Slum housing in Hitchin, 1850s - 1930s

S Williams

Queen Street, 1890
Chapman's Yard, 1926
Thorpe's Yard, 1920s
Entrance to Boot Yard
Barnard's Yard
Demolished and gone for ever. The area now known as St Mary's Square, 1930s

Despite the beauty of many buildings in the town, Hitchin had its dark side by way of poor housing and disease.  The Queen Street area was a notorious slum and rapid increases in population led to overcrowding.  The mass of tiny yards dating back to the 1700s developed near St Mary’s Church and became the most densely populated area of the town.  Dotted amongst the tenements were 13 pubs and several slaughterhouses.

Although the area was central, the whole district was taboo for the rest of Hitchin’s inhabitants.  Policemen patrolled in pairs and children were warned to keep away for fear of smallpox.  In the 1920s the Hitchin historian, Reginald Hine described them as “a squalid quarrelsome underworld oflittle yards”.   This problem had reared its head seventy years earlier after William Ranger inspected the town and wrote about the hazards of people living so close together without adequate facilities.  There were found to be 400 residents suffering from typhoid from polluted wells.   Ranger’s report of 1849 particularly singled out Chapmans Yard as one of the worst.  The yard is described as being filthy and the habits of the people “exceedingly dirty” and that the privy was not used; instead, excrement was “thrown upon the yard.”

Other areas included The Folly, Hitchin Hill, Boot Yard, Lyles Row, Thorpes Yard, Adam & Eve Yard, Parcells Yard and Barnards Yard.  In Seymour’s Alley, 25 people in 6 houses had no privy accommodation of any kind.  In some places, the drains were open and sewage discharged to the surface mixed with rotting waste from slaughterhouses.   In 1850 Hitchin’s Board of Health was formed in response to Ranger’s report.  Interest in sanitary improvements had not faded as the town was still recovering from cholera, which had claimed over 40 lives.

By 1854, the town had a new water supply and sewerage system which led to a fall in the death rate but problems persisted for many more years mainly due to internal wrangling.  In 1857, a storm caused water in the main sewer to rise, resulting in sewage coming out of domestic taps.   Alice Latchmore was a child in 1919 and described the cottages in the Queen Street area:  “Somehouses had earth floors.  The windows and doors were small and in a few cases the only window downstairs opened to a passage where there was no light and very little air.  The only bedroom was like a stable loft, reached by a decrepit stairs or a ladder.  Tea chests served as tables and 5 or 6 children in one bed was not unusual.  It was very much survival of the fittest”.   I

In 1902 Queen Street was compared to the worst slums of London.  In 1909, the houses were described as “…old properties in decaying condition with rats and mud”.   Another resident who was a boy in 1919, said of Chapmans Yard, “you could see the shabby houses and entrances to whatseemed to a child frightening yards, two of which were so narrow that houses facing each other were little more than a handshake apart”.   In 1921 Hitchin Urban District Council declared the housing was unsanitary and that they should be demolished so clearance began in 1926.  A total of 174 houses were pulled down in the area now known as St Mary’s Square, a fact commemorated on one of the flights of steps leading up from the river.

The 637 inhabitants were re-housed on the Sunnyside Estate with some not leaving their yards until the final moments.   There was more demolition in the 1950s and when Barnard’s Yard came down, a Tudor half crown was found under the floor.  Local Councillor, Charles Worbey built himself a new house with the Elizabethan materials and some of it went to America for use in a replica of Hampton Court.

This page was added on 02/10/2009.

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  • My mother Helena Bird , her brother (Noel) and her Mother Nellie Bird lived in the Queen Street area of HItchin in the1930’s. I wonder if anybody has any information about the Bird family. I only know the family originally came from the St Ippolytes area.

    I would be grateful for any information.

    By M Walker (21/08/2022)
  • Please can you make one adjustment to my update dated 29/06/22, found under
    Slum housing in Hitchin, 1850s – 1930s

    Removing the last statement…

    Shoulder of Mutton changed ownership just prior to 1901 Census.

    I rechecked & found proprietors recorded in the 1881 Census continued to manage the pub until the early 1920s.

    Matthew Nixon

    By Matthew Nixon (30/06/2022)
  • To Karen Walker – I have also been seeking detail about the Shoulder of Mutton.

    So far gathered….

    The Shoulder of Mutton was a common pub-cum lodging house. Opinions differ on the price of a night’s lodging; perhaps you simply bargained your way to a bed. As much as a 1 /- (5p) a night one old man informed us he had paid, and as little as 4d, but most were glad enough to find a traveller a bed. The Shoulder could be a bawdy place; our informant recalled a savage fight one morning between two women who rushed out of the place. ‘I had never seen two women fighting before’ he chuckled, ‘but they certainly had their sleeves rolled up.’ They were fighting over a man who had left before the outcome was determined. In May 1924, there was a case of smallpox at the Shoulder of Mutton; the contact had moved to Luton before the Health Board could catch up with him. Much of Hitchin’s history was swept away in the slum clearances and those little pubs and beer houses with their raucous bawdy nightly occupants are now only memories.

    1881/Walter Maylin/Publican/24/Hitchin, Herts/Census ***
    1881/Hannah Maylin/Wife/24/Hitchin, Herts/Census
    1881/Joseph Maylin/Boarder, General Dealer/22/Hitchin, Herts/Census
    1881/Caroline Maylin/Boarder/23/Yarmouth, Norfolk/Census
    1881/Joseph Maylin/Boarder/1/Hitchin, Herts/Census
    1881/Dick Atkins/Lodger, Butcher/46/Hitchin, Herts/Census
    1881/Rebecca Rutter/Lodger, Hawker/40/Lynn, Norfolk/Census
    1881/Thomas Rutter/Lodger, Hawker/72/Lynn, Norfolk/Census
    1881/Elizabeth Farmer/Lodger, Hawker/60/Flitton, Beds/Census
    1881/Henry Ward/Lodger, Tinman/59/Whitwell, Herts/Census
    1881/James Miller/Lodger, Blocker/35/Glasgow, Scotland/Census
    1881/Eliza Miller/Lodger/26/Glasgow, Scotland/Census
    1881/Edith Miller/Lodger/2/Glasgow, Scotland/Census
    1881/Eliza Miller/Lodger/4/Glasgow, Scotland/Census
    1881/George Giles/Lodger, Hawker/49/London/Census
    1881/James Briggs/Lodger, Labourer/38/Dullingham, Cambs/Census
    1881/William Smith/Lodger, Labourer/28/Gloucester/Census

    The proprietors recorded in the 1881 Census continued to manage the pub until the early 1920s.


    By Matthew Nixon (29/06/2022)
  • My great grandparents lived Thorpe’s Yard, lived next door to each other. Armitage & Kings. No.7 & No.8 although grandads birth was registered in Hayfield Hitchin 1918 so presumably they left the slums to go back to fields before being housed on Sunnyside.

    By Eliza Rose King (15/05/2022)
  • Still trying to locate a photo of the Shoulder of Mutton pub that was on Queen street. Before it was demolished for Market Place.

    By Karen Walker (06/05/2022)
  • My grandad , great grandad and his dad all lived in these areas- thorpes yard , queens street. As I doing my family tree your info and pictures were so helpful , and gave me huge insight into where they lived and what sort of life they had . Thankyou

    By Linda doyle (06/01/2022)
  • My Odell relatives lived in Back Yard 1841 – great to be able to see it – thank you

    By phil hobbs (01/01/2022)
  • @ Robin (15/01/2021) – Yes. Dead Street was what is now known as Queen Street.

    By Franka Sensale (04/03/2021)
  • This is a great page – giving meaning to a bygone life and realising the difficulties families found themselves in. I moved to Hitchin for work in the 1990’s and married in St. Mary’s church. Whilst looking into my family history, I found that my 2*Great Grandmother Hannah Worsley lived on Dead Street when she was 7. Her mother (Eliza) had been widowed in 1848 and she is lodging here in 1851 with her two young children. William Carns is noted as Head. Eliza later remarried and moves away. Hannah went on to marry my 2*Great Grandfather Matthew Money.

    By Jan Mayne (04/02/2021)
  • I’ve just started out on a quest to do my family tree. I found that my maternal grandfather lived in Thorpe Yard as a child. My sister found your excellent page and I can now see where he lived. He moved to London as a older teen but my parents moved back to North Hertfordshire later with the development of Stevenage New Town. It does bring some of the history back. Thank you.

    By John Burlison (28/01/2021)
  • Following William Ranger’s report of 1849, Hitchin set up a Board of Health and by 1854 the town had a new sewage system and water supply. Dead Street was re-named Queen Street to mark an improvement in living conditions.

    By Jennifer Ayto (17/01/2021)
  • Was Dead Street the old name for Queen Street does anyone know?

    By Robin (15/01/2021)
  • Yes, I agree that this is a WONDERFUL work. Thank you so much. Our 3xGG surname SHARP was born in “Cannons Yard” Hitchin, & the photos & info add SO MUCH to his story. A photo tells a thousand words, and these are very precious. If anyone has any other news about where the Yards were in Back Street – we would be very grateful to hear from you.
    Thank you again. MARVELOUS!

    By Narelle Sharp (30/09/2020)

    By Paul (07/12/2019)
  • Things were still pretty grim in the early 1950s,I worked as apprentice for the gas board and attended houses in a couple of the yards that still existed to attend to the gas lights that were used.(something we never looked forward to).
    Some or the residents were still having to throw there wast water down the gully that ran down between the houses.
    Fortunately they were demolished soon after.

    By Glen (29/11/2019)
  • Great, great grandparents William and Mary Gray lived in Back Street in mid 1800’s and raised their family there with my great grandfather,George, being born there in 1852. Men in family were agricultural labourers and woodcutters, women were straw platters. George migrated to Motherwell to work in the ironworks in 1870’s. I note that reports of the time saw the straw workers were the lowest in society.

    By Ian Gray (13/11/2019)
  • Just found out that my 5 Great Grandmother live in 15 Bernard Yard Queen Street in 2nd April 1911 Elizabeth Garley 59 years old
    James Garley 62 years old & their daughter
    Anne Garley 18 years old.

    By Karen Welch (27/07/2019)
  • My great great grandparents Thomas Frost , Elizabeth Frost (Palmer) lived in the folly in1860/ 1870 she was a rag dealer

    By Roger Richardson (29/12/2017)
  • Loved this page, my 3x great grandparents, George & Sarah Parcell, owned Parcell’s Yard plus the Red Lion Hotel in front.
    Their daughter Emma married joseph Burgess & came to Australia.

    By Barbara Smith (22/11/2017)
  • Hi Lesley. Yes, we’d be delighted to have your photos.You can create a new article to post them, or if you’d like some help, feel free to contact HALS about it.

    By Nicholas Blatchley (09/11/2016)
  • My Dad was born 1921, and lived in Back Street Hitchin until he was 12 years old. I have a picture of pupils taken at his school which I could send you, not sure if you would like it on this site?

    By Lesley (09/11/2016)
  • It makes interesting reading as my mother was born in the Shoulder of Mutton pub in Queen Street in 1918 and my grandmother ran the pub single handed during WW1.

    By Anthony Walker (19/08/2015)
  • Have been searching everywhere for a photo pre demolision of St Mary’s square. As my relatives ran the shoulder of mutton pub on the site any help in locating one…..? Or point me in right direction have tried Hitchen museum.

    By Karen walker (15/08/2015)
  • Thank you for this article, my gt gt grandparents had Queen St as their address on their wedding certificate, never realised the conditions they had to endure.  

    By Amanda Field (08/07/2015)
  • my father said he was raised in Back Street Hitchin until age 12. He was born in 1921. Was Back Street “Queen Street” afterwards?

    By Lesley McCollin (27/07/2014)
  • The picture captioned Barnards Yard is in a little book my Uncle wrote of our family history as being Back St whether or not Barnards Yd was in Back St I don’t know!

    By Frank Steeley (06/05/2013)
  • Thank you for this very informative, useful page. Have been looking for exact location of Barnards Yard and came across your enlightening page – how fortunate we are today. Have’nt yet found map of location; will keep trying. Thanks Adrian Ballantyne

    By Adrian Ballantyne (17/05/2011)
  • cool good page

    By lottie (14/10/2009)