Kempston is a town and civil parish located in Bedfordshire, England. Once known as the largest village in England, Kempston is now a town with its own town council. It has a population of about 20,000, and together with Bedford, it forms an urban area with around 100,000 inhabitants, which is the sole significant urban area in the Borough of Bedford. Kempston serves principally as a dormitory town for Bedford and for Milton Keynes, which is about ten miles away.
Until the 19th century Kempston was a mainly rural parish. It was one of the largest in Bedfordshire with an area of 5,025 acres (20 km²) at the time of enclosure in 1804, and was in Redbournestoke Hundred. Historically there was no central village, but instead settlement was divided between a number of hamlets called "Ends", for example, Up End, Bell End, Wood End and Box End. Kempston's parish church, All Saints, was in Church End, which was not the largest end but is fairly central. In the 19th century East End, Bell End and Up End began to coalesce into a larger settlement. In 1870 developers began to attempt to develop land on the road from Kempston to Bedford under the name "Kempston New Town". Construction was slow at first, but the new district soon began to expand steadily and Kempston acquired a more urban feel. A permanent military presence was established in the town with the completion of Kempston Barracks in 1876.
In 1896 the parish was divided into Kempston Urban District 1,255 acres (5.1 km²) and the civil parish of Kempston Rural 3,770 acres (15 km²). The Urban District was based on East End, Up End and Kempston New Town all of which are in the north eastern part of the parish close to Bedford, and had 86.8% of the total population at the 1901 census. Kempston Rural was three times larger, but remained sparsely populated. Church End, with its original parish church, remains a small hamlet in the rural part of Kempston.
The growth of Kempston's population levelled off in the early decades of the 20th century, with a rise of just 12% between 1901 and 1931, but it then began to expand rapidly. The 1951 population of just under 10,000 was 60% higher that that of 1931; in the second half of the 20th century, the population nearly doubled. In 1974 Kempston Urban District was abolished and Kempston reverted to being a civil parish, in the Borough of Bedford but with a separate town council with minor powers. For borough election purposes the town is divided into four wards called Kempston Central and East, Kempston North, Kempston South and Kempston West. Kempston Rural remains a civil parish and is part of Turvey Ward for borough election purposes.
Note 1: 1981 figures are provisional (more up to date source needed).
The name in its old form is "kemestun" which includes the Brittonic word "cambio" meaning bent or curved. Therefore, the name meant when coined "the enclosed settlement on the bend". The bend was that of the River Great Ouse, noted for its sharp bends upstream of Bedford. It is, however, also possible that "cambita" (the curved one) was the name given to this stretch of the river by the Celtic-speaking population. In this case the name could have developed like that of the river Kembs in the French Department of Haut Rhin. Kempston is also a family name for many individuals from British Ancestry. Kempston was recorded as "camestone" in the Domesday Book and had a 6th-century Anglo Saxon burial site, now home to the Saxon Centre. The meaning of the name Kempston is not known for certain. The element 'ton' is Old English and means a settlement of some sort. The most plausible meaning of the element 'Caemb' is that it was the name of an Anglo-Saxon who owned the settlement. Thus we have the possessive case expressing this relationship by the 's.' The speculation that the element 'Caemb' means bent or curved seems much less likely, because the river consists of many bends and curves and therefore the name would have been of no use in locating a particular settlement.