Local Government in Ampthill

The parish of Ampthill came principally under the Manor of Ampthill which from the 15th century was associated with the Castle. Part of the lands to the north of the town were however associated with Houghton House (originally Dame Ellensbury Manor) which included Houghton Conquest.

Manor Court

On behalf of the Lord of the manor, his bailiff or Steward held a court in Ampthill’s Moot Hall, a 15th century timber framed building in the centre of town. The court met in its upper room and was principally responsible for administrating copyhold tenure (the transfer and regulation of copyhold land) and the creation and regulation of bye-laws and local law based on the custom of the manor. Ampthill’s manor records begin in the 15th century.

While much of the law was concerned with regulation of the common and open fields they also could also effect the social life of the community, such as pollution of watercourses (the Oxflood pond regularly became polluted by blood and offal from the nearby butchers), repair of streets, nuisances and encroachments upon common land. The Court was responsible for maintaining the ‘assizes’ of bread and ale (ensuring that bakers and brewers met the required standards of quality and quantity), in addition tanners and butchers were closely regulated.

Examples from the 1750 bye-laws;

“… no person shall put any infected Horse, Mare or Gelding upon any of the Commons of this Town … the forfeit 0.10s.0 … that all persons that shall keep any Cattle on the Common or open field shall pay Viz: Sixpence for every Horse, fourpence for every Cow … no person shall let any Stack, Cok or Rick or Ferne Haine* … within forty poles of any House, penalty 0.10s.0 … no person shall dip any pot or kettle in any of the Town Wells penalty 0.5s.0 … no person shall throw any dirt or Garden Weeds into any of the Streets of this Town … all persons shall Clean or Carry away the dirt from off the Pitching … so far as their Houses & Grounds front the said Pitching, Once in every three Weeks …”

* in Bedfordshire this refers to a stack

In Ampthill the Officers of the Court included constables, aletasters, fleshsearchers, butter weighers, leather sealers. In addition there were field drivers and haywards who ensured the correct use of the common fields. All these posts were unpaid and appointed annually, the one post that did receive some remuneration was the bellman or town crier. The Constables were normally assisted by Afferers, who assisted in assessing fines required by the manor court for infringements or bye-laws or other misdemeanours.

Ampthill Enclosure Act, 1808

Following the passing of this Act of Parliament the old common lands, open fields and waste were transferred into private ownership (some land was allocated to local trustees to use for the maintenance of the poor). As a result those Court officers administering the open-field system were no longer required. The Manor Court’s roll by the mid 19th century had reduced to little more than recording the changes in Copyhold ownership. The old Moot Hall was pulled down in 1852 and two years later the Manor Court ceased.

A major consequence of the Enclosure was the transference of ownership of plots to individuals, which as the 19th century progressed enabled the development of new building areas.


The Manor Court had shared its responsibility with the Vestry (a body of parishioners who met in the church vestry to administer the affairs of their parish). The Civil statutory duty was placed upon it from late Tudor times when a series of Parliamentary Acts attempted to cope with the problems of poverty. From 1601 it became possible to levy a rate to provide the funds necessary to set the poor to work or support them. Parochial officers included the Churchwardens (towns people who acted as representatives of the Bishop), Overseer (responsible for poor rates) and Surveyor of Highways (responsible for maintenance of roads).

The Vestry’s responsibilities continued to increase and in 1844 it split into two, one dealing with ecclesiastical matters and another dealt civil matters. This included the newly established lamp inspectors and other decisions regulating the life of the parish. Five lamp inspectors and a treasurer were appointed to maintain and operate the town’s lights. Originally these were fuelled by oil, but with the arrival of the Ampthill Gas Company in 1849 they were converted. From time to time they were also involved in the repair of the fire engine and town pump.


In 1555 the Vestry became responsible for ensuring all roads within the parish were well maintained. The Surveyor made sure that property owners provided the materials and labour required to repair the roads (the provision of money in lieu of materials and labour gradually became more common).

In the late 18th century the Woburn to Bedford Road (passing through Ampthill) passed by Act of Parliament to a Turnpike Trust. Which established Turnpike gates at Millbrook and Houghton Conquest to collect money, which was used to maintain the road.

The parishioners were still responsible for the remaining roads and an inventory of 1807 indicates that the following equipment was available for use in mending the roads:

1 Wheelbarrow

1 Iron shovel

1 dirt hoe

1 pickaxe

1 iron toothed rake

1 gravel sieve

2 Rammers (ironbound)

2 Trays (ironbound)

1 Fire brand

The latter was used to brand the equipment with the word “Town”

In 1862 the Highway Boards were introduced and they took over responsibility of the roads from both the Turnpike Trusts and the parishes.

Ampthill Union (Poor Law)

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act sought to group parishes into Unions which were to be run by elected Board of Guardians, who had responsibility for all the poor within the Union. The new law was treated with suspicion and led to the May 1835 ‘riot’ in Ampthill (see article in Reports & Research section). In 1836 a new central workhouse was opened in Dunstable Street, where the poor could be cared for more efficiently. Relief would only be offered to those entering the workhouse and this it was hoped would exert pressure on the men to find employment.

The 1872 Public Health Act made the Board of Guardians into a Rural Sanitary Authority. They now appointed a salaried Inspector and Medical Officer of Health, and had the power to insist upon standard sanitary arrangements. The difficulty of establishing a satisfactory sanitary system for the rapidly expanding town led to dissent and the desire for ‘Home rule for Ampthill’. Later this became Ampthill Rural District Council.

Ampthill Urban District Council

After several abortive attempts a Local Board for Ampthill was established in 1893 and in 1895 became an Urban District Council which managed the affairs of the town for the next 90 years. As well having responsibility for the establishment of an adequate sanitary and water supply system, the Urban District Council introduced planning bye-laws. These set minimum standards for drainage of streets and houses, improving internal ventilation, use of damp-proof courses and wall thickness. Most importantly for the first time all houses and developments had to have properly drawn plans, which had to be submitted for approval.

Local Government reorganisation

In 1974 local government throughout the country were reorganised, as a result the new authority of Mid Beds District Council was created from the merger of the following councils: Ampthill Urban District, Ampthill Rural District, Biggleswade Urban District, Biggleswade Rural District and Sandy Urban District. The new District Council assumed the powers, responsibilities and property of the old rural and district councils. With the demise of the Urban District emerged a severely reduced Ampthill Town Council, which retained ownership and management of the important Ampthill Park and The Firs.

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