The development of Knebworth

The arrival of the railway

By Ann Judge

The new station
The booking office
This is an extract from an essay written by Ann Judge, which can be read in full by clicking on the link at the end.

Knebworth had been a typical agricultural village for hundreds of years, dominated by a large manor, and surrounded by a small farming community.  But outside, much was happening.  The telephone had been invented in 1876 and was changing verbal communication.  Henry Ford had just made his first car and Queen Victoria was Empress of India, represented at the ceremony by Robert Lytton of Knebworth House and rewarding him in 1880 with the title of Earl of Lytton.

Throughout the 1800’s, Knebworth had changed very little, but by the end of the century the industrial revolution was finally having a dramatic effect, creating another village just a mile down the road.  The population had doubled and new trades and professions were arriving.  This was all due to the arrival not just of the railway in 1850, but the opening of the railway station in 1884.


The first written record of Knebworth is in the Domesday Book – a village called Chenepeworde.  It records an entry of a manor held by Aschil, one of King Edwards’s thegns.  The peasant farmers even then did not have absolute control of their lands.

The oldest part of Knebworth is the Church, built about 1120, and probably because the parish had been recently created and a priest endowed.  By 1492 the manor had passed into the hands of the Lytton family and the house was rebuilt.  It remained very little altered until the beginning of the 19th century when much of the work we see today was done.

The nearness of London provided a ready market for produce and also, in return, London had large quantities of manure for the farmers.  Agriculture has been the main industry for Knebworth, specifically wheat, and barley for brewing.

During the centuries, Knebworth had changed little, and the census returns throughout the 19th century show a steady population, around 250 inhabitants.  These people were employed either on the land or at the manor as domestic servants.  But by 1850, the industrial revolution finally took its effect on Knebworth with the opening of the railway.  But it was not really until the station was opened in 1884 that the real changes started to take place – as by 1901 the census shows a doubling of the population to 522.

It is interesting that the route of the Great North Road, only a mile distant from Knebworth, did not have such a huge affect as the railway.  This major road was a 17th century invention and was described as a fairly good route from London to Hatfield where the great House stood.  By the middle of the 18th century, the road from Welwyn to Stevenage had been turnpiked, and ‘macadamised’ by the middle of the 19th century.  The nearest coach stop to Knebworth was in Broadwater (now known as The Roebuck) or along the Welwyn to Hitchin road through Codicote.


The arrival of the railway was to have a huge effect on the village. The initial proposals were to construct a line which would have passed through Welwyn village and Codicote to Hitchin.  This scheme failed due to the lack of financial support as well as objections from Lord Dacre of Codicote.


So what impact did the opening of the station have – being built about one mile from the village?  It created a new and separate settlement, which according to a map made at the beginning of the 1900’s, became known as Knebworth Station.  New properties were built, and new people moved into them.  What in fact they were doing was to create a whole new village, to be known later as New Knebworth, then, just as Knebworth, with the original village becoming known as Old Knebworth!

In the census of 1881 there were 30 dwellings listed and occupied by 250 people.  If account is made for the 32 people in Knebworth House on census night, the remaining inhabitants of Knebworth were distributed at 7.5 per dwelling.  During the next twenty years, the number of dwellings had risen to 109, the new properties all built around the station, and thus starting the new community.  The numbers per dwelling had fallen by 1901 to 4.8.

And with the new railway came people to work on the railway – eleven new workers living in Knebworth in 1901, one residing in the Signal Box!  It also attracted new professions – teachers, a Stockbrokers Clerk and a Solicitor.  The village now also had its own Police Constable, and even a surgeon.  New tradesmen included a butcher, a grocer and draper, as well as Charles Lowe, then a Cycle Agent and today a thriving Builders Merchant.  John Smith also set up his own blacksmith’s shop, opening it on a Sunday evening as a Congregational Chapel!


Another small change happened within the farming community, attracting farmers from distant regions.  Farmers in Scotland were finding things difficult in the 1880’s and even in the 1881 census, Kenneth Douglas had just come down to Rustling End from Scotland, as had the Bailiff of Knebworth Estate.  By 1901 another Scottish farmer had taken over Rustling End, George Muirhead had his family were in Deards End Farm, and a Welsh farmer, Thomas Willians was at Manor Farm.  And during the last 20 years of the century, the numbers employed in farming had risen from 30 to 42, but as a percentage of the total population, this was a fall from 12% to 8%.


The parish church of St Mary’s is thought to date back to 1120, and although no church was mentioned in the Domesday Book there may have been a Saxon church of timber on the site before the more substantial one was built.

This church served the village until the end of the century when the growing community felt it should build a new one closer to the congregation.  It was designed by the Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and built in 1915 by a local firm, Messrs W Darby, who made all the bricks and roof tiles in their own brickyard at Rabley Heath to Sir Edwin’s requirements.

It was the new Scottish farmers who had an influence on the non-conformist facilities within Knebworth, initially holding their congregational services in the blacksmith’s shop.  But with permission of Lord Lytton, their own new church was opened in 1888, just a stone’s throw from the Station.  The 1901 census shows two Congregational Ministers, one even coming from Scotland.

It was Lord Lytton who had negotiated with GNR for the station to be sited near his house, and then seeing its effect on the community, set up a company, Knebworth Garden Villages, to build new residences on 800 acreas of land on either side of the line.


Provision of education in the nineteenth century often relied on the benevolence of a local inhabitant and Knebworth was no exception.  Both Mrs Bulwer Lytton at Knebworth House and the Rector’s wife are known to have provided tuition to the village children.  A school building was erected in 1870 and extensions added to accommodate the growing population,  But as the new village grew the children were finding it too far to travel the mile to Old Knebworth, so a new school was finally built in 1912.

Typically in such a small village, the women were employed on the farms, and in domestic service.  The influence of Knebworth House obviously had a huge influence as an employer of female labour, many of the women describing their jobs in the census returns as parlourmaid, kitchenmaid, or cook.  Straw plaiting had long provided employment for women in Hertfordshire and there was still one recorded in the 1901 census.

While the population was increasing in total, young people still left the village.  Sixty people were born in Knebworth in 1851, aged under 20, but by 1881 only 15 aged 20+ lived in the village.  The same pattern appears again when 50 under 20’s appear in the 1881 census, but only 21 aged 20+ appear in 1901.

The migrants in the 1881 census are distorted by the occupants of Knebworth House, and the two large families from Scotland – one as a farmer and the other as Steward of Knebworth Estate.  The remaining migrants are mainly from surrounding counties.  But in 1901 we see more migrants from London, especially as railway workers, and other distant areas of the country, such as Norfolk, Nottingham, Kent, and Surrey.  In fact the new ‘professionals’, the surgeon and the solicitor, came from Surrey.  And still more farmers arrived from Scotland.

Looking at the occupations of the residents in 1901, it appears that they all work in and around the village, and are not using the railway to travel.  This is of course difficult to verify, but none of the stated occupations give an indication that they work in say Hatfield or Stevenage, the nearest local towns with railway stations.  The exception may be the Solicitor, the Civil Service Clerk and the Stockbrokers Clerk who may have been Knebworth’s first commuters to London.

Knebworth was now beginning to expand around the station, and the first real signs of an ‘industry’ coming to the village with the move of the body building part of Lacre Motor Co from Letchworth to the blacksmith’s yard – later becoming Creasey Bros.

Having negotiated for the station with GNR, Lord Lytton continued to play a prominent role in the village and wished to further exploit its connection to London.  He therefore promoted Knebworth as a GardenVillage on the lines of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, only on a smaller scale – the concept developed by Ebenezer Howard.  Lord Lytton’s connection with Sir Edwin Lutyens ensured he acted as Consulting Architect for KnebworthGardenVillage.  The plans were drawn, and the plots of land advertised for sale.  A few properties were built but the project lapsed during the run up to the Great War.

However, the village has continued to develop, Old Knebworth remaining very much as it was hundreds of years ago, but with ‘new’ Knebworth becoming a large and lively community of around 5000 over the next hundred years.  Those early decision of Lord Lytton to route the railway through his land and build a station convenient to his stately home certainly had a dramatic effect on the Knebworth community.

This page was added on 19/06/2009.

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  • Distant relatives were listed in 1911 Census as living in Knebworth Station. (George Alfred Chapman/Francis Jane White (Nash) Chapman and 7 children from 2 marriages).  They were all born Knebworth/Datchworth.

    By Ian Hudson (06/09/2014)