There are a number of theories concerning the derivation of the town’s name, but the most likely is that “Leighton” came from Old English Lēah-tūn, meaning ‘farm in a clearing in the woods’. The “Buzzard” was added by the Dean of Lincoln, in whose diocese the town lay in the 12th century. Having two communities called “Leighton” and seeking some means of differentiating them, he added the name of his local Prebendary or representative to that of the town. At that time it was a Theobald de Busar and so over the years the town became known as Leighton Buzzard. The other Leighton became Leighton Bromswold.
Leighton Buzzard is also famous as the Grand Union Canal was opened there. More recently, Leighton Buzzard station was the location for part of the film Robbery, which is based on the so-called “Great Train Robbery” (1963), whereas the actual robbery took place just outside the town, at Bridego bridge, Ledburn. In the Domesday Book, Leighton Buzzard and Linslade were both called Leestone. There is evidence that people have been living in and around the area currently occupied by Leighton Buzzard since Saxon times. Pottery and jewellery from the sixth century have been excavated in the town and earthworks have been found which are believed to date back to Roman times.
The town is also mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 where it is called Lestone. This is interesting as it mentions that Lestone had a market which is still held in Leighton Buzzard to this day. Leighton Buzzard was a Borough back in 1295 and a Royal Manor at the time of the Doomsday Book in 1086. In fact, the town’s market raised £7.00 per year as a toll – a sizeable sum in those days.
Over the years there have been many references to the town and surrounding villages. For example Tiddenfoot on the edge of the town is referred to in documents dating from 906 and in 1645 a petition was sent asking the Government for financial help after a fire in the High Street. The coming of the Leighton Buzzard-Dunstable branch line, in 1848, opened up new areas for exploitation.The thick seams of sand in the hills of the Greensand Ridge to the north, towards Heath & Reach village and what is now the A5 road, remained largely untouched. The cost of transport would have made them uncompetitive with cheap imports from Europe.
The outbreak of the First World War , in 1914, changed all that. Industrial demand soared, while supplies from the cheap overseas competitors were eliminated. Wartime regulations allowed sand to be transported by road – horse-drawn carts, and later steam lorries – from the new northern quarries to sidings on the Dunstable branch at Billington Road.As a result, the roads in the area suffered enormously.
Once the war was over, the quarry owners were told that they would be responsible for repairing any future damage, and this led quickly to the formation of Leighton Buzzard Light Railway Ltd. Owned by the two main quarry operators in the area – Joseph Arnold & Sons Ltd and George Garside (Sand) Ltd – the railway company had its line built, from the Billington Road sidings to Double Arches, near Heath & Reach, and in service by the end of 1919. Using mostly surplus materials and equipment from the War Department Light Railways (WDLR), which had operated the supply lines to the battle zones, it was built to 2 foot (610 mm) gauge, and was just over 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long.
Additional to this was a network of quarry branches, plus sidings serving the industries which set up alongside the line.The LBLR’s original steam locomotives lasted less than 2 years, being replaced in 1921 by ex-WDLR armoured “Simplex” petrol locomotives, built locally in Bedford. This almost certainly made it the first railway in Britain (or even the world?) to convert entirely to internal-combustion traction. It may also explain the line’s low public profile for much of its working life!
Many businesses moved to Leighton Buzzard and provided employment for the rising population producing all types of products. During the Second World War, even bomber aircraft were produced in the town to help the war effort. Many well known international businesses came such as Gossards the lingerie company and Lancer Boss who manufactured lift trucks. The town boasts many old buildings each with its own stories to tell that, together, make up the history of Leighton Buzzard. Leighton Buzzard boasts All Saints Church, a fine Early English parish church dating from 1277. The church has a 190ft spire and has been described as the cathedral of South Bedfordshire. This church suffered a large fire in the 80s, but has since undergone a full restoration.