The 1932 restoration and reopening

There were extensive reports about the restoration of the dovecote and about the grand reopening on Monday, 11 July 1932 of the restored dovecote in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent (BTI) of Friday, 8 July and Friday, 15 July 1932, The Bedford Record (BR) of Tuesday, 12 July 1932, and The Bedfordshire Standard (BS) of Friday, 15 July 1932, all of which can be viewed at the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service in Bedford.

The description that follows is largely drawn from those newspaper reports.

The BTI 8 July report observed “It is not generally known that the village of Biddenham possesses one of the most interesting buildings in the county – one of the few remaining examples of licensed Georgian dovecotes. To a casual observer the building, which stands in a field near the old Manor House, might have been taken for a disused farm barn, for it had been allowed to become dilapidated. Its ancient history has only recently been revealed by Sir Herbert Trustram Eve, when he took over the management of the Biddenham estate.”

The dovecote before restoration

The dovecote before restoration

It went on to record “As these old buildings have fallen into decay few have been restored, but it is the intention of the owners of the estate to preserve the Biddenham dovecot and to establish trustees to undertake its care. It is to be stocked with a good strain of pigeons, and will form a picturesque feature of this delightful Bedfordshire village.”

How sad it is then after all the hard work and good intentions of 1932 that the dovecote was once again allowed to decay and was demolished in 1966, a sad loss of a unique part of Biddenham’s heritage.

But, back to 1932.

The dovecote was restored under the direction of Professor (later Sir Albert) Richardson an eminent authority on architecture, who lived in Ampthill. The BTI 8 July report continued “Considering its age, the dovecot has not suffered much from the ravages of weather, but for many years the old oak and brickwork were hidden from view.”

“Entrance is gained through outer and inner doors, and there is an ingenious arrangement of sliding bars or bolts which can be locked from the outside by inserting a peg into a slot artfully concealed under a crossbar of the door. Today these bolts are extraordinarily smooth in their action and were probably fitted by the owner to prevent thieves from raiding the building.“ Albert Church recalls in his book (Recollections of my life in Biddenham) that the secret mechanism was only revealed after both the doors had to be forced to gain entry. No one had been inside the dovecote since 1910. The key to the outer door could not be found, and no one knew about the secret mechanism for opening the inner door which was only revealed when that door too had been forced.

Foreman King by the secret mechanism

Foreman King by the secret mechanism

“The interior is remarkably clean despite years of misuse, and the four walls are indented with rows of holes which form the entrances to the nesting boxes. These are arranged in rows of twelve.” …  “There is room for a thousand birds, but it is not likely that this number inhabited the dovecot.”

Sir H Trustram Eve sent a printed invitation to villagers to attend the opening ceremony, which Albert Church records he delivered.

The BS reported on the opening on 11 July under the headline “How the doves returned to Biddenham. Restored dove-cot opened in old-world ceremony.” And went on “The restored William and Mary dove-cot at Church End, Biddenham, was reopened by Colonel and Mrs Mervyn Wingfield (representing the Lady of the Manor, Colonel Wingfield’s mother) in the presence of a large number of Biddenham people on Monday afternoon.”

“Sir H. Trustram Eve, Agent of the Biddenham Estate, who had arranged the function and was the life and soul of the party, carried out most of his programme in spite of the thunderstorm which was raging overhead, and not until the rain developed into a tropical downpour was a halt called while spectators raced for the shelter of a big barn at the back of the Manor.” … “The rain … could not damp the irrepressible high spirits of Sir Trustram or the Biddenham people, who had thoroughly entered into the spirit of the thing.”

Sir Herbert addresses the audience

Sir Herbert addresses the audience

“Before the storm stopped the proceedings Sir Trustram had, in a racily reminiscent speech, outlined the law of dove-cots, Professor Richardson, the eminent architect and antiquarian, had told of the work of Foreman King, Craftsman Poole and Craftsman Hulett; Mrs Quarry had been appointed Lady Warden, and Mr Quarry and Mr King Warden of Pigeons; and Mrs Wingfield had named eight pigeons and introduced them in pairs to their new quarters (one parlour and 461 bedrooms).”

“The pigeons rejoice in royal names as follows: King George V. and Queen Mary (ringed royal blue); Edward and Alexandra (ringed rose); Victoria and Albert (ringed red); William and Mary (ringed white). A ‘strolling player,’ yclept ‘Tramp Smith,’ played the Wedding March in honour of their nuptials, and the Vicar gave them good advice as to their future behaviour. Schoolboys released other pigeons from their baskets, and they soared into the wild skies just as a silver-blue flash of lightening rent the heavens, followed by a deafening thunder-clap, and flew strongly towards the Church.”

“Several people were marooned in the dove-cot while the storm was at its height. Those who had found harbourage in the barn were regaled with mugs of tea and delectable buns served by Mrs Lilley and Miss Tanqueray-Willaume and a bevy of assistants picturesquely attired in Old English costumes.”

The village ladies in old fashioned costume

The village ladies in old fashioned costume

The BTI 15 July records that Sir Trustram “began his speech in characteristic style: ‘The idea of this village party is to get back to the simple life.’ Life, he said, had become progressively complicated since 1918. Were we happier, or would the more simple life lead to greater happiness? He had read somewhere that John Bull simply could not afford to satisfy his generous instincts on the old scale, and they had to begin over again. They would, he feared, think this village party dull and even mean in comparison with ambitious village fetes which seemed to be so fashionable. But ‘please shut your eyes and try to visualize the dovecot when it was first built and opened and the first pigeons were inserted.’ “

“The then Lord of the Manor (Col. Wingfield’s early predecessor) would be where Col. Wingfield was now, and no doubt accompanied by his dame, as now. His tenants and occupants of cottages (many of them the present cottages on the Estate) would be around him. That should be the atmosphere of this village party in 1932, when the dovecot was to be restored to its original use. Villagers now living had much to be thankful for, especially with regard to the availability of food which the dovecot, in former days, had provided. In the days when it was built they could imagine Biddenham. No roads, no railways, no fish from the sea reached there. No farm homesteads, only salted meat in the winter. Chickens, geese, and doves were important then for food.”

The BS 15 July recounts that “Biddenham people responded right heartily … “to Sir Trustram’s view that “… Monday’s function had another and perhaps more valuable purpose” … “of reawakening something of the old communal spirit and good fellowship of English village life and the taste for simple pleasures“… “… and nearly every inhabitant of the village proper was there, including good old William West, who was 85, and has rung the church bells for over 70 years, and still rings them with zest every Sunday.”

The BS continues “It was in the old barn, after a noble country tea, while the rain poured down outside, that Sir Trustram Eve completed his programme. Colonel and Mrs Wingfield, the Vicar, and Professor Richardson had been rescued from the dove-cot and escorted under the shelter of big umbrellas, and Colonel Wingfield spoke to the people of Biddenham. He said it had given him great pleasure to come down to Biddenham that day. He had no idea of the beautiful dove-cot they were going to see, and all who were responsible for the restoration ought to be very much thanked. He was glad to have the opportunity of meeting the residents of Biddenham.”

The Colonel concluded “As to his association with Biddenham, he was wrongly described as the owner. He was the trustee, and his mother the nominal owner. But he had a strong sentimental attachment for the place. His relatives lived at Bromham, and when that estate was in the market he was very much enamoured with the idea of buying it, but financial conditions were not then favourable. But he did buy a certain portion of it, and in future he hoped to acquire more, and he trusted that this, his first meeting with the parishioners, would not be his last.” And BTI 15 July rounded off the Colonel’s speech “He was glad to hear of the part the foreman, Harry King, had taken in the restoration. He considered that Sir H. Trustram Eve was the right man in the right place, and he thanked him for organizing that event.”

BS finishes “Three hearty cheers were raised for Sir Trustram for originating and carrying through this jolly day for Biddenham. ‘Don’t thank me,’ he replied. ‘My idea is to keep Church End, Biddenham, just as it is, and no one shall ever alter it as long as I am Agent.’ “

What would he make of present times and of Biddenham today? Much has changed in both respects, but much hasn’t. What do you think?