a picture of the brewery in 1792, painted by George Garrard. Business was not always easy – there was a disastrous fire in 1773 which necessitated much rebuilding. In 1794 “a large vat of porter suddenly burst and the contents (about 1,000 barrels are ran out. Hundreds of rats perished by the singular deluge”. In 1796 he became the first brewer to exceed an annual production of 200,000 barrels, and he was the first to install a Boulton and Watt steam engine in a brewery.

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He was 38 before he married Harriot Hayton of Ivinghoe in 1758. She bore him two daughters and, on 18 January 1764, a son Samuel. She died a few weeks later at the age of 29. He married again in 1769, this time to Lady Mary, daughter of Earl Cornwallis. She died the following year, having given birth to a daughter. Samuel I bought a property in Cardington in 1761, was MP for Bedford from 1768 to 1790 (then handed his seat on to Samuel II), a director of the New River Company (which supplied water to London by aqueduct), a trustee of the Lee Navigation, the first man to speak against Slavery in the Commons, etc., etc. He died on 11 June 1796 and was buried in this church, close to his wives.

Samuel Whitbread II (1764-1815) and his wife Elizabeth are commemorated on the east wall. On the west wall is this memorial – with about as many words on a memorial as it is possible to get! Also in this chapel is a font of black basalt ware made by Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the pottery firm. This is one of only three Wedgwood fonts that survive.

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february c 014On the floor in front of the chapel, and partly obscured by the grand piano, is a memorial to Elizabeth Blundell, the mother and the daughter. I have never before seen an exclamation mark on a memorial.

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Just inside the choir vestry is this memorial tablet to John Howard the prison reformer – cousin of Samuel Whitbread.  Born in Enfield 2 September 1726 into a prosperous middle class family. He was apprenticed at 16 to a wholesale grocer in London, and when his father died he was left an estate in Cardington. He purchased the remainder of his apprenticeship and went travelling. His first wife was Sarah Loidore, his landlady in London. A lady twice his age, she nursed him through a bout of illness and they had three happy years of marriage before she died. The following year, in 1756, while journeying to Lisbon, he was captured by French pirates and ended up in a French prison “Perhaps what I suffered on this occasion increased my sympathy with the unhappy people.” In 1757 he purchased a farm adjoining his estate in Cardington, and married Henrietta. He was an exemplary landlord. His friend Dr Atkin wrote “It seems to have been the capital object of his ambition, that the poor in his village should be the most orderly in their manners, the neatest in their persons and habitation and possessed if the greatest share of the comforts of life, that could be met in any part of England.”

He was a Non Conformist, but became High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. This bought him into more and more prisons, and he was appalled by the conditions and the degradation he encountered. Within two years he had visited almost every prison in England, Wales and Ireland, then he started visiting prisons in France, Flanders, Holland and Germany. By 1777 he had travelled more than 10,000 miles, and in that year he published his book “State of Prisons”. The work continued – and in 1790 he visited a patient suffering a fever at a military hospital at Kherson (Crimea) in the Ukraine. He caught the fever himself, and died on 20 January 1790 (the date on the memorial is wrong). He said he wanted no memorial “Lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten.”

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february c 021The Chancel is early C16. The altar top is said to be the original stone thrown out at the Reformation and then used again, but it is missing consecration crosses.

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On the north side of the chancel is the tomb of Sir William Gascoign, who died in 1546. He was controller of the household of Cardinal Wolsey, and Lord of the Manor of Cardington. His wives, who are not named in either of the leaflets, wear his armorial bearings on their robes. The brasses are rather special.

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On the south side is the tomb of Sir Jarrat Hervey and his wife Dorothy. In 1596 he sailed on the Cardiz expedition and was knighted for being first over the walls “which he did with the loss of much blood.”

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In the east wall of the south transept are some stone coffin lids of the C13 and one fragment of Anglo Saxon work. There is also a C16 wooden Holy Table, dedicated to the church by Thomas Watts.

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In the south aisle is the R101 memorial. The R101 airship was constructed in the two huge hangers here at Cardington, but it crashed and burst into flames at Beauvais in France on its maiden voyage to India on 5 October 1930. The charred ensign is on the wall, and the 49 victims, including Lord Thomson (Air Minister) are buried in the cemetery across the road.

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There are lots of booklets and web pages about this – here are two of them and some photos. I have taken them from these websites – Roll of honour and airshipsonline – and hope I am infringing no one’s copyright.


Of course, the R101 crew are not the only ones to have lost their lives in War. There are other gravestones in the cemetery.

february c 048In 1917 the Admiralty purchased the land in the village for construction of an airship works. The RAF took it over in 1919. R38 was built here, and crashed into the Humber in 1921. In 1926-7 the one shed was enlarged for R101 and the second shed brought from Pulham St Mary in Norfolk. Airship production came to an end in 1931. In 1938 it became the Balloon Development Establishment – barrage balloons in wartime, weather balloons too. Between 1936 and 1953 it was also used for basic training, and well over 100, 000 recruits were trained here. Later it was used for all the gas cylinders needed by the military, handed to the civilians in 1994, and closed in 2000.

At some point, and I don’t know when, Albert Roberts worked at the base. This was his desk chair, which bears the marks of a fire on the back leg. He was our next door neighbour in Barton and, probably at his death (?1978), I got his chair. At least – that’s what I remember. I wonder if it really comes from Cardington?



I had enjoyed this church – and am amazed how long a blog I can type about an ordinary village church. Then again, is there anything that is an “ordinary village church?” Soldiers from the time of Henry VIII, industrialists and philanthropists, air force personnel, and a mother and daughter who deserve an exclamation mark. I love English churches.

After posting I had this tweet … Trevor Monk @CardingtonSheds “my great great grandfather made the pews when the church was rebuilt”. Family history too!

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4 Responses to Cardington, Bedfordshire – St Mary the Virgin

  1. Gardening Dave says:

    An interesting use for an old coffin trolley Peter. This one is much grander than the one we spotted in Somerset last year, because it has a roof !
    I’ll send you my picture because this website doesn’t appear to have the facility.

  2. peter forrest says:

    I enjoyed that,i was Verger for 6 years there. thanks

  3. Hello, I am publishing a trilogy concerning R101 and would like to include a photograph of St. Mary’s Church in Cardington, which I found on your Northern Vicar’s blog. Just wanted to make sure have no objection ( I have given attribution in the sources section). Please let me know.
    Thank you.
    Best regards,
    David Dennington
    Author of The Airshipmen and The Airshipmen Trilogy.

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