Memories of 19th-century Hertford

From an anonymous account

By Jennifer Ayto

A typical election meeting in Hertford, with Henry Cowper addressing the meeting, 1868
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies
Goldings, c. late 19th century
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies
An unidentified coach entering Parliament Square, Hertford, from Fore Street, c. 1850
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies
The hustings at Plough Meadow before 1872
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies

The extracts below are from an undated and anonymous account by a man born in Hertford some time in the second half of the 19th century.

At that time in Hertford the landed gentry still exercised great influence, both socially and politically, but Hertfordshire had also attracted rich London merchants, as the writer recalled:

‘The stately mansions and parks that surrounded the town of Hertford when I was a boy were the evidence of this. Woodhall, Goldings and High Leigh were all the country residences of wealthy bankers.’

He recorded the occasions of the Quarter Sessions:

‘We saw one of the great invasions of our County town by the stately equipages of an age that had almost passed. Every squire had his turnout, usually a well appointed landau with a pair of high bred horses. Hatfield House still sported postillions for the Marquess of Salisbury’s barouche. It was a fine sight, when you met this on the road between Hertford and Hatfield and you felt carried back to the days of the Mail Coach and runaway marriages at Gretna Green.’

Referring to the hustings in 1865, he wrote:

‘It was on polling days that we witnessed the finest exhibition of what the County gentry could turn out by way of vehicles with a past. It was then we saw on the roads examples of the coach and four, stylish phaetons driven by young bloods with two horses tandem, waggonettes, drags, dogcarts and even the Irish jaunting car.’

Another memory of the elections at Hertford:

‘… was the arrival of the present Lady Desborough at the Liberal Committee Room, leaning on the arm of her uncle, the Hon Henry Cowper of Brocket Hall. Such a vision of beauty adorned had never before met my gaze as that presented by Miss Fane as she then was known. But it was not beauty that won elections in those days but pots of beer, and Hertford possessed more than sufficient public houses to supply this potential inducement to vote blue.’

Commenting on the state of the roads, he wrote:

‘Communication has been made easy by the improvement of the surfacing and general upkeep of the roads. I recall the time when on an ordinary country walk one either got bogged or smothered in dust. The hedgerows that bordered the main highways were a sad sight before summer was half through. As a collector of butterflies I bemoaned the diminishing number of Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies that one met with on an ordinary walk. When tar surfacing started, letters appeared in the local press of the danger of the new method to the trout streams. It was soon found that tar did not run off the surface of the roads in the way some people feared and the method of keeping the dust laid had the effect of reviving the countryside.’

‘In my young days the bicycle, as we call it, had not been invented. It was after I left school at 15 that I learned to ride a high bicycle called a “Penny-Farthing”. Before the roads were surfaced bicycling was rough riding on solid tyres and if you had the misfortune to run into a large flint, with which the roads were repaired, you might find yourself pitched over the handle bars.’

Looking back seventy years, H.A.L.S. D/EX26 Z3

This page was added on 19/09/2011.

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