History and Heritage

The village and surrounding parish are an important historic location. The earliest archaeological finds have included Bronze Age axes. The crossroads were originally a Roman motorway service station on North-South Watling Street crossing an East-West route from East Anglia to the west.

Hockliffe History - a view A5 (Watling St) looking towards Dunstable from what are now the traffic lights
Green coloured poster asking for your memories of Hockliffe

Hockliffe itself developed as a Saxon stronghold, when in AD367, a Saxon pirate called Hocga sufficiently provoked some Celts that they drove him south, over Hadrian’s Wall to this ridge where he stopped to defend himself on this “cliff” – hence “Hocga’s Cliff” or Hockliffe.

A Saxon settlement grew up on the fields below the church where a series of ponds along the top of the ridge enabled cattle to be watered whilst keeping a good watch for marauders and other threats. The Saxon High Street, Church Lane, runs from the A5 to the church site and on towards The Grange. It is flanked by hedges of Midland thorn which only occurs in “ancient” hedgerow, defined as Saxon or earlier. There is a well-defined Holloway to a willow tree in a dip worn away on the original market place. Saxon cultivation terraces and house platforms on the field below the church predate the medieval ridge & furrow in the fields surrounding the church. Four Saxon bodies were unearthed in a recent archaeological dig.

After the Saxons came the Normans. William the Conqueror was in the habit of granting land to his nobles in exchange for their raising armies and building castles; but he imposed a condition: the nobleman had to build a church of certain dimensions – the chancel to be 14ft x 15ft; and the nave 40 ft. The footprint of St Nicholas before the 14th and 15th Century alterations matched these dimensions. The mound and moat of a motte and bailey castle are still visible. This would have become the moated Manor House.

In later times, as a medieval coaching village, there were 13 hostelries on the Watling Street. Only one of these now remains, The White Hart at the crossroads, which is now part of a national chain of restaurants. In Medieval times, Church End failed to develop at the same rate as the ribbon strip on the Watling Street, chiefly because of the trade opportunities for hostelries on the main road; but also perhaps because of a plague burial ground in the garden of the adjacent thatched cottage, the Crow’s Nest.

The area surrounding the church and medieval village green was designated as the Hockliffe Church End Conservation Area in 2004. (No Conservation Area Appraisal is available.) It includes the earthworks of a medieval castle, (Church Farm moated site and associated settlement and cultivation earthworks, List entry Number: 1012915). There are also several Grade 2 listed houses on Watling Street and in Church End.

In the post-war era, several side streets and closes have been built. Woburn Road, Birches Close, Ninelands, Church Lane and Manor Avenue all included a number of council houses and a row of bungalows for the elderly was added in Kilby Road.

Since 1980, White Horse Close, Hockley Court, Augustus Road, Blackbirds, an extension to Manor Avenue, Gilpin Court, and most recently Clifford Close have further added to the private housing stock in the village. These houses are pre-dominantly 2 and 3 bedroomed, with a considerable number of starter homes.

Our special thanks to Julia Dickens for this article.

Articles about Historical Hockliffe have been kindly provided by Peter Edwards.

Crime & Punishment in Old Hockliffe

In recent years, crime and the A5 have often occupied the minds of Hockliffe residents and featured heavily on the village Facebook group. With that in mind, Herald readers might be interested in taking a glimpse at sleepy old Hockliffe back in the 19th century, almost 200 years ago. In those days there were quite a few Hockliffe pubs, all dotted along the A5 to serve the then “slow moving” horse drawn and pedestrian traffic passing through the village. To help keep order in these establishments, Hockliffe had its own parish constable stationed in the community and no doubt well known to everyone.

On 11th November 1846, 34-year-old Thomas Black, his wife Jane and their young child travelled south along the A5 on foot. On reaching Hockliffe around 5pm they first stopped at the Fleur de Lis pub (now a house on the left at the top of the hill in the north of the village) Mr Black ordered a jug of beer, paid for it with a shilling coin and was given sixpence change (for those of you too young to remember, a shilling was 12 old pence and equivalent to a 5p coin in today’s money). Landlady and widow Elizabeth Tomkins warmed the beer, a common practice in those days, and watched as all three, including the child, drank it. When they had left, Mrs Tomkins noticed that the shilling they paid with was a fake coin.

A short while later, Black, with his wife and child stopped at the Kings Arms pub further down the hill. There they ordered three pence worth of rum and paid for it with another dud shilling, this time being given nine pence in change. Whilst serving them, Emma Inwards, daughter of the landlord, suspected the coin they paid with was “a bad one” but was too afraid to say anything at the time. She saw the Blacks walk off in the direction of Dunstable and then locked the fake coin in a cupboard (for some strange reason) after showing it to her father William.

Minutes later, the Black crime family arrived at the old White Horse Inn where landlord John Heckford also served them with a pint of warmed beer in the tap room. They paid with another fake shilling, drank their beer and left walking towards Dunstable. By this time, William Inwards at the King’s Head had sent his son to warn other publicans in the village and the extent of the Black family crime spree became clear. Village Constable William Clough was informed and took charge of the 3 fake shillings (totalling 15p today) before he set off that evening on foot towards Dunstable in search of the villains. On arrival in Dunstable, PC Clough made enquiries and located the Black family at a lodging house. He arrested them and conveyed them (don’t ask me how) to the local police station where he presented the case to Police Superintendent William Young. The Blacks each denied ever being in Hockliffe and claimed they had actually travelled to Dunstable from London. When searched, no other fake coins were found but Thomas Black was in possession of a folded paper containing a powder that might be used for polishing coins (eat your heart out Sherlock).

Mr & Mrs Black were both charged with passing 3 counterfeit coins and then held in custody at Bedford Gaol until their trial at Bedford Quarter Sessions in January 1847. Six witnesses travelled from Hockliffe to Bedford in order to prove the case. The Blacks were found guilty and each sentenced to 4 months imprisonment with hard labour. Sadly, there is no record to show what happened to their child whilst they served their sentence, most likely held in the same prison with them or sent to a workhouse. Bedford Gaol records include descriptions of Mr & Mrs Black when they began their sentence and again when they were released. Mrs Black was a real beauty, her face covered in smallpox scars and not a tooth in her head. It amused me that the records show them both several inches shorter at the end of their sentences than at the beginning – perhaps hard labour involved carrying heavy weights!

I found this story interesting for a number of reasons. Apart from the local nature of the incidents (and the existence of more than one pub), consider the time and effort put in to detect and prove 15p worth of crimes and the severity of the sentences that followed. How much slower life was then with PC Clough able to follow his suspects to Dunstable on foot and in the dark without being wiped out by a speeding lorry. What would be the response today when police hardly have enough resources to attend burglaries involving thousands of pounds and other serious crimes? In 2019 you can commit a crime in Hockliffe and be 100 miles away in a couple of hours, M1 closures and A5 gridlock permitting of course!

The modern HM Prison Bedford, now a male only institution, still occupies the same site as the old Bedford Gaol where Mr & Mrs Black were held. From the early 1800s, the population of Bedford Gaol grew at an alarming rate and the prison had to be extended on several occasions. Parish constables from all over Bedfordshire would deliver their prisoners to Bedford Gaol to await trial or to serve their sentence. In fact, records show that on 53 occasions Hockliffe residents served time there in the 1800s for a variety of crimes, some of them seemingly trifling matters. Of the most notable, in 1829, 68-year-old Hockliffe man Sylvester Butler was imprisoned for poisoning a pig (sounds like a neighbour dispute to me). In 1855, 25-year-old Richard Inns received 21 days hard labour for stealing a “pottle of onions” (anyone know what a pottle is as I can’t find any in Tesco’s?). In 1816, 23-year-old Susannah London got 1-year hard labour for “being a lewd woman” in Hockliffe (so glad we don’t have those anymore). In 1818, poor local lad Thomas Lancaster was sentenced to death for stealing a sheep skin, but this was later commuted to transportation for life. Hockliffe man Benjamin Cross was also sentenced to death in 1822 for a burglary in the village but this was again commuted to transportation for life. In June 1854, 17-year-old randy local lad Charles Hall was held at Bedford Gaol awaiting trial for “assaulting Emma Read in Hockliffe with intent to feloniously ravage and carnally know her” but he was later found not guilty at trial. Quite a few Hockliffe men spent time there for failing to maintain their illegitimate children, an offence known as bastardy. It’s nice to see Hockliffe’s residents are much better behaved these days (well, most of them anyway).

by Peter Edwards

Gabriel Tomkins – The Turncoat Highwayman

Gabriel Tomkins was a notorious 18th century criminal who robbed the London to Chester mail coach as it passed through Hockliffe in July 1746. He was later captured, convicted and hanged for the crime. As a warning to other highwaymen, his body was then hung in chains on a gibbet situated along the A5, close to the Thorn Turn where the new M1 link is now being constructed.

His arrest was most likely due to the offer of a reward and immunity from prosecution for any accomplices – common in those days in an effort to stamp out the scourge of highway robbery. At the time, the Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that “the postboy with the Chester mail was robb’d in Hockliff by a single highwayman for whose conviction 200 pounds are offered and a pardon for an accomplice [sic]” £200 in 1746 was an awful lot of money so it would not be surprising if he was grassed up. He appeared at Bedford Assizes in March 1750, charged that he “robbed Thomas Roone, a postboy, on the King’s highway and stole a grey gelding valued at £30 and goods to the value of £40, the property of our Lord the King”. He was sentenced to death and is thought to have been hanged at Gallows Corner in Bedford and his body then brought back to the Hockliffe area so that it could be displayed close to the scene of the crime. It must have been hanging there for some time because it was reported that once the flesh had rotted from his corpse, a pair of starlings nested in his skull – all grisly stuff.

There is a fascinating back story about Hockliffe’s highwayman. Tomkins started life in Tunbridge Wells, Kent where he was a bricklayer by day and a villain by night. He was leader of the Mayfield Gang, a group of smugglers who illegally imported contraband, mostly tea, brandy and tobacco, along the south coast of England. In 1717, he was suspected of murdering a customs officer when leading an armed assault to free two of his men who had been detained in Lydd, Kent. During the attack on the jail, Tomkins was shot in the arm but still managed to escape. He was never brought to justice for the murder, probably due to bribery and corruption, widespread at the time between smugglers and customs men. In 1721 he was caught distributing smuggled contraband but bribed the jailer and escaped. He was caught again soon after and during the arrest he shot and wounded a customs man. Tomkins stood trial in London where he was sentenced to 7 years transportation to America. Long before prisoners were first transported to Australia many were sent to North America, which was then still a British colony. In 1724, Tomkins escaped and made his way to Cuba where, using the name Jarvis, he hitched a ride on a British war ship, hoping to get to Jamaica. Unhappily for him, the captain was short of crew and pressed him into service on the ship all the way back to England.

Back home, he was soon up to his old tricks and was caught smuggling again in 1728. However, instead of being charged or transported back to America, he was invited to give evidence to a Government inquiry into corruption within the customs service. His evidence led to the arrest of many others and helped in the dismissal of 30 customs men. Incredibly, the authorities were so impressed with him that they then gave him a job as customs officer to fill one of the vacancies. Over the next few years he became so good at his job (I wonder why!) that he worked his way up to quite a senior rank and was appointed officer in charge of Customs House in Dartford, Kent and Bailiff to the Sheriff of Sussex. The mind boggles at how much corruption and how many stitch ups for reward money there must have been. By 1741 he had apparently become bored with catching other criminals and took to smuggling again, if he ever actually stopped that is. He joined another infamous, extremely violent group of south coast smugglers known as the Hawkhurst gang and he sometimes moonlighted as a highwayman when the opportunity presented itself.

A description of Tomkins appeared in Treasury Papers for 1729, the year he joined the customs service. It recorded that he was pitted with smallpox, had one very large black eyebrow and usually wore a light wig and fustian frock. His own hair was dark brown, he was tall, well built and had previously been shot through the left arm with a “brace of bullets”.

His long criminal career was brought to an end by robbing the mail coach that fateful night in Hockliffe on 1st July 1746. Why he was in Hockliffe, far from his usual haunts in Kent, is not known. It may have been selected as a good place for an ambush. Perhaps he was just passing through or stayed at one of the many hostelries Hockliffe enjoyed at the time, and found the mail coach too much of a temptation.

by Peter Edwards

The Execution of Reverend William Dodd – Hockliffe's Macaroni Parson

William Dodd was born in Lincolnshire in 1729, the son of a vicar. In 1746 he attended Cambridge where he developed a liking for the high life after mixing with a group of much wealthier students.

Upon leaving Cambridge, Dodd travelled to London where he tried his hand at being a writer. He was moderately successful but soon spiralled into debt due to his lavish lifestyle. He met and later married Mary Perkins, the daughter of a domestic servant, but the marriage did nothing to improve his finances or his social status.

His father persuaded him to take holy orders and he was ordained as a priest in 1753, being first appointed curate at a church in London’s West Ham. He also preached at several other churches, but none brought him to the attention of the rich and famous which he seems to have craved.

In 1758, Dodd was appointed Chaplain to a London charity for penitent prostitutes. This provided him with a platform that would bring him to the attention of more influential people and the flamboyant clergyman soon became a popular preacher attracting large crowds, including well-known names from the West End.

His popularity spread and in 1763 Dodd was appointed Chaplain to King George III. In 1765, looking for extra sources of income, he gained a position as tutor to Philip Stanhope, heir to the Earl of Chesterfield, and later opened his own private school. In 1766, using money inherited by his wife, he opened a chapel in Charlotte Street, London, hoping to attract members of high society. Around this time, Reverend Dodd was frequently referred to by the media of the day as the “Macaroni Parson”, due to his flamboyant dress and extravagant lifestyle. Although his income by this time had increased substantially, he was still spending more than he earned, and his debts continued to grow. By 1771, his school had to close, and he lost several other sources of income, including being sacked as Editor of the Christian Magazine.

In 1772 the Reverend Dodd was appointed Rector of Hockliffe, but even this additional source of income seems to have done little to help sort his finances. So, in 1774, still in great debt, he tried to fraudulently secure an even more lucrative London position as Rector of St George’s, Hanover Square. He had arranged for his wife to write an anonymous letter to Lady Apsley, wife of the Lord Chancellor, offering a bribe of £3,000 for his appointment to the London post. The letter was easily traced back to Dodd and he quickly became a figure of public ridicule in various newspapers. He was dismissed from several of his positions as a result, including that of King’s Chaplain.

Dodd went to France for a short time to avoid the scandal but, on his return in 1776, he tried again to clear his debts by forging a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, now the 5th Earl of Chesterfield. The banker who advanced Dodd money against the bond was worried about a blot of ink on the document and took it to the Earl of Chesterfield to ask for a fresh signature. The forgery was thus detected, and Dodd quickly arrested and detained in Newgate Prison, London. In early 1777, Hockliffe’s hapless priest was tried and convicted of forgery at the Old Bailey. He was sentenced to death by hanging at Tyburn (now London’s Marble Arch).

A petition to the King asking for clemency was signed by 23,000 people, including Dr Samuel Johnson. Another plea for mercy came from a large number of tradesmen who would stand no chance of getting the money Dodd owed them if he was executed. Alas, all representations on Dodd’s behalf were rejected and the day of his hanging was set for 27th June 1777. On that day, Dodd finally received the fame and recognition he seems to have craved when the route from Newgate to Tyburn (along today’s Oxford Street in London’s West End) was packed with thousands of people, many of them his supporters. He was hanged together with a 12-year-old boy convicted of stealing 30 shillings (£1.50p).

There was one final, rather ironic, twist. In those days, executions were so inefficient that it was sometimes possible to cut a man down after the hanging and revive him in a hot bath, if this could be achieved quickly enough. It didn’t work very often but was worth a try if you could afford it. Reverend Dodd had paid an undertaker to attempt to revive him in this way by quickly conveying his body to a barber surgeon who had a hot bath ready about a mile away in Oxford Street. Unfortunately for Dodd, the crowds of his followers were so large that it took hours rather than minutes to transport his body to the barber surgeon’s premises and there was no chance of reviving him by the time they arrived.

So ended the life of Hockliffe’s notorious clergyman. Strangely, he seems to have held onto his position as Rector of Hockliffe from 1772 until his execution in 1777. He even became Vicar of Wing in 1775. Dodd was buried in Cowley, Middlesex, the service being performed by his brother, also a vicar.

By Peter Edwards

The following coloured blocks lead directly to additional items and Websites of further interest. This offers good reading for those with a keen interest in local history. The links will either open in a new window or an external page.

The Hillersdon trust


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The Virtual Library


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For those of you with an interest in local history and in particular that of Hockliffe, please make use of our contact us form and send us a link to any history Website you feel should be added to this page.