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North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 1
North Mymms Parish in the year of the Great Exhibition

While, in the Crystal Palace, Great Britain showed itself to be the workshop of the world, the Government ordered the people to be numbered. The census of 1851 gives a picture of North Mymms parish, which is very different from the industrial north. It tells us, in detail, about the people of the parish in early Victorian times. As the two enumerators walked round the quiet lanes on 31 March they wrote down the particulars of every living soul, the members of every household, their age, family position, whether married or single, occupation and birthplace.

What was the size of this community at a time when the Brookmans Park of today was no more than a big estate containing one or two houses of the gentry and a few farms arid cottages? There were 1128 persons in the parish, plus two men "in barns, sheds or the like" and five men and five women "in tents or in the open air". They included thirty-three "visitors" and quite a few lodgers who had sometimes an ambiguous role but who certainly helped out the household earnings. Males outnumbered females by eighteen. This population was almost stationary, after increasing during the Napoleonic wars, and it was, in fact, to fall in the next decade before rising again later in the century.

Socially, it was a hierarchical community in the shape of a pyramid. At the peak the gentry occupied four percent of the whole, below it came a narrow belt of the middle ranks of six percent and at the bottom a wide base of the remaining ninety- percent. It was a young community; two thirds were under thirty years old and well over a third were children under fifteen. There were not many old people; altogether only twenty-seven had reached seventy years of age. Insanitary living conditions contributed to a modest expectation of life.

This scattered parish of five thousand acres contained the four hamlets of Roestock, Bell Bar, Welham Green and Water End, plus a few houses in Little Heath, each with its own public house or houses, school, shop and, later on, mission room. Each hamlet was itself a community. They were all bound together by the church, by the vestry where farmers and publicans, chaired by the vicar, levied the poor rates, and by the big landowners who governed in their capacities as churchwardens, guardians of the poor and justices of the peace.

Although rural England of that age is sometimes thought of as static, not to say stagnant, people in North Mymms at least were surprisingly mobile. Nearly three quarters of the heads of household and their wives had been born outside the parish; nearly half of them had come from beyond a six-mile radius including St Albans and Hatfield. Opportunities for work and improvement had drawn them in. Among these immigrants the farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen were the most numerous. No doubt they were balanced by an outflow of people hoping to better themselves in London, but nothing is known about them.

All were concerned with gaining a living. That came overwhelmingly from farming; there were twenty-one farmers and two hundred and ten labourers. The farmers were not big men, only three held more than two hundred acres, the average size being a hundred and fifty acres. All of them were tenants. They ranged from the biggest of four hundred acres at Potterells, held by William Blakey from William Casamajor, down to the smallest of thirty-six acres held by James Holloway from R W Gaussen at Friday Grove. The farm economy was largely based on providing hay for the London horses and receiving in exchange the "London dung".

Workers had many skills as cowmen, hedgers, and ploughmen. In North Mymms there were several shepherds - James Ansell of Foxes Lane, William Gray in Roestock, George Scales in North Mymms Place, and three haybinders George Vyse and his son in Welham Green and Jesse Harris in Reeves Lane. Some of the other labourers lived in as servants, designated as such.

Next after farming in number were the domestic servants, most of them in the big houses. There were one hundred and eleven, including the outdoor servants - gardeners and their labourers (twenty-three of them), gamekeepers, coachmen, grooms and ostlers. Fifteen servants lived at North Mymms Place, each of different status, from the butler, Stephen Walker down to the humble scullerymaid, Emma Phipps. At Moffats a mere five servants, including the cook, Mary Syrett and the page boy, William Goodson, waited on Miss Caroline Casamajor, the "fundholder" in residence. The vicar, the Rev James Faithfull, had the same number, with perhaps more reason, having a family and three pupils to be cared for. The other big houses had a fuller quota. At Brookmans R W Gaussenís butler, James Gutteridge, headed a staff of seven, and at Leggatts a footman as well as the butler, Robert GaIly, and six lower menials maintained the standards expected of Thomas Kemble, bachelor of arts, justice of the peace and landed proprietor.

Next in number but higher in status came those aristocrats of labour, the craftsmen and craftswomen. There were no less than fourteen carpenters, including John Nash who employed four men in Welham Green and his sons, seven bricklayers, four wheelwrights, four shoemakers, three smiths, and the dressmakers, hatmakers, laundresses and seamstresses, many of these employed by the gentry. Smaller groups were the tradesmen, shopkeepers and the innkeepers. One of the innkeepers was Hannah Speary, the widow who kept the Sibthorpe. She and the other licensees, William Anderson at the White Swan, George Archer at The Bell, and John Massey, blacksmith as well as landlord of the Old Maypole, were superior members of the community. Somewhat lower in the social scale was the beerseller at the Hope and Anchor, James Hutson. A dozen railwaymen on the new Great Northern, opened in the previous year, the police constable, William Dunn who lived in Welham Green, near to the postwoman, Sarah Collins, almost completes the picture.

But, perhaps equally significant for the village and household economies, were the numerous straw plaiters, seventy-four of them, of all ages from eight to seventy. These women, mostly labourersí wives and daughters, made a vital contribution to family incomes. A they sat in their cottages, plaiting the straw in a variety of complicated patterns, they could earn more than the men could, a fact which, although it reduced the poor rate, was not always appreciated by the gentry paying their servantsí wages. The straw plaiters were part of a widespread organisation centred on the Bedfordshire hat manufacture. Roestock, nearest to St Albans and Luton and perhaps the poorest of the hamlets, was notable for its plaiters.

It is not a picture of a poor parish, though only a rough estimate of its well being is possible. Probably the standard of living was above the level of many parishes where little else but farm work was available. The market in London for hay and cattle was a stable one (in more senses than one). The traffic on the turnpike road to London and the toll road from Colney Heath brought cash and custom, as the substantial inns at Bell Bar and Water End witness. The parish also received some of the wealth of the City; Alderman Sir William Heygate, Bart, of North Mymms Place was not the only East India Company man to have lived there.

Even so, there were the unfortunates, those who had to fall back on the social security of the day, the poor law or charity. The poor law was for the undeserving poor after the Act of 1834. The census named sixteen paupers living in the parish, those given outdoor relief in money or kind, or medical tickets if permanently sick and disabled. In addition fourteen parishioners were admitted to the Hatfield workhouse in that year, chiefly the old, infirm and very young. They and their fellow unfortunates are the subject of chapter 5.

Children were plentiful, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the high infant mortality. Their education had been scanty, for they were expected to work as early as possible. Thirty-four children, with an average age of twelve, were full time workers, mostly in the fields. One was William Hart, shepherd boy of ten years old. Small wonder that, in the 1850s, illiteracy was common among the young people getting married, not to mention the old. There were, by then, two church schools but the pupil/teacher ratio was a high one. At Welham Green school William Goulburn was in sole charge of about fifty boys, while at Water End Magdalene White was responsible for the same number of girls and infants. The schools are described in chapter 2 and chapter 3.

Change was slow and was not to quicken for several decades. The vestry, based on property ownership and substantial tenancy, held sway in the parish. Only one man in eight, and of course no women, had the parliamentary vote.

Peter Kingsford, 1986


Chapter 2 - Learning their Letters
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book

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