Slum housing in Watford, 1850s to 1930s

By Serena Williams

Ballards Buildings
"Court 21"
Bridge Place
Rooftops over Ballards Buildings
Chapman's Yard
Farthing Lane, 1898

Watford was once a town with one long street and has changed continuously since the Second World War.  From this street were many yards and alleys where the majority lived in appalling conditions.  With the building of the railway in 1837 its population steadily increased and by the 1840s sanitary conditions had rapidly deteriorated leaving the primitive drainage system unable to cope.  

In 1849 George Clark inspected Watford after a petition by certain residents to solve the problems of sanitation and lack of decent water supply.  The Board of Health was elected in 1850 after the town was recovering from a severe bout of cholera.  When Charlotte Tomlin died of the disease in 1849, Dr Thomas Ward reported the matter to the Board of Guardians and described the vicinity as “disgustingly offensive”. 

The conditions were not just restricted to the yards and alleys.  Even the High Street had “the most offensive effluvia”.   The unhealthiest areas were described as BallardsBuildings, Meeting-House Alley, Swan-Alley, Farthing Lane, Red Lion Yard, Chequers Yard and Old Yard. There was animal matter floating in open drains, pigsties, open cesspools, slaughter-houses and slops from houses all being thrown onto the pavement.   

Ballards Buildings was described by Clark as “one of the unhealthiest localities in which few dwellings escaped disease.” Not just a building, it was a narrow passage between houses with sheds and animals on the other side. They were in a bad state by the 1920s and were ordered to be demolished.  At a public enquiry meeting by the Ministry of Health, the room was full of tenants who made audible interruptions.  Many had lived there for years and maintained their homes the best they could and resisted the order to move.  They resented the implication that they were the cause of the “slum” in which they lived.  But it was too late and the 55 houses came down in December 1924.  

The cottages in Hedges Yard were described as the worst dwellings in town: three boarded hovels, two of which had only one room, roofs open to the elements and floors below the level of the un-drained ground.  Red Lion Yard had over 30 houses and Bridge Place (formerly Old Yard) had an open cesspool.  There were 62 people in 15 cottages and the rents got cheaper with proximity to the cesspool.  Water was chiefly supplied from wells and worked with buckets.  Due to poor access to water, personal cleanliness was a problem and residents washed in the river or in a dirty pond.  Rain water could be stored for 3 weeks in a cottage but when it ran out it was bought from a neighbour or fetched from the river.  

George Clark’s report recommended a proper water supply and drainage, removal and filling up of all cesspools and proper paving.  Many years later in the 1930s a proposed slum clearance involved 157 families and 993 people.  New Road, Chapmans Yard, Red Lion Yard, Albert Street, Wells Yard, Beechen Grove and The Rookery were cleared in 1934.

This page was added on 02/10/2009.

Comments about this page

  • Hi,
    My dad Bob Kirkham lived in Chapmans yard.
    Apparently in those days they used to call it
    Chatty Alley, he used to live with his mum and two sisters, Addelade ( later Addelade Evans) also
    Esther ( later Esther Brewer )
    My dad later married my mum ( Ethel ) & moved to a new built house in Bendysh Road, Bushey, where I am still living to this day.

    By Dave Kirkham (01/12/2019)
  • But when were the ‘yards’ and ‘buildings’ actually built. Presumably, when they were built they were not ‘slums’ so who were they originally built for and how did they fall into the sorry state?

    By Bob Hibbert (24/03/2019)
  • Does anyone have any information about Woodman’s Yard?

    By Pauline Beer (13/03/2018)
  • The report mentioned in the article lead to the formation of Watford Local Board of Health in 1850. They commissioned a pumping station and a reservoir in Nascot Wood to supply Watford with fresh water in 1853.
    The Pump House Theatre and Arts centre, in Local Board Road occupies the original buildings

    By Chris Swallow (10/08/2017)
  • I have just been informed by an older Sister that my Father Leonard Clarke lived in Chapmans Yard before he married my Mother and moved to a new house in Carpenders Park. He had a Brother and a Sister and all of them remained in the Watford area until passing away.

    By Brian Clarke (08/01/2017)
  • My family the Hathaway’s grew up in Chapmans Yard…dont know too much of my gran, father, uncles and aunts history as a young family growing up…but they then moved to Rushton Avenue round the corner to the North Watford Cemetery…..I am also a Hathaway, my father being Alfred…My father worked near to the yard with a window cleaning company called the County, if I remember rightly the wife of Mr Tunwell, if I have the name right, had a small hairdressing shop on the corner…

    By Jackie Hathaway (03/01/2017)
  • My father Alfred James Reginald Goodman was born in Ballards Buildings August 1920, my dads family were relocated to 28 Riverside Road, South Oxhey, Watford, Herts when these slums were demolished, he lived in Watford, for his whole life, apart from serving in WW2 as a tank driver, in Italy, Africa and Egypt in 8th Army, known as the Desert Rats, he died in January, 2004.

    By Josephine (10/10/2016)
  • My great grandfather was born in ballards building, in 1862. I am soon to visit Watford so can anyone tell me what area ballards building covered

    By b henley (30/09/2015)
  • Found my great x 4 grandmother Harriet Norris in Ballards Buildings in 1851.

    By Christine Callow (10/05/2015)
  • whilst researching my Tree I found my Great Great Aunt born in Washingborough Lincoln living with her husband in Meeting Alley in Watford. Her husband was at one point a building labourer so perhaps he was working in Lincoln at one point.

    By Penny van den Bosch (29/03/2014)
  • my dad was born and lived in number 1 new street…fishers yard was next door….remember going to see my grandparents there….

    By jane clark (27/03/2014)
  • I am researching the Brunt family tree and I found this article very interesting. I just received a copy of my great great grandfathers death cert, and he died in Red Lions Yard, Watford in 1839. He was a shoemaker, currier. He would be proud to know his granddaughter became a schoolteacher, and married a schoolmaster!

    By John Brunt (12/09/2013)
  • My great grandfather, Thomas Wrightson Charlesworth, was born in Meeting Alley Watford.

    By Caroline Morrissey (13/12/2012)
  • I have been searching for info about Old Yard, now Bridge Place. Does anyone know when the houses at the end were knocked down? I know changes were made in 1929 but cannot find any details.

    By tina page (28/11/2010)
  • In the late 1930s as a young boy I attended the Waford Town Mission, in Lower High Street. The Pastor, E M Robinson, married my aunt Dorothy. I have been looking at the Google map to see if the building still exists. I believe I have found it.

    By Reuben ('Paul') Wigmore (16/05/2010)
  • This page has been extremely interesting for me as I have been researching my family history and discovered that my grandfather was born in Ballards Buildings & his Grandfather lived in Farthings Lane. As conditions were so appalling it was, no doubt, one of the reasons my Grandfather was taken in by Dr.Barnardos and sent to Canada at a very young age to work on farms and as a lumberjack. He later fought in France (1914-18) with the Canadian forces, was shot in the arm at Vimy Ridge, invalided back to England & there met my Grandmother. The rest, as they say, is history. He was certainly a great character & perhaps his lowly beginnings could account for some of that.

    By Jan Robinson (03/11/2009)

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