Hertfordshire Memories

Jennifer Ayto

Some descriptions of bygone Hertfordshire can be found at HALS.

William Chambers (partner of W and R Chambers) spent a few days in Hertfordshire and published “A Week in Welwyn” in 1873.[1]

He described Welwyn as a pleasant part of that pleasantest counties, Hertfordshire  ….  a  village of modest pretensions…. situated in a hollow, through the hollow meanders the small river Mimram, a pleasant trouting stream.

Writing some 70 years later, J B Gilliatt commented:

The River Mimram

It is sad to see how all Hertfordshire rivers have deteriorated.  Most have about half the water they used to and rise miles lower down than I can remember.  This is due to the increase in population, and  consequent pumping, too much digging for drainage purposes, and a general reduction in rainfall.[2]

Chambers also commented that  Recently, to keep pace with modern notions and requirements, Welwyn has been cared for as respects drainage, much to the benefit of the inhabitants.

This was not so much an attachment to “modern notions”, but a necessity.  George Dering, Squire of Lockleys, Welwyn, noted in his diary for 1870:

17 June:  Mr Wilshere [of the Frythe, Welwyn] called early with reference to the fever in Welwyn and water supply and drainage questions. I agreed to share with him the expense of 2 new public wells.  23 June:  Mr Wilshere called upon the question of proposed new public wells in Welwyn &c  …. Mr Wilshere called again late in evening to tell me result of meeting of sanitary committee & wrote letter to Broadrick respecting proposed drainage.  8 August:  .… Mr Blake called & I agreed to his carrying a water supply pipe  under White Hart garden for nominal annual consideration.[3]

Chambers noted with some regret the changing times commenting that the “White Hart” (at Welwyn) used to be visited by dozens of stage coaches daily, but now has a subdued look and reminds us of the ruthless overturn of old usages by the railway system.  However, some old ways continued.  There was still a carrier.  One likes to know, that amidst the tremendous bustle going forward in the world, there is some use , and still a crust, for the old village carrier and his very decent brown nag.  There was also evidence of visitors.  He found a basket maker of considerable ingenuity, whose wares, of a pretty and fanciful kind, are purchased as souvenirs by strangers.[4]

Straw Plaiting



The coming of the railway had also affected trade in St Albans which Chambers described as rather dull since it ceased to be enlivened by the bugles of mail and stage coaches which streamed through it daily.  He noted that it forms a centre of the trade in straw-hat making…. In driving about the neighbourhood, we see in different hamlets women seated at cottage doors plying with busy fingers the work of straw plaiting.




Chambers described Hertfordshire as a hunting county, according to old fashions, with very sufficient kennels of stag-hounds, fox-hounds, and harriers.  Francis Delmé Radcliffe of The Priory, Hitchin, was Master of the Hertfordshire Hounds and published, in 1839, “The Noble Science: a few general ideas on Fox Hunting”.  Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes for November 1897 stated that it will always be a text book for huntsmen.  However, times had changed.

In those days Herts was an ideal country …. Railroads and wire were unheard of.  Now the former vomit crowds of pursuers from London into the country, and send down thousands of trucks  full of the contents of London dustbins, so that the country is being top dressed with broken bottles and old meat tins, horses and hounds suffer accordingly, and all kind of infection is brought into the vicinity of every railway station: wire is here, there and everywhere, and is still creeping on.

The magazine described some hunts in the early years of the century (which make grim reading) with the comment that …. a rare good January they must have had, but all this country is now gridironed by railways and sacred to the pheasant.[5]

Hunting was a regular pastime for Robert Dering of Lockleys, Welwyn.  His son’s diary notes for 1855 record:

14 November:  Father hunted today. 20 November:  Father shooting at Danesbury.  21 November:  Father dining at the Hyde after hunting.  23 November:  Father hunted.  24 November:  Father hunting.  26 December:  Father hunting …. 27 December:  Father gone to stay with Mr Pryor for hunting.

During his week in Welwyn, Chambers explored other parts of Hertfordshire and shared his views on architecture.

A view of Brocket Hall from across the lake



Brocket Hall is of comparatively modern date.  It is a massive brick edifice in the style of the Georgian era, when as if in veneration of  ugliness, all houses were built like square boxes, and all the churches like barns. (It was commissioned by Sir William Lamb in 1760.  Sir James Paine was the architect).




Hatfield House has beauty and is more interesting historically.  The balls and receptions given in winter by the

Hatfield House

Marchioness of Salisbury when sometimes more than a thousand guests are invited, are of particular magnificence. From the fanciful illuminations in the wide spreading avenues and flower gardens, the scene on these occasions more resembles fairy-land than reality.





The Frythe:  the house is the model of a tasteful English country mansion.

The Frythe, near Welwyn Garden City,

Knebworth House









Knebworth was viewed as having an  interior tastefully fitted up in chiefly antique style. 

Panshanger House is spacious with every token of comfort according modern usages.

Panshanger House


He did not warm to Ayot St Lawrence church which he saw as a form of Greek temple, out of place as an ecclesiastical structure in a rural place of Herts, or, we should say, anywhere in England.  (Its style is classified as Grecian Revival.  It was built in 1778).

Ayot church









Hertford – though well built, with many good houses, is laid out irregularly.  He was particularly interested in Stephen Austin’s printing establishment – noted for production of works in eastern languages.  (Extracts from Stephen Austin’s diary can be found here).

A feature of Hertfordshire recorded by Chambers was its trees. He thought that the soil which consists of reddish loam and gravel, resting on chalk with flints, seems, along with the genial climate, to be favourable to the growth of trees ….. Trees are the glory of Hertfordshire.  He recorded the Wood of Sherrards from which every evening, resounded the musical piping of nightingales, blended with the dulcet notes of the cuckoo.

Sherrardspark Wood

The wood is still there and the cuckoo has been heard in Hertfordshire this year, but the HMWT report that the nightingale is one of 76 species lost from the county since 1970.

[1] HALS/DP/119/29/2.

[2] HALS/D/EX433Z1,  John Babington Gilliat, “Memories of a Varied Life”,  (1946).

[3] HALS/Acc 6135, The diaries of George Edward Dering.

[4] The 1871 census recorded Henry Bullard, Basket maker employing 2 men in Fore Street, Welwyn.  His son, another Henry, was also a basket maker, as was George Beaumont, a boarder in White Horse Street.

[5] HALS/ Gerish Box 46.

This page was added on 28/05/2023.

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