There are records of a chapel in Woburn in 1245, possibly on the site of Old St. Mary’s Church, that is now the Heritage Centre. In the early 1500’s Robert Hobbes, the last Abbott of Woburn, had the chapel re-built and the first incumbent is recorded as Samuel Walpoole in 1558. The tower was built in 1635 for Sir Francis Staunton, using materials from the old church in Birchmore. The tower was originally topped with a wooden lantern and a small bell.
In 1830, John, the 6th Duke of Bedford, had the tower rebuilt and joined to the main building. The wooden top was replaced by the fine “wedding cake” tower, designed by Edward Blore, who also designed the Town Hall, at the centre of the village and the old vicarage at the corner of Crawley Road and to whom, also 1n 1830, William IV gave the commission of completing John Nash’s design for Buckingham Palace. The tower clock is by B.L.Vulliamy, clockmaker to William IV and was installed at the same time. It is the only public clock in Woburn, it strikes on the hour and still keeps excellent time.
In the 19th century the church extended down to the road, but Woburn was much larger then and most people attended church, this building was proving too small for the population. Therefore in 1n 1865, William, the 8th Duke, commissioned Henry Clutton to build the new St. Mary’s Church in Park Street. Our church was reduced to the size we see today and the stones from the demolition were used in the building the new church, which was finished in 1868. The new church originally had a spire which proved too heavy and was demolished in 1890.
Our building then became the mortuary chapel, as the new church has no graveyard. Funerals were held here until 1967, by then the population of Woburn was down to 700 and with so few funerals the church could no longer afford the upkeep of the chapel, although the graveyard has remained in use, and the building fell into disrepair. In the late 1970’s the building was deconsecrated and a Trust was formed to save and repair the building. In 1984 the Heritage Centre opened with exhibits of local history and interest, all donated by local people.
Since 1984 the Heritage Centre has grown and thrived and, in addition to the museum, we are now a Tourist Information Point and a centre for local walks, books and leaflets as well as gift items.
In 2001 we received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund enabling us to glaze the open sides of the porch, making the building warmer and providing extra space for displays. With the grant we also re-wired the building and turned the old bell ringers’ room in the tower into a resource and store room. Also in 2001 the Heritage Centre became an Arts Council Registered Museum and is now a member of the Bedfordshire Museums Group and Milton Keynes Heritage Association. In 2008 we received a further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to refurbish the museum and, in addition to our exhibits and photos, we have created an archive resource of censuses and local history. In 2010 we received a grant from WRI Recycling Environmental Ltd to support the full restoration of the damaged stonework on the “wedding cake”.
In 2011 Manshead Archaeology Society of Dunstable plotted the positions of all the gravestones in the graveyard and volunteers from Santander Bank recorded all the legible names, these are held in an index in the museum, which we hope to publish on this website in the near future.
The Heritage Centre is open everyday from Easter to September and at weekends in October. It is a registered charity and is run entirely by volunteers. Our only income is from sales, donations and special events, such as the Open Gardens Day and Scarecrow Competition held each June.
The Heritage Centre from St. Mary’s Church Tower.