An Historical Background
Volume III of ‘The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire’ (1912) contained a description of the two manors which existed in Elstow. Elstow Manor was also described in the Domesday Book of 1086. It has held by Countess Judith, niece of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who founded Elstow Abbey. It comes as no surprise that the nuns of the abbey held the manor from her.
Countess Judith’s lands later formed part of the ‘Honour of Huntingdon’ and the Abbey held Elstow from the honour, which was the overlord. The Abbey continued to hold the manor until it was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539 at which time it was valued at £30/17/31/2. It was immediately attached to the newly created Honour of Ampthill and remained in Royal hands until the reign of King Edward VI (1547-1553). The site of Elstow Abbey and its immediate lands, called the demesne lands, was granted to Edmund Harvey in 1541. His daughter married Sir Humphrey Radcliffe (younger brother of the Earl of Sussex) and he was granted the manor in 1553 at a rent of £85/17/10 per annum. He lived at the Abbey until his death and has a memorial in the church above the altar.
The Hillersden Mansion next to the Abbey Church is a Grade I listed building, the highest category. It was listed by the former Ministry of Works in 1952. The listing states that the house was built between 1620 and 1630 (this is not entirely accurate) for Thomas Hillersdon and incorporated parts of the 14th century west and south cloisters of Elstow Abbey, which had been dissolved in 1539. The walls are coursed rubble and red brick with ashlar facings and the porch is faced with Totternhoe clunch and is otherwise red brick. The house originally joined the church. The ruins of the building is now also a scheduled ancient monument.
In 1616 Sir Thomas Hillersdon bought Elstow Manor from Edward Radcliffe and Thomas Cheeke for £700. Hillersdon obviously thought he needed an imposing Manor House to go with his new status as Lord of the Manor and began building the mansion accordingly. Volume V produced by Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in 1919 includes a transcription of the will of Sir Thomas Hillersdon’s son, also Thomas, dating from 28th August 1632 and made just before he died as the will was proved just a fortnight later. He was only 21 at the time of his death. He wanted to be buried in the chancel of the church next to his father and he bequeathed £500 to his wife Margaret to finish building the Mansion.
The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire states that the house was still standing in 1759 when it was described as attached to the church and as having a large window “in the body of it”. A survey of 1767 for Dennis Farrer Hillersdon states that the house was leased by a man named Wells and that Mansion and gardens together extended over 10 acres.
A survey for the new Lord of the Manor, Samuel Whitbread, in 1781 does not mention the Mansion clearly implying that it was no longer fit for habitation and in the Bedfordshire pages of his Magna Britannia Lysons in 1806 says the house was “now in ruins, the greater part of it having been pulled down a few years ago”. This all suggests that the dismantling took place between 1767 and 1781.
In 1978 the ruins were stabilised and partially restored, and then again extensive work was carried out to the ruins in 2011 in preparation for the building of a new multi-purpose hall.
The plan for a new Hillersden Hall in Elstow – 2019
After deciding to name our new hall ‘Hillersden Hall’ we were left with the dilemma as to the correct spelling. So we asked the County Archeologist David Baker for help. He told us that the spelling had to be ‘Hillersden’. That is what is used throughout Wigram’s history, in the History of Parliament, in the Victoria County History and on the Bedfordshire Archives web-site and indexes.
However on the memorials within the Abbey Church, it’s Thomas Hillersdon 1656 and John Hillersdon 1684. All 11 of Wigram’s entries are however Hillersden; the Bedfordshire Archives use both, probably because others do. The respected first curator of Bedford Museum and local historian F.W. Kuhlicke used ‘en’. Historic England (English Heritage) uses ‘on’.
So it’s a muddle, though ‘o’ does seem to be better grounded than ‘e’. The quaintness of history.
So why the renewed interest in the Hall Project, after all you’ve been talking about it and raising money for what seems like ages! We are pleased to say that we have now secured enough funding to be able to make a start.
Yes we really are going to start building a new hall!
We hope that next Autumn contractors will move onto the site and start the delicate process of building the foundations for the new hall.
Hillersden Hall will be built in four phases. The first phase is already complete. The renovation and structural work done to the ruins of Hillersden Manor were completed in 2011. Phase two will see the ground works taking place with further archaeological investigations and a concrete base that sits above the ground. Phase three will be installing the building shell on top of the base with phase four being the internal fittings.
To help explain this further a re-launch weekend was held on Saturday 21st & Sunday 22nd September. For that weekend there was a giant marquee showing where the Hall will be built plus plans, drawings and images of the new hall along with a fascinating display of photo’s from the major archaeological dig that took place between 1965-1972.
Hillersden Hall will not be ‘just a church hall’. It will be about our Heritage, Education and Community.
Page updated: October 2019