Bedworth is a small market town in the northern part of Warwickshire situated in the heart of England. The roots of the town are ancient and it is mentioned in the Doomsday book of 1086.
At various points in its history Bedworth was known for hat making, ribbon weaving and coal mining. Today the majority of Bedworth’s inhabitants work in Coventry and the surrounding towns, although a few traditional industries remain, especially engineering and haulage.
In 1086 Bedworth’s population was recorded as 60 people, living on 760 acres of arable land. Through the years the population has expanded to the current level of 42,000. However intermittent disasters, such as the Black Death, led to the size of the community going down, as well as up. For example in 1590 the town is said to have been home to only 14 families. In the 1860’s many families emigrated to the colonies after the collapse of the ribbon weaving industry caused mass unemployment.
Bedworth and Religion
The centre of Bedworth is exactly five miles from Coventry, the old five-mile post standing at the entrance to the Almshouses. This distance played an important part in Bedworth’s history because of the passing of the Five Mile Act in 1665. This forbade any non-conformist church goers assembling for worship and preaching within five miles of a corporate town - such as Coventry. The Rev. Julius Saunders came to Bedworth in 1686 and taking advantage of the act established the Old Meeting congregation just north of the five-mile post. The old plaque that was on the mile-post can still be seen on the left hand gate post of the Almshouses.
Five Mile plaque outside the Almshouses
Bedworth and Transport
Bedworth has had excellent transport links for many years. Traditionally Bedworth used the extensive canal network to move coal and the other valuable products the town produced. Today, the canals are mainly used for leisure boating having become a popular and relaxing way to explore the beautiful county of Northern Warwickshire (add link the NWT site). However Bedworth still has outstanding transport links, being close to Junction 3 of the M6 and within easy reach of the A5.
With construction originally stimulated to serve the thriving coal mining industry Bedworth also has good rail links. Today there are mainline railway stations with direct links to London, Birmingham and the north of the country at both Coventry and Nuneaton, while Bedworth has its own railway station on the Coventry to Nuneaton line.
In addition to good local bus services there are regular bus services to and from Coventry, Nuneaton and Leicester.
Bus to Coventry outside Bedworth Heritage Centre
Bedworth’s Black Diamonds
For many centuries Bedworth was primarily a coal mining community. The first reference to the extraction of coal in the area was in the 13th century. Bedworth is on the eastern edge of the North Warwickshire coalfield where the coal outcrops at the surface, making it easier to extract.
The Warwickshire coal-field covers an area of approximately 385 square kilometres, from Tamworth in the north to Warwick and Leamington in the south. Records show continuous working since the 13th century, particularly between Tamworth and Bedworth.
The opening of the Coventry to Bedworth canal in 1769 stimulated output and subsequent canal construction made Warwickshire coal competitive in London.
Rapid railway development in the 19th century increased demand still further and deeper mines were exploited.
Output increased from 500,000 tons annually in the 1850s from 20 small mines to 4,000,000 tons from 30 pits in 1909.
Display from Black Diamonds Exhibition at Bedworth Heritage Centre
Bedworth Women helping keep the nation fuelled by loading coal into a canal boat in early 1950s
1939 saw a peak coal production of 5.8 million tons from 20 pits in and around Bedworth.
Good geological conditions favour machine mining, and this attracted high levels of investment in machinery and equipment in the local pits.
A combination of factors led to a gradual decline of coal mining in Bedworth. The last pit in the Bedworth area to end production was Newdigate Colliery in 1982. Coventry Pit, on the edge of the borough at Keresley, survived until the early 1990s.
Last lump of coal from Newdigate Colliery in 1982
Bedworth’s Ribbon Weaving Industry
Bedworth also had a thriving silk ribbon industry, brought to the town by the French Protestant families, the Huguenots in the 18th century. Exiled from their homeland due to religious persecution, they set up hand-looms in their own homes and continued this highly skilled craft.
They later passed on their expertise to the local people, with whom they eventually began to integrate. Ribbon weaving became wide-spread and extremely lucrative for the Master Weavers. This prosperity lasted for around a hundred years.
Working at a hand loom
However in 1860 the value of the ribbon weaving industry collapsed abruptly when the Cobden treaty with France removed the duty on French silks entering England. Many Bedworth families found themselves unemployed or with vastly reduced income. Their livelihood destroyed, many ribbon weavers and their families chose to seek new homes in the Colonies and sailed away in emigrant ships, such as the Culloden. Some relocated to Canada while others chose Australia or New Zealand. For many the cost of the emigration was covered by Nona Bellaires, daughter of the local Rector. Nona, a well known figure in the town, not only helped with the expense of travel but paid off people’s debts. She even helped to ensure that they had jobs to go to when they arrived in the colonies. Many descendants of those who left Bedworth during this difficult period still return to visit their family roots.
Of those ribbon weavers who stayed in Bedworth some managed to earn a living making bead-work for dress decoration. Intricate bead-work was very popular during the later part of the Victorian era.
An example of bead decoration
Hat making in Bedworth
After the collapse of the ribbon trade, the arrival of hat making was a saviour for Bedworth’s economy. This prosperous trade was already strong in the neighbouring towns of Nuneaton and Atherstone and factories were opened in Bedworth. The main employers were Pickerings (where the Tesco store now stands) and Woottons in Bulkington Lane. This brought badly needed employment to the town. Hat making in Bedworth lasted until the mid 1950s.
Finishing the hats
Trimming the hats at Pickerings
From the 1950’s onwards Bedworth gradually become a dormitory town for Coventry and Nuneaton, as the large Coventry car factories attracted many of the workers previously employed in the Northern Warwickshire pits.
Industry in Bedworth, as with much of the country, is much reduced today. However what remains tends to be of a very high quality.
This includes world renowned silk ribbon maker, Toye, Kenning and Spencer who still produce beautiful banners, flags, medal ribbons and Masonic regalia which are in demand all around the world. The firm has also reintroduced hat making to the town and producing top quality military style caps.
Another fine example of modern Bedworth industry can be seen in engineering firm Premier Group, based in Bayton Road, Exhall. This innovative company beat strong competition to win the contract to manufacture 12000 Olympic torches for the 2013 London Olympic Games. One of these torches is on display at the Bedworth Heritage Centre.
Dennis Meacher, MD of Premier Group, shows a torch to Revd. Andrew Gandon, Vicar of Exhall