James Thomas Hobson – Three times Mayor of Bedford
by Linda Ayres
James’ early life in Wellingborough
James Thomas Hobson was born on 8th February 1817 at Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire. His parents were William Hobson and Ann, nee Tingle. When he was a young boy they moved to Burystead Place, next to Croyland Hall, Wellingborough when his father became the tenant farmer of Croyland Hall Farm. From an early age James helped his father to run his 250-acre farm. It was rare then for the farms in Northamptonshire to be more than 400 acres.
When he was a young man, James managed his uncle’s farm at Isham in Northamptonshire. His uncle, also called James Hobson, lived at Isham, and was one of the largest tenant farmers in that area. He ran an 854-acre farm and employed 20 men and 16 boys. One of the largest landowners in Northamptonshire was the Governor of the Bank of England, Charles G. Thornton, of Marden Hill Hertfordshire. He employed James’ father and his uncle to run his farms.
For a time James drove the London to York Mail coach for one or two stages. The average speed of the stagecoach was five miles an hour. About every 12 to 15 miles, the stagecoach stopped at a coaching inn to change the horses or to allow people to rest for a while or stay overnight at the coaching inn. James often told the tale of when highwaymen held up his coach brandishing pistols. It is unknown if anyone came to any harm or how much money the highwaymen got away with.
It may have been while James was a coachman that he met his future wife, Harriet Hardwick Ekins. At the time of their marriage, James lived at the ‘White Hart Commercial Inn’, at Market Street, Wellingborough. Harriet also lived there with her mother, Martha Wells. Her mother was then the sole licensee. Harriet was born in 1824 at St. Ives, Huntingdonshire. She was the only daughter of Martha, nee Kingston and George Ekins. Martha and George married on 28th January 1818, at Wellingborough, and they subsequently moved to St. Ives, Huntingdon. Shortly after Harriet was born they returned to live at Wellingborough. In 1826, their son, Henry William, was born. Sadly, on 19th December of that same year George died.
At some point Martha became the sole licensee of the ‘Globe Inn’ at Market Street, Wellingborough.
In 1833, Martha was married to her second husband William Wells. He was the licensee of the Three Tuns Inn at the Market Square, Wellingborough. In 1837, their only child Mary was born. In 1838, Martha and William were the joint licensees of the, White Hart Commercial Inn. In that same year, it had begun as a coaching inn. Sadly, on 29th June 1840, William died aged 40 years. Martha carried on for the next 13 years as the sole licensee of the White Hart. On 5th April 1853, Martha sold some of her furniture and other items at auction and then moved back to the Globe Inn as the sole licensee. In 1865 Martha retired at the age of 69 years. She spent the rest of her days living at 16 Midland Road, Wellingborough, with her daughter, Mary. She died in 1872 aged 76 years.
On 25th July 1843, James and Harriet were married at Wellingborough. They moved to Burystead Place and next door to where James’ parents lived. By this time, James was a merchant dealing in coal and corn. Unfortunately, James went bankrupt in April 1851, with debts amounting £1,690.10 shillings (50p). The National Archives Currency converter calculates the approximate value in 2017 as £135,554.60.
James and Harriet move to Bedford
Soon after James went bankrupt he moved to Bedford to manage a large firm for Benjamin Bevan. Bevan was a civil engineer, surveyor and merchant and lived at Cheese Lane, Wellingborough. The firm traded in coal, slate, timber, stoneware, bricks and lime and was also agents for Henry Dalton’s pipes and terracotta chimney pots. The firm stood on two acres of land, on the New Wharf, between Cauldwell Street and the edge of the River Ouse. James and Harriet lived on the Cauldwell Street side of the Wharf at Ousebank House.
At that time the Ouse navigation was private property, partly owned by Franklins of Great Barford and the other part by Sir Thomas Cullum, of Hardwick House, near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. In a short time, James became the owner of the firm and purchased the Wharf from Sir Thomas Cullum. He traded as a coal dealer and timber merchant as well as being an insurance agent. In 1895, he increased his business when he acquired the firm of T & H Green, who was timber merchants of St. Mary’s Street, Bedford.
Ida Mary Hobson daughter of Harriet and James
In 1857, James and Harriet’s only child, Ida Mary, was born at Bedford. Ida married John Oliph Charles Knapp on 1st September 1874 at St Mary’s Church, Bedford. John was the third son of Matthew Knapp, Esq. of Little Linford Hall, Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. In 1877, John was appointed the Rector of St. Mary’s Church, Shenley, Buckinghamshire. Sadly, Ida died aged 40 years in 1894 at Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Failure to Comply with the Highway Act
On 29th April 1870 James was in court, charged with using his cart in a public street without the name painted on it. He pleaded guilty. He said that the name had fallen off. He was fined one shilling (5p) and five Shillings (25p) costs. This would amount in 2017 to approximately £18.78.
James’s offence did not meet with the amended Highway Act passed on 31st August 1835 in which it stated that owners of every wagon, cart, or such carriage before being taken on the highway must paint in one or more straight line or lines, upon an obvious part of carriage, or upon the offside shafts, his Christian name and surname, or the usual title by which he is designated and the address of his trade at full length, in large legible letters in white upon black or black upon white. For every such Offence, a Sum not exceeding Forty Shillings (£2.00), with or without Costs, as to the Justices before whom the Conviction shall take place shall think fit. This would amount in 2017 to approximately £ 135.60.
As well as being a Town Council Member, James was elected Mayor of Bedford in 1875, 1876 and 1888. One of his main interests was the progress of the Bedford Schools. On the 1st January 1876, the New Elementary Education Act came into operation. The Bedford Borough Council appointed James, who was one of the twelve members of the Council and Governors of the Harpur Trust, to serve on the School Attendance Committee.
Presentation of the Bunyan Meeting Bronze Chapel Doors
When James moved to Bedford, he became a strong supporter of the Bunyan Meeting. He was also, a trustee of the Bunyan Meeting estates.
On the 5th July, 1876, James and Harriet, in their second year as the Mayor and Mayoress, attended a large event at the Bunyan Meeting. More than 1,000 people gathered that day in Mill Street, Bedford, to see the ninth Duke of Bedford present the ten-foot by five-foot bronze doors to the entrance of the Bunyan Meeting. The Mayoress of Bedford, Harriet Hobson, unveiled the bronze doors. The year before, the Duke of Bedford had seen the ten bronze panels lying on the studio floor of the well-known sculptor, Fredrick Thrupp. He had created the panels in 1868 and since then they had been lying on his studio floor. Struck by the beauty of the work, the Duke thought that the most suitable place for these ten bronze panels would be at the Bunyan Meeting, Bedford. The ten panels were illustrative scenes from the Pilgrims Progress. Frederick Thrupp’s inspiration to create the bronze panels came from Lorenzo Ghberti, east doors (Gates of Paradise) baptistery, in the Church of St. John in Florence. The Duke commissioned Frederick Thrupp to construct a frame cast in bronze for the panels and to create a door. To protect the bronze doors from the harsh weather conditions, Thomas Jarvis, stonemason of Midland Road, Bedford, built the stone portico with two pillars to the building.
The Duke of Bedford purchased the bronze doors for about £1000. The congregation gave £500 towards the building of the stone portico. £1000 in 2017 was approximately £62,609.00 and £500 approximately £31,304.50
The Final Years
Those who traded with James valued him for his honesty and the guarantee of the best quality materials. When he took on the firm it was small, but he increased its operations to a large and successful sized firm. James carried on the firm as and remained at the New Wharf until his death. Although, in his later years, he spent the summer months at his house that he had built in 1882 for himself upon the heath at Aspley Guise.
On the 7th December 1887, James died at the age of 70 years. The Rev. John Brown, from the Bunyan Meeting, conducted the funeral service at the Cemetery Chapel. Most of his family and many of the members of the Corporation attended his funeral. The Mayor Joshua Hawkins was too ill to attend. Four months later Harriet died aged 64 years on 14th April 1888. Harriet was buried alongside James.
Grave Ref: C2.45
In his Will, James left a personal estate of £9,834. (Approximately £650,860.34 in 2017). His executors were his younger brother William Stephen Hobson of Leicester and Dr. Rowland Coombs of Bedford.
William Stephen Hobson
On 4th June 1857, William married Mary Ann Gould at Belvoir Street Chapel, Leicester. He took over the 250-acre Croyland Farm, Wellingborough from his father . In time, he gave up farming and moved to Leicester to join his brother-in-law, Thomas Rust, in the worsted wool spinning trade. William was on the board of directors of T.W. Rust & Co. Ltd. He lived at Dane Road, Leicester.
The Next Generation
James did not have a son to take over the firm and the responsibility for the firm fell to his nephew, James Walter Hobson. He ran the firm under the name of J. T. Hobson & Co. James was born in 1862 at Leicester. He was the second son of Mary Ann, nee Gould and William Stephen Hobson. Before James moved to Bedford he had worked alongside his father in the spinning trade at Leicester. In 1890, he married Rosamond Ellis of Anstey Grange, near Leicester. She was the daughter of William Ellis, J.P, and High Sheriff of Leicester.
James and Rosamond lived at Cauldwell Cottage, 28 Cauldwell Street, Bedford. They had two children, Owen Ellis born in 1891, and Rosamond Corisande born in 1893. Owen was educated at Uppingham School, Rutland, before leaving to work with his father at J. T. Hobson & Co.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Owen joined the Bedfordshire Yeomanry and in 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Bedfordshire Regiment. He served on the Western Front and was sent home twice, having been wounded. In May 1918, he became a training officer for the American forces. Sadly, he was killed in action on 27th September 1918, . Field Marshall Sir Douglas Hague mentioned him in despatches “for gallant and distinguished service in the field”. His burial took place at the Moeuvres Communal Cemetery Extension in France. His wife Nora and 5-month-old daughter, Diana survived him.
Fire at Hobson’s Timber Yard
Hobson’s timber yard had two serious fires. In the case of the first fire, on 19th August 1913, it was alleged that in view of the circumstances of that time, it was likely to have been an act carried out by the suffragists in Bedford.
On that day, men employed by the Bedford Corporation were at work felling trees on the rink island about 4 a.m. About 5.40 a.m., they saw smoke coming from Hobson’s timber yard. The fire was coming from a large shed filled with deal battens. The men ran to the spot and found timbers burning in a gap about halfway in the piles of battens. They filled buckets of water from the river and poured upon the fire to damp down the flames. The fire brigade came soon after and quickly put out the fire.
The police inspected the scene of the fire, and found two empty string bags at different points, and a quantity of cotton wool, firelighters, paper, and lumps of rosin placed among the timber, which smelt of petrol. There was also a quantity of cotton wool soaked with petrol twined in and out among the timber. Charred fragments of oily paper and sacking were also among the debris. All the materials and timbers were soaked in oil.
A sheet of paper was found in a currant bush in a garden near Duck Mill Lane. It was folded in half and one-half written in pencil in large capital letters “Votes for Women.”
Written on the other half was the message:-
“To the men of Bedford, we say, as we say to all men throughout the United Kingdom, there shall be no peace until women are enfranchised.”
On the back of the paper were the following words:-
“Our leader is taking a holiday, and she deserves it, but we aren’t at present. We have been assured by the Secretary of the Bedford branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union that the members of that Union were in no way responsible for the fire, and she can answer for every one of her members.”
An employee of the Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Mr. Hugh Rolls, of 60 The Grove, Bedford, stated that he went fishing soon after four that morning, and put his line in at a spot near the Duck Mill weir bridge. He said at about 5 am he heard footsteps and turning around saw two young women he thought looked about 25 and 30 years of age, coming off the weir bridge. He said they were of the same height and wore brown mackintoshes. He did not see their faces and would be unable to identify them. Mr. Rolls thought no more about the matter until a young man came up to him, told him of the fire about 6.30 a.m., and mentioned that it looked like suffragists’ work. They may have been there quite innocently, as people often walk in the meadows early in the morning. The person or persons who started the fire were never caught.
Riverside Timber Yard Burnt Out
The second fire to hit Hobson’s timber yard took place on June 21st, 1917, the longest day. It was the biggest fire that Bedford had ever known. The fire destroyed two acres of buildings, sheds and their contents. A large quantity of barley malt in Newland and Nash’s malting next to the timber yard was destroyed and much damage done to the building. Mrs. Stevens, the wife of the Chief Constable, had said she saw the fire at about 9.45p.m. So quickly did the fire spread that the centre of the town was lighted by the brilliance of the flames. Many people that lived in the highest parts of Bedford had a good view from their bedroom windows. The people crowded on to the Town Bridge, where there was a constant procession of bicycles and even prams. A cordon of police and soldiers cleared the bridge.
Some soldiers kept the road open in St. Mary’s while others helped to remove timbers from Hobson’s yard. Every minute, as the flames licked up the oils and paints and wood, the intensity of the heat and light was amazing. The large column of smoke turned into a pyrotechnic display. As the night fell, the most beautiful lurid effects emerged on the steeple of St. Paul’s and the tower of St. Mary’s. The chimney pots were covered with fine old gold, and on the opposite side of the river, the front of the Shire Hall and the Girls Modern School showed a rich reddish light, while the river lighted with the crimson glare. The cause of the fire was not known.
In October 1918, the council gave the firm planning permission to build a temporary building for a steam crosscut saw. J. T. Hobson continued to trade on the Wharf for another 36 years.
On the 7th April 1919, James Walter Hobson fell from his horse and broke his collarbone while out hunting with the Oakley Hounds. He died two days later on the 9th of April 1919. He was aged 58 years. Rosamond died on 21st July 1941, at, Ayton, Glebelands Road, Knutsford, Cheshire. After cremation, a private funeral service took place at Bedford Cemetery. Her remains were buried in the grave with her husband. Commemorated on the memorial is their son Owen.
Grave Ref: F5.118
J. T. Hobson & Co Ltd leaves the Wharf
In 1954, the Bedford County Council purchased the New Wharf, which was required as part of the site for the Mander College of Further Education. To facilitate this purchase J. T. Hobson and Co. Ltd., received Willmer’s Field at London Road, Bedford, later named Kingfisher Wharf, London Road, in part exchange and £20.705. (Approximately in 2017 £494,133.11)
The College, named after Sir Frederick Mander, opened on 19th June 1959. He was the Chairman of Bedfordshire County Council. The college subsequently changed its name to Bedford College.
J. T. Hobson & Co Ltd carried on trading as joinery and sectional building manufacturers at Kingfisher Wharf, London Road, Bedford until its closure in 1976.
A treatise on the Law and convictions William Adam Holton 1835
Northampton Mercury 12th October 1839
Northampton Mercury 24th Dec 1842
Northampton Mercury 29th July 1843
Northampton Mercury Saturday April 12th, 1851
The Bedfordshire Times & Independent 3RD May 1870
Leighton Buzzard Observer 8th Sept 1874
Leighton Buzzard Observer 24th April 1888
Bedfordshire Mercury 15th August 1891
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 22nd July 1896
Bedfordshire Times &Independent 22 August 1913
Bedfordshire Times and Standard 25th June 1954
Kelly’s Bedford Directory
Special thanks to the staff at Wellingborough Museum for their help in my research.
October 01, 2023
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August 21, 2023