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A Potted History of Hitchin

Published: 21st July 2008 22:02

Author Bio

 Portrait by Stuart Haden (2007)

I moved to Hitchin from Islington in 1997 after living in London for 20 years. Although I have been writing on local history since 1990 (Essential Islington: From Boadicea to Blair available from Amazon), I am not a historian. I pay my mortgage by writing for magazines.

During training journalists are asked, ‘Is what you are writing about of interest to someone down the pub? Does it have the wow factor?' Well, I'm not sure about that, but I write about what is, for me, the wow factor.

My story of Hitchin, as a relative newcomer to the area, is only a sketchy history - the highlights. If you want a proper history contact or join the Hitchin Historical Society (I am a member), which is affectionately known as the Hitchin Hystericals.

A Potted History of Hitchin: An Occasional Series

Part One

Because folk need access to clean drinking water, the Hicce tribe settled on the banks of the River Hiz. Hicche, as the settlement became known, also had the advantage of being on a major trade route - Icknield Way. The Romans settled here too, and remains of Roman buildings, utensils and coins have been found.

757

Offa - who has gone down in history for building his famous dyke (ditch) to keep the Welsh out of the kingdom of Mercia - marshalls his forces at Hitchin. He defeats his old enemy Beornred (or Beornrad) in battles at Pirton, Pegsdon and at what became Offa Ley (‘ley' meaning ‘meadow', as in ‘lea') where he built a palace befitting the King of Mercia - in 1923 a silver coin was found on a track between Hitchin and Offley bearing the inscription ‘OFFA REX'. No one had heard of Mercia until Penda (d. 655) seized it from his cousin, Ceorl (or Cearl), in 626.

There are Anglo-Saxon settlements all over Hertfordshire including (as well, of course, as Hitchin, Pirton and Offley) nearby Benington, Caldecote, Gosmore and Letchworth, and museums all over the county have local finds. Warrior graves under prehistoric barrows at Therfield Heath show old burial traditions were still practised by Anglo-Saxons after the introduction of Christianity.

792

 St Mary's (2005) © Stuart Haden

Modern-day Hitchin begins when King Offa, a pagan, finds God and founds a Benedictine monastery here. On the site of the present-day St Mary's Church (the largest church in Hertfordshire), the monastery was second only in size to St Albans Abbey that Offa founded a year later. Simon Jenkins of The Times wrote in his book England's Thousand Best Churches (Penguin; 2000) that St Mary's is ‘the largest and jolliest church in Hertfordshire'. In 1115 it was hit by a hurricane and rebuilt. In 1298 the roof caved in after an earthquake and it was again rebuilt!

796

King Offa dies at Offley. Some sources say he was buried on the banks of the River Ouse at Bedford; others say he was buried at St Mary's, Hitchin.

1000(ish)

Hicche is now owned by Tovi Proda (the Proud), the standard bearer to King Canute (or ‘Knut' or ‘Cnut'). Tovi founded Waltham where he built a huge stone cross - it may be that the town's name refers to his cross and not to the one erected to honour Queen Eleanor.

Hitchin is now prospering through wool - sheep farming is flourishing on its hills. Flat land also means affluence from barley malted locally and exported to London breweries.

1066

Hitchin is owned by King Harold until taken by William I of Normandy. It is listed in William I's 1086 Domesday Book as ‘Hiz the second-largest town in the county (population 600 plus inhabitants of the monastery)'. Hitchin is now a Royal Manor, granted by the king to his loyal subjects.

William II gives Hitchin to Guy de Balliol. The Balliol family owns Hitchin until 1311 when it reverts to the Crown. Bernard de Balliol (1135-67), a crusader, lived with the Knights Templars at Temple Dinsley (Preston). John de Balliol (d. 1269) founded Ballliol College in Oxford in 1263.

In 1317 Edward II founds the Carmelite Priory of St Mary.

Part Two

1142

King Stephen gives the Manor of Deneslai near Hitchin to the Knights Templar (Temple Dinsley).

 Baliol, St Mary's © Stuart Haden

1147

Bernard de Baliol, Lord of Hitchin Manor, builds a huge preceptory (monastery *** manor) for the Templars. His effigy is in St Mary's Church (see right).

1312

Pope Clement disbands the Order accusing the Templars of heresy.

1523

Henry V111 stays in Angel Vaults in Sun Street (shamefully demolished).

1534

The Reformation. Population is 1,200. Henry VIII takes Temple Dinsley and Hitchin Priory. Ralph Radcliffe buys The Priory, which the family owns until 1965.

1599

George Chapman, poet and playwright, is born in Lower Tilehouse Street. He will be the first to translate Homer into English. The poet John Keats wrote 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer' as a tribute to his hero.

1645

Population is 2,000. Oliver Cromwell bases his HQ in the Sun Hotel. 3,000 of his troops are billeted in the town.

1662

Before anyone is allowed to settle in Hitchin they must declare that they are completely self-sufficient and will not be a burden on the local community and prove assets in excess of £10.

1670

Skynner's Almshouses are built in Bancroft (still there).

1674

Although his aunt Alice lives in Hitchin and his sister Elizabeth was baptised at St Mary's, John Bunyan is banned from preaching in the town. His friend Agnes Beaumont, wrongly accused of poisoning her father so that she could be with Bunyan, is buried in the graveyard of the Upper Tilehouse Street Baptist church which Bunyan helped establish and where he preached.

1688

The Princesses Mary and Anne (later Queens of England), daughters of James II, left court when plots against their father began. They are said to have stayed with a William Blomfield in Bancroft.

1697

The worst storm recorded in British history hits Hitchin. Hailstones as big as tennis balls are four inches in diameter.

1700s

The Adam Brothers were architects to George III. Robert Adam (1728-92) redesigned The Priory for the Radcliffes of Hitchin.

 The Priory (2005) © Stuart HadenHenry Trigg from Stevenage and his friend Richard Tristram a solicitor from Hollow Lane, Hitchin, were passing St Mary's churchyard at night when they saw bodysnatchers digging up the newly buried to sell to medical students. Horrified, they left instructions in their wills for their own burials. Henry ordered his coffin be put in the rafters of his barn. In 1724 his brother, the Rev. Thomas Trigg, followed his instructions. Richard instructed he be buried within the sound of running water. In 1734 his son buried him in a field he owned near Folly Brook, White Hill, St Ippollitts. The grave, enclosed by an iron fence, is said to be still there near the Oakfield Estate, close to the Stevenage to Hitchin road near Kingshott School.

1736

Mary Bruton marries Edward Field at St Mary's. Their daughter Elizabeth is baptised in the church. One day her son, Charles Lamb, will become a famous writer who writes about the happy holidays he spent in Hertfordshire.

1759

Lawrence Sterne publishes Tristram Shandy. His ‘Uncle Toby', an ex-soldier with a thigh wound who spends his days reconstructing battles on his bowling green, is said to be based on Captain Robert Hinde of Preston Castle. He put up battlements, built a drawbridge and had a cannon on the front lawn. Followed by his ‘army' (farmhands and village children) in a uniform of his own design, he would march to Hitchin with drum and trumpet, proclaim from the square the anniversary of a battle and on return fire a salute.

Part Three

Hitchin's Astonishing 1800s
1801

First official census - population of Hitchin is 3161.

1832

 Lord Lister Hotel (2008) © Stuart Haden 

Education for the rich
Hitchin is known for its excellent Friends' (Quaker) schools. Joseph Lister Jnr (1827-1912) - whose name one day will rank alongside those of Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming and Edward Jenner - arrives in Hitchin aged 5 to board at the Isaac Brown Quaker Academy. His father, Friend Joseph Jackson Lister, a physicist who invented the microscope, is a relative of Friend Lucas of Hitchin. Little Joe, whose relatives keep an eye on him, writes home every week, sometimes in French, sometimes in Latin.

As a surgeon, Lister will see half of his patients die from sepsis infection. Lister tries out a weak solution of carbolic acid to sterilise his surgical instruments and also uses it as an antiseptic, in the knowledge that carbolic acid was being used to treat sewage and that fields treated with it were freed from the parasites that cause disease in cattle. As a result, the death rate during and following surgery drops from 80 per cent to almost nil. Pre-Lister people died of erysipelas, septicaemia, streptococcus, gangrene, tetanus etc. In 1897 he was made Baron Lister of Lyme Regis.

Today, The Lord Lister Hotel on Park Street, Hitchin, is on the site of Lister's old school.

1837

 British Schools Museum
(2008) © Stuart Haden

Education for the poor
A large Lancasterian schoolroom (as advocated by Joseph Lancaster) is built in Queen Street. The monitorial system, which meant that one master could teach 300 pupils with the help of 30 monitors, spread all over the world. Today, thanks to dedicated fans, the British Schools Museum charts the history of education from 1810 to 1969, and a visit to the museum is highly recommended. The famous Matthew Arnold visited the school in 1851 when he was appointed as inspector of schools. Despite being Professor of Poetry at Oxford and the greatest literary critic of his day, Arnold dedicated his life to education. His bust is in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.

1846

Behind 105 Bancroft, a 14th-century gatehouse, is the fascinating story of William Ransom - the UK's first independent pharmaceutical chemist. At the age of 19 he started what William Ransom & Son still does today, ie extracting plant material for the healthcare, food, beverage and cosmetic industries. His family bought the old Bearton farm in the 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne when Richard Ransom moved here from Norfolk - the Quaker farmer had forfeited his family estate and served a 15-year prison sentence for being a Quaker. William founded his company on the farm where he was born in 1826.

In 1851 the royal train stopped at Hitchin station on its way to Balmoral so that William could present Queen Victoria with a bottle of his lavender oil. One lavender field was in Whinbush Road next to his distillery; one was where William Ransom School now stands (Stuart Drive); and another was at Ransoms Recreation Ground, which William's son Francis gave to the town in 1929.

 The Pharmacy at Hitchin Museum
(2008) © Stuart Haden

One of William's contracts was with Perks and Llewellyn, the internationally famous firm for whom he distilled lavender to make the water, soap and toothpaste sold in their shop that managed to survive mammon until 1960 (the site is now occupied by Woolworths). Luckily for us, the pharmacist Miss Lewis had the foresight to rescue the old mahogany cabinets, fixtures, fittings, stock and colourful bottles (now in Hitchin Museum & Art Gallery where lavender plants appropriately edge the paths of the William Ransom Physic Garden outside). William owned woods of squirting cucumber (used to treat dropsy, gout and constipation) and belladonna (deadly nightshade; used in whooping cough and rheumatism cures and as an eye ointment). Squirting cucumber expelled seeds so violently that children who gathered them cried from the force of the blow!

 William Ransom Physic Garden (2008) 
© Stuart Haden

William's skills were certainly needed. Few could afford doctors so most people depended on pharmacists like him. Antiseptics were unknown until Joseph Lister came along, so people put their faith in wart-eating grasshoppers, leeches (for blood letting) and mustard poultices (to treat asthma). William paid locals to pick dandelions, poppies, rosehips and elder. Men brought them on donkey carts - boxes on wheels - or carried them in sacks on their backs; women and children arrived with aprons brimming over with them. Today, natural remedies are back in fashion. The most famous headache remedy in the world - aspirin - is actually extracted from willow. In fact, half the world's medicines come from nature - drugs for breast cancer are made from British yew, for example, and the daffodil is used in research for cures for Alzheimer's disease.

Even by the Quaker work ethic of the day, William Ransom was amazing. He occupied every single minute of his time with worship, work, gardening, history, reading and chess, and thought nothing of 30-mile walks. Not only was he a scientist, botanist and naturalist who built a laboratory and distillery to turn his passion for wild plants into a successful business and opened a shop in Sun Street to sell his products, he was a keen archaeologist too. In 1879, out on his rambles, William spotted a strange mound at Pegsdon Common near the Icknield Way, 4 miles from Hitchin, and discovered Roman cremation urns full of bones. Below those were cremation urns of ancient Britons. He also found the perfect skeleton of a Saxon, all 6 foot 4 inches of him sitting upright holding his knife. Britons, Saxons and Romans had all chosen this place for a burial ground.

In Great Wymondley, William uncovered another Roman cemetery. In one urn were the ashes of a mother and child along with the baby's feeding bottle - now in The British Museum. Next to the church he found the earthworks of a British/Roman/mediaeval occupation and at Wilbury Hills, Letchworth, straddling the Icknield Way, an Iron Age hill fort. Then, astonishingly, at Purwell Mill (Nine Springs, Great Wymondley) he uncovered a grand, centrally heated, seven-room Roman house with bathrooms. ‘The paint or fresco on the walls retained in places the colour as...when first put on...within seven inches of the surface [although] the land has been tilled by the plough for ages'. He also found an Alice band, scales, scent bottle and 40 coins dating from AD 193 to AD 392. Even more astonishingly, this wonder was filled in and sadly can only be seen now from the air as a cropmark.

In 1970 when Anita Roddick pioneered cruelty-free beauty products and searched for a company with impeccable ethical credentials to brew magic potions for The Body Shop, she found Ransom. Until recently, when William Ransom & Son moved to state-of-the-art premises in Wilbury Way, Sainsbury's shoppers in Bancroft were often greeted with the pungent smell of her Blueberry range.

This bit of Bancroft mercifully survived ‘improvement'. The recession of the early 90s resulted in a property slump, which meant that town planners (sic) and developers (sic) who vandalised one of the prettiest market towns in Hertfordshire ran out of steam before they reached the end. Be grateful for small mercies.

William Ransom lived at Little Benslow Hills, now the Benslow Music Trust.

1841

John Brereton Sharpe, who was born in nearby St Ippollitts, arrives in Hitchin with his bride Martha. Martha was the sister of Jemima Hand, mother of Thomas Hardy. The couple live in Hitchin until 'Uncle Sharpe' is appointed estate manager at Hatfield House. He invites Thomas and Jemima to visit them there and they stay for a month.

1848

Population of Hitchin is 7000.

1860

 Benslow House (2008) © Stuart Haden

Emily Davies (1830-1921) founds Britain's first women's college in Hitchin. Great-aunt to the five Llewelyn Davies brothers of Berkhamsted who inspired J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Emily petitioned the University of London to accept women but without success. She looked at premises in Baldock and Stevenage before renting Benslow House (59 Benslow Rise, Hitchin). However, the place where women needed to compete with men was Cambridge and so Emily raised £7,000 (George Eliot sent a donation) to build a college near Girton, which opened in 1874. Benslow House is now a nursing home.

1865

 Holy Saviour Church (2008) 
© Stuart Haden

William Butterfield (1814-1900), one of Britain's most famous architects, plans Holy Saviour Church in Radcliffe Road and achieves his aim of giving dignity to brick. He designed everything, including hinges, light fittings and heating. He disapproved of hassocks, which he said people fell over, so designed a fold-out kneeling board. The church is worth a visit any time but especially during the first week in December to see the astonishing and impressive display of decorated Christmas trees during Hitchin's annual Christmas Tree Festival.

1884

After performing in London the famous composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), famous for the comic Savoy operas he created with W. S. Gilbert, boarded the midnight train, which terminated at Hatfield. He would then make the driver an offer he couldn't refuse and bribe him to take the train on to Hitchin. Even then he was some way from home, so presumably his man and coach would have been waiting for him there. Sir Arthur spent the summers of 1884, 1885 and 1886 at Stagenhoe near St Paul's Walden (now the Stagenhoe Sue Ryder Care Centre). He paid £189 (£12,000) rent, which included valet, chef and three housemaids.

1894

 Town Hall (2008) © Stuart Haden

Anthony Hope (pseudonym of Anthony Hope Hawkins 1863-1933), a barrister and a member of the Hawkins of Hitchin family, gives the English language a new word, Ruritania, when he publishes The Prisoner of Zenda. Now a classic, this was so successful that he never needed to work again and so he abandoned his legal career to write full time. Hope was England's answer to Alexandre Dumas. The Prisoner of Zenda, which rivalled sales of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask, was turned into plays, musicals and five films. Anthony often visited his relatives in Hitchin and mentions the town in his memoirs. He stayed in Bancroft where his father Reverand Edward Hawkins was brought up. His grandmother moved into the house with her two sons when her husband Dr Frederick Hawkins died.

Anthony's father's brother John Hawkins was a partner in Hawkins Solicitors on Portmill Lane (the law practice is still there, now Hawkins Russell Jones); Anthony's grandfather Frederick built Hitchin's first hospital in Bedford Road; and his brother John established the Town Hall and the Corn Exchange.

Part Four

1900 September

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl of Strathmore, is christened at All Saints in St Paul's Walden, a village near Hitchin. The earl spends much of the year at 'The Bury', his country home.

The baby's nanny, Clara Knight, is the daughter of a local farmer. In 1926 in the Strathmores' town house in Bruton Street, London, Clara will also be nanny to Elizabeth's first child HM The Queen.

Seven weeks later the earl finally gets round to registering his daughter's birth. He inaccurately and mysteriously records her as having been born in the village. She was not. He was fined 7s 6d for not registering the birth within the legal time limit. The ninth of ten children, Elizabeth is born seven years after the birth of his last child. Where she was born has never been disclosed. In her obituaries newspaper reports said she was born in a horse-drawn ambulance on its way to St Thomas Hospital.

Two years later her brother David to whom she was devoted is born. The children had a very happy childhood. They have a Shetland pony, Bobs, and a bullfinch, Bobby. Until she married, Elizabeth spent much of her life here.

1904-1913

 The Sun Hotel (2008) © Stuart HadenMarion Wilkie of Dacre Road, Hitchin, is appointed tutor to the Bowes-Lyon children. She cycles over to The Bury every day until poor health prevents it. The children are then driven to her home instead in a pony and trap. They also take dancing lessons in the ballroom of the Sun Hotel, Hitchin.

1905

Mademoiselle Lang 'Made' arrives at The Bury to teach French to the Bowes-Lyon children. When Lady Elizabeth has her hand read by a palmist at a local fete she tells Made, "She says I'm going to be a queen when I grow up! Isn't it silly?"

1907

 James Hope's House (52 Brampton Park
Road) © Stuart Haden
William Hope is in Hitchin to say goodbye to his father James before emigrating to America.

William, born and brought up in Hitchin, was, like his father, a stonemason. James worked on the Statue of Liberty in Paris (before it was shipped to New York) and on the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. William's son, the film star comedian Bob Hope, said, ‘'I left England at the age of four when I found out I couldn't be king.''

1909

A list of names for a nearby new town being built is drawn up. Hitchin Garden City is suggested. Thanks to someone somewhere who wanted Letchworth, Hitchin has a narrow escape. Welwyn was not so lucky. It lost part of its identity when another garden city took its name, as did old Stevenage, Hatfield and Hemel Hempstead when the New Towns were built.

1914

Outbreak of WW1. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is 14. The family moves to Glamis.

1919

Reginald Hine, a young Hitchin solicitor, begins writing about Hitchin, the town he loves, and carries on writing about it until he dies. His books are a must for anyone who needs to know anything about Hitchin. Tall, handsome, extrovert and flamboyant, he wore velvet jackets, bow ties, green suits, pink shirts and spats, and cycled with an open umbrella in the rain. His office was furnished with Queen Anne and Sheraton antiques. His books include: Hitchin Priory; The History of Hitchin; Samuel Lucas; A Mirror for the Society of Friends; A Short Story of St Mary's; History of Hitchin Grammar School; The Official Guide to Hitchin; Hitchin Worthies; The Natural History of The Hitchin Region; The Story of Methodism at Hitchin; The Story of the Sun Hotel; The Story of Hitchin Town; Confessions of an Un-Common Attorney; Hitchin Old and New; The Hitchin Countryside; and Charles Lamb and His Hertfordshire.

1920s

Beginning of the clearance of Queen Street slums, which considering what replaced them - today's bleak depressing open space - now seems a pity. Grandly called St Mary's Square, it is in reality a huge, ugly concrete car park. Behind 66/64 Queen Street were once Hitchin Swimming Baths, filled from the River Hiz.

1923 January

George V's second son Prince Albert, the Duke of York and known as 'Bertie', visits the Strathmores at St Paul's Walden. When he and Elizabeth go for a walk in the gardens, he proposes to her and she accepts. The prince telegrams his father at Sandringham using a prearranged code: 'All Right. Bertie'. A delighted king and queen set the date for the wedding as 23 April 1923.

1932

The Duke and Duchess of York often visit The Bury as a family. There is a photo of princesses Elizabeth and Margaret taken there.

1936

 Hitchin's Coat of Arms
(NB The author has been unable
to identify the copyright owner.)
Hitchin is granted a Coat of Arms (see right). It shows a lion (the town's connection to the crown as a Royal manor), a sheaf of barley (refers to the town's malting) and two shepherd's crooks supporting a sheep (farming and woollen industry). Motto 'Et Patribus et Posteritati' (For Our Ancestors and Prosperity).

Also in 1936, George Orwell is in town to meet his close friend Jack Common. Orwell, who lives near Baldock, often shops in Hitchin. When he buys an Albertine rose from Woolworth's he tells the world about it in his column in Tribune. He often meets Jack Common here. One letter says: ‘Dear Jack, about Saturday. How about meeting me in Hitchin on Sat at 2 p.m. I think the best place to meet would be Woolworth's.' Woolworth's used to be where Boots the Chemist is now).

 Brookers (2008) © Stuart
Haden
Sometimes Orwell manages to get a lift from his neighbour, Mr Field, when he brought cattle to Hitchin Market. Whenever Orwell is away from home Jack looks after his cottage. Orwell wrote to him from Tangier telling him to use only Jeyes toilet paper in the lavatory or it will block; how to make mash for the chickens; and that if the chimney smokes he should go to Brookers in Hitchin who will advise him.

One day Orwell is furious when he opens his front door to the police who tell him they had come to confiscate his copies of Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, written by his friend Henry Miller. Hitchin Sorting Office had been opening his mail. Orwell was handed a written warning by the public prosecutor ordering him not to import banned books.

1937

The king and his queen, who was once the Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon from St Paul's Walden, are crowned in Westminster Abbey.

1939

Famous comedian Bob Hope receives a letter from his father's sister, Aunt Lucy of Brampton Park Road, inviting him to Hitchin to meet his grandfather James. He works the invitation into his act before boarding the SS Normandie for his first ever trip ‘back home'. ‘We had a great ball in the pub down in Hitchin. I invited all the relatives ... never seen them before ... grandfather James got up - he was 96 ... introduced everybody, told a couple of jokes and did a little dance so you can see where my ham comes from.' As the Queen Mary drew away from Southampton two days before war was declared, James shouted ‘See you on my 100th'.

1942-1949

 Hitchin Girls' Grammar School
(photo kindly supplied by the school)
Claire Tomalin nee Delavenay the acclaimed biographer is a pupil at Hitchin Girls' Grammar School.

She said we read biographies because, "We are human beings, programmed to be curious about other human beings, and to experience something of their lives."

1943

Visiting American air bases in Hertfordshire on a morale-boosting tour, Bob Hope is told that his grandfather is ill so goes to see him in Hitchin. He said, "Come on grandpa, I'm going to take you on stage with me." James smiled. He died two days later. Hope attended the funeral.

1944

 Hitchin Hospital © Stuart HadenSir Henry Wood, founder of the ‘Proms', dies in Hitchin Hospital.

He has a grand funeral service at St Mary's with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Singers. LNER put on a special return train for mourners from London.

Part Five

1945

The newly formed Bancroft Players Amateur Dramatic Society puts on Pygmalion in the Town Hall.

1948

 The Reginald Hine Memorial Garden
© Stuart Haden 2008

Local historian and solicitor Reginald Hine commits suicide. His memorial garden is in Lower Tilehouse Street. His official biographer Richard Whitmore has recently written The Ghosts of Reginald Hine.

1950s

Baron Cheshire VC, national hero - one of the most famous airmen of the Second World War - and married to Sue Ryder, establishes one of his homes in Hitchin at a time when the disabled are excluded from mainstream society. He was the youngest Group Captain in the RAF and dedicated the rest of his life to working for world peace. He was also a lifelong member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

1950s

 Sun Hotel, Sun Street 
© Stuart Haden 2008

Bob Hope hosts a party for his relatives at the Sun Hotel, Hitchin.

1953

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian in The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, toured the county in a 1933 Wolseley Hornet borrowed from his publisher (Penguin). He wrote: ‘Hitchin is, after St Albans, the most visually satisfying town in the county.' Sadly, since his visit vandal town planners gave permission for the following historic buildings to be demolished: Angel Vaults, Sun Street, where Henry VIII stayed (built in 1450 it had medieval and 16th-century timbering); 114 Bancroft (15th-century Town Hall with a panelled canopy unique in town halls); Three Horseshoes, High Street (Tudor); 21 Bridge Street (15th century); The Grange, Portmill Lane (part of a Georgian group).

 Skynner's Almshouses, Bancroft
© Stuart Haden 2008

Built in 1670, Skynner's Almshouses in Bancroft have survived but, unloved, are barely noticed behind an ugly brick wall.

1961

Viewers of the BBC's Nine O'Clock News recognise a local face. The new presenter is Richard Whitmore.

1962

The Hitchin Society is launched to protect Hitchin against inappropriate development. It campaigned successfully against road building schemes which would have destroyed much of what we value. Each year the Society makes a Civic Award to the best new development.

1969

The British Schools in Queen Street close their doors.

The old attractive Dog public house in Brand Street is sold to Sainsbury's. Sainsbury's build - surely no architect would admit to it - a visually offensive store (now Argos) then moved to Bancroft. It's enough to make strong men weep.

Victoria Glendinning, whose great-grandfather lived at The Hermitage and gave his garden to the town for Hermitage Road, writes A Suppressed Cry about her grandmother Winnie, one of the first women to go to Newnham College, Cambridge. Her grandfather lived at nearby Preston, where she spent part of her childhood.

1974

Hitchin Urban District Council is wound up when North Herts District Council is founded.

1977

The Bancroft Players draw up plans for a purpose-built theatre and launch an appeal to build it.

1979

The Hitchin Historical Society, known fondly as the Hitchin Hystericals, launches The Reginald Hine Award to further the understanding of Hitchin's history.

1982

Bob Hope hosts a party in Little Wymondley for his Hitchin relatives.

1983

 Queen Mother Theatre
© Stuart Haden 2008

Her Majesty the Queen Mother opens The Queen Mother Theatre, the only theatre in the UK named after her.

1990

The British Schools site in Queen Street is on the market. The British Schools Trust is formed to save it from redevelopment and to establish The British Schools Museum.

1992

The Hitchin Forum is founded to bring together organisations determined to keep Hitchin's special character. It enables the views of people who live and work here to be presented in a coordinated manner to relevant bodies. Anyone with an interest in Hitchin can join.

Rhythms of the World (ROTW) is founded by Hitchin Oxfam to raise money for and to highlight campaign issues. It is staged in the Town Hall. The world music concept features music from Siberia, Africa, South America, Tibet, India and Hitchin to reflect Oxfam's internationalism.

1995

The Hitchin Town Centre Initiative is formed to improve the town centre.

1996

Market Place is cobbled.

2002

The British Schools is granted Registered Museum status.

Today

Hitchin's population of about 30,000 is growing. The excellent 30-minute electrified commuter service to Kings Cross attracts house hunters unable to afford London's inflated property prices. The demand is encouraging what has been dubbed ‘garden grab'. Whole streets semis with large gardens such as top of Grove Road are bought, demolished and developed to build blocks of flats.

No wonder people want to live here. The River Hiz and the open-air market make it special. The metropolitan input has resulted in bustling Saturday afternoon cafes with outside tables: Coffee Coffee, Thornton's, Starbucks, Café Nero, Café Rouge et al all help give the town its feel good factor. There is something for everyone who lives in Hitchin, including indoor and outdoor swimming pools, three theatres, two good secondhand bookshops, Waterstone's and a film club. Plus pubs and restaurants galore... We can eat Chinese, Thai, Italian, Australian or Indian style. We have the Hitchin Festival and Rhythms of the World, and we even have a Symphony Orchestra!

To hang on to all we hold dear, we might even one day have our very own Town Council. North Hertfordshire District Council threatens to close our much loved museum, reduce its annual grant to the Town Centre Manager to zero by 2013 and sell our old Town Hall in Brand Street!

Afterword

To call what I have written a potted history of Hitchin is stretching credulity. It's nothing of the sort, of course, but those interested will find lots of proper histories - Hitchin is one of the best-documented small market towns in England.

I see this series more as a tribute to Hitchin, which considering its size has a history which is nothing less than jaw dropping. How many towns can boast that King Offa of the famous dyke built their first church? Or that the name of an early resident - a Knight Templar to boot - lives on in the shape of world-famous Balliol College? Hitchin is where Joseph Lister received his early education; Britain's first women's college was opened; the Queen Mother's childhood tutor lived; Bob Hope's father lived; George Orwell did his weekly shop and met friends; and where Sir Henry Wood died.

 Tilehouse Street Baptist Church
© Stuart Haden 2008

As for Hitchin‘s literary connections... George Chapman, Britain's (probably the world's) first translator of Homer, was a Hitchin lad - it's said that his translation has never been bettered, so good in fact that 200 years later John Keats wrote an homage to Chapman. John Bunyan, whose The Pilgrim's Progress has never been out of print, founded the Baptist Church on Upper Tilehouse Street. Charles Lamb's mother and grandparents were born in Hitchin. The infamous Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby was inspired by a local well-known and much-loved eccentric; the inspiration for Troy in Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd lived here too. Emily Davies, founder of Hitchin's embryonic Girton, was the aunt of the five brothers who inspired J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Then there was Anthony Hope Hawkins, whose father was born and brought up in Bancroft - he gave the world a new word ‘Ruritania' when he wrote The Prisoner of Zenda. Not forgetting Claire Tomalin who went to school here and whose close friend Victoria Glendinning's family hailed from Hitchin.

Impressed? I am.

© Pamela Shields. Extracts from her books Hertfordshire A~Z and The Private Lives of Hertfordshire Writers.

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