History of Elstow


Elstow is a village in Bedfordshire, about two miles south of Bedford and is renowned for its connection with John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’ s Progress. Elstow is believed to be a Saxon name, probably from Aellen’s Stow, meaning the homestead of one Aellen who settled in the area at one time. Some years ago during local archaeological excavations an 8th century Saxon shaft of a stone cross was found which would indicate that there was a Christian settlement around at that time. 

The High Street used to be part of the main London, Carlisle, Inverness A6 road and centuries ago cottages stood right on the road side. Elstow was well known for lace making, a lace school was held in a cottage on the High Street, and around 1628 an Elstow man started weaving rush mats from rushes gathered from the Elstow brook. The blacksmith would have kept busy, as horse drawn coaches traveled through the village and would stop for a rest at the coaching inn. 

A number of properties in the village date from the 16th and 17th century, some are listed buildings. There are three thatched cottages left in the village and visitors often photograph the black and white timbered cottages on the High Street. Elstow used to have five public houses but only two remain both date from about 1790 and the post office has stood on the same site since 1700. The new housing developments of Hillesden and Abbeyfields over the last decade have increased the population of Elstow from 513 in 1931 to 1200 in 1998. 

The Abbey Church of St. Mary and St. Helena was originally part of a Benedictine Abbey. This was founded around 1080 by Judith, the niece of William the Conqueror, as an act of atonement for the execution of her husband Waltheof, a Saxon, whose connection with a plot against the King, Judith had inadvertently disclosed. The Abbey did not fall under the Act of Dissolution in 1536 but surrendered in 1539 when the Abbess and remaining nuns were granted pensions.  

In 1580 the Abbey was partially destroyed but part of the Norman nave survived and thus the Abbey Church became the Church to serve the village of Elstow. The Church, which was extensively restored in 1880, is of historic and architectural interest. There are stained glass windows in memory of John Bunyan depicting scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War. The perpendicu1 font at which John Bunyan was baptized in 1628 dates from around the 13th century. The detached bell tower is of the same century. 

John Bunyan lived in Elstow for many years in a cottage on the High Street. His father, mother and sister are buried in the churchyard. Elstow Green was originally part of the Benedictine Abbey garden. Markets and fairs were held regularly on the Green, although they declined in the 19th century, cattle fairs continued until the First World War.  

The village sign, which is double sided, was erected in 1989 and depicts Christian, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, carrying his burden and a representation of Vanity Fayre.  

The timber-framed building of the Moot Hall, which dates back to about 1500, is now a museum of 17th century life and traditions associated with the life of John Bunyan. The Moot Hall was restored and refurbished in 1951. 

The school was opened in 1874; the original building with the attached head teacher’s house (now the caretaker’s home) consisted of three classrooms and a cloakroom and cost £1,163. The school was enlarged in 1930.  The first headmaster’s salary is recorded as £75 a year. In 2004 the lower school moved to new premises on the Abbeyfields estate and the buildings are now empty 

May Day Festivals, with all the children from the school taking part, have taken place in Elstow since 1875 with just a few breaks over the years. The festivities used to take place on the Green, the procession of the May Queen, her attendants and the other children carrying decorated colored branches, made a spectacular sight as it went along the High Street from the school to the Green. 

There is a Bunyan Meeting Chapel in the village, built in 1910 and housing a beautiful stained glass window depicting The Pilgrim’s Progress. The village war memorial is a truncated nine-foot high obelisk of Cornish granite. 

Football and cricket have been played in Elstow for nearly a century. The present Sports and Social Centre was built in 1988 and is owned by the Elstow Playing Field Association, along with the children’s play area. From 1730 to 1874 there was a racecourse in the village and a Royal Agricultural Show was held in July 1874. 

Before the Second World War a van with paraffin and oil used to visit the village, as did a horse drawn fish and chip van - Chips one penny a bag! For several years after the war tradesmen selling linen, bread, cakes, etc., whilst a man on a bicycle sold fresh fish visited the village regularly. Elstow had 15 evacuees from London billeted in the village during the last war.

  March 2003M.M.H.