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The Growth of Harpenden Exhibition Notes

Harpenden Local History Day, 20 April 2024


Please use the links below to jump to the relevant board information on this page.

Board 1


Prehistory and Roman

Palaeolithic to Roman: c.2.5 million years ago to c.AD400

Palaeolithic to Bronze Age: c.2.5 million years ago to c.750BC.

There has been human activity for thousands, perhaps millions, of years in Harpenden. Hand axes, dating to the Lower Palaeolithic (c.2.5 million years to 200,000 years ago) and the Neolithic (c.5,000BC to 2,500BC) respectively, have been found near Carisbrooke Road, Vale Close (Kinsbourne Green), Wroxham Way and near Batford Mill. This evidence suggests hunter-gatherers roamed, and early farmers cultivated, the wider Lea Valley landscape during this time.

In 1993, excavations uncovered evidence of Bronze Age (c.2,750BC to 750BC) activity around Aldwickbury Golf Course with the discovery of a building as well as flints and pottery. This seems to suggest a small settlement may have been established in Harpenden as early as the first millennium BC.

Iron Age: c.750BC to c.AD50

During the Iron Age, Harpenden was within the territory of the Catuvellauni tribe, who occupied a large area north of the River Thames. They became one of the most powerful tribes in Britain, and their society became highly stratified and sophisticated – far more than has been suggested by contemporary classical commentators. The Catuvellauni – or Catalauni, meaning war chiefs – may have been settlers from the Continent, perhaps related to the Catalauni of Belgic Gaul. The Catuvellauni were farmers, craftspeople, traders (including in slaves), and iron miners. They traded with the Roman Republic and Empire long before the Roman occupation of Britain and developed a highly organised style of farming, especially wheat cultivation, which may have been integrated into pre-existing practices. Trade with the wider Roman world also included the importation of a variety of goods such as olive oil and wine.

Coins were first introduced to Britain in around 150BC from Gaul, and their use was probably proliferated by tribes such as the Catuvellauni. Tasciovanus was the first leader of the tribe to mint coins in Verlamion, or pre-Roman St Albans, from around 20BC. The coinage of the Catuvellauni reveals their complex society, wide trade network, and the value of wheat and horses, as well as their belief systems, such as the use of half-moon symbols. Horses seemingly played an important role in transportation, farming, and warfare.

One of the most famous battles fought by the Catuvellauni was against the Romans and Julius Caesar in 54BC. This may have taken place in Wheathampstead, at their stronghold which is delineated today by Devil’s Dyke and the Slad. However, it is conjecture that any battle was ever fought in this area and to date there is no tangible evidence to prove that the Dyke area was a stronghold. The suggestion that this was the case came from archaeological work undertaken in the 1930s, and its conclusions are now being questioned. However, we do know that the tribal leader of the Catuvellauni during this period was Cassivellaunus, and an image of him has been created for the exhibition using artificial intelligence. (Source: AI generated / Bing Image Creator).

In Harpenden, the Catuvellauni’s influence may be reflected in the distribution of ancient hamlets and farms, such as Upper Topstreet Farm, Cross Farm, Townsend Farm and Piggottshill Farm, some of which are illustrated on the exhibition board. As yet there is no evidence to show if other industries, such as metalworking or pottery making, were also taking place in Harpenden. Certainly, trade was of enormous importance to the Catuvellauni, and it may well be that during this period the area around today’s St Nicholas’ church was already a trading hub, a mid-point between the rivers Lea and Ver, and within a landscape already well connected by early trackways.

A late Iron Age Chieftain Burial, a cremation, was found in the 1850s (though there has been some confusion over the exact date) during the construction of the railway line to Luton and Harpenden East Station, situated between Hickling Way, Manland Avenue and Station Road. A Mr Williams dug up the grave goods which comprised ‘two tall lathe-turned shale vases (one fragmentary) in the shape of pedestal urns; a large circular bronze bowl; two bronze bucket-escutcheons in the form of rams’ heads [pictured], which had been attached to a wooden bucket (observed at the time of discovery); two bronze ring handles adapted to the escutcheons; and a bronze chest handle.’ (Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record).

Iron Age evidence has also been found around South View Road and Crabtree Lane.

Roman: c.AD50 to AD400

When the Romans arrived in the mid-first century AD, the organised landscape of farms from the Iron Age and the Catuvellauni were assimilated into larger villa estates. Villas, such as the one found at Turners Hall Farm near Mackerye End, were an integral part of these newly created estates. These were likely the forerunners of some of the medieval farm buildings still standing today.

Evidence of Roman activity has been found at Rothamsted, Cross Farm, around Crabtree Lane, Park Avenue (near Rothamsted Farm), Roundwood, and St Nicholas’ Churchyard.

It is important to understand that the people living in our area at this time were not Romans but rather a Romanised Iron Age population, descendants of the Catuvellauni tribe.

In 1827 a Roman barrow of approximately 50 feet round by 20 feet high was opened, situated in meadowland in the valley between Coldharbour Lane and the River Lea. The earth barrow concealed a huge stone cist similar to a round box between two stone slabs (pictured), with internal measurements of 2 feet 10 inches long by 1 foot 6 inches deep, and with a rectangular base. The cist contained a cremation burial, a green glass bottle, and four stamped Samian ware cups.

In 2009, Wessex Archaeology published their conclusions on a dig undertaken at Friars Wash, near to the River Ver, to the north of Redbourn and to the east of Kinsbourne Green. Excavations uncovered a pair of Romano-Celtic temples constructed in the late 1st or 2nd century AD. However, residual pottery finds may indicate that the site was active prior to the construction of these buildings. The position of the site is not shown on the exhibition board map.

In a similar vein, the Roman-style mausoleum at Rothamsted was first identified in 1936 by Anthony Lowther, an archaeologist and a member of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society; he investigated the site with James Broad and Denis Wilson. The mausoleum, the remains of which can be seen in images on the exhibition board, is situated at Collye’s Grove. The grove may well have been a place associated with aspects of earlier belief systems, evidenced by the discovery of an earlier Iron Age ditch. The mausoleum is surrounded by a 30m2 square walled precinct, and within this were found two cremation burials (of circa AD100 to AD125 to the 2nd century AD), plus Castor and Samian ware pottery, all of which are contemporary in date to buildings at Friars Wash and Verulamium. It is believed that the mausoleum was some six metres high, and beneath its tiled roof stood a life-size statue. This must have been a highly visible landmark in the landscape!

Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
With thanks to Lexi Diggins
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 2


Medieval to Early Modern (c.AD400 to c1720)

The Heptarchy to the Viking Age, cAD400 – AD1050

The period between c.AD400 and c.AD500, following the Roman withdrawal from Britain, is not well understood. However, by around the 6th century, Harpenden had been amalgamated into the Kingdom of Mercia following the formation of the Heptarchy, or the Anglo-Saxon seven kingdoms. Evidence from a 7th century Anglo-Saxon cemetery, found near Katherine Warington School in Batford, seems to suggest that Harpenden may have been a late converter to Christianity.

During the Viking Age in the late 9th century AD, Harpenden and the surrounding area were divided by the creation of the Danelaw – the Viking area of north-east England. This was the result of a treaty between Kings Alfred the Great of Wessex and Guthrum of East Anglia. The River Lea formed part of the Danelaw Boundary and split Batford from Harpenden. Harpenden and Wheathampstead were on the Saxon side and Kimpton and Gustard Wood were Viking!

Did Harpenden receive its name during the latter Early Medieval period? It is thought that Herpe dene comes from the Old English meaning path through the valley, but its origins might be earlier. The name, Herpe dene is first recorded in AD1060 when Edward the Confessor gave Wheathampstead and Harpenden to Westminster Abbey in frankalmoign, or tenure in free alms.

From the Medieval to the Early Modern, cAD1050 – c1720

The Bishop of Lincoln disputed Westminster Abbey’s rights over the land and tithes of Wheathampstead and Harpenden in the 13th century. The dispute lasted from 1217 to 1220 and centred on Wheathampstead’s glebe farm. The farm and its profits belonged to the church, a valuable arrangement which had been established under an earlier Anglo-Saxon agreement. This had also given the bishop the right to nominate the rector of St Helen’s, Wheathampstead, and it came with a large land grant for his maintenance. Pope Honorius III (r. 1216 – 1227) attempted to resolve the conflict between Lincoln and Westminster by agreeing that Westminster and the Wheathampstead rector would share the tithes, while the bishop remained patron. However, the dispute continued, and in the end the Bishop of Salisbury and others intervened and in 1220 gave Westminster Abbey a parcel of land in Harpenden. This was clearly adequate compensation, as on this land also stood a corn barn, ownership of which provided Westminster with the entitlement to collect half the corn tithe of the parish. The chapel-of-ease to St Helen’s may have been built in about 1220 following this agreement, though some historians believe it was constructed earlier in about 1217. Nevertheless, the position of the chapel (which developed into St Nicholas’ Church), and archaeological finds discovered nearby, suggest it may have replaced earlier buildings.

The foundation of St Nicholas’ enabled christenings, marriages and burials to take place in Harpenden, but this was also at a time when pilgrimage had become fashionable, and the new chapel additionally eased the pressure of administering pilgrims on their way to St Albans Abbey. As a result, several inns were established in the surrounding area, including the now public houses of The George, The Cross Keys and The Cock.

In 1537, King Henry VIII issued a charter to Harpenden, which reaffirmed the right of St Nicholas’ Church to hold services and bury the dead. This was a significant act as it provided clarity following the King’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. In 1642, Harpenden became involved in the Civil War, when Sir John Wittewronge, the owner of Rothamsted Manor at the time, joined the Parliamentarians against the Royalists. Wittewronge was a member of the Long Parliament and rose to be a colonel in the New Model Army. The New Model Army defeated the Royalists, which in turn led to the execution of King Charles I.

The foundation of St Nicholas’ church eventually saw the old parish of Wheathampstead, which once included Harpenden, split into two civil parishes. Harpenden became its own ecclesiastical parish in 1859, and in 1861 most of the old church was demolished and rebuilt to accommodate the growing population.

Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 3


Georgian and Early/Mid Victorian (c. 1720 – c1870)

When King George I came to the throne in 1714, Abraham Darby had already taken out a lease on a blast furnace in Shropshire’s Coalbrookdale. There he developed a new method of smelting iron with coke in combination with casting in cold sand moulds, firing the starting gun for the Industrial Revolution, and an era of experimentation and innovation which continued into the Victorian period. We might think Harpenden was still a sleepy rural village during this vibrant period, dependent solely on agriculture and the cottage industry of straw plaiting, but this was not the case. Nomansland, Harpenden Common and Bamville Wood were all mined for their rich deposits of gravel, chalk and clay, essential ingredients for all manner of industrial processes, including pottery and brick making.

This display covers the period during which Harpenden emerged in recorded written material as a substantial rural village. The display centres around two maps.

The 1766 Drury maps

This excerpt is the first recorded map to show the shape and layout of Harpenden. It demonstrates how the layout of the town and its core road system had already been established. At the time, roads would have been mainly rough, narrow, rural tracks – it is arguable that some still are!

The 1860 OS map

This is the first detailed OS map available. The map shows the Hertford, Luton and Dunstable Line, the first railway to go through Harpenden at Batford. Opened in 1860, it was a single-track line which served Harpenden station, renamed Harpenden East in 1950 to avoid confusion with Harpenden Central station off Station Road. Harpenden East closed in 1965 and the area is now covered by housing. More information on Harpenden’s railways can be found on Boards 5 and 6.

A graph shows how, from 1800 to 1861, the population gradually grew to around 2,000 people. This was in response to the introduction of the Turnpike, or toll road, from the 1740s, which improved the connectivity of the village with London and beyond. A reproduction of the 1842 coach timetable shows how travel was possible from Harpenden’s Cock Inn to Paddington in London in three hours.

Philip Smith
Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 4

The Village in 1840

The 1838/43 Tithe map

The tithe maps show in precise detail the dwellings, shops, agricultural and public buildings of the time. The coloured map on display is a from a section of the tithe map and was produced in the 1980s by Les Casey, curator of the Local History Society collection at that time. The information was derived from research findings of the WEA (Workers Educational Association) classes in the 1970s.

In 1834 John Bennet Lawes took over the running of Rothamsted home farm and began experimenting with chemical fertilisers on the farm and in a laboratory set up in his bedroom. This was the genesis of the Rothamsted Experimental Station, today’s Rothamsted Research, and on display is an image of the first laboratory.

The wonderful historic pictures on display give a flavour of the look of the village before the railways arrived, though many locations are still readily identifiable today.

Philip Smith
Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 5

The 1879 Ordnance Survey Map

On the Cusp of Growth

This display focusses on a fabulous 1879 Ordnance Survey (OS) map of Harpenden and Southdown (then called Bowling Alley) held by the Harpenden Local History Society. This is a reproduction of the first edition of a series of very detailed (1:2500) maps produced by the Ordnance Survey in the Victorian era. Such was the quality of the surveys undertaken for these maps, they continued to be used until the 1950s.

The map shows Harpenden on the cusp of growth and the start of the development of the railways, which eventually brought an end to coach travel. As also explained for Board 6, the Hertford, Luton and Dunstable Line was the first railway to go through Harpenden at Batford. Also known as the Dunstable branch of the Great Northern Railway, the line was open to passenger and freight services. Harpenden East station was opened in Batford on 1 September 1860, near today’s Waveney Road. According to a timetable from 1950, Harpenden East was served daily by six to 15 trains each way. The Dunstable branch was operated by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) using, for the most part, single track running. There were dual tracks at Harpenden East as well as between Dunstable North and Dunstable Town stations. Northbound services from Harpenden East called at Luton Hoo, Luton, and Dunstable, whilst southbound services called at Wheathampstead and Ayot before joining what is now the East Coast Mainline towards Potters Bar. Harpenden East closed in 1965, the station was demolished, and its tracks lifted, in 1968; the area is now covered by housing.

In 1868 a new Harpenden station was opened closer to the centre of the village on Stakers Lane, which was renamed Station Road in 1894. Despite its change of name to Harpenden in 1965, when Harpenden East closed, from 1950 and until the 1980s, it was still known as Harpenden Central to distinguish it from the station at Batford. The new station was built by the Midland Railway to serve the new extension line to London St Pancras. Passenger services – operated by the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS) – began in the same year the Midland Mainline extension from Leicester to St Pancras was completed. A great variety of destinations were offered to Harpenden residents including services to Leicester and Kettering. The Midland Railway later doubled the capacity of LMS services in 1891 by widening some sections of its route to four track running, such as south of Kettering through to St Pancras. This also included the spectacular widening of the Skew Bridge in Southdown.

By 1879, the railways had not yet made a significant impact on the growth of Harpenden as little land had been made available for building. The growth map which traces the 1879 village onto a modern OS map illustrates this point. By this time, the only development which was directly caused by the new railway was the building of Cravells Road in Southdown. Cravells Road was developed by the company known today as British Land, which was founded in 1856, primarily to exploit development opportunities arising from railway development; it is still a major FTSE company.

Philip Smith
Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 6

Population Growth and the Railways from the 1870s

This display explores the rate of population growth and how the railways developed from the 1870s to the present day – two central aspects of Harpenden’s development.

Population Growth: 1870 to Today

The first graph (top) shows how, triggered by the arrival of the railway, the population increased from 1871 to the 1980s. Growth slackened during the war years, falling into line (or even below) the general growth of the UK population.

The second graph (bottom) reanalyses the same figures in growth percentage by decade. This demonstrates how growth before World War One and after World War Two was around 20%, but with a spurt of some 80% in the inter-war 1930s, before falling back to around 20% towards the end of the 1980s. It then fell to very low percentage increases.

How this growth in population was housed and the consequent changes to the living environment is explored in the following displays.

Further Development of the Railways (see also Board 5)

In 1877 the Hemel Hempstead Railway Company built an additional branch line at Harpenden Central, known as the Nickey Line. The reason for this nickname is not clear, but one of the many hypotheses is that it was simply named after the parish of St Nicholas’. Operated by the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS), this route connected Harpenden Central to Roundwood Halt, Redbourn and Hemel Hempstead. At its height in 1922, there were 13 trains on the line Monday to Saturday, with nine on Sundays. The line was limited by the occasional steep gradient of the topography and the fact it operated on a single track running throughout. Harpenden (Central) station also became fully integrated into LMS services from Leicester to St Pancras and, by means of the City Widened Lines, to Moorgate Street (now Moorgate) via Aldersgate (now Barbican). The Midland Railway had been granted permission to operate services over the City Widened Lines in 1868.

In Harpenden the platform at Roundwood Halt, which was a request stop, is still visible. Opened in 1927 to cater for an expanding Harpenden population, Roundwood Halt also comprised a timber shelter and access steps from Park Hill. The Nickey line closed to passenger trains in 1947 but was used for freight until 1979; today it is a much-loved footpath.

By the end of the 19th century and the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain had sustained tremendous social, economic and cultural change with a shift from a rural to an urban economy. Between 1801 and 1871, the population doubled, and as urban migration increased, rural areas lost much of their younger workforce, and the traditional patterns of employment changed. The straw plaiting cottage industry began to go into decline and, together with the advent of the railways, Harpenden became an attractive place to live for the professional middle classes working in London. The building of more substantial houses satisfied the needs of the new commuter class and stimulated the local economy. Many young working-class women took jobs in service and began copying the habits of their employers. In Bowling Alley, for example, the front rooms of houses once occupied by straw plaiters were now reserved for Sunday best and with lace curtains, rather than traditional wooden shutters, at the windows.

Philip Smith
Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 7

Late Victorian (c1879 – c1900)

This display shows the original sales document for the first post-railway development in the Milton Road area (then called Park View) from 1883. This, together with a second major development in the Avenues area from 1895, kick started Harpenden’s growth. The large original sales document for the Avenues’ development (then called St. Nicholas’) can be seen in the Museum. Both documents show the projected layout of the road systems and house plots which have set the pattern for today, albeit with some modifications. At the time houses were built by individual builders, not by one developer, so the developments tended to be built piecemeal over a period, not in one go as is generally the case for today’s new estates.

The development of land was only made possible by the sale of fields and farms previously engaged in agricultural production. The St Nicholas Estate began with the sale of Moreton End Farm in 1870, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners also sold fields in the area, one of which was called Churchwick, the origin of Kirkwick. Church Farm and Townsend Farm were also sold at this time. The sale of fields in this way meant that many of the new Harpenden roads, and the rear boundaries of individual building plots, followed the same lines of old field boundaries.

The greatest amount of land, some 1,000 acres, was sold at auction in 1882. This was the Packe and Pym Estate which had belonged to the families of Charles William Packe and William Pym, descendants of the 17th century landowner Godman Jenkyn of Harpenden Hall. The land sold included New Farm, Cooters End Farm, Westfield and Manland Commons, and Upper and Lower Topstreet farms on Crabtree Lane.

The Avenues sales document, which can be viewed in the Museum, gives a tremendous insight into how Harpenden wished to be viewed at the time. While some of the road system is recognisable today, other parts are quite different. For example, the layout for Park Avenue is not the same as that envisaged in the original sales document, and in addition, some much smaller plots were proposed. Both documents also demonstrate how names change over time. The Milton Road development was called Park View, but the name was then re-envisioned as Park Avenue on the other side of the village.

By the late Victorian era, Harpenden had changed. The sale of agricultural land and the building of new homes began to give the town a more urban feel. In addition, new industries, such as breweries, were setting up in Harpenden and developing sites previously occupied by agricultural buildings and tradesmen with skills more suited to Harpenden’s rural past.

Philip Smith
Dr Alexander Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 8

Early Twentieth Century: (c1901 – 1918)

Harpenden 1912 OS Map

This display centres around two related maps – the 1912 OS map and a growth map.

The 1912 OS map shows the state of building development in Harpenden prior to World War One, by which time the population had grown to around 6,000, still very small by comparison with today. The growth maps demonstrate how since 1879, housing developments have formed a horseshoe shape around the original village core. The pictures give an indication of how the village looked at the beginning of the 20th century. Batford had two working mills and there were now houses and pubs along the Lower Luton Road.

Southdown was already developed to some extent. The primary school, shops and what is now the Harpenden Trust Hall were clustered near the established pubs – the Plough and Harrow and Rose & Crown (now Cromwell Court). St John the Evangelist Church, as it was originally known, was first situated on the corner of Crabtree Lane and Southdown Road. Known also as ‘the paper church’, it was not a particularly robust structure and burnt down on 31 December 1905. Work on the new church of St John’s began in June 1907 on land given by Sir Charles Lawes Wittewronge. Designed by F C Eden, the new church was consecrated on 2 March 1908, as part of the Parish of St Nicholas’, and became a parish in its own right in 1936.

Nevertheless, the village of Harpenden was still quite separate from Batford and Southdown (which was still known as Bowling Alley), and neither of which had experienced the same type of growth as Harpenden. The late Victorian/Edwardian housing developments and road layouts (see also Board 7) remain with us today and benefit from their proximity to the old village centre. A downside, perhaps, of these buildings, from today’s perspective, is that since they were developed before the advent of the car, unless they had large front or side gardens, there is no off-street parking. Victorian streets are narrow, having been designed rather for pedestrians, horses and carts.

In 1914, World War One brought development to a halt, though it did pick up again in the 1920s. The war had a profound impact on village life with the presence of some 4,500 billeted soldiers on their way to fight, and as illustrated in the display. Life must have seemed very different to how it had been just a few years earlier.

Philip Smith
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 9

Leisure and Sport Clubs

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a remarkable growth in participation in sporting activities. Men and women started playing sport to a degree not seen before, and Harpenden was no stranger to these significant social developments.

Although Harpenden Cricket Club was playing on the Common in the 1860s, other sports were not organised until the late Victorian era. Harpenden Town Football Club (FC) was founded in 1894, the Batford FC in 1907, and St John’s FC in 1912. At least four other local football teams were formed in the period up to 1930.

Rothamsted Ramblers Ladies Hockey Club (HC) started in 1900, playing in the Paddock on the Common. The club disbanded on the outbreak of World War One, but the competitive playing of hockey was once more possible with the formation of Harpenden Ladies HC in 1927. Harpenden Rugby FC was formed in 1921. The hockey and football teams all played in Rothamsted Park at this time, as did the quoits players. The rugby club moved to Overstone Road in 1925, and then to Redbourn Lane in 1964.

Tennis was a game for men and women. Harpenden Lawn Tennis Club (LTC) was founded in 1906 and was followed by Elliswick LTC in 1924. Women in particular enjoyed the freedoms offered by tennis from the restrictions of Edwardian society. Badminton was played in a purpose-built hall built by Jesse Catton at the corner of Moreton End Lane, but the building burnt down in 1942.

Golfers also got in on the act, setting up Harpenden Golf Club on the Common in 1895. The Club moved to Hammonds End in 1932 but Harpenden Common Golf Club continued in its stead on the Common.

As a footnote, we should not forget Harpenden Bowling Club. Founded in 1908 as an outdoor lawn bowls club, it is tucked away behind Milton Road and Spencer Road – a true hidden gem. It continues to thrive and today is one of biggest bowling clubs in Hertfordshire.

David Kendall
Philip Smith
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 10

Inter War and World War Two (1919 – 1945)

Harpenden expanded rapidly in this era, especially in the 1930s when the population rose by around 80% (see also Board 6), reaching a population of 14,000 by the end of the decade. By the end of this period, Harpenden could no longer be called a village, although this description for the core centre has survived up to the present day. Putting the equivalent expansion rate into today’s context would mean an increase in the current population of some 30,000 to 54,000 over ten years. This illustrates the effect growth must have had driving Harpenden’s transformation from rural village to more suburban town.

The 1938 OS map and the related growth map (which maps out the expansion since the publication of the 1912 OS map) together show how house building supported population growth. The maps also demonstrate that this was the period in which Harpenden grew to join Batford and Southdown. This was achieved through ribbon development along the pre-existing roads and infill development in the gaps between the pre-existing roads. This occurred on a somewhat piecemeal, patchy basis depending on when land was released for development and the demand for housing. A good example of this can be clearly seen on the OS map with the new roads and houses built in 1938 to the south east of Station Road, such as Granby Avenue. As was discussed for Board 7, many of these new roads and building plots followed ancient field boundaries, as the land released for development would have been on a field-by-field basis.

In the early part of the 20th century, Harpenden must have felt like a continual building site as new roads were put through and houses built in response to demand. However, as car ownership was now becoming more common, many of the new houses were built with garages, which (although often too small for modern cars), generally provide off-street parking.

The pictures have been chosen to give some of the flavour of the time and illustrate the impact of the coming of the motor car, and the fields, which were once countryside, had become housing estates. Just as with World War One, Harpenden’s growth came to a halt at the outbreak of World War Two.

During World War Two, a prisoner of war camp was constructed in Batford. This was occupied for some time after the war, until about 1949, when all the prisoners were finally returned. The camp was then used as council housing while the Batford estate was being built and subsequently redeveloped.

Philip Smith
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 11

World War Two and Post War: (1945 – 1960s)

Following World War Two, there was a lull in Harpenden’s population growth, but it picked up again in the 1950s and 60s, as can also be seen in the population graphs on Board 6. Growth in the post-war period was at a much slower rate, at around 20%, compared to the rapid expansion of the 1930s. The 1961 OS maps clearly illustrate the extent of the now combined Harpenden, Batford and Southdown, when the population was around 18,000. The growth map shows how this development comprised a mix of infill of earlier developments, and an expansion of the town’s limits into the surrounding countryside. The pictures show some of the buildings of the time which have since been redeveloped. Harpenden’s appearance was changing yet again.

In 1959, the first section of the M1 motorway was completed between junction 5 at Watford and junction 18 at Rugby. Much of the additional infrastructure was happening right on our doorstep, with the M10 spur at junction 7 also completed in 1959. The M1 provided, in effect, a bypass for Harpenden, diverting much of the traffic away from the High Street, which was then part of the A6, and a major through-route.

The development of the motorways and increased car ownership put additional pressure on the railways. A report in 1954, the Modernisation and Re-Equipment of the British Railways had attempted to bring the transport system up to date with the phasing out of steam locomotives. A new signal box was opened in 1957 at Harpenden Junction for the introduction of diesel trains between St Pancras and Bedford, but steam locomotives were still running on the line up to 1960. The signal box closed in 1979 when the line was electrified.

The modernisation of the railway also meant cuts. By 1961, losses were mounting, and since the railways had been nationalised in 1948, many lines had already been closed. An initial report published in 1963, entitled The Reshaping of British Railways by the Chairman of the British Railways Board, Dr Richard Beeching, sounded the death knell for many regional railway lines. The government’s implementation of the so-called Beeching Report had a dramatic effect on Harpenden. In 1965 Harpenden East closed, the station was demolished, and its tracks lifted in 1968; the route of the Nickey line was eventually converted into a footpath. The area where Harpenden East station once stood is now covered by housing and there really is nothing left to indicate that the railway was there, including the re-naming of the pub at the junction of Marquis Lane. Once called The Great Northern Inn, it was then named the Railway Inn. In August 1963 with the demise of the railway, it was re-named The Dolphin after Mr Dolphin Smith, the well-known landowner who lived at Mackerye End; in 2019 it became the Amble Inn.

Philip Smith
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 12


The earliest record of a school in Harpenden is from the first part of the 18th century, when the Rev George Barnard had a school at Bennet’s, the house still standing on Leyton Road. In 1799 a Mrs Mercier was running two boarding schools, one possibly at The Welcombe, today’s Welcombe House on Southdown Road. A ‘Dissenting Grammar School for Boys’ was opened at Blakesley’s (Harpenden Hall) in 1818 and by 1833 a ‘Daily School’, for the children of the poor, with a few girls attending. All these schools were fee-paying.

The growth of the Sunday School movement in the early 1800s, led John Bennet Lawes, the founder of research at Rothamsted (see Board 4), to give a cottage by St Nicholas’ church for a Sunday school with a salaried mistress. The Methodists and Independents likewise set up Sunday schools, supported by subscription. Here children of the poor were taught reading, writing and the Scriptures. Meanwhile, the straw plaiting trade in Hertfordshire had expanded from its beginnings in the 17th century into a major cottage industry, with plaiting schools emerging from the early 19th century. Children as young as two, and up to 14, were crowded into a cottage room and given a little instruction while earning a meagre wage. These schools continued into the 1870s, with parents reluctant to forgo the much-needed additional earnings the schools provided.

The establishment of voluntary schools began in the early 19th century, but Harpenden’s British School did not open until 1850, in what is now Park Hall, and the National School at St Nicholas’ opened in 1858. Both were supported by John Bennet Lawes and other members of the gentry, and parents paid a small weekly amount known as ‘school pence’. As the population grew, St Nicholas’ parish established missions in Kinsbourne Green (St Mary’s in 1869) and at Bowling Alley (St John’s in 1874), both with primary schools.

The Education Acts of 1870, 1880 and 1902 introduced compulsory education up to 10 (in 1880), which strengthened inspection and the role of school attendance officers. Harpenden’s School Board, funded from the rates, was set up in 1894 and took over the running of the British School, which was bursting at the seams in Park Hall. A central site in Victoria Road was bought and a new school, designed by Arthur Anscombe, was opened in 1897, including an unclimbable fence facing the railway line. In 1902 the School Board also took on responsibility for the National School (St Nicholas’) as a voluntary aided primary school, and in 1903 responsibility passed from the School Board to Hertfordshire County Council.

St Dominic’s Catholic Primary School was established in 1919 by Father Bernard Longstaff in Bower’s Cottage. A fee-paying school, it was situated on the site now occupied by the Majestic wine merchants. A separate and smaller school for poorer children, St Catherine’s, was situated in the stable buildings of the cottage. In 1923 the school moved to Harpenden Hall, then in 1931 to The Welcombe. By the 1960s, with Harpenden’s Catholic population increasing, a new premises was built in the grounds of the house. Opened in 1964, the school remains on this site today.

While St Nicholas’ School has remained relatively small, the Victoria Road school, with senior and junior mixed departments, soon outgrew its premises again. Land on Manland common was purchased in the late 1920s but building did not commence until 1938, with the school due to open in September 1939. With the declaration of war, the opening was delayed until 21 September in order to facilitate the arrival of evacuees from three London schools, as well as Harpenden children.

The impact of the arrival of 2,400 evacuee children, combined with the effects of the later 1944 Education Act, stimulated the role of Hertfordshire County Council Education Services in the later post-war period. In 1851, the Harpenden Development Plan identified four areas for future development, at Batford, The Grove, West Common and Wood End. All of these now have extensive estates and schools to serve them. Two junior schools with inadequate buildings were closed, and children from St Mary’s at Kinsbourne Green were transferred to the newly built Roundwood in 1955. In 1964 The Grove opened in Southdown and children from St John’s were moved there. Since 1950, many other schools have opened including Batford Nursery, Station Road (1949-1980s), Batford JMI (1952), Highfield Nursery (1956), Roundwood Park JMI/Secondary Modern (1956/1960), Wood End (1965), Crabtree (1967), The Lea (1975), High Beeches (1975), and most recently in 2016 (situated in the old Victoria Road school), Harpenden Academy. In the post war period, the increasing number of children in Harpenden made a new secondary school necessary. Roundwood Park opened in 1956 to supplement Manland Secondary School, which was renamed Sir John Lawes School in 1982.

Private schools in Harpenden include Hardenwick, a boys’ preparatory school in Wordsworth Road, founded in the mid- 1890s. It moved to Sandridgebury in 1966 and closed after a few years. Moreton End School, founded in 1933, closed in the 1990s. Aldwickbury School, which is still flourishing, was founded as Lea House school on the corner of Ox Lane in 1937 and moved to Aldwickbury in 1948. St Hilda’s School for girls in Douglas Road was founded in 1890 and is also still thriving. Other smaller, short-lived schools included Miss Spackman’s school at Bowers House in about the 1890s/1900s. Oriel House school was at 9 Milton Road from 1891 to the 1900s, Walton House School was in Tennyson Road, and Rivermead School was in Luton Road at the corner with Hollybush Lane.

St George’s School was built and established in 1887 by Mr Wix until his retirement in 1904. For the next few years, it was run as the United Services College, until it was bought by the Rev Cecil Grant in 1907, when he re-located a school he had run in Keswick. He and his wife set about establishing a co-educational boarding school, centred round community and the Christian faith. In 1913, Grant also started a Montessori school which, in 1955, moved to Gorselands, a large house (demolished in the 1970s) on the corner of Queen’s Road and Walker’s Road in Southdown. The school eventually closed.

St George’s was a private school until its transition to a voluntary-aided comprehensive school in 1967. In 1970, St George’s, together with Harpenden’s other two secondary schools, Roundwood Park and Sir John Lawes schools was required to become an ‘all-ability five-form entry’ school, and many years of change and expansion were to follow. St George’s continues to run a boarding house, mainly serving pupils whose parents are working abroad with the armed services.

More recently, in 2019, a fourth secondary school opened, the Katherine Warrington School in Batford. The school is named after the Harpenden botanist who worked at Rothamsted on the growth of plants with the celebrated Dr Winifred Brenchley. Harpenden prides itself on its excellent schools, particularly in the secondary sector, and for many years Roundwood Park School was consistently deemed ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. It was perhaps no surprise that in 2024, the school was named Comprehensive School of the Year for the South East of England by the Sunday Times Schools Guide.

Rosemary Ross
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 13

The 1970s and 80s

Up to the start of the 1980s, the population of Harpenden continued its 20% per decade expansion, with the population reaching just short of 28,000 by the start of the 1990s. Since then, growth has been lower than the national average, due to planning restrictions, and by 2021 the population had increased to around 31,000.

Slower population growth means that the layout of the town on the 1981 OS map is much the same as it is now. The growth map illustrates how growth in the 1970s and early 1980s was principally located in the large outlying green field development estates such as Aldwickbury, Alzey Gardens, Wood End and Beesonend. Since then, whilst the restrictions of the Green Belt have blocked further expansion, an additional concern is the town’s infrastructure, and in particular the core road system – Harpenden’s Iron Age inheritance! (See Board 1).

During the latter part of the 20th century there were some major changes in the High Street. The old department store, Anscombe’s, closed in 1982 and was replaced by Waitrose, the Broadway Hall, Harpenden’s covered market, was demolished in 1968 and replaced by Sainsbury’s, and all the cinemas closed, the last being the Embassy which closed in 1983 and was replaced by the BP garage. The last film the Embassy showed was Gone with the Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, which (unlike the Embassy) experienced a renaissance in the 1980s.

Thus, by the end of this period, the core structure of Harpenden very much resembled that of the present day, subject to the rolling change in use of many shops and changing fashions.

Philip Smith
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 14

Then & Now by Peter Wilson

Peter Wilson is a well-known local photographer, and proudly describes himself as Harpenden born and bred. Inspired by images from the past discovered in the Harpenden Local History Society archive, Peter has recreated some of the town’s more iconic scenes especially for the Local History Day.

Peter writes:

“There are many old photographs of Harpenden in the Local History Society archives. This panel shows some of the key locations, starting at the Northern end of the town.

There were a number of challenges in photographing the modern versions, the first being to locate where the original was taken from. Secondly, choosing which lens to use was also difficult as the old PLATE cameras of the past had different fields of view.

Unfortunately, whilst some of the early pictures show our town to be very open with few trees around (Church Green in the 1900s had none!), taking the same shot in 2024 proved to be disappointing as a number of locations are now obscured by trees.

The photo of the George pub, both old and new, was taken from the upstairs corner window of the Harpenden Arms. The other locations are fairly evident from the pictures.

What is clear from looking at these pictures is that much of the town is unchanged in the broadest sense. The High Street, whilst being wider than it was, follows the same route. The entrance to St Nicholas’ Church is very similar and the famous Skew Bridge dominates the entrance to the shops in Southdown.”

List Of Images

1. BP Station (2024); Embassy Cinema (1983)
2. St Nicholas’ Church (2024 and pre-1865)
3. Leyton Road (2024 and 1910)
4. The George public house and High Street (1912 and 2024)
5. The Common and Southdown Road (1860s and 2024)
6. The Skew Bridge (1890s and 2024)

Peter Wilson
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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Board 15

The Harpenden Racecourse

For 67 years (1848 to 1914) the annual horse racing meeting took place on Harpenden Common. The races were held on the last Friday (and later the last Saturday) of May, the week before the Epsom Derby. In its heyday, the races would draw up to 20,000 racegoers to Harpenden outnumbering the residents several fold. The opening of Harpenden East station in Batford in 1860 (see Boards 5 and 6) allowed horses to be transported in special carriages from Newmarket and other stables for race day, though the establishment of the Childwickbury stud in 1888 meant there was also excellent local representation. With the opening of a second station (Harpenden Central) in 1868, many more passengers were able to travel from London and elsewhere. An additional advantage was that the new station was much closer to the race track on Harpenden Common. The meeting became very popular with many of less affluent communities of the East End of London resulting in a lot of petty crime and gaming. The last race meeting in 1914 was almost 110 years ago, following the outbreak of the Great War.

Documentation and pictures of the event are sparse, however, in 1981 the author and well-known History Society member, Eric Brandreth carried out an excellent piece of research which brought together all the information he could find on the races. Eric was fortunate to be able to augment this with interviews of then living residents who gave first-hand accounts of Harpenden’s race days. Much of Eric’s research has been drawn on – and expanded – for this project.

During its heyday, the Jockey Club oversaw the organisation of the races and were not happy with the temporary facilities erected on the Common which were considered inadequate for such a large meeting. However, the real reason the Club was not supportive of the races was probably because the revenues were relatively low. As the much of the racecourse was on the Common, spectators could easily get close up to the track and watch without having to pay.

It has been a fascinating (and somewhat frustrating) exercise investigating the exact route of the racecourse. The late 19th century Ordnance Survey maps have an outline of part of the course but have gaps, especially towards the south end of the common. So how to fill in the gaps? Some detective work was required! Ascertaining the start point, the end point, the length of the course and the exact position of the finishing post and adjacent grandstand were all key. There were typically eight races run on race day, and these varied in length from four furlongs (half a mile) to up to two miles. A grandstand was erected every year next to Limbrick Hall on the east side of the common. This was situated in front of the finishing post just before the hall, and what is now Limbrick Road (to the south of the current golf clubhouse). It is not clear whether the shorter races, which were less than seven furlongs, were started on the two-mile course, and an appropriate distance from the finishing post. It is also possible that the shorter races started on the land to the east of the main course and joined the finishing straight at a point just over half a mile to the finishing post.

In the 110 years since the cessation of the races, the common has been re-purposed several times. While the land was used for grazing during the race years and golf was played on there as far back as the 1890s, the Harpenden (now Common) Golf Club was formally established in 1931. During World War Two, the common was turned over to crop production but it was later returned to a golf course. There has been some remodelling since to create fairways, greens, tees and bunkers, but the broad route of the main racecourse can still be seen on the ground and from aerial photographs. There was also extensive tree planting after the war, both on the golf course and the common land south of Walkers Road. It was therefore an additional challenge pinpointing the location of the main turn by Ayers End Lane and the section from Crabtree Lane to Cravells Road.

With the route of the racecourse finally established, it was possible in the spring of 2024 to film it by drone, recreating how it would have looked on horseback over 100 years ago. David Thomas and Peter Wilson, assisted by Dr Alexander Thomas, have traced the route of the full two-mile course. This was done initially at high level – to visualise the location relative to major landmarks – and then at around nine feet above ground (where possible) to recreate what the jockeys would have seen while racing at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.

David Thomas
Amanda J Thomas
©Harpenden & District Local History Society, 20.04.24

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