Philanthropy in Turvey 1840-1900

Charles Longuet Higgins

Two Squires from the 1840s to 1860s

Turvey is unusual for having two squires who chose to be philanthropists at the same time:  Charles Longuet Higgins (CLH) of Turvey Abbey (1806-1885) and his distant cousin Thomas Charles Higgins (TCH) of Turvey House (1797-1865).   Neither man left a diary explaining their reasons for improving Turvey.  Records and the writings of the Reverend George Munby, Dean John William Burgon (CLH’s’ brother in law) and the Reverend Legh Richmond acknowledged their Christianity and wish to improve the spiritual and moral wellbeing of the people.  Evidence seems to support the fact that they took their duties and responsibilities seriously in being committed to their families and the villagers.

Reasons for their behaviours and early actions

Philanthropy is defined in Collins English Dictionary as “the practice of performing charitable or benevolent actions and the love of mankind”.  Commentators in the 20th century asked why men and women give to charity with some additionally taking on committee work and visiting the homes of the poor.  Some historians have asked whether altruism or self-interest might be motivators, giving examples of both reasons.  The author, Kidd in 1999 suggested that “charitable giving offers an opportunity for self-fulfilment and self-expression”.

Burgon writes that ” when quite a young man, in the year 1826, his brother in law (CLH) secretly set before himself three great objects for his after life. The first was to re-edify and enlarge the Parish Church of Turvey; the second to rebuild the cottages on his paternal estate, as well as erect new schools; the third, to found a Library for the use of the Archdeaconary of Bedford”.

Following his graduation from Cambridge University Burgon notes : ” at this time he was a great reader of divinity, and it was his earnest wish to become a clergyman of the Church of England. It was his hope to be ordained Deacon about the year 1829: but, like a good son as he always was, he abandoned the idea, in deference to his father’s wishes”

CLH consequently qualified as a Doctor to treat the poor, studied law and took examinations to be a barrister but was not called to the bar.  Other sources commented that he was an excellent organ player and donated a grand organ (£1600) to the church.  He played the organ for 31 years in services.  CLH lectured in history, astronomy and mechanics.

The need for philanthropy in Turvey prior to the two squires

The Turvey Estate was sold at auction in 1786 by the absentee landlord Charles Henry, 5th Earl of Peterborough, 3rd Earl of Monmouth to Charles Higgins and William Garrett, two rich London Grocers ,  John Higgins a Yeoman Farmer of Weston Underwood and William Fuller, a London Banker said to be the richest man in England. The village consisted of the public way, skirted by low, thatched, dilapidated hovels and forest areas.  People worked the land under a feudal system of squire, tenant and labourer as described in the article Turvey’s Farming Past.  The church played a role in charity and education.   The author Kidd in 1999 wrote

There was social inequality, a high degree of stratification and power recognised in dress and indications of order such as pews in the church.  Squires generally were church Vestry Members and thus agents of central government and the Monarchy.

In 1831, Samuel Lewis wrote that Turvey, “a parish in the hundred of Willey, contained 882 inhabitants.  The living is a rectory, in the Archdeaconery of Bedford and diocese of Lincoln, rated in the King’s books at £16, and in the patronage of D.C. Higgins Esq.  The church, dedicated to All Saints, contains several fine monuments of the ancient and noble family of Mordaunt.  There is a place of worship for Independents”.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 had been seen as a solution to the problem of pauperism but was not always adequate to meet the needs of the vulnerable, including those affected by seasonal unemployment, the elderly, people with mental ill health, people with disabilities and families in which a parent had died as described in the article ‘ Turvey in the 1850s’ . The church gave out clothing, food and sometimes coal.  Additionally, in 1792, a bequest from Mr. Charles Higgins ensured that twenty poor women of Turvey received one full clothing outfit.

Philanthropy in action: Improvements made by Charles Longuet Higgins (CLH) and Thomas Charles Higgins (TCH)

CLH’s and TCH’s actions, regardless of their motivations, demonstrated their wishes to provide good living conditions through better housing for the estate workers and to offer education to poor children and to adults.

Rebuilding cottages and restoring the church

Through exchanging land, their ownership settled into two distinct areas.   Once he owned them, TCH cleared seventeen hovels near the church, two of which had been the poor house.  In 1850, the Bedfordshire Times noted that workmen had found the bones of an infant under brick flooring near the fireplace in one of the hovels.  CLH gave up the Chequers Inn (now Three Cranes) and garden which enabled TCH to build the south lodge for Turvey House.  TCH had cottages built which are now Chantry House.

Between 1849 and 1861, CLH organised and funded the building of about sixty cottages in the village.  Each pair of cottages cost £300.   These were smart rows of thatched stone cottages, with gardens, including Church Row and Ladybridge Terrace.  The east and west ends of Abbey Square were built around this time.   Burgon (1889) wrote these cottages were

built in raised terraces and provided with every requirement for decency and comfort, as well as furnished severally with a small garden, in room of the squalid tenements which have skirted the public way when I first knew Turvey.  Consumption, which once prevailed, is now scarcely known there.  Turvey, has in fact become a model village.

The church Vestry Meeting Minutes for 16 October 1851 indicated the Members’ collective concern “to promote the health and comfort of the inhabitants of this parish, sewers and drains be forthwith formed (under the direction of a committee) where they are needed.”  The empowered committee consisted of the Chairman, Charles Longuet Higgins and Thomas Charles Higgins along with William B Higgins, Mr Whitworth and Mr Paine.

The main church restoration, funded by CLH, was carried out from 1852 to 1854 using stone from Baker’s Close.  Advice was taken from George Gilbert Scott (later Sir) who resisted a radical restoration then was commissioned for the restoration and rebuilding of the east end.

Social and educational initiatives

Adding to the Charles Higgins 1792 bequest of interest on an investment of £300 to pay for a teacher to ensure the Sunday School children could read, in 1829 CLH put Bulls Pasture in Trust to provide funds and asked for subscriptions to increase the wages for this teacher to £20 per year.  The original Turvey school built in Abbey Square proved ill-equipped for education, so CLH and TCH jointly contributed land and funding to provide a new national school and infant school.  In 1841, the infant school was designed for 133 students with a playground of 59 feet by 41 feet.  The Trustees would be “two clergy and three gentry”.  In 1845 an education report stated that in the Turvey schools, 52 boys were arranged in two classes, taught by the master.  The girls were aged under 7 years because at 7 years old, they went on to lace-making.  In 1852, the schools were mixed sex with 86 children and 48 infants.

CLH funded the building of the Reading Room in about 1850 which provided a good library of books, newspapers and magazines. The room was used for evening meetings, lectures and discussions.  He created the “museum room” next to the Reading Room to house an exhibition of artefacts.  This is now the Manor Room.

In 1857, TCH raised the funding to create Turvey Reformatory on nearby land to house and educate young offenders (mostly under 16 years of age) in agricultural work, shoemaking and tailoring.  The price of the buildings was “not to exceed the sum of £800”.  While designed for 70 boys from any county, in 1860 and 1898 there were 45 boys.  The buildings included:  a large school room, dining-room, dormitories, apartments for the superintendent, matron, assistant matron, schoolmaster, two labour masters, workshop, tool shed, bakehouse, dairy, open sheds, barn and stables, set out in 50 acres with about 75 acres of farm land added in 1887.  The staff could refuse to admit boys who were:  diseased, had “defects of the body and mind so as to prevent them from earning their own livelihood” or those who were “unsuitable for industrial training by the managers”.

Other contributions to the village

1844:  the statue of Jonah was bought by John Higgins (CLH’s father) from Mr Prior, a stone mason in Bedford to be installed in the Mill Pond.

1872:  two candelabra for the church were donated by Miss Baker, who was renting Turvey House.

1878:   bequests made by Colonel W.B. Higgins provided the interest on an investment of £110 for the upkeep of the Working Men’s Room and the interest on an investment of £150 for the schools.

1885:  Almhouses were built by James Barton (the article Barton and Royle Homes  provides further information) for the relief of twenty single or married persons.  He chose “poor persons of good character being the inhabitants of the Parish of Turvey or of the town of Bedford” suggesting they move in during the following month after the invitation.

1893:  Turvey church clock was donated by George Sargent of Turvey in memory of his parents but also to remedy his difficulty in not knowing the time when working in the fields.

1893 (December), the Bedfordshire Mercury noted treats for the children of Turvey including a Christmas tree in the schoolroom decorated with toys and articles of warm clothing.  Widows and poor families were given money, coal, tea, sugar and meat from “Major and Mrs Higgins of Turvey House and Mrs Higgins of the Abbey, Miss Platt Higgins, the Rector and Mrs Munby.”


In Turvey church one tablet reads

In affectionate remembrance of Thomas Charles Higgins of Turvey House who died in Leamington, February 4th, 1865 aged 68 years. He casting away his garment came to Jesus.  Blessed is the man who considereth the poor and needy

About Charles Longuet Higgins, Burgon (1889) wrote  “He lived (as well he might) in the hearts of his villagers and of his neighbours.  I never knew one more large hearted than he was.”  The sculpture erected by his widow in the chancel of Turvey church to his memory explains “having restored this church and built this chancel, entered into rest, 23rd Jan. A.D. 1885”


Agar, N.E. The Bedfordshire Farm Worker in the Nineteenth Century:  Bedford Historical Records Society 1981.

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

Grimshawe, Rev. T.S. A Memoir of the Rev. Legh Richmond:  A.M. Seeley& Burnside, Weston Green, Thames Ditton 1829.  6th edition

Harvey, W.M. History of Willey Hundred:  Nichols & Sons, London 1872-8

Kidd, A.  State, Society and the Poor in Nineteenth Century England: MacMillan Press Ltd. Hampshire, 1999

Lewis, S.  Topographical Dictionary of England:  1831

Munby, Rev. G.W.F. Former Days at Turvey:  James Nisbet & Co. Ltd.  London, 1908





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