Twenty years ago today, on 7 April, 2000, Nelson Mandela made an historic visit to Bedford, to rededicate a statue of his friend and anti-apartheid activist, Trevor Huddleston.
The former President of South Africa was 81 at the time of the visit and met with dignitaries, including Cllr Carole Ellis, who was Bedford’s Mayor.
Although Cllr Ellis sadly died in 2014, her account of Mr Mandela’s visit is a wonderful reminder of a truly momentous day in the history of the town.
“On the day Nelson Mandela visited Bedford there was a sea of faces welcoming him but they did not overshadow the man himself.
“He had been invited by the Council to rededicate a bust of his dear friend and anti-apartheid activist, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. As I was Mayor, my husband, Eddie and I had the pleasure of hosting his visit.
“He was a magical character and an amazing man. I have always been in awe of what he stands for; he was a strong person who was devoted to his country and beliefs.
“His presence made me feel very humble. The rededication of Archbishop Huddleston’s bust was done with much sincere feeling.
“I cannot describe the atmosphere on the day. I remember the Wootton Upper School band played, and even though he was 81 years old at the time that did not stop him dancing with me on the corner of Silver Street!
“A few days after his visit, on the 18 April 2000 I had the pleasure of writing to Dr Mandela to notify him that councillors had unanimously decided to offer him the Freedom of Bedford Borough.
“This underlined what it meant to the people of Bedford for him to come and visit our town. He is an inspiration to all of us and it is certainly a day I will never forget.”
Trevor Huddleston (1913-1998) was born in Bedford but left while still an infant. He went on to become an Anglican priest who spent most of his life serving poor people on the African continent.
His work in black South African townships brought about his commitment to human rights and anti-apartheid activism, which led to South Africa’ s first black President, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) claiming that “No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston”, which is inscribed in the plinth of this head and shoulder’s bust.
He went on to become a bishop and finally Archbishop of the Indian Ocean. He was knighted in the last year of his life.
On 7 April 2000 the retired Nelson Mandela, then an old man, visited Bedford to re-dedicate the Trevor Huddleston memorial bust, which had first been unveiled on 30 October 1999 by the Bishop of St Albans.
Ian Walters: sculptor
Ian Walters (1930-2006) was a distinguished sculptor and committed socialist who is known especially for his statues of those associated with left-wing causes.
These include the nine-foot statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square and the memorial to the International Brigades, who served during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, in Jubilee Gardens, South Bank, London.
[Information from Bedfordshire Libraries Virtual Library]