Thoroughfare Town

Considering there had been a road through Berkhamsted from at least Roman times, it seems surprising to find in the Diary of the visits of John Yeoman to London (edited by M. Yearsley in 1934, p.38) from Somerset in the 1770s, that “the people are so countrified as in any town as I know. They will stare at you as if they had never seen no one before.” Given that, were the inhabitants able to take advantage of the increased traffic on the turnpike, or did the opportunities pass them by?

Some successful exploitation of passing trade is evident in Berkhamsted’s legacy of coaching inns lining the High Street. By 1791, the Swan Inn ran its own coach to the Bell in Holborn and expanded its brewing business, but it was the Kings Arms that became the centre of the town for public events, petty sessions and post office, offering accommodation and an assembly room, fresh horses and stabling for coaches passing from Tring, Banbury and Birmingham to the Bell and Crown in London.


Berkhamsted in 1839 Inns represented by green dots, principal inn King’s Arms
indicated by red dot. Based on 1839 tithe map

John Page acquired the Kings Arms for £933 in 1787 and was the landlord there until his death in 1840. In that time, he was constable, coach-master, landlord and post-master of Berkhamsted. Following his death in 1840, his inventory (held at Hertfordshire Archives) was valued at nearly £1,250 (worth about £55,000 today) and it listed the contents of the household, assembly room, brewhouse, granary and ostler’s room; in the yard were seven horses and a pony, two post-chaises, a broad-wheel cart and pony chaise and five sets of post horse harnesses. Clearly Page made a reasonable living by maximising the opportunities presented by passing trade.


In the high seasons of the year, the improved turnpike through Berkhamsted enabled considerable traffic with daily coaches, royal mails, post chaises, waggons, carts and cattle droves.

Practically everyone in the community would require transport at some level (if only a farmer’s cart to market and back), but the 1791 directory lists just one carter, a stage waggoner and a keeper of post horses in Berkhamsted. At the same time, Hemel’s transport hub was a combined maltster and stage waggoner. Moses Hern was Chesham’s common carrier in 1791; John Hearn, Moses Hearn senior and junior were listed as carriers in the 1798 Buckinghamshire Posse Comitatus.

According to Pigot’s Directory in 1823, Thomas Barthom ran a carrying service from Berkhamsted to London every Tuesday and Friday, but no more is known of him.Reported in the Morning Chronicle on 14 Mar 1811,Greenaway was a proprietor for the Berkhamsted stage and also an innkeeper in Watford, who took the overseer and headborough of Watford parish to Hertford Assizes in 1811 for excessive distress in taking his coach-horse, worth £25, against non-payment of poor rates of £1.3s.6d.” Although few residents described themselves as carriers, it is likely that craftsmen and traders would have owned vehicles to convey materials, goods and produce between workshops and markets.

Innovations such as coach springs were important factors in the reduction of passenger and freight costs, with fewer horses hauling heavier loads; coachmasters were able to offer greater speed without a prohibitive increase in fares.The effects of competition also contributed to lower costs. For example, the Good Intent coach was started by a few local gentlemen and vied with Hearn’s Young Pilot for passengers between Tring and London “at fares that were far from being remunerative, the proprietors apparently taking the greatest delight in trying to ruin each other” (H. Nash, Reminiscences of Berkhamsted, 1890, pp.22-23). On 15 Dec 1825, the Times reported that the Court of Common Pleas in London heard a case involving injury caused to a horse-keeper called Pullen belonging to the Good Intent, when Hearn’s coach was driven rapidly down Berkhamsted High Street, knocking the plaintiff down; despite several witnesses stating that Pullen was drunk and fell up against the passing coach, the jury found in his favour and awarded damages.

Regional Specialisation

The turnpike facilitated regional specialisation. Industries expanded in the north while agriculture and crafts were specialized by region in the south. In fact, agricultural specialism was practiced several years prior to the turnpike; Pehr Kalm observed in 1748 that there were no hops grown in the Chilterns, as it was “healthy practice in farm husbandry” to concentrate on crops best suited to local conditions (W.R. Mead, A Finnish visitor to the Chilterns, 2003, p.50).

Regarding crafts, it was the timber industry that was a regional speciality of the Chilterns from medieval times and Berkhamsted was noted for turned wood products.

Fourteen per cent of the townspeople listed in the 1791 Universal British Directory worked with wood, including spoon and shovel-makers, turners, two carpenters, a cabinet-maker and a chair-maker. The Austin family managed to do well as turners – James Austin was able to leave his business to his eldest son John whilst also providing ten guineas each with furniture and personal possessions for his six other children. John married Elizabeth Seabrook whose son John Seabrook Austin was a turner and shovel-maker in 1791. His executor’s accounts reveal that he had just over £34 residue from his estate to share between his nine children, but four had benefited from a legacy of £50 each. His daughter Mary made a particularly advantageous marriage to Joseph Baldwin, who through his carrying business and later as proprietor of houses had amassed nearly £9,000 by the time of his death in 1873. Baldwin was a trustee of the turnpike, but little can be found of his years in the carrying trade.

The turnpike brought additional and diversified employment to support the transport industry. There were three blacksmiths, two saddlers and collar-makers and a wheelwright in Berkhamsted in 1791. By 1823, the wheelwright had been replaced by two coach builders; a currier and leather cutter was employed to help with the increase in business for coaches, saddles and collars (as well as boots and shoes). Thomas Hailey evidently profited from his coach-making business – he left a will in 1812 with messuage (a dwelling with outbuildings and surrounding land), several shops, appurtenances and other real estate to be sold by his brother and consolidated to buy such stocks or funds that would pay interest. Goods and stock in trade were valued at less than £450, but the legacy amply provided for his three young daughters, who were unmarried and still living on independent means in Berkhamsted High Street in 1841.

Occupational Survey

Occupational structure

Occupational structure for towns near Berkhamsted
Source: UBD 1791; population in brackets from 1801 census

To gauge the availability of economic opportunities in the thoroughfare towns of the Chilterns, an occupational survey was based on the 1791 Universal British Directory, with confidence that though agricultural workers were not sufficiently represented, a higher proportion of traders and craftsmen would be included, the raison d’être of such a directory. Recording of occupations is notoriously fraught, constantly changing and open to different interpretations, but a depiction of the settlements surrounding Berkhamsted offers a hint of their structure at the turn of the century (above). Figures from Berkhamsted and Northchurch were merged for this study as the towns are only a mile apart; workers intermingled, young people inter-married, transport systems, inns and shops in the town were used by people in the village – as they are to this day.

From MSc dissertation The social and economic impact of transport systems in Berkhamsted, 1760-1825