Mystery building discovered in Leighton Buzzard on the banks of River Ouzel

'As far as I know it has not been entered for 50 years...'

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 1:10 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd October 2021, 1:38 pm

A mystery building on the banks of the River Ouzel is being investigated by Leighton Buzzard's archaeological and historical society, as its members wonder what lies inside.

The construction is a small cottage built on the same site as 'Mary Bassett's School for Cripples', whose classes were originally located in her home on the edge of town, and then at Lecton House, Lake Street.

The school then moved to a studio built on an island next to the town bridge over the River Ouzel after the death of Mary's father in 1899.

The top of the mystery cottage pokes out from the foliage. Photo: Paul Brown.

Paul Brown, of Leighton Buzzard & District Archaeological & Historical Society, said: "We have investigated and it seems likely that this building [the cottage] has not been lived in for 50 years.

"It disappeared beneath brambles and trees after the current bridge across the Ouzel was constructed in, I think, the early 1970s when West Street was built to relieve traffic going through the town centre.

"The frontage of this building is on the same line as the old bridge across from West Street, which continues along Leighton Road past the front of the Shell Garage. The buildings in Bridge Street are on the same line.

"In front of the derelict building between the front fence and Leighton Road is a section of the old road leading up to the original bridge, all traces of which have disappeared."

Paul has checked with Central Bedfordshire Council, the Land Registry, and examined various maps but its ownership is totally unknown.

He went on to explain that the building is marked on old maps (1880 onwards) but not identified as anything.

Paul said: "It used to be on an island with the Mill Race (the existing river) on one side and the river on the other (which has since been filled in). The river was the county boundary so it was just in Leighton Buzzard at the time. The numbers on the street have changed so much it is impossible to be sure who lived there in 1890 and 1901 and 1911 but the closest I got was sand quarry workers, but cannot be definite about that.

"We believe the original address of this house was 1 Canal Street - changed to 1 Leighton Road, when the road was renamed.

"It appears in the 1939 Linslade register as occupied by James Smith-Baker, an assistant manager in the sand industry, his wife Elizabeth and an Ellen Foster. However, although the numbering tallies, all the houses along this stretch and the street numbering have altered so this is by no means certain."

The 'School for Cripples' was started by Mary Bassett towards the end of the 19th century to teach disabled children crafts by which they could make a living, with its pupils successful in decorative work and making leather work for alters.

Indeed, in 1897 the school was commissioned to do leather work to present to Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee.

Paul added: "The island was owned by the Bassett family who built the house on Church Square where Mary Norton of Borrowers fame subsequently lived and is now Leighton Middle School.

"Mary Bassett never married and when she became a wealthy spinster she built Stonhill House in Billington Road for herself to live in. It is in the arts and crafts style and contains a lot of the work of the 'School for Cripples'. It is a beautiful house I have been inside and it is still there.

"The 'School for Cripples' that was on the bridge was made of prefabricated cast iron and she had it taken to pieces and re-erected in Stonhill's front garden next to Billington Road where classes resumed.

"It was still there in the 1950s and used as a bungalow by an old couple but finally taken down and scrapped because it was fearfully cold in the winter."

Meanwhile, secrets wait to be discovered in the surviving cottage near the river Ouzel.

Paul said: "It is a mystery house that has reappeared. The undergrowth make it impossible to see a door or any other way in. As far as I know it has not been entered for 50 years..."

To find out more about Mary Bassett, visit: https://www.leightonlinslade-tc.gov.uk/mary-bassett/