Watford. Bedford and Essex
The oldest continuously-inhabited building in Watford was on the point of demolition in 1931. A suggestion was made to the Council was that the site could be used for road widening or a car park. A counterproposal to purchase was lost by 2 votes. Even so, the Council did provide £100, the cost of 1 house. 3 other persons provided for 3 more dwellings, and a mayor’s appeal raised a further £222. Eventually the buildings were saved.
Countess of Bedford
Bridget Hussey’s first husband was Sir Richard Morrison. They had to leave England as exiles on the accession of Mary Tudor; Sir Richard died abroad. Bridget was allowed to claim her husband’s estate of Cassiobury. She then married the Earl of Rutland, and finally Francis Russell, the 2nd Earl of Bedford. They attended the christening of James VI of Scotland, and Bridget was a chief mourner at the interment of Mary Queen of Scots. On the other hand they entertained Elizabeth I on two occasions, and supported Puritan causes. Were they living dangerously, or was it a matter of ceremony? Elizabeth I was suspicious of any possible dissent.
As far as the name is concerned, the almshouses were founded by the Earl and Countess of Bedford. The Earl of Essex later owned Cassiobury and made payments to the almshouses, so that could be a reasonable assumption for the combination of names. Note that Buckler cites the name as Russell, her and her husband’s names name when the almshouses were founded.
Foundation and Endowments
Anyway, Bridget and Francis founded some almshouses in 1580, by deed poll, providing for 8 eight poor women to be chosen from Watford, Langley and Chenies. Clutterbuck includes a list of endowments and nominees. Victoria County History (1908) records the following provision. In 1558 Charles Morrison, esq. charged certain of his estates in Bushey and Watford with a yearly pension of £20 and sixteen loads of firewood for the inmates. [1558 is possibly a typo for 1588]. Dame Mary Morrison (Bridget’s daughter?) by deed endowed the almshouses with £20 16s a year in 1629. In 1789 Mary Newman bequeathed £200. The Earl of Essex, owner of the Cassiobury estate, paid £70 a year which included the above-mentioned annuities and the dividends on a sum of £252 consols, representing the investment of Mary Newman’s legacy. The sixteen loads of firewood were commuted for an annual payment of £20 7s. 8d. Each of the eight almswomen received £2 3s 9d a quarter. 40s a year was also paid by the overseers under an Act of George III as compensation for the enlargement of the churchyard. The inmates were also entitled to a share of Ann Phrip’s legacy of £1,000 bank stock.
The almshouses were built next to St Mary’s churchyard with a fair amount of land in front, and a well. More graveyard space was needed by 1771. The road was diverted and a new well dug. This resulted the above-mentioned compensation paid by the overseers.
Drainage was an issue in 1887, as the road was only lightly metalled and the drains could not cope with the water from the roofs.
Further restoration took place in about 1959. At some time the entrances were altered. The original doors faced towards the churchyard. They were sealed, still looking like doors, and the entrances moved to the rear. That was much safer for the residents as they would not step from their front doors direct onto the street.
However, by the 1970s the building of the relief road meant the gardens were needed. It is not clear what this involved as the Morison almshouses in Vicarage Road were demolished and replacements were built between the Essex almshouses and the ring road.
Nowadays the Bedford, Morison and Cordery almshouses are on the same site, with a pleasant green area between them, secluded from the traffic on either side. The group is affiliated to the Almshouse Association and registered with the Charity Commission ref 207042. The current provision is for poor women or married couples of good character who are resident at the time of appointment in the area comprising the ancient parishes of Watford, Chenies and Langley or the area which on 18 Dec 1918 comprised the parishes of Watford Urban, Oxhey and Watford Rural.
The buildings were listed grade 2 by Historic England in 1952, ref 1101119
St Mary’s Close, Watford
Georef: 511014 196244
Grid Ref: 51 39′ 15″N 0 23′ 48″W
OS 25” map Hertfordshire XLIV.2 pub 1940
The History & Antiquities of the County of Hertford by Robert Clutterbuck
Printed by and for John Bowyer Nichols, 25 Parliament Street, London 1827
The Book of Watford: a portrait of our Town c1800-1987. Compiled Bob Nunn
Pages 13, 21, 178 and 181
Pub pageprint 1987
Book of Watford II Watford from 1960s, by J B Nunn
Page 22 Countess of Bedford officiated as chief mourner at the interment of Mary Queen of Scots at Peterborough.
Oct 1996 (copy held at HALS)
The Book of Watford 2nd A Portrait of Our Town compiled and published J B Nunn
Pages 18 and 203
2003 ISBN 0 9536918 1 0
The Victoria County History of the County of Hertford, ed William Page
Vol 2 pp 466-7
Issued Archibald Constable & Co 1908. Reprint by Dawsons of Pall Mall 1971 ISBN 0 7129 0476 X
This publication is available online at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp464-469
A County of Small Towns, ed Terry Slater & Nigel Goose
Pub Hertfordshire Publications, an imprint of University of Hertford Press 2008 ISBN 978-1-905313-44-0
Illustrated Companion to the History of Watford ed P Taylor,
Page 55 (fig 80) has Downer photos print of Essex almshouses c1907
pub The Open Book, Watford 1976
Documents held at HALS
Photograph: Bedford almshouses
Includes deed of 14 perches of land in Watford, late part of road between almshouses and messuage called Watford Place, and cottage adjoining
Buckler’s drawing of Russell’s Almshouses, Watford
DZ/119/3/268A nd [c1832]
Almshouses, Watford churchyard. Picture by John Buckler
DE/Gr/81/1/20 nd [1895 – 1915]
Includes print of Essex Almshouses, Church Street, Watford
Folder ‘Facsimiles of Watford’
Includes a 1921 sketch of Bedford almshouses by D H Merrett. Used as illustration in A History of Watford by W R Saunders pub 1931 reprinted 1970
Websites accessed Oct 2022
Newspapers can be accessed on the British Newspaper Archive website
Watford Observer 12 February 1881 page 4 col 3 local house part collapse
Herts Advertiser 05 February 1887 page 8 col 1 Highway Committee visit re drainage
Herts Advertiser 27 April 1889 page 8 details some benefactions
Watford Observer 01 November 1890 Note about the view
Watford Observer 23 March 1907 page 4 Wreaths sent on death of Mrs Groom
Herts Advertiser 14 September 1889 page 8 Charlotte Tyler died aged 80