Stories in the Landscape: Artisan Education in Turvey Reading Room

Part of the ‘Plan of the parish of Turvey in the County of Bedford, surveyed in 1838 by W.G. Wallace’ by kind permission of Bedfordshire Archives.

For many years, Dean John William Burgon was a regular visitor to Turvey through his younger sister marrying Charles Longuet-Higgins (CLH) of Turvey Abbey (1806-1885).  Burgon himself was a keen learner and writer, wishing to pass on knowledge to others.  He had walked around Bedfordshire, collecting words and phrases to write an etymology of the county.   He enjoyed studying the origins of words (etymology), particularly when he could identify the common root of those words in different languages and dialects.  From his studies as a mature student when his father’s business failed, he knew the origin of etymology is from the two Greek words one meaning “true sense” and the other “the study of”.  He continued to collect Bedfordshire customs, local sayings and dialect words for thirty years, publishing a collection in 1867.

In 1847 his published articles on classical art brought him into the artistic group in Oxford which consisted of print sellers, publishers and his friend C.L. Dodgson.  With his first brother-in-law, the Rector of Houghton Conquest, he became concerned about the quality of scriptural teaching for the semi-literate Bedfordshire parishioners as well as believing good art should be available to the working population.  They published “Cottage Prints for Distribution Among the Poor” in 1849 to offer affordable prints to decorate rooms.  These were on Christian themes all produced by “accepted masters”.   By 1851 in later editions, they wrote “We are still of the opinion that, protected by cheap frames, such small pictures as these might with advantage find their way into the dwellings of the poor…. Nor do we abandon the notion that they would be useful as rewards for the children of a Sunday-School.”

His interest in educating the wider population beyond his own and his first brother-in-law’s parishioners, caused him to admire his second brother-in-law CLH because he observed so many examples of CLH working to improve the religious and secular learning of the people of Turvey.  Burgon explained that CLH created “Clubs” for the “benefit of the parishioners in sickness and old age”,  ensuring “every Monday he religiously set apart for the business connected with them”.  “In the same spirit” he was teaching in the Sunday School.

El Deir, Petra

CLH funded the building of the Reading Room in 1832/33 which provided a good library of books, newspapers and magazines eventually including two copies of Burgon’s poems (1885).  The quoted Burgon poem about Petra “A rose red city-half as old as Time”, introduced readers to this remarkable site visited in 1861/62.  The dedication in the book of poems is “To my dearest sister Helen Eliza Higgins of Turvey Abbey…., as one more wreath sent to adorn the grave of her sainted husband” (CLH).  The article Philanthropy in Turvey provides further information.  The Reading Room was used for evening meetings, lectures and discussions.

CLH created the “museum room” next to the Reading Room to house an exhibition of artefacts which he had collected from his travels over many years.  This is now the Manor Room.  Villagers have continued to attend talks in the Manor Room into the 21st century, including stories about Turvey people from Dave Hilson (Village Voices) and lectures for members of the village society, Turvey Bloomers.

Burgon noted that through his undergraduate years and once back in Turvey, CLH had bought high quality telescopes so that having “sufficiently mastered the phenomena of the Heavens”, he could offer lectures to Turvey residents, generally using the Reading Room.  Burgon was told that CLH could “make the elements of Astronomy interesting to the humblest of audiences”.   Burgon was particularly impressed that ready for an “annular eclipse of the sun” which would be taking place on 15 March 1858, he delivered a lecture on the mechanism of eclipses while ensuring his audience appreciated the role of God in setting up the heavens.  Burgon commented that CLH had provided “Two Lectures on the Solar system (1854), and other two on Mechanics (1856)” noting they were “highly popular”.  CLH found the lecture on mechanics was “fully appreciated by the village artizans.”

From those times until the 20th century, the Reading Room continued to provide space for people to talk to each other while reading the books.  Dave Hilson, when interviewed for Village Voices, recalled men returning from the Second World War talking about their experiences in the Reading Room.  The ambition for the Reading Room to remain a learning resource for people in the village, has been maintained with the highly rated Turvey Pre-school staff and volunteers first leasing and then more recently raising funds to be able to purchase the building.

Good Night


Burgon, Dean J.W. 1889.  Lives of Twelve Good Men:  John Murray.  London

Burgon, Dean J.W. 1885.  Poems (1840 to 1878):  Macmillan and Co. London

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Entry for Dean John William Burgon.  Oxford

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