Watford Through the Ages

A brief outline of the history of the town

by Watford Museum

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.

This page was added on 18/06/2015.

Comments about this page

  • My grandparents house in sandringham road was demolished by a bomb my cousin sent me photo of newspaper cutting with my dad and his brothers in as they all miraculously survived the bomb even though my dad refused to get out of bed and go to shelter. He told me he woke up with just half the house intact!

    By Kate Devonshire (09/11/2023)
  • Looking for information from during the war Jan 41 in whippendell road ,does anyone know where the bomb shelter would have been ? My dad was born there

    By Debbie (10/05/2023)
  • Does anyone know the history of the Thrums? I grew up there between 1972 and 1988, someone told me it used to belong to a farmer before it was turned into a street. Curious to know more.

    By Jackie Mccarthy (12/10/2022)
  • We’re trying to ascertain the reason for the naming of Posted Lane? Does anyone have information on this please?

    By Caroline Loates (30/09/2022)
  • Grant Stevens
    Pauline Stevens

    The above is where I found much information about my siblings and I at the Childrens Home on Ashby Road in Watford.
    Pat Maule
    Pat Maule 🇨🇦

    By Pat Maule (03/08/2022)
  • Grace Carey
    I was at Leggat’s Way School 1947-49, and the only name I remember of boys in my class was CAREY. I remember it because he autographed my autograph book (which I do not have now) with the most fancy signature in the whole book.
    Pat Maule 🇨🇦

    By Pat Maule (03/08/2022)
  • This is a long shot but I was wondering if the person named Phil How still has the photo of the railway cottages? I live in one of the cottages and I’m fascinated with their history, I’d love to see the picture. Happy to help with uploading if need be. Thanks – Charlotte

    By Charlotte Barrett (28/07/2022)
  • I live in Australia and am doing some fam history tracing. My grandfather’s father had an Inn or pub called The Brewers Arms at 233 High Street, Watford. I believe it was demolished in 1911. After his death in 1902, his widow remarried and continued running the pub until she left Watford and came out to Australia in 1910. I am trying to find a photograph of the pub and have looked online many times but with no success. Would anyone know where I may be able to obtain one?

    By Monica Lewis (08/07/2022)
  • Does anyone remember the Watford Civil defence. They used to have competitions and I would be very pleased if anyone has any photographs.

    By Rita Julie Allman (05/05/2022)
  • Further to my comment of 25 Oct 2016 :

    Pauline Keefe 11 Dec 2020 comment – I was in that Ashby Road Children’s Home from 1940-1947.

    Grant Stevens 03 Feb 2018 comment – I contacted Herts county council in Hereford, and received limited information back, although they were very helpful and kind, regarding myself a 2 sisters who were in the home. The email address is
    herts.direct@hertscc.gov.uk (as of Dec 2006)
    Vicki Hynes was the Senior Archivist at that time.
    Hope this helps and you both receive OK.
    Stay safe
    Pat Maule 🇨🇦🇬🇧

    By Pat Maule (18/02/2021)
  • I lived in Brookdene Avenue from 1953 until we moved away in 1962. I attended Oaklands Avenue school, then Watford Fields. I remember the crossing patrol at Watford Fields, there was a tuck shop that sold sherbet dips and Keillers Butterscotch. The desks at Watford Fields had proper inkwells and we use dip in pens, as a left-hander it was a bit of a challenge but I was helped and never forced to write with the other hand. We had ink monitors to make sure the inkwells were full. The toilets were outside in the playground and a bit chilly in winter!

    We could see kingfishers in the brook that ran behind our house. We used to go to Cassiobury Park with my Dad, and to visit my grandparents in Harrow using the tube from Carpenders Park station.

    By Janis Roberts (18/01/2021)
  • The dell off of the hare breaks was for many years just that a Dell with counsel houses built around with a narrow road between I remember it as a child then it was just filled in
    My father told me of another dell off of Leavesden rd at the bottom of what is now gander ash and sheepcot lane where a tramp made his home for many years but I never knew it any other way than a built up area (not far from Harry Potter studios)

    By Pauline Keefe nee Gates (15/12/2020)
  • A bomb fell on the round green in the hare breaks rd that runs parallel to gammons lane during ww2

    By Pauline keefe nee. Gates (11/12/2020)
  • There was a children’s home leavesden rd end of Ashby rd (not Ashbury) in North watford opp callow land recreation grounds

    By Pauline keefe (11/12/2020)
  • I’m not sure if anyone will have any information on this, (maybe Doug, as he seems to know about the area), but Dell Side on the Harebreaks, is that the area that you referred to as The Dell? It’s a little dead end road right next to the square with a big field outside, where the scout hut is? I was wondering if anyone knew what was there before it was turned into a field? Going by Doug’s knowledge, that field would of been right on the line between The Square and the Harebreaks Park which may of been bombed. Was it turned into a field after whatever was there got destroyed by the bomb, or was it already a field before that!? If anyone has any knowledge, i’d love to hear it. Trying to learn a bit more about my direct area but cant find much info!

    By Dan Barton (16/10/2020)
  • No mention of Watford Grammar School? Still achieving high ratings in the best schools listing. A wonderful place under the leadership of Miss J.Tennant in the 60s and 70s.

    By Victoria Hodder (08/07/2020)
  • I’m looking for info on patent food factory c1950s/60s in Watford. Herts. Or any info on Edith Mary foulger / farmer or Gerald malcolm farmer both lived in Watford from 1940s to 1960

    By Tina golds (16/12/2019)
  • hi fam

    By jojo siwa (30/01/2019)
  • Just found my 3x Great Grandparents lived on Chalk Hill according to the 1851 Census. Would love a photo of what their street looked like at the time.

    By Genealogy Lover (06/01/2019)
  • There was a house in Sandringham rd that was destroyed by a bomb in ww2 and many Americans were killed there at a party it blew all the windows in at my late aunts house in.Buckingham rd

    By Pauline keefe nee gates (29/11/2018)
  • I trained as a nurse in Watford General Hospital in 1980s. Watford is a very beautiful place.

    I am hoping someone will be able to help me find information on my relative Michael John Carey who lived in Chalk Lane, Oxhey in 1987.

    It would great if someone could help in this regard He was born 1914 and was born in Co. Donegal, Ireland. He may have work for the council on the roads.

    By Grace Carey (20/07/2018)
  • Does anyone know where the records for the Children’s home in Ashbury Rd went? My Dad was there and I want to track down some info for him…

    By Grant Stevens (03/02/2018)
  • Re bombing in WW2, my grandmother’s house in Cassiobury Park Avenue was destroyed by a bomb in 1942. It was apparently a stray bomb, perhaps one of those mentioned by Doug Petty?

    By Celia Savage (23/11/2017)
  • My grandparents (Raymond and Edith Fox) lived in Breakspere Close my mother (Thelma Fox) told me her friend and the other children were killed when a doodlebug fell on their house. The mother survived but suffered mental illness afterwards.

    By Carole Allen (nee Jones) (22/07/2017)
  • According to my mum, one did a direct hit on breakspeare close, just of Harebreaks, on a shelter in the garden where a mum had just put her children? Can’t confirm…. But one definitely fell on Sandringham road! I believe, I saved to my Watford pins or WW 2!

    By Lesley Jane Burtch (06/03/2017)
  • Hi Mary
    Sometime during World War 2 there was a German bomber that had not completed its mission and consequently got chased by one of our fighter aircraft. To lighten its load during the escape it jettisoned its bombs, one demolished a house in the corner of The Square, I believe one dropped on The Dell and a couple more in the woods at The Harebreaks recreation Park, all in a straight line, we used to play WAR in the craters in the woods. I don’t know if the first bomb fell in Gammons lane but that would fit in I think, I also don’t know if anyone was killed or injured.
    I remember my grandmother Mrs Lawrence who lived in Brighton Rd telling me that when the Battle of Britain was on you could see the aircraft high in the sky dogfighting and sometimes shell cases would fall to the ground and make a tinkling sound on the road!
    Regards Doug Petty

    By Doug Petty (13/02/2017)
  • I was in a children’s home on Ashby Road, off Gammons Lane, during the war, and watched a doodle-bug (flying bomb-V1) go over and heard it explode a few seconds later, but I don’t know where it came down, as I was safely back indoors under a heavy table by then. Perhaps this is what you remember, Mary.
    Later in the war, a V2 hit and demolished a school in Watford,one night, but I have no idea where!!
    I was a Callowland Infants and Junior, Leggatts Way Secondary Modern (47-49) and Watford Tech boy.

    By Pat Maule (25/10/2016)
  • Tuckers ?? On the side of a house behind the old police station , Robert Peel now Middletons . What was it ?

    By Neil Shannon (22/10/2016)
  • Does anyone know anything about a bomb that fell in or near Gammon Lane in WW II ?

    By Mary Trevallion (25/04/2016)
  • I am looking to see if I can find information on Miss Watford Beauty Pagent from 1943. My husbands mum, Edna Perry, was miss watford in that year.

    By Katie hughes (19/12/2015)
  • I am looking to see if I can find information on Miss Watford Beauty Pagent from 1943. My husbands mum, Edna Perry, was miss watford in that year. Any idea where I could search for this information?

    By Katie hughes (19/12/2015)

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