A Brief History of Milton Ernest
Milton Ernest village lies some five miles upstream from Bedford, on the eastern side of the River Great Ouse. The parish has a total area of 1,581 acres and contains the nucleated village and some scattered settlement. It is surrounded by the adjoining parishes of Bletsoe, Thurleigh, Clapham, Oakley, Pavenham and Felmersham.
The earliest known evidence of settlement in Milton Ernest is the Bronze Age (2500BC to 700BC). A number of ploughed out round barrows have been identified, most of which are situated on the flood plain of the River Great Ouse. At this time the countryside was mainly woodland so near to the river would have been an ideal place to settle. The river would have been the ‘road’ in and out of the settlement.
There is also evidence of Iron Age and Roman inhabitation. By the start of the medieval period the Domesday Book of 1086 shows that the settlement was then known as Mildentone or Middeltone, meaning ‘Middle Farm’. The name was probably derived as the village is midway between Clapham and Sharnbrook as you travel up the Ouse.
From the thirteenth century to the early part of the sixteenth century the Manor of Middeltone was owned by the de Grey family. The chief tenants of the de Greys were the family of Erneys or Hernis. It was through the Erneys family that the village took its distinctive name – from Middeltone to Middleton Ernys (thirteenth century) to Milton Herneys (fourteenth century) to Mylton Harneys (fifteenth century) to Milton Harnes (sixteenth century) to Milton Ernesse (seventeenth century) before arriving at Milton Ernest.
By the early part of the fourteenth century, probably between 1300 and 1320, the population of Milton Ernest had reached a maximum and every available acre of land was cultivated right up to the parish boundary. The size of the village itself has since greatly shrunk and is still only about half of its fourteenth century area.
Bubonic Plague was said to have visited Milton Ernest in 1557. The burial register for the village does support this view, as between 1557 and 1559 there were 60 deaths, an average of twenty per year. In the twenty years before this period and the twenty years after, there was an average of fewer than five deaths per year.
Milton Ernest was the site of Bedfordshire’s first printing press. Underhill Robinson printed a book in the village in 1719 almost fifty years ahead of anyone else in the county.
In the seventeenth century barges came up the Ouse from Pavenham carrying stone from the quarries which was used to build cottages in the village and the Midland Railway was commenced in 1855, opened in 1857 and widened in 1871. Many people will have since glanced out of their train carriage and seen the small settlement of Milton Ernest including Charles Dickens who wrote to a Bedford paper complaining about the speed of the train journey between Leicester and Bedford!
In 1834 the Oakley Hunt built kennels in Milton Ernest and these remained until 1972.
In the mid nineteenth century the eminent Victorian church architect William Butterfield was active in the village, designing Milton Ernest Hall for the Starey family.
In 1914, at the start of the First World War, army officers of the Veterinary Corps, an off-shoot of the 51st Highland Division, arrived in the village. They commandeered all available stabling including most of the kennels of the Oakley Hunt. Route marches took place through Milton Ernest with kilted soldiers marching four deep, with each company headed with its band of bagpipes and drums.
Soon after the outbreak of WWI, King George V and Queen Mary evacuated some of their family from BuckinghamPalace. Two of the young princes stayed with Lady Ampthill at Milton Ernest Hall for safety and were watched over day and night by two detectives. They later became King Edward VIII and King George VI.
During World War II, in 1943, the headquarters of the US Eighth Air Force Service Command was set up at Milton Ernest Hall. An extensive camp of huts was built in the grounds and the village was once again overtaken by soldiers amongst them the famous American band leader, Glenn Miller. On 15th December 1943 Major Miller left Milton Ernest Hall, boarded a plane at nearby Twinwoods airfield and was mysteriously never heard of again.
The population of the village has grown significantly in recent years from an average of 367 between 1901 and 1971 this had almost doubled to 620 by 1981, as a result of the Huntsmans Way and Arkwright Road housing estates. Further development (Riverside View) meant that by 2001 the population had risen to 754.
Towards the end of the twentieth century the parish of Milton Ernest has been best known for a local company called Bedfordia; for the location of the Royal Aerospace Establishment (RAE); for the home of Bedford MP, Sir Trevor Skeet; and for Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre.
Today Milton Ernest lies astride the busy A6 road, its function now, after four thousand years, being predominately that of a commuter village for Bedford. For centuries almost everyone worked on the land and nobody commuted anywhere, now almost nobody works on the land and almost everyone commutes somewhere! It might no longer be a self sufficient village but Milton Ernest is still as important as ever to the people who live here. And now the people have a great opportunity to shape the future of their village through acting on the findings of the Milton Ernest Parish Plan.
David Newman has written a comprehensive account of the history of Milton Ernest and importance to England's heritage.
The book, priced at only £10-00, is available from the author (01234 822322), Bedford book shops, the Queen's Head Hotel or the Garden Centre.