Local ghost stories: Black Tom of Bedford

In honour of Halloween, I’ve been delving into some local history and unearthed reference to a local ghost. Black Tom of Bedford was a highwayman in the Bedford area in the late eighteenth century. According to various sources, he was either generally well liked apart from his penchant of relieving people of some excess wealth, or alternatively he was a scourge on the local population, damaging trade and frightening locals. He was named ‘Black Tom’ due to his black hair, and possibly due to his unethical conduct, and was eventually arrested and thrown into prison for his misdeeds. He was sentenced to death, and was hanged on the junction of Tavistock Street, Union Street and Clapham Road in Bedford and buried nearby.

And here’s where the history lesson turns into a ghost story; Black Tom was apparently buried with a stake driven through his heart to prevent him returning again. It may not have had the desired effect, because he has been reportedly seen around the area where he was buried, with his head either bowed pensively or lolling due to the effects of being hanged, depending on the account. Those who saw him thought it was just a drunk in fancy dress, until the figure vanished.

On a more positive note, it’s said that the hanging of Black Tom was one of the many events that inspired the famous prison reformer John Howard to campaign for (amongst many things) the abolition of the jailer’s fee, paid by prisoners to the jailer for ‘upkeep’ and release. It is said that Black Tom was hanged because he couldn’t afford a sufficient bribe such that the jailer would put his petition before the judge, which was likely to have led to the reduction of his sentence.

The area is now a roundabout, which I sometimes drive over on my way back from the supermarket. They did some roadworks there recently, which looked quite extensive. I wonder if they dug up anything interesting? Surely a gallows and related burials must have left some traces. Still, this new found knowledge will certainly liven up my drive home from the shops, and I’ll try not to crash the car whilst peering around for a figure who looks like a drunk wearing fancy dress.

For me, learning the history of where I live is important; it makes me feel more connected with my surroundings. Whether or not I believe that long dead criminals sometimes rise from the dead to roam the land once again, I know a bit more about the things that happened around the places where I go about my daily life, and why they happened. I’ve also learned a little about prison reform, and life in Britain in the 1700s. History repeats itself so they say, and even if it doesn’t, its effects can nonetheless be felt around me every day.

Happy Halloween everyone! Do you have any local ghost stories?



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