Slum housing in Hitchin, 1850s - 1930s

By Serena 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 bad 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.

Comments about this page

  • 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)

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