The development of the medieval market town of Berkhamsted into a thoroughfare town and then a canal town presents a microcosm of what was happening in the rest of the country, emerging into a new age of industrialisation and facilitated by a growing network of roads and canals.
Self-interested gentry played a vital role in developing the transport network. Turnpikes were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, though existing roads had supported carriers both locally and nationally for centuries. The glamorous coaching age left physical reminders in the high street, particularly the Kings Arms, the administrative and social centre of the town for many years, though King Louis XVIII might struggle to recognize today’s newly-refurbished hotel as the venue for his assignations with the innkeeper’s daughter. Where turnpikes expedited the carriage of passengers, valuables and perishables, working boats transported bulky items to and from London and provided work at the inland port of Berkhamsted.
Better roads attracted gentry and professionals to settle in rural domains and prompted social changes in the local community. Service providers were able to fulfil genteel requirements, including glittering social occasions to emulate the London season. A few philanthropists provided some comfort for the poor, who were also the main beneficiaries of an unexpected side-effect of digging the canal, which by lowering the water-table rescued the town from frequent and disease-laden floods.
Berkhamsted grew slowly as a medieval settlement and was able to thrive on opportunities presented by the improved thoroughfare between London and the industrial north, counteracting the decline in the local market-place. By the 1790s, the town was capable of supporting an escalating population and raising the general standard of living, with transport playing a vital role in connecting to wider markets and promoting regional specialisation. Berkhamsted became a hub for wooden craft manufactures such as spoons and shovels. The corner was turned from mere subsistence to modest surplus and the growth of the consumer society provided retail work for local people. Evidence is scarce for carriers and coachmasters in the town, but many craftsmen such as innkeepers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths owed their living to the popularity of road transport whilst boat-builders were able to profit from the heyday of the canal.
The development of the valley through the Chilterns for road and canal prompted local and regional connections. The scene was set for the arrival of the railway in 1838, which had national consequences and changed the economic and social life of the country beyond recognition.
Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater, made his fortune by realising the advantages of a waterways network for his coal mining industry in the north of the country and achieved fame as the Canal Duke. His ancestral home was in the Chilterns and just before his death in 1803, he was taking an interest in renovating his estate at Ashridge, adjoining Berkhamsted Common. His dukedom died with him but his cousin succeeded him as the Earl of Bridgewater, who in the same year was reported in the Morning Post on 22 Aug 1803 as: “raising a volunteer corps of cavalry; and… raising a new house near Berkhampstead”. Both had been instrumental in the running of the turnpike trust.
The seats of noblemen and gentlemen were worthy of mention on a map of the area in 1766, such as Robert Hucks, Member of Parliament and Edmund Boehm, an eminent Hamburg merchant. The seat of Thomas Dorrien (of the German merchant and banking family, and Justice of the Peace) was Haresfoot estate, developed from Harrat’s Foot End on the map.
In 1819, Hassell wrote of his Tour of the Grand Junction Canal: “Beyond Bourne End, we have little interesting until we reach Berkhamsted; at the entrance to this town is the elegant seat of Mr. Pechell, opposite to whose mansion is Mr. Moore’s house, pleasantly situated on the banks of the stream”. Augustus Pechell of Berkhamsted Hall was Receiver General of the Post Office and John Moore married into the Brabazon family with connections to the earl of Meath.
Four principle families (Dorrien, Smith, Drake and Pechell) kept their wealth within their own community and intermarried in successive generations, despite the lure of the London season’s marriage mart.
For the rich, the Georgian age epitomized flamboyance in fashions and hairstyles, balls and hospitality with ostentatious displays of food, servants in livery and smart modes of transport; all flaunting status. When local mansions were offered for sale, facilities for horses and carriages were desirable. In the Morning Post on 29 Oct 1778, Pilkington Manor boasted a “TRIPLE coach-house, stabling for NINE HORSES…” which in the same newspaper on 20 Apr 1810 had changed to “double coach house, and stables for ten horses”. In the General Evening Post on 25 Sep 1779, there was an unfurnished house to let “with every convenience for the immediate reception of a genteel family. There is a double coach-house, stabling for eight horses…” The sale of Ashlyns Hall in St James Chronicle on 11 Oct 1764 included “a Coach-House for three Carriages, Stabling for seventeen Horses”; by 28 May 1803, the emphasis had changed in the Morning Post: “excellent mews, riding house… and paddock”. Private transport was preferable to reaching London on a stage-coach and certainly no gentleman would want to be seen in a post-chaise; “riding post” was for the lower classes.
Lipscomb wrote in his Journey into South Wales (via Berkhamsted) in 1799: “The town has in it many genteel houses, and the neighbourhood being pleasant, it is much resorted to by persons of fortune and fashion, so that a lively air of gaiety prevails here.” It was with the Earl of Bridgewater’s permanent residence in the locality from about 1814, when refurbishments to “Ashridge castle” were nearing completion, that social occasions in Berkhamsted became more frequent; newspapers reported on gaieties, parties and entertainments at Ashridge.
Small market towns, especially if they embraced the needs of their genteel inhabitants, provided the advantages of urban living alongside desirable rural vistas. The demand for luxury services provided opportunities for a few local people and there were two surgeons, a clock-maker and a book-seller in Berkhamsted.
Evidence of 302 servants can be found in Hertfordshire militia lists (transcribed by J. Hill, Apr 1996) between 1758 and 1786. Of particular interest are the 87 servants who named their masters and mistresses, including four coachmen (including one for Thomas Dorrien), along with a farrier and under-groom for the Duke of Bridgewater. Forty were employed by 14 gentlemen and three ladies and many worked for those who were climbing the social scale: farmers and husbandmen and those in the food and drinks trade, making the most of the growth of a consumer society. Two of the gentlemen were noted in the militia lists as suffering from gout, presumably excusing them from active service but also an indicator that they indulged in rich food and alcohol. Some servants were able to improve their prospects, later becoming tradesmen or craftsmen in their own right and William Wilkinson, the deaf clerk and servant to attorney John Duncombe became a scrivener then an attorney during the eight years that he appeared in the militia lists.
The innkeeper of the Kings Arms was particularly successful in enhancing his social status and reputation through service to the gentry. Innovations in road transport such as coach springs and fly waggons enabled passengers and goods to be conveyed to their destinations more comfortably and speedily. Over time, frequent stops and overnight stays in the Home Counties became less necessary and coaching inns needed to adapt to the changing situation. John Page was able to ensure the continued success of the Kings Arms by emulating the rituals of the London season to such an extent that Lipscomb wrote in 1799: “Splendid assemblies have been much encouraged at this place, which, if I mistake not, have sometimes been honoured with the presence of royal visitors.” Page’s success was assured with the assistance of his daughter Polly, who presided over these occasions and on 23 Oct 1815 she was complemented by the Morning Post that “the arrangement of the Ball and supper-rooms, which was highly nouvelle and elegant, does great credit to the taste of Miss Page”. Polly’s refinement was one of her attractions in her friendship with Louis XVIII during the years of his exile as he travelled between London and Aylesbury. Assemblies normally drew about 150 elite guests; on 6 Nov 1822, the Morning Post reported “it was gratifying to observe so numerous an assemblage of the County Nobility and Gentry, at a time when complaints are so loud and so general of the preference given to a Continental residence by English landlords and families.” In 1824, guests were inspired to quote from Cowper’s poems by the view of his birth place at the old Parsonage from the window of the principal supper room. As a break from the dancing, guests sat down to a sumptuous supper at one o’clock before dancing again until four in the morning when they sent for their carriages for their homeward journey.
Philanthropy and the Poor
Gentry families were little troubled by the sight of the poor in the valley from their grand estates on the hillsides. Those at the bottom of the social scale still showed deference to authority and stability was maintained, though the class structure was changing. The Poor Law provided a workhouse, disease was hidden in the pest-house and charity was dispensed by philanthropists.
On 27 Jul 1808, in the Bury and Norwich Post, Cobbett described the pauper system as a “comforting system”, implying interference on one side and dependence on the other, thus “making a poor mouth”. He viewed the latest vogue of ladies visiting poor families as a display of ostentation and he was in favour of paying sufficient wages to labourers so that they could maintain their families independently rather than “sink quietly and contentedly into that state [of being chargeable to the parish] from which their grandfathers, and even their fathers, shrunk with horror.”
Women were able to supplement the household income from straw plaiting and they benefited from an embargo on imported straw during the Napoleonic war. In the Morning Post on 8 Jan 1820, a publicized petition (which appears rather pretentious, echoing Cobbett’s opinion) included Mrs Augustus Pechell and other Berkhamsted ladies: “The diminished use of Straw Hats… throws numberless women and families into distress, who have hitherto derived subsistence and comfort from their industry… the undersigned have therefore determined immediately to give such orders as they flatter themselves may not be altogether useless.” On the other hand, in Constables’ Accompts 1748-1819, Member of Parliament Thomas Herbert Noyes attended local vestries and left instructions for curbing labourers’ perks: “When Workmen… are employed to do parish work I see no reason for giving them Beer over & above their wages; I will allow no such charge”, which seems rather harsh considering he was one of the sufferers from gout.
According to Birtchnell’s A Short History of Berkhamsted (1972, p.61) some poor folk were housed in a “wretched straw-thatched building” in the corner of St Peter’s churchyard, and Ragged Row was an aptly-named terrace of cottages that constituted the workhouse for 50 of the poor of Berkhamsted. In 1816, husbandman Daniel Wheeler took on the management of the workhouse, with the prospect of benefiting from the earnings of the inmates after he had provided them with food, clothing and firing (Churchwardens’ Accounts, 26 Jun 1816). Reverend George Nugent, turnpike trustee and owner of ‘Red House’ with an impressive frontage on to the High Street, bequeathed £1,000 to rebuild the workhouse in 1830 (Birtchnell, p.62).
The poor suffered most from ignorance of the dangers of unsanitary conditions caused by poor drainage, contaminated water and overcrowding in the town. Street cleaning was not a priority and the vestry had to issue a warning to women who threw slops out of bedroom windows. Outbreaks of cholera could be blamed on the town’s unhealthy position “along the south side of a swamp” (Birtchnell, p.82). A pest-house was built on the edge of Berkhamsted Common for isolation of infectious diseases.
Some gentlemen offered genuine assistance to the poor through bequests, invested either in funds to gain interest or in land that could be rented to provide a few shillings annually. In 1784, John Dorrien left £100 to the rector and churchwardens to distribute to ten of the poor who were not in receipt of alms. Thomas Baldwin was born in Watford, attended Berkhamsted School and later became Comptroller of the King’s Works. He died in 1642 and his bequest of £23 accumulated enough each year to enable payments twice a year right through to the end of the Churchwardens’ Accounts (1824). Land sales and re-investments meant that payments continued at least until 1908. Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury was supported by local benefactors such as Robert Hucks (treasurer) and Samuel Pechell (governor); according to Reads Weekly Journal (11 May 1741) young orphans were often boarded with foster mothers in the town and the hospital was later moved to Berkhamsted (now Ashlyns School).