Joshua Hawkins – Politician, Magistrate and Five Times Mayor of Bedford
by Linda Ayres
Joshua Hawkins was a man of rare energy, enterprise, and a public spirit hard to equal. He was also a fervent politician. In the thirteen years he lived in Bedford he certainly made a lasting impression on the town.
Joshua Hawkins was born on the 6th June 1845 in the village of East Ogwell, near Newton Abbot, South Devon. He was the eldest of three children born to Ann (nee Field) and John Hawkins. His father was a baker employing two servants. John and Ann Hawkins were strict Wesleyans. They sent Joshua to the Wesleyan Collegiate Institute at Trull, Somerset. After he finished his studies, he moved to Oxford as Minister of the Wesleyan Chapel. On the 26th August 1869, he married Hester Periam Lewis at the Wesleyan Chapel in her home town of Wantage. Hester was the youngest daughter of Sarah and Joseph Lewis. After their marriage, they moved firstly to 4 Rock Terrace, Warwickshire, then to Bournemouth and Surrey. Joshua grew disillusioned by the limitations of the Wesleyan ministry and converted to the Church of England.
At some point Joshua went to Australia, although why he went there, or for how long he stayed there, is unknown. In 1879 he returned to England and looked for a place to settle in the Midlands, Oxford, and Luton and finally decided on Bedford. Joshua and Hester, with their six children and three servants, moved to Ashburnham Road, Bedford, with the intention of educating their children in the Bedford Schools. That same year, he and his friend, Mr. Arthur Ransom, became the owners of the Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 26 High Street, Bedford. Arthur had also renounced the Wesleyan ministry (as so had three of his other college friends). The Luton Reporter and other associated publications were included in the purchase of the Bedfordshire Times. However, Joshua thought it necessary, as a public man, to retire from the newspaper published in the town in which most of its activity centred and sold the Luton business a few years later.
Soon after his arrival in Bedford, Joshua recognised the demand for larger houses and with Mr. William Ashwell, who was a civil engineer and town councillor, purchased land in the Landsdowne area on which they built large houses. Later Joshua purchased other property in the same locality. By 1891, Joshua and Hester with five of their children moved into ‘Sunnyside’ 18 Linden Road.
In 1881, Joshua led an influential group, which included the Head Master Mr. J. S Phillpotts of Bedford Grammar School and the Rev. R. B. Poole Head Master of the Bedford Modern School. The group wanted to set up an infants’ school as there were no schools in Bedford who took children under the age of 7 years. In 1882, the Bedford Kindergarten Company opened at 14 The Crescent, Bedford, and Miss Frances Mary Sim was appointed Head Mistress.
In 1883, the Town Council, led by Joshua, began to open up the river Embankment between Albany Road and Bushmead Avenue. Along the side of the river was a slum area called Waterloo and this land was purchased by a Council Member for £4,000. It was then offered back to the council for £2,000. Although Bedford Town Council purchased the land, not all Members were in favour and there was much debate and some opposition. Eventually the council demolished the slum with the purpose of creating gardens together with a suspension bridge in order to link the Embankment with Mill Meadows across the river, east of the town centre.
As well as being a Magistrate and a Town Council Member Joshua was elected Mayor of Bedford in the years 1883, 1884, 1887, 1888, and 1890. Throughout his time as Mayor, he was a leading figure in the development of Bedford. He supported the building of the Prebend Street Bridge, the second road bridge over the Ouse. The bridge opened on October 21st, 1884. The design consisted of three prefabricated ornamental wrought iron arches with a total span of 60.9 metres and a roadway of 12.1 metres; the piers and abutments were of concrete with stone facings. The bridge was reconstructed in 1991-1992 and little remains of the original bridge now.
In 1887, many projects were proposed including building a promenade on the south side of the river – a scheme which resulted in the St. Mary’s Gardens at one end and the Cauldwell Recreation Ground on the other. In that year there were also suggestions that a public park should be formed out of the Mill Estate and the embankment promenade made along that side of the river. A suspension bridge for pedestrians over the river was also considered, as was a new park, with a pavilion, lodges and gates, (now known as Bedford Park).
A well-known engineer of the time, Mr. J. Webster designed the suspension bridge. At first, the plan was to construct a straight girder bridge, but it was found difficult to assemble the necessary strength with elegance and lightness of a bridge adapted to the surrounding area. The result was to build a lattice girder structure. So as not to obstruct the view most of the stonework was embedded in the ground. The bridge is 30.4 metres in length and 1.8 metres wide. The height above the water in the centre is 4.5 metres. The bridge is suspended by iron rods from a pair of bowstring lattice girders and has ornamental sides and handrails. The bridge was built at a cost of about £500.
The fine-looking gates at Bedford Park were made entirely by the work of manual labour using only primitive forge, anvil and hammer. The design is of the style in vogue during the 17th century. It was seen as a remarkable feat that the entire work should be carried out in six weeks. The cost was £350.
In 1887, Joshua was accepted by the Liberal Three Hundred of the borough of Christchurch, as the Liberal candidate in opposition to the sitting Conservative member. However, he never had a chance to take part in an election as he resigned on the grounds of ill health in April 1888.
The 11th of July 1888 was declared a public holiday in Bedford and was termed the ‘Great Inauguration Day’. The Marquis of Tavistock opened Bedford Park, the Suspension Bridge, and Duck Mill Recreation Ground (now known as Mill Meadows) and Joshua and Samuel Whitbread, M.P. laid the memorial stone in the wall of the Fire Station in Mill Street. Unfortunately the weather was cold that day and Joshua, being unwell, was unable to attend the ceremonies in the town and the banquet in the Corn Exchange.
About three years before he died Joshua went to Australia. It was soon after his return to England that his health declined, and the gravity of his illness was not evident until his few final months. In the hope of recovering his health, he had gone to stay at the Albany Hotel, Hastings with Hester, their 19-year-old son Lewis and their 13-year-old daughter Evelyn. On Saturday 23rd April 1892, Joshua had a better night than usual, but at about half past five on the Sunday morning he asked the nurse to call Hester, who was resting in an adjoining room. When Hester reached his bedside Joshua turned his head towards her, closed his eyes, and within five minutes he died. The cause of death was granular kidney disease. At the time of his death Joshua was a Liberal candidate for Stafford.
Mr Oliver C. Coombs, Mr A Ransom, and Mr M. Sharman accompanied his remains by train from Hastings on the afternoon of Tuesday 26th April arriving at the Midland Road Station at 3.38. They were then taken to the family home ‘Sunnyside’, Linden Road, Bedford, under the direction of Mr Thomas E. Rose.
The flags of the Liberal Club and the Harpur Schools flew at half-mast through the week until Thursday, 28th April 1892, the day of the funeral. On the day of the funeral, all businesses in the town closed and many houses with blinds were drawn. At two o’clock the Trinity Church bell began to toll and by half-past-two, crowds lined the streets along the route. In St. Paul’s Church the polished oak coffin with brass fittings was borne up on the nave, placed under the tower, and covered by floral tributes.
After the service while a muffled peel rung, the cortege made its way to the cemetery and Mrs Hawkins asked that because of the bad weather, all mourners were to keep their hats on. Along the route to the cemetery hundreds of people lined the streets. There were no less than 2,000 people in the cemetery grounds. The mourners having left the scene, the public filed slowly past the grave to take a last look at the coffin, which bore the following inscription:
The brick lined grave on the hillside, looking down upon the town he loved so well, is a little to the northeast of the chapel in a quiet isolated corner and sheltered by shrubs and evergreen. Grave Ref: E5.56
On the 12th March 2019, the Mayor of Bedford, Dave Hodgson, attended the unveiling of a Blue Plaque at “Sunnyside”, Linden Road, Bedford, the former home of Joshua and Hester Hawkins (now the YMCA).
Dorking Advertiser 14th April 1888
Bedfordshire Times & Independent 30th April 1892
Luton Reporter, Beds, and Herts News Saturday 30th April 1892
The Bedfordshire Mercury Saturday April 30th, 1892
The Ampthill & District News, 30th April 1892
Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Bedfordshire Times and Independent January 5th, 1895
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