Brief History of Stondon

It appears to be very hard to find much historical data about Lower Stondon. We have done our best here, but if you know more than we do, we'd love to hear from you...


Trawling the worldwide web, there is some information about Upper Stondon, and a few snippets about Lower Stondon, but despite the fact that Lower Stondon has always been bigger than Upper Stondon, it is generally subsumed into information about Shillington, whereas Upper Stondon has always retained its own identity. Surprisingly, given their geographical proximity, Upper and Lower Stondon were not joined to become the parish of Stondon until 1985 - prior to this, Lower Stondon was a joint parish with Shillington.

There were plans in the 19th century to separate Lower Stondon and Shillington, but despite the backing of Trinity College, Cambridge - who were one of the major landowners in Lower Stondon at the time - they came to nothing.

 And why are we called Stondon? In Old English, Stan means "stony" and Dun means "hill" - so we live on a stony hill !

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It is claimed that the population of Upper Stondon was 21 in 1600 and 29 by 1801. The earliest population records I can find are from 1811, when there were 4 houses in Upper Stondon (occupied by 4 families) whilst Lower Stondon boasted 24 families living in 18 houses. At that time, all 24 families in Lower Stondon worked in agriculture, but only 2 did so in Upper Stondon. One might hazard a guess that one of the remaining families was the Rector's, and the other a major landowner? The population at this time was 30 people in Upper Stondon, and 98 in Lower Stondon.

By 1821, an extra house had been built in Lower Stondon, but there were still 24 families. The population had risen to 135

In 1831, in "A Topographical Dictionary of England, " Samuel Lewis said:

"STONDON (UPPER), a parish in the hundred of CLIFTON, county of BEDFORD, 2.75 miles (S.) from Shefford, containing 33 inhabitants. The living is a rectory, in the archdeaconry of Bedford, and diocese of Lincoln, rated in the king's books at £6.6.10 1/2., and in the patronage of the Rev. Mr. Hull. The church is dedicated to All Saints." 

From the middle of the 19th Century, it seems that all references to Lower Stondon disappear as the village is tied in to data and records of Shillington.


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Images courtesy of the Stondon Times.


In 1857, after 4 years of construction work, the railway line between Hitchin and Bedford opened with Henlow Station (re-named Henlow Camp in 1933) our local stop. Originally, it had been planned to be part of the main Midland Railway to London, but in 1868, Midland built another London extension - the current Bed-Pan line - and our line ended up being a little used cross country route that mainly had only 4 trains a day - although it reached a peak of 6 trains a day in 1910. It probably had a bit of a boost from1917 when Henlow Camp was established, transporting troops and materials to and from the Camp. Unfortunately, by the mid 1950's the line was so little used that it was scheduled for closure even before the Beeching Report. The passenger service was closed on January 1st 1962, with freight services struggling on till December 28th 1964. There is now nothing left of the railway or station, it was all demolished and the Henlow Industrial Estate was built in its place. You can, however, trace the route of the line as you go North to Bedford (if you take the back roads).

We know that the School was built in 1861, and the Baptist Church in 1863 - perhaps in response to the influx of workers that started in 1862. The little row of white painted houses opposite Brittains Rise were built in 1856, and the pretty row of cottages between the Jet Station and the roundabout were built in 1867.


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In 1862, a seam of coprolites was discovered at Chibley Farm (on the Shillington Road) and this was the raw material for the the first industrially produced fertilizer. For about 35 years, this was the major economic driver in the area. By 1876, at the height of the Shillington coprolite industry 1,400 people were employed. Coprolites were thought to be the fossilized dung of prehistoric reptiles; it was known locally as "dinosaur dung". The effect of their discovery in Shillington was to bring a large band of itinerant labour to live and work in the area. The coprolites were treated in huge tanks near The Musgrave Arms and were then sent to a mill at Royston for processing into agricultural fertilizer. The industry had died out by the 1890s with the import of cheap foreign phosphates for chemical manure. At the height of the trade coprolites were worth about £3.00 a ton and the average yield was about 300 tons per acre. Wages were high and a good "fossil digger" could earn 40s a week. More information on this interesting part of our past here.


Upper Stondon continues to maintain its identity, and Kelly's Directory of 1898 describes it like this:

"UPPER STONDON is a parish and small village, about 13 (sic) miles west from Henlow station on the Bedford and Hitchin section of the Midland railway, 6 north-west from Hitchin, and 3 south-west from Shefford, in the Southern division of the county, hundred of Clifton, petty sessional division, union and county court district of Biggleswade, rural deanery of Shefford, archdeaconry of Bedford and diocese of Ely.

"Bricks and agricultural drain pipes are made here. The principal landowners are the Earl Cowper K.G., P.C. Trinity College, Cambridge, B. Long esq. and the rector. The soil is rich loam; subsoil, clay. The chief crops are wheat, barley, beans and peas. The area is 426 acres; rateable value, £442; the population in 1891 was 47.

"The church of All Saints was re-erected in 1857, chiefly by subscription of the landed proprietors of the parish and the adjoining hamlet of Lower Stondon, and is a building of the sandstone found on the Wrest estate, in the Decorated style, consisting of chancel, nave, north transept porch and a tower on the south side containing 1 bell; cast at Hertford in 1819: the transept was built by Trinity College, Cambridge, for the use of the inhabitants of Lower Stondon; of the old church, a Late Norman structure, there remain the shaft of Norman piscine, c. 1150; the font, a stone altar slab with crosses, under the present table; a memorial, c. 1680, in the middle of the chancel floor; an image bracket, and the inner door of tower or main entrance, c. 1250; the former chancel screen was converted into altar rails, a pulpit and reading desks: the stained east, window was the gift of W. Brooks esq.; and there is a memorial window to Robert Long esq. churchwarden, who died August 1, 1868, and another to the late George Lines esq. The register of marriages dates from the year 1684, burials from 1683."

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Talking of the church, there were only 39 rectors of the church in the 675 years from 1239 to 1987. This gives an average tenure of over 19 years. One family, the Leach's, held the living for 128 years (1681 - 1809 ) with three generations succeeding each other. John Leach alone was Rector for 53 years.

The County Report of 1905 says that there were several groups of houses along the Henlow - Shillington Road, which was still tree-lined at the time. There was much market gardening in the area at this time, probably encouraged by the proximity of the railway station and the regular markets in Hitchin. It must also have helped commercial fruit growing at the orchard at Holwellbury Farm. The Report also says that there was "a prosperous look" about the place.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the village started growing and the houses at the Henlow end of Station Road were built. The white brick, even numbered houses, were built for workers in the nurseries that became Zwetsloot's in the 1920's. The red brick, odd numbered houses, were built by local builder's Burgess, and I'm told that originally, they all had a flowering cherry in the front garden, planted by the builders!

In the summer of 1917 Army authorities had made an initial purchase of 226 acres of farmland to provide a base to train more men in the rapid repair of aircraft and aero engines. The area was probably chosen because it was flat, free from watercourses, and relatively uninhabited. Good communications were available, a railway line ran along the camp's west boundary, and Luton was a near and convenient source for the supply of industrial goods.


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Much of the station was still under construction when the Royal Flying Corps formally became the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918. In the original and first list of RAF stations for April 1918, Henlow now counts among only 7 other stations that remain open as Royal Air Force stations today (more information further down).

In 1938 Birch Bros bus company, following a year of frantic acquisitions of other bus companies and routes, built a brand new, state of the art, bus garage on Bedford Road. Birch Bros had started in the transport business in 1810 when William Birch left Plymouth in Devon to seek his fortune in London. They ran horse cabs and in 1847 moved into horse buses, running from Pimlico to Mansion House. They continued to expand the business through successive generations, and in 1919 the first motor vehicles joined the fleet.

In 1928 they started the first London to Bedford route, and in 1930 they extended it to Rushden and Kettering. By 1940, double decker buses were running from Henlow to London, Rushden and Luton. In the 1950's, the double deckers on the 203 route from London to Rushden - via Henlow Camp - were running an hourly service. During the 1960's however - like most other bus companies - passenger numbers fell dramatically, and the last 3 Leyland Titan double deckers were withdrawn from Henlow in September 1967. The last remaining country routes stopped running when the garage was closed down on 14th October 1968.

On 1st February 1971 the business and the coaches were sold to the George Ewer Group, and the Birch name faded from the public transport scene for ever. There is short and interesting history of Birch Bros Buses here.

Some time after that, the garage was taken over by Blue Star Batteries, and it was finally knocked down in 2004 to make way for the eponymous Birch Grove.

I haven't been able to find much information about the other local feature that disappeared in 2004 - Zwetsloot's nursery. Cornelius Zwetsloot, arrived in England in 1932 and soon established a small, but successful, bulb growing company in Sandy, Bedfordshire. At some time - can anyone help me here? - he also built greenhouses in Bedford Road, Stondon. These came down in 2004 to allow the development at Pollards Way.

During the last 25 years, more and more people have discovered the benefits of living in Stondon. There have been large housing developments at Orchard Way, Pollards Way, Birch Grove, Meadowsweet and Endeavour Close as well as individual houses being built. In the years between 2002 and 2007 alone, the population of the village increased by 50%. There are now just over 800 houses in the village, and a population of about 2,000. And that's without counting all the new houses on the Henlow side of Bedford Road !

So there it is. A brief (and idiosyncratic?) history of our village. If you know more and would like to contribute, we'd love to hear from you. Email us and tell us your memories, or correct anything we've got wrong!


RAF Henlow

This is my precis of the RAF History web page. If you'd like to read it in full, click here.


Army authorities made an initial purchase of 226 acres of farmland in the summer of 1917 to provide a base to train more men in the rapid repair of aircraft and aero engines. The area was probably chosen because it was flat, free from watercourses, and relatively uninhabited. Good communications were available, a railway line ran along the camp's west boundary, and Luton was a near and convenient source for the supply of industrial goods. Much of the station was still under construction when the Royal Flying Corps formally became the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918. In the original and first list of RAF stations for April 1918, Henlow now counts among only 7 other stations that remain open as Royal Air Force stations today. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, there were 3,000 working here, including 300 WAAF employed on fabric work and clerical duties. Output had reached 15 aircraft per month; however, with the end of the war the works dwindled.

During the 1920s and 1930s RAF Henlow was producing aircraft and engines for the RAF. By the 1930s, Henlow was one of the RAF's four largest stations. Accommodation standards were not generally high, without any hot water, except that fetched from the cookhouse in tin bowls. In addition, the outside washrooms and toilets were regularly frozen up in winter and good sanitation was almost impossible.

On 20th September 1925 the Parachute Test Unit (PTU) was established at Henlow, and was responsible for packing, testing and repairing parachutes and equipping squadrons with them. Parachute testing is still undertaken at Henlow, not by the RAF, but by Irvin Aerospace of Letchworth who undertake tests in direct support of the Armed Forces. Irvins established themselves at Letchworth due to the proximity of RAF Henlow.


In August 1932 one Flying Officer Frank Whittle arrived to attend the Officers' Engineering Course. On promotion to Flight Lieutenant, and while in charge of the engine test bays, he continued his experimental work on a jet engine, which had first occurred to him in 1928. He left Henlow in 1934 for Cambridge University and, in April 1937 he test ran the engine which was to power the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 - the first British jet-engined aircraft.

During the 2nd World War, Henlow became one of the largest RAF Maintenance Units in the country. No 13 MU was responsible for repairing, modifying and assembling front line aircraft throughout the war. Station strength in October 1939 was 4,232. By June 1944 this had almost doubled. A large hospital was established which served units as far away as Honington, Mildenhall and Wyton.

After the war, emphasis on aircraft production declined and a new role was developed for Henlow. In September 1946 it was decided to set up a radio equipment calibration centre at Henlow. It was mainly concerned with the servicing, modification, manufacture and installation of communications equipment. . In 1948/49 the emphasis of the unit moved away from development work and on 1st January 1950 it was renamed the Radio Engineering Unit (REU). Responsible for installing ground radio and telecommunications equipment throughout the RAF, it supplied, repaired and calibrated a vast range of radio equipment at home and overseas.

The Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG), the UK's military Arms Control and Verification Centre, has been based at RAF Henlow since May 1996. The Group's role is to implement a variety of international arms control treaties and related agreements which the UK has signed since the end of the Cold War.

The Headquarters RAF Provost & Security Services (HQ RAF P&SS) moved to RAF Henlow in November 1998, and is now responsible for all RAF policing policy and standards. The RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine (RAF CAM) was founded on 1st December 1998.

 Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence


Stondon Wartime Memories - Roy Bennet