Watford began as a settlement in the 12th century when a market was granted to the Abbot of St. Albans as the lord of the manor. He chose a site along a route already used by travellers, where the market continued to be held until 1928. The Abbot also arranged for the first church to be built adjacent to the market: St Mary’s, the parish church of Watford.
Although there is no evidence for a settlement here before the 12th century, earlier people may have passed through, so it is believed that “Watford” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon name for the ford.
Some of these passers-by have left evidence of their time here and this can be seen in Watford Museum. These include flint tools from the Stone Age, a Bronze Age hoard and Anglo Saxon coins from the 10th Century.
Little remains of medieval Watford apart from St Mary’s Church. The earliest domestic buildings to survive are the Bedford Almshouses, built near the church in 1580. Like most Hertfordshire towns at this period, most of Watford’s inhabitants would have been concerned with farming the nearby fields.
When in the 16th century Henry VIII closed the abbeys and monasteries, he took over the land belonging to St Albans Abbey and sold Cassio to a man whose descendants became the Earls of Essex and lived at Cassiobury House.
A few buildings remain from this period: Monmouth House from the 17th century; the Free School, Frogmore House, Benskin House (now the museum), Little Cassiobury and Russells from the 18th century, and also some of the High Street shops.
It was the early 1800s which saw the greatest and most rapid changes to the town. The Grand Union Canal brought goods not easily available before. Even more significant was the opening of the railway in 1837, with its links to London, the West Midlands and Lancashire, it encouraged new industry here.
The traditional agricultural industries had been supplemented in the 18th century by brewing and the preparation of raw silk, and printing had started on a small scale. The development of paper making along the local rivers led to the manufacture of the machinery it needed and from this grew other types of engineering. By the early 1900s Watford was an established industrial centre.
The 19th century also saw a rapid expansion in housing as people moved to the town for work. Most of the streets in the town centre were laid out in the second half of the 19th century. Local government had to change to meet the demands of the growing population. First the local Board of Health, then the Urban District Council and finally, from 1922, the Borough Council took control of the town’s affairs.
Industry changed too. In the 20th century, between the wars, the major employer was the railway. After World War II printing became the most important industry. Now with the decline in manufacturing, the service industries have become the main employers.
And still more people have been attracted to the town, whether for work or for leisure, as the MI and the M25 made it more accessible.