An introduction to Harpenden
2,000 years of history
By Eric Brandreth
Harpenden is a small residential town midway between St Albans and Luton, 25 miles to the north west of London. During the last 100 years its population has increased tenfold, and yet its growth from a pleasant village of 3,000 people to its present size of nearly 30,000 has not lost its essential village character. Indeed to the resident the centre of the town is still affectionately known as ‘the village’. Harpenden has no nationally significant historical background: no great events are recorded as having taken place here. The one event of international significance was the foundation in 1843 by John Bennet Lawes of Rothamsted Experimental Station, the oldest laboratory devoted to agricultural research in the world. Two historically known figures lived in Harpenden for a while: Ellen Terry, the famous actress, was here from 1868 till 1874, and Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real culprit of the Dreyfus affair, which rocked France at the close of the 19th century, lived in Harpenden under an assumed name for 17 years until his death in May, 1923. A third internationally known figure was born here, of an old village family. Frank Owen Salisbury, the famous artist, lived in Harpenden from 1874 till 1913: his studio was at Red Gables, the house his brother designed for him, which is now one of the Rothamsted buildings.
‘Military path through the valley’
Although its history has little of national importance, Harpenden’s growth is typical of many an English village. Its development has been influenced by its geographical setting. Harpenden is on the dip slope of the Chiltern Hills, lying astride three valleys which run in a NW to SE direction. The westerly one is the valley of the River Ver, the easterly the valley of the River Lea. Between the two is the dry valley which contains the central core of the village. It is this valley which gives Harpenden its name. ‘Herpe dene’ means ‘the military path through the valley’. Verulamium, an important Roman town, lies a few miles away, and a number of roads were connected with it. One of them, which linked Cheshunt and Dunstable, passed through Harpenden and followed a route along the dry valley which is now used by the A1081 road.
The river valleys provided the first access into the area. The underlying rock is chalk, covered by a thick layer of clay with flints. The natural vegetation is deciduous forest; before men came the whole area, except for the gravel and sand deposits in the river valleys would have been covered with dense woodland. Early men came up the river valleys, which contained more water then, and spread inland to clear away the trees and make small farms; these became the ‘ends’ and ‘greens’ which are so numerous in the area. The first settlers were the Belgae, who came in the first century BC. They were followed by the Romans; there are traces of Roman villas in the Ver valley, and Roman artefacts have been found at Coldharbour. After the Romans came the Anglo Saxons; in 886 the River Lea was the agreed boundary between Saxons and Danes.
In 1060 King Edward the Confessor gave the whole area of Wheathampstead and Harpenden to the Abbey at Westminster. St Helen’s at Wheathampstead was the Parish Church; the earliest mention of a church in Harpenden is in 1221, when St Nicholas was a chapel of ease to the mother church. Although Harpenden remained part of the ecclesiastical parish until 1859, it was from the Middle Ages a separate civil parish with its own officials, who were elected annually in the Abbot’s Manorial Court, held at Wheathampstead.
For many years the village saw little change. This was an agricultural area, especially good for wheat growing. This abundance of good strong straw encouraged the growth of the straw plait industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, in which most of the women and young children took part. The straw hat trade was centred on Luton and Dunstable; the villages sold their plait to the hat manufacturers, supplementing small agricultural wages quite considerably.
The transport development of the early 19th century passed Harpenden by. In 1851 Luton, its near neighbour, was the largest town in the country without either rail, or navigable water, communication. The people there were campaigning for a railway; when it came, in 1860, it passed through Harpenden at Batford. Eight years later the Midland Railway extended its mainline from Bedford to London, giving Harpenden a direct link with the capital. When the Packe and Pym estate of over 1,000 acres was sold in 1882 land became available for building, and the village’s development began. Milton Road on the Park View estate was the first to be built. The Harpenden Water Company was formed to serve this estate, and eventually expanded to include the whole village. Church Farm estate comprising ‘the Avenues’ to the west of the Parish Church, was developed next.
The area many years ago acquired a reputation for healthiness. In 1775 John Glover, schoolmaster, was advertising its sweetness and salubrity of air; in 1928, rather more prosaically, the Air Ministry reported that ‘the descent of carbonaceous or sooty matter was gauged in many places last year, and the lowest deposit occurred at Rothamsted, Harpenden.’ The National Children’s Home acquired a 280 acre site in Harpenden in 1913, and built a sanatorium for tubercular children and a new home to replace the one in Bethnal Green.
The attractions of this pleasant village, with a good train service to London, became well known, and it developed rapidly in the early years of the 20th century. It spread north and south along the line of the valley, and over the low ridge on the eastern side towards and beyond the Lee. But as the early guide books were eager to point out this expansion was not allowed to spoil its charm. ‘Fortunately Harpenden retains many of its older buildings, and these prevent the town becoming too ostentatiously modern in character’, said one. And nowadays Harpenden is well protected on all sides by estates and commons which, together with the green belt policy, do contain its growth.