A Short History of Watford
archaeological finds indicate that the Watford area was populated, although only
sparsely, as far back as prehistoric times. Some Celtic and Roman influence in the early centuries AD
then gave way to the Anglo-Saxons (originally from continental Europe).
The area was marshy though and alternative sites like Berkhamsted (Birch
Farm), Hemel Hempstead (Farm in the twisting valley) and Aldenham (Old Farm)
were initially preferred because the land was more welcoming to farmers.
name Watford first appeared in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 1007AD and is probably
derived from the Old English words Waet (meaning full of water, because
the area was notoriously liable to flood in winter) and ford (a shallow
point across the River Colne where the river could be crossed).
was included in the Domesday Book of 1086 and, by the 12th Century, a
village had grown up along the highway from Aylesbury to Stanmore, where the
Roman road Watling Street was joined. The
village was a little north of the Wat-ford and clear of the floodable area.
1771, Watford was still only a village of 2000 inhabitants.
However, things now began to change rapidly, notably because of changes
in transportation. The Grand Union
Canal, passing through West Watford on its way between London and Birmingham,
was built in the 1790s. This
allowed coal to be brought into the district and paved the way for gas works to
be built. Here, the coal was baked
and the gases given off collected for use in domestic and street lighting.
(The Watford Gas and Coke Company was formed in 1834)
Later the canal gave impetus to paper-making mills at Croxley (see
below). Watford’s growth was
further aided by its prominence at the crossing of two turnpike roads and being
sited on the main railway track from London to Aylesbury.
also had a charter to hold a weekly market and so grew by virtue of its status
as a market town. In addition, the
Lord of the Manor, Arthur Algernon Capel, the Earl of Essex, began to release
parcels of land for development and was quickly followed by other local
landowners. The release of this
land enabled Watford to continue to grow.
London to Birmingham Railway arrived at Watford in the 1840s and the branch line
to St Albans in 1858, when the station was re-named Watford Junction.
By the 1860s, there was also a station at Bushey, an area of lime kilns
where local chalk was burnt to make quicklime which was spread on fields as a
fertiliser. This new station
promoted the southward expansion of Watford.
Metropolitan tube line was extended to Watford in 1925, when the Metropolitan
and Great Central Railway Company purchased five and a half acres of the Park
estate for their terminal and goods traffic.
The opening of this station encouraged the growth of the Cassiobury Park
estate, as land and property speculators built new roads and housing in the area
in the expectation that the new tube line would attract
residents to the area.
two major industries in Watford have traditionally been printing and brewing.
The John Dickinson and Co. Print Mill beside the canal at Croxley
manufactured the Croxley brand of fine quality paper.
Wood pulp from Scandinavia was brought up the Thames and then along the
canal to the paper mill. There was
brewing in Watford in the seventeenth century and, by the nineteenth century,
two rival companies, Benskin’s and Sedgwick’s dominated the scene.
The Headquarters of Benskin’s was on the Lower High Street (now the
site of the Watford Museum) and the title of one of their brands, Colne
Spring, gives an indication of the origin of the water for their beer.
However, by about the 1950s, Watford had lost its reputation as a brewing
town as rationalisation in the industry caused brewers to close.
The town’s role as a market centre, its industrial base and its excellent transport links to London and the north promoted its growth during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, Watford is an important retail, service and entertainment centre as well as a commuter settlement serving London. The development of the Harlequin shopping centre has helped extend Watford’s retail dominance in the area.