Bedford Mansions [ 52°14’08.8″N 0°53’24.0″W ] is a four storey block of flats built in 1935 on the North side of Derngate, Northampton. The front of the building extends from Spring Gardens in the east to Bedford Place in the west. Two side wings extend back from Derngate to form a U-shaped ground plan. A service yard / carpark area ( originally a ‘central lawn’ ) is located in the neck of the U to the rear of the property, currently accessed from Bedford Place with the entire site occupying a plot of approximately 40 x 40 metres. 

The design is of the ‘Moderne‘ deco style, popular in the 1930s. This is characterised by a streamlined, pared back aesthetic influenced by aerodynamic forms, the suggestion of speed and movement with influences taken from the design of ocean liners and the aircraft of the period. Curved corners, long horizontal strip windows ( ‘Crittal Windows’ ) and geometric detailing of brick elevations create a distinctive appearance which sets it apart from its Georgian neighbours across the street. A flat roof adds further contrast within the predominantly pitched roof streetscape along Derngate.

Three curved balconies ( disused in 2017 ) project from the first to third floors overlooking Derngate. Entrances at the west and east corners lead to stair towers serving all floors. These are lit by with triple height curtain wall windows at the sides and semi circular columnar oriel windows at the front rising between the second and third storeys. The eastern stair tower retains moulded concrete mounts in a curved geometric form near the roof. These originally supported a flagpole ( now missing ). In 2017 the original windows have been replaced with modern UPVC lookalikes. The building is owned by a housing association and is tenanted.

Bedford Mansions was constructed by T.M. Wilson & Sons Ltd., Builders and Contractors, 65/67 Sheep Street, Northampton. The designers were Sir John Brown and A.E. Henson, chartered architects, 83 St. Giles Street, Northampton who also had a London office in Old Burlington Street W1. The RIBA photo archive contains numerous examples of work in a similar style by the firm throughout the 1930s. These include the Nurses Home of nearby Northampton General Hospital ( still extant in 2017 ) and the Berlei Factory in Slough ( demolished 1984 ).

An advertisement for Bedford Mansions appeared in the Northampton Independent newspaper in October 1934. This shows a three storey building, with a much flatter facade, square corners, an Art-Deco motif on a glass front door and a rooftop garden. The building was at this time being planned. Between the first approved plans and the second, Newilton’s, ( of 26 Bridge Street Chambers ) the property developer, decided to add an extra storey to squeeze more flats in, turning Bedford Mansions from a block of thirty to a block of forty flats. The rooftop garden was removed from the plans. The effect of these changes would undoubtedly be to make the development more profitable.

Advertisement from The Northampton Independent 1935.

A three page article about the flats in November 1935 published in the Northampton Independent gives the opening date for the building as ‘early December’. The article describes the flats as an ‘affordable modern luxury’ aimed at enticing ‘suburbanites’ back into the town. 

The location of Bedford Mansions opposite 78 Derngate gives a snapshot of the development of what came to be known as ‘Deco’ in Britain. Mackintosh’s pioneering use in 1916 of Jazz Age motifs in a domestic setting were bespoke, finely crafted and tailored to the exact requirements of his client. Bassett-Lowke as a demanding patron was looking to create a home like no other and one firmly of the future. The post WW1 building boom, a renewed optimism and desire to shape a truly modern world created the conditions for elements of this type of aspirational design to be made available to a larger market. The modern domestic luxuries of heated bathrooms, electric kitchen appliances and central heating were no longer to be the preserve of the well off business-owning class. By 1935, through mass production and standardisation of manufacture, these technologies were finding their way into ever greater numbers of new homes. Those with the means to live at Bedford Mansions could enjoy the ‘sunlit lifestyle’ in ultra modern surroundings championed by Bassett-Lowke at both 78 Derngate and in his later home, ‘New Ways’.

Sources
Research carried out by Jack Lillis in 2011 and written up in newsletter no 73 from The Friends of 78 Derngate. This used material ( building plans and planning permission documents ) supplied by Northamptonshire County Record Office. Access to original Northampton Independent newspapers courtesy of Northampton Central Library.

Author: David Walsh

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