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Statue of John Howard

A Grade I Listed Building in Castle, Bedford

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Latitude: 52.1355 / 52°8'7"N

Longitude: -0.4664 / 0°27'59"W

OS Eastings: 505057

OS Northings: 249684

OS Grid: TL050496

Mapcode National: GBR G25.2WX

Mapcode Global: VHFQ7.VLR9

Plus Code: 9C4X4GPM+5C

Entry Name: Statue of John Howard

Listing Date: 14 May 1971

Last Amended: 3 March 2023

Grade: I

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1321437

English Heritage Legacy ID: 35561

ID on this website: 101321437

Location: Bedford, Bedfordshire, MK40

County: Bedford

Electoral Ward/Division: Castle

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Bedford

Traditional County: Bedfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Bedfordshire

Church of England Parish: Bedford St Paul

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans

Tagged with: Statue

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Statue of John Howard, erected in 1894, designed by Sir Alfred Gilbert.


Statue of John Howard, erected in 1894, designed by Sir Alfred Gilbert.

MATERIALS: the statue is bronze on a limestone and sandstone plinth with bronze detailing.

PLAN: the plinth is square on plan on octagonal-plan steps.

DESCRIPTION: A late-C19 larger-than-life size statue of John Howard, clothed in C18 travelling dress, and standing contemplatively atop a tall baroque pedestal and four octagonal-plan steps. The pedestal features a red sandstone base and limestone plinth with a band of decorative baroque bronze work featuring cherubs holding grotesque masks to its corners. Above this is a stylised stone urn with a plain capital, the urn featuring draped bronze brackets to its corners. An inscription on the east face of the urn reads: ‘JOHN HOWARD / 1726-1790 / 1890’. The foundry mark of ‘BROAD & SON / FOUNDERS LONDON’ is cast into the south side of the statue base.


Bedford lies in the shallow valley of the River Great Ouse, and from the Middle Saxon period, evidence appears for the beginnings of a settlement at ‘Beda’s ford’, a key river crossing point. The Middle Saxon core of Bedford developed on the north side of the river with an early street pattern (still recognisable) and was surrounded by a defensive ditch. In the C10 and C11, Bedford was important both as a trading centre, with coins minted in the town, and as the central burh of the shire. The town’s main north-south route, comprising what is now High Street to the north of the river and St Mary’s and St John’s Streets to the south of the river, was developed by this time. After 1066, Bedford became a stronghold of the new Norman regime and during the reign of William II, a motte and bailey castle was built in a strategic position on the north bank of the river and then rebuilt in stone. A period of unrest, however, led to a siege of the castle in 1224 and, when it fell, Henry III ordered it to be dismantled. Despite political struggles, the town experienced a period of consolidation during the Norman and medieval periods, when local commerce flourished and religious houses and hospitals were founded. The population of the town was decimated by the Black Death in the C14, and a new river crossing at Great Barford undermined the local economy by drawing traffic and trade away from the town. There was little further growth and the town was largely contained within its Saxon framework, as can be seen from John Speed’s map of Bedford dated 1610.

The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII dealt a further blow to the town’s prosperity but its fortunes began to revive with the receipt of letters patent from Edward VI, allowing the foundation of a grammar school. Bedford also benefitted from the River Navigation Act, which made the River Great Ouse navigable between Bedford and King’s Lynn (completed in 1689). The town became the headquarters of Cromwell’s army between 1646 and 1647 and the puritan influence established during the Civil War lived on after the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672 when the town became a centre for Nonconformist preachers such as John Bunyan. Despite this prosperity, Bedford remained of modest size through to the end of the C18, as illustrated on Thomas Jefferys’ map of 1765. An Improvement Act in 1803 allowed for the erection of a new river bridge between 1811 and 1813 (widened in 1938), and clearance of the Market Square. Continuing prosperity in the early C19 was accompanied by modest growth, but by far the most dramatic expansion of Bedford followed the building of the Midland Railway in 1873, linking the town with London, and associated industrialisation. In the early years of the C20, some houses in the town centre were replaced by department stores, banks and cinemas to serve the expanding population; The Arcade was built and other properties in and around the centre were converted to shops and offices. The High Street is characterised by narrow three and four-storey frontages, with long buildings, closes and yards occupying medieval burgage plots to the rear, those on the eastern side of High Street being particularly long.

John Howard (1726-1790) was a C18 prison reformer, High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, and philanthropist. As High Sherriff, one of his duties was keeper of the county gaol, and he became concerned with resolving penal abuses and hygiene in prisons. He travelled widely throughout the British Isles and the continent, inspecting prisons, bridewells, houses of correction and hospitals, and published his findings and recommendations in ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’ in 1777. Plagued by a lifetime of health problems, Howard died of fever at Kherson in southern Ukraine in 1790. His death was announced in the London Gazette, a unique honour for a civilian, and his statue, the first to be admitted to St Paul’s Cathedral, was erected by public subscription. His work on prison reform was nationally important in the improvement of the penal system, and a century later he was lauded as a father of social science. The Howard League for Penal Reform, founded in 1866, perpetuates John Howard's name and cause.

A movement to erect a monument to Howard began in 1889 when a Howard Memorial Committee was formed. The commission was awarded to Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934), a prominent Victorian sculptor who was made a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1892 and knighted in 1932. Among his many works, he designed the winged statue of Anteros on the Shaftsbury Water Fountain at Piccadilly Circus (unveiled in 1893, listed at Grade I), and is regarded as one of the foremost sculptors of the Victorian age. Gilbert designed a bronze figurative sculpture of Howard for the east side of St Paul’s Square in Bedford, with the historic figure wearing C18 travelling dress to denote his great travels. The statue took the place of a drinking fountain which was designed by John Usher and presented to the town by Thomas Wesley Turnley in 1870. The fountain was demolished ten years later, but the majority of the octagonal steps were incorporated into the base of the Howard statue, which was unveiled on 28 March 1894 by the Duke of Bedford.

Reasons for Listing

The statue of John Howard is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* as a public sculpture of exceptional architectural quality, which contributes strongly to the architectural character and diversity of Bedford’s historic High Street;
* for its design by Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934), a prominent Victorian sculptor, a number of whose works are listed at high grades.

Historic interest:

* for its depiction of John Howard (1726-1790), a prison reformer, High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, philanthropist, and person of national historic interest;
* for the contribution it makes to the evolution of the historic High Street and the development of the town.

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