Sadness as Dunstable's Manshead Archaeological Society decides to disband

A Dunstable society which discovered much of what is now known about the town’s early history has decided to disband.

Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 9:47 am
Updated Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 10:42 am

Manshead Archaeological Society is famous for finding the priceless Swan Jewel, a 15th century gold brooch now on display in the British Museum.

The society was formed in 1952 when extensive quarrying was taking place in the north of the town to provide chalk for the cement works at Houghton Regis

Ancient remains were being uncovered there and a group of local people, headed by Les Matthews, began what turned into a 15-year archaeological dig at Puddlehill, the windswept area next to the chalk cutting.

Manshead at Puddlehlll

They recorded evidence of 6,000 years of occupation, including remains from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and the Roman and Saxon periods.

The amateur archaeologists then found themselves invited to investigate numerous other sites in the town during a period when much of Dunstable was being redeveloped.

The society’s membership has dwindled in recent years as professional archaeologists are often now retained on new development sites as part of planning regulations.

Manshead’s chairman Ren Hudspith said: “It is very sad to have to dissolve the society after all these years.

The Swan Brooch

“We are in discussions to find homes for our collections and archives but, of course, things are particularly complicated during the present lockdowns.”

One of the most crucial excavations carried out by the society in its heyday was when the area alongside Dunstable crossroads was being cleared to make way for the Quadrant shopping centre.

Manshead found numerous wells and remnants of roads and buildings there, proving that this was indeed the site of the Roman town called Durocobrivis.

A town of that name in mentioned on Roman documents as being on the Watling Street north of St Albans, but historians had previously disagreed on where this could have been.

Manshead's Marina Drive dig

The society spent two seasons excavating a Roman villa at Totternhoe, and recorded the details of a Saxon cemetery which was uncovered when building work started at Marina Drive.

It carried out a geophysical survey of Priory Meadow to trace the foundations of the old monastery, and the land there is permanently marked out with its findings.

There have been numerous other smaller excavations and surveys but the dig which provided the greatest excitement was on the site of the old Friary, behind the Square. This was where the 15th century gold and white brooch in the shape of a swan was discovered.

In 1993 Manshead was able to purchase its headquarters at 5 Winfield Street (the old Sportsman pub) thanks to the generosity of Dr Gerald Ashton and other society members.

Manshead excavation in Dunstable 1950