A History of Hemel Hempstead

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Although Hemel Hempstead is a "New Town", the area has a past that goes back a long way. Originally covered in forest, the land was gradually cleared, and there is some evidence that New Stone Age, Iron Age and Bronze Age man lived in the area, although not all at the same time.
The origin of the word Hemel probably came from "Haemele" which was the name of this district in the eighth century (most likely named after the person that owned it). Also suggested is that Haemele means the confluence of two rivers, which in this case would be the Gade & the Bulbourne. In the book the History of Hemel Hempstead, by the Hemel Hempstead local history and records society it says, "Hemel Hempstead itself first enters the written records in the eighth century when lands in the district of Hamele (Haemele is probably a personal name) were granted by Offa, King of Essex, to the Bishop of London in A.D.705." Then in the appendix of the same book, it reads, "First mentioned in the 8th century, this name probably means broken (OE hamol, hamel)." The combined name is referred to in the Domesday Book as "Hamelamesede", but in later centuries it became Hamelhamsted. The word Hempstead probably originated from "hamstede" which means homestead.

The Romans
The importance of the area in the Roman times hinged on the fact that it was near to the city of Verulamium (St. Albans). Raw materials were traded and in return pottery, wine and cloth were purchased from the city merchants. Roman villas have been excavated at Boxmoor, and in Gadebridge, remains of a large villa with a bathing pool were found.

The Saxons
There is little solid evidence of the Saxon occupation of the area, but some documents of the time refer to Hemel Hempstead as "Hamele". In 704 land rights were granted, by decree of the king of Essex to the Bishop of London.

The Normans
Most of the information of this time comes from the "Domesday book" which was a survey carried out for William the Conqueror on his new lands in 1086. It informs us that Hemel Hempstead:
* had 1800 acres of woodland
* belonged to Robert, Count of Mortain (William's half brother)

St. Marys Church
St. Mary's church was begun in about 1140, situated in Gadebridge park, it's regarded as one of the most complete Norman churches in Hertfordshire. The base of the central tower dates from the 12th century. The top of the 70ft. timber framed spire was added in the 14th century, this spire rises a further 130ft. above the parapet and is reputed to be one of the highest church spires in Western Europe. It was a surprisingly grand church for the small size of the community, that not only held church services but would host feasts, festivals and dancing. The basic structure is much the same now as it was when first built, but It has been added to and the interior changed over the generations. The walled gardens shown in the photo are beautiful and peaceful any time of the year. The entrance is in Gadebridge park.

The Tudor Connection
Until Tudor times Hemel was still a small agricultural hamlet. In 1539 King Henry VIII (of the six wives fame), granted a charter to make Hemel a market town. It is said that when he visited Hemel Hempstead with Anne Boleyn he stayed at the Bury in Gadebridge park, all that remains is the charter tower next to the church (see photo right). This was the beginning of the town's population growth. Elizabeth I also had connections with Boxmoor, late in her reign she gave the lands around Boxmoor (some 245 acres) to Robert Earl of Leicester, who conveyed the land to the Boxmoor Trust so holding the land for the use of the local inhabitants. Local residents are still entitled to grazing rights on the moor to this day. When repairs were being made to some cottages in Piccotts End, Medieval wall paintings of unusual quality were discovered behind several layers of wallpaper dating back to the late 15th century.

Hemel's not so distant past
In 1898 another charter was granted, the charter of incorporation was granted by queen Victoria which made Hemel Hempstead a municipal borough allowing the town to elect a mayor, bailiff and alderman. After the second world war, the population of London was expanding rapidly, so as part of the post war programme in 1949, Hemel Hempstead became a "New Town" to house the overspill from the capital. Now Hemel Hempstead is a thriving town of 80,000 people, the most famous landmark probably being the "magic" roundabout, which infact is a series of small roundabouts around one big one.

The Magic Roundabout
It used to be called the Plough or Moor End roundabout but the "Magic" roundabout, or the funny roundabout, as it tends to be called now, was built to cope with the increased congestion that came as Hemel grew. On the first day of operation in June 1973, traffic came to a standstill and backed up to Berkhamsted. Drivers eventually got used to it although you still see the odd trilby hatted motorist causing chaos and looking totally lost on the roundabout.

The High Street
The "old" High Street was the centre of Hemel Hempstead before it became a "new town", it contained the parish church, market place, Town Hall and believe it or not, no less than 24 pubs (no points for guessing what was the favourite pastime of the era) most of the pubs have now closed and have become shops or restaurants. The street is one of the borough's conservation areas and for the most part keeps its old world looks, winding uphill with buildings varying in age from the 16th century up to the present day.

The Watergardens
An important feature of the new town plan was the construction of a watergarden in the town centre. The original idea was to build a new Civic Centre in the middle of a lake. The plan which was eventually chosen was constructed in 1962/3 consisting of a stretch of water running parallel to Marlowes, populated by ducks and edged with grass, trees and shrubs. The River Gade leaves the Watergardens and flows through the centre of the plough roundabout to Two Waters and the River Bulbourne.

The Nicky Line
The Nicky Line ran from Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden, and was a branch line of the Midland Railway. Opened in 1877, and approximately eight and a half miles long, it had two main stations in Hemel Hempstead and Redbourn. Originally it was built to link the straw plait trade in Hemel Hempstead to the hat trade of Luton. Over the years the number of passengers and commercial traffic declined, due to the fact that the straw plait trade had long died out and new industries were using road transport. The last passenger train ran on 19 June 1947. In 1968 the line was sold to the Hemelite Company, who used it to transport ash from power stations to Cupid Green for the manufacture of building blocks. By 1979 all traffic had ceased and the railway line was completely closed down. The line used to run as far as Boxmoor across a viaduct (demolished in 1960) over the Marlowes.
Why was it known locally as the Nicky Line? Several theories are put forward, from - it was named after the knickerbockers worn by the navvies who built the line to - it was taken from the parish of St. Nicholas in Harpenden. The Nicky line is now a cycle way and footpath. In Hemel Hempstead it can be joined at various points, running from Midland Road through Keen's Field, Queensway in Adeyfield, Highfield, the Industrial Estate to Woodhall Farm.