Ashton Legacy

How a family feud helped the town


Ashton Square, Ashton Street, Ashton St Peter's Primary School and the former Ashton Middle School, once Ashton Grammar School, all commemorate a rich widow, Frances Ashton, whose fortune has benefited Dunstable people in numerous ways.

But much of her legacy to the town stems from an extraordinary family row, when her only surviving daughter, Elizabeth, married a man of whom her mother strongly disapproved.

Mrs Ashton was so displeased by her daughter's defiance that she stipulated that her trustees were only to pay Elizabeth money if she lived separately from her husband. And when Mrs Ashton died in 1727 her will made a special point of continuing to record her displeasure about her undutiful daughter. Elizabeth was disinherited and the Ashton fortune was left instead to various charitable trusts in Dunstable. The Ashton property included the White Hart Inn, the Crown coaching inn, a field at Leighton Gap in Dunstable and a number of farms including what is now called Dovehouse Farm in Kensworth.

Elizabeth had fallen in love with a man named John Raynor. No details have yet been found about where they met, where he came from, or why he was regarded as such an unsuitable match.

A marriage certificate In the National Archives is most likely a record of their wedding. It is signed by Thomas Wilson, minister of the Church of England, and simply certifies that "John Raynor of St Clement Danes in the County of Middx Gent Batchelor and Eliz: Ashton of St Giles Cripple-gate in the County aforesaid Gentlewoman Spinster, were married Thursday the 12th of Nov 1713".

Mary Shaw signed her name as a witness and there is also the mark of Rebecca Hactorfou.

Elizabeth would have been in her 23rd year and John may have been aged 28.

There's a record of John Raynor and Elizabeth Raynor, presumably the same couple, living at Hillingdon, Middlesex, on December 27th 1714. John died in 1734 and Elizabeth died in 1748. They had no children.

Elizabeth's mother, Frances, was born in 1648, the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Chew. Her father was a haberdasher who probably owned a shop in Dunstable.

The family's fortunes really stemmed from her brother (named Thomas, after his father) who went to London when he was 13 to work as an apprentice to a distiller. He would have learned to make gin, which was the drink of choice for many people in England at the time.

Thomas eventually started his own distillery and became very rich. He was granted his own coat of arms in 1703. This featured golden Catherine Wheels and became the badge of Dunstable Grammar School and now Manshead School. Thomas began buying land in Bedfordshire and was made High Sheriff of the county in 1709.

He may well have introduced his sister to another prosperous distiller, William Ashton, who married Frances in 1678.

Thomas died suddenly in 1712 and his considerable fortune was divided between a cousin and his two sisters, Frances and Jane. Together they founded a charity school in his memory. The school's building, Chew's House, still exists in High Street South. Its extension has now become the Little Theatre, home of Dunstable Repertory Company.

Frances Ashton also paid for the erection in 1715 of the Ashton almshouses which stood on the corner of West Street and the road which became known as Ashton Street. The houses provided homes for six ladies who were also given gowns and petticoats, all of the same colour, paid for by Mrs Ashton.

There are modern shops on the site today and replacement almshouses were built in Bull Pond Lane in 1969.

Frances Ashton gave birth to eight children. Most died when they were very young.

Ashton St Peter's School
Ashton St Peter's School in Church Street. The Aldi store is on this site today.
Dunstable (Ashton) Grammar School. Photo of the front main building
A picture showing the Ashton Grammar School.
The old Eight Bells pub in Ashton Street
The old Eight Bells pub in Ashton Street, now the site of Ashton Square.

Text: John Buckledee of Dunstable and District Local History Society. ©
Design: David Turner.
Narration: Veronica Yates of Dunstable Repertory Company.
Recording: David Hornsey.
Website developer: Joshua Buckledee.