Property ownership in twelve Hertfordshire parishes in the nineteenth century

Nigel Agar   

This analysis of a sanitary inspector’s report on the Rural District of Hitchin in 1877 reveals some interesting information about social change in twelve nearby villages and is evidence of the decline of the squirearchy and rise of property ownership among the middling classes. By that time only two out of 12 villages could be still regarded as ‘close’ villages with a dominant landlord squire. The other 10 showed a wider variety of types of cottage owner – bakers, chemists, farmers, bankers, publicans, women and outsiders. The myth of the agricultural labourer living in his tied cottage is challenged with the thought that farmers had sufficient control over their workers without the need to be their landlords.  

‘Open’ and ‘close’ parishes

It has become widely accepted that villages in England in the nineteenth century were divided into two broad categories:  the ‘open’ parish and the ‘close’ parish. In an open parish cottages were owned by a variety of people and more or less anyone could find accommodation.  In a close parish all or most cottages were owned by one landowner who was in a position to control who lived in the village and who did not. Since settlement in the parish conferred a right to maintenance in times of hardship, there was every incentive on the part of the owner to restrict residents to those who were definitely needed to work the land of the parish. In some cases it is possible to identify pairs of open and close villages which had a relationship to each other, as was the case with the fictitious communities of Lark Rise and Candleford in Flora Thompson’s memoir of her childhood in Oxfordshire.(1)

The 1877 Survey for the Rural Sanitary District of Hitchin

Robert Vincent, sanitary inspector, surveyed a series of villages in the Rural Sanitary District of Hitchin in 1877.(2) The parishes examined were, in alphabetical order, Hexton, Ickleford, St Ippollits, Kimpton, King’s Walden, Langley, Lilley, Offley, Pirton, Preston, St Paul’s Walden and Walsworth. Most were separate free-standing villages at that time.  Langley, Preston and Walsworth were at that time hamlets included for administrative purpose in the parish of Hitchin. We find a considerable variation of practice in the parishes.  Who in fact owned the cottages and what difference did the question of ownership make to the inhabitants?

Hexton and Lilley, two ‘close’ parishes

Only two of these parishes were in any sense close parishes substantially owned and controlled by the resident owner of the local agricultural estate. These were Hexton where 90 per cent of the houses were owned by Squire Young of Hexton Manor and Lilley where 78 percent of the cottages belonged to Squire Sowerby of Putteridge Bury. Even here, some of the houses were owned by some lesser figure.  In Lilley, a resident of the village, James Cain, a dealer in straw plait, also had a holding. He seems to have owned cottage property in other Hertfordshire villages as well.

In all the other parishes,  cottages were owned by a combination of one or more major agricultural landowners, often, but not necessarily including the resident local squire, and a heterogeneous  assembly  of minor owners including incoming magnates, businessmen, farmers and an assortment of petty traders,  craftsmen ,shopkeepers or publicans. In some cases charitable trusts played a part. Individual owner-occupiers of village properties at this date were quite rare.

Open parishes: Ickleford

To take the open villages in turn; in all of them agricultural landowners had a stake but this varied greatly from village to village. In Ickleford, the resident agricultural landowner, Mrs Dudley Ryder, only owned six houses in the sample. Two non -resident landowners, Charles Wilshere of Walsworth owned 15 cottages and Squire Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory owned 13, but this was still a small proportion of the 134 houses in the sample. Other extensive property owners in Ickleford included farmer Ephraim Primmett with 14 dwellings and James Cain, the straw plait dealer of Lilley who owned 8 dwellings in Ickleford.

Offley – an open parish

In other large villages, the resident squire played a much larger part. In Offley, Mrs Hughes of Offley Place owned 31 properties amounting to 43 per cent of the parish. Offley was almost a multi-squired village with a wealthy incomer, Mr Gosling, a London banker, owning six houses; an independent yeoman farmer, Richard Marsh, owning the manor house at Little Offley and 18 cottages along with another tenanted farm. Two non-resident landowners, Squire Hale of King’s Walden and Squire Sowerby of Putteridge Bury also possessed cottage property in Offley. In addition to these, however, several non-gentry figures owned substantial cottage properties in the village. James Cain, the straw plait dealer of Lilley owned 13 cottages; John Lasle a local butcher had nine  cottages; Charles Foster, a carpenter, 4 cottages; a Mr Cannon, who may have been a local farmer of that name or the Mr Cannon described as an auctioneer of Luton who also owned cottages in Lilley, owned another nine  in Offley. Mrs Lane of the Red Lion public house owned nine  cottages and, finally, a group of houses known as Clay Pit Cottages belonged to the Offley School trustees.

Cottage properties in Offley were therefore virtually equally divided between those belonging to gentry notably Mrs Hughes of Offley Place and Squire Sowerby of Putteridge Bury, two other upper-c lass figures, Mr Gosling, a London banker living at Welbury House, and a yeoman farmer, Richard Marsh of Little Offley and those belonging to an assortment of local traders and publicans. Nobody was in overall control of the village and we can justifiably call Offley an open parish.

Kimpton and the Waldens

Kimpton and the two Waldens were also open parishes with many cottage owners. In the case of Kimpton we have a sample of 92 cottages 49 of which were owned by Lord Dacre of Kimpton Hoo. There were no other gentry owners in this villages but some houses were owned by local traders: Benjamin Gray, a baker and grocer with 6 cottages, George Clarke, a shopkeeper with 5 and Henry Kingsley a maltster with 4 cottages. Mrs Barker, a farmer, had nine  cottages in the village and William Coleman of the Bull Inn possessed 7 cottages. Mrs Dunham of Wheathampstead and Mrs Wilshere of Gustard Wood were two outsiders who owned two and four properties respectively.

St Paul’s Walden was another example of a multi-squired village. Lord Dacre of the Hoo owned property here as well with 15 properties including his own mansion, the Hoo and a separate substantial farm known as the Holt. However, he shared this position with two Scottish aristocrats who maintained properties in the south of England: Lady Glamis of St Paul’s Walden Bury and Lord Caithness of Stagenhoe House. There was a distinct tendency for Scottish, northern English or even Irish notables to acquire a house, with or without an estate in Hertfordshire, to be within reach of London. Considerable cottage holdings in this parish were owned by independent farmers such as Robert Hill Archer of Bendish, George Oakey (or Oakley) of Holly Bush farm and Thomas Wellingham, an independent farmer.

King’s Walden fell into the same pattern although our sample is much smaller. Here, Squire Hale of Kings Waldenbury owned 14 of our somewhat restricted sample of 38 properties. The rest were owners by smaller proprietors.  Both the Waldens  are similar in that they had  one or more great houses with small settlements attached to them  along with a ‘street village’ where the main populations of the parishes had come to live Whitwell in the case of St Paul’s Walden and  Breachwood Green in the case of King’s Walden.  In addition there was a complex of small hamlets or ‘ends’ such as the Heath, the Holt or Bendish away from the main villages where the houses tended to be owned by the leading farmer. They were in effect dependent farm settlements detached from the main village.

Pirton – a special case

Pirton, away to the north, was a special case. It was a compact but complex open parish, compact largely because it was enclosed after the main wave of enclosures in the high price era of the Napoleonic Wars. Apart from the outlying manors of High Down and Pirton Grange away on the Bedfordshire border and virtually in the Bedfordshire village of Shillington, all the farms of Pirton are still in and around the main village. There were no detached farm settlements associated with Pirton except for Burge End on the northern fringe of the parish but not really separate from it. Only one major landowner, an outsider at that, owned property in the village and that was Squire Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory. However, the owner of a smaller estate, William Hanscombe of Pirton Grange, did own a substantial portfolio of 17 cottages in the main village of Pirton. Pirton Grange is on the edge of the parish and indeed on the border of the county and the mansion is physically situated in the Bedfordshire village of Shillington. There were 23 other owners of property in Pirton, all very varied and by no means all local. The nine cottages owned by William Chamberlain presumably belonged to the 48 year-old local thatcher, and Alfred Burton owned 11 cottages and was probably a member of the family who owned the Cat and Fiddle public house. Stafford Allen, who owned 31 houses and the baker’s shop, does not seem to have been local. There was a man of that name, a manufacturing chemist and ‘drug grinder’ born in Essex, then living in Stoke Newington, but with no obvious connection with Hertfordshire.

Ickleford, St Ippollits, Preston, Langley and Walsworth

We now came to a set of settlements within walking distance of Hitchin. Two of them, Ickleford and St Ippollits, are now geographically attached to Hitchin, if still fiercely independent, but they were then detached from the township and they are both free-standing ecclesiastical and civil parishes of great antiquity.

The other three settlements technically form parts of Hitchin parish at this date. Preston was a free-standing settlement with a nearby great house at Temple Dinsley just over the border in St Ippollits. Langley is small roadside settlement and a far-flung outpost of Hitchin parish, ironically adjacent to an even more far-flung outlier of Letchworth parish, over ten miles away.  Walsworth by contrast was even then little more than a roadside outpost of Hitchin on the east bank of the River Purwell and on the road to Baldock. None of the three had a parish church of its own in 1877. (The modern garden city of Letchworth did not, of course, exist in 1877 but takes its name from a tiny close parish around Letchworth Hall, and the parish also comprised Burleigh Farm, ten miles away to the south near Langley.)

Preston was far enough away from Hitchin to amount to a small village in its own right.  Twenty-six of its 55 dwellings belonged to an agricultural landowner, Major Henry Maclean Pryor, a member of a malting and brewing family with a business  in Baldock and lands around Weston but who lived in that part of Preston that was in the parish of St Ippollits.

Walsworth, so much closer to Hitchin, had a similar pattern with 14 of its 28 houses owned by Charles Wilshere who was, like Major Pryor, a scion of a prominent family elsewhere in Hertfordshire and living in a small mansion, Walsworth House, now part of North Herts College and just inside Hitchin township on the west bank of the River Purwell that divides Walsworth from Hitchin.

Ickleford and St Ippollitts, medium-sized open parishes to the north and to the south of Hitchin respectively resembled each other in many ways. They were of similar size and about the same distance from Hitchin. Ickleford’s houses were owned by 1 7 individuals while St Ippollits had 16 owners. Both were relatively compact. There the similarities ended. Ickleford’s ‘lady squire’, Mrs Dudley Ryder, possessed only six houses in the sample.  Two substantial external landowners, Charles Wilshere of Walworth and Squire Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory,  owned 13 and 15 houses in Ickleford respectively. Other cottage holdings belonged either to farmers such as Ephraim Primmett or to James Cain, the straw plait dealer of Lilley who owned 8 Ickleford Cottages as part of his property empire.

In St Ippollitts, 39 of the 100 houses in the sample were owned by Mrs Amos of St Ibbs House, 20 by Mrs Horne, a resident of Hertford, and 7 by Squire Dashwood of Oakfield House near the distant hamlet of Ashbrook, while nine  cottages belonged to the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Trust.

Hexton, Lilley and Langley

In only three communities among those sampled did the agricultural landowners own more than 70 per cent of the cottages. These were Hexton , Lilley and Langley.  On the other hand there was only one village where the proportion of houses owned by estate owners fell below 20 per cent. This was Pirton with only 18 per cent of its cottages owned by agricultural landowners. It had no resident squire, unless we count William Handscombe, a wealthy farmer of Pirton Grange on the very edge of the parish.  Joseph Pollard, the farming tenant of High Down, the other outlying manor house with its surrounding cottages, was a tenant of the Radcliffe estate of Hitchin Priory.

In all villages the agricultural landowners possessed considerable holdings of cottage property. In some cases a single person dominated the parish without necessarily owning all the houses. Mrs Hughes of Offley Place owned 69 of Offley’s 259 houses (26 per cent) and Mrs Amos of St Ibbs owned 39 of the 100 houses in the sample (39 per cent). However in St Paul’s Walden,  three major landowners,  Lord Dacre of the Hoo, Lady Glamis of St Paul’s Walden Bury and Lord Caithness of Stagenhoe, owned only 25 per cent of the 215 houses between them.

Public houses were frequently owned by local brewers based in nearby towns. Previously most brewers had been strictly local. By 1877 it had become the trend that brewers operated on a district or county-wide basis and it would seem that the tradition of the tied house was already in practice.


The myth of the labourer in his tied cottage

One question to ask is why did people want to own cottages? For the small owners – the publicans, shopkeepers or craftsmen the motive was almost certainly financial investment. In some cases this was to provide for a widow. The farmers are slightly more puzzling. It is popularly believed that the nineteenth-century farm worker habitually lived in a tied cottage owned  by his employer as a means of control. This seems unlikely. By no means all farmers owned any cottages – although some certainly did. Whether any farmer willingly tied up working capital in his employees’ housing is highly debatable. As an employer he already had quite enough control. Generally the only type of housing famers would wish to provide was for specialist workers involved with animal husbandry such as shepherds and cowmen who had to live on site. Nevertheless the myth of the farm worker’s  tied cottage dies hard and, while it is difficult to prove that the tenants of cottages owned by farmers actually worked for that same farmer, it is a fair assumption that they did, as for example  when a farmer in a detached settlement, such as Mr Archer of Bendish, also owned  cottages in that settlement. On the other hand when farmer Joseph Whiting, who also owned cottages in Bendish, lived in Bancroft in Hitchin himself, it is unlikely that he directly employed his tenants. Substantial owner-occupier gentleman farmers such as William Hanscombe of Pirton Grange or Richard Marsh of Little Offley owned cottages around their farms and no doubt employed the cottagers there as farm workers. Hanscombe and Marsh were agricultural landowners who managed their own holdings directly.

‘Outsider’ owners

It is surprising how many owners of cottages in the villages were non-residents with no other discernable connection with the village where they owned property. The property empire of James Cain, straw plait dealer of Lilley, is easy enough to understand. As a man of more means than most, in order to carry on his trade he would have had to travel throughout the district and would therefore have been in a position to spot opportunities to buy up houses when he found them. Grocers and publicans would usually only own cottage properties in the villages where their business was carried on. What, however, do we make of Stafford Allen with his 31 houses in Pirton? There was a Stafford Allen with a chemical business in North London who came from Essex, though he may not have been our man in Pirton. There was also a Mr Acres in Pirton whose name could have belonged to a number of Hertfordshire farmers.

Not many members of the building trade seem to have owned cottages.  Did they always sell them on to other owners? William Eldred junior of St Paul’s Walden, a cottage owner, is described as a builder. Otherwise builder/proprietors are rare. One explanation may be that practically all members of the building trade living in Hertfordshire at that date were based in towns. That fact alone need not have cramped their style. Absentee owners of cottage property were fairly common. Brewers, auctioneers and shopkeepers  all owned property, but why not builders? Perhaps builders always relied on a turnover of built properties and either built mainly on commission or, if they were speculators themselves, sold cottages on at the first opportunity.


Charities as owners

In some villages cottages were owned by charities. Rand’s Charity was a local foundation in Holwell owning 12 cottages, and a national charity, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Trust, owned nine cottages at St Ippollits and another two at Langley. At Offley ,the village school board owned 14 Clay Pit cottages as an endowment to support the school.  The location of a local charity was largely a matter of chance. Rand’s Charity is reputed to have been the consequence of a local man who had made good and returned to his native parish only to collapse and die in the fields on the night he returned. (3) When his body was found in the morning, it was believed to be that of a penniless vagrant and the canny locals fearing the expense of a pauper burial threw the corpse over the hedge into the next parish. Their embarrassment turned to fury when it was discovered that not only was he in fact a wealthy man, but that he had left his money to his native  parish where he planned to meet his death. The ensuing law-suit between two villages started a local quarrel that rumbles yet.

The great agricultural landowners had perhaps another motive for owning cottage property that went beyond simply wanting a return on capital. Farm workers were paid much less than most urban workers and, at the date of the survey, were leaving the land in large numbers for the towns, the colonies and in some cases the USA. Landlords were not willing to oblige working farmers to raise wages for their men but may well have seen the advantage of providing housing in an attempt to induce farm workers to remain within the community. Many of the estate houses that still bear the insignia of the great estates date from the 1860s and 1870s when the labourers’ flight from the land was at its height.

Women owners

Women form another important category of cottage owners. The proportion of cottages owned by women varies greatly from zero in both Holwell and Langley to 74 per cent in the case of St Ippollits.  Women cottage owners are most important in those parishes where the major landowner happened to be female, for example Mrs Amos at St Ippollits or Mrs Hughes at Offley whose 47 cottages were still only 21 per cent of this large and scattered parish. In Ickleford, a village with otherwise much in common with St Ippollits, the resident landowner, Mrs Dudley Ryder, only possessed 11 houses amounting to a modest  8 per cent of the village’s  housing stock. Lady Glamis of St Paul’s  Walden Bury had a substantial holding in St Paul’s Walden but was only one of three major landowners in that area, the other two, Lord Dacre and Lord Caithness  being male. Some lesser cottage owners were female. They were either owners of local businesses, such as Mrs Lane of the Red Lion at Offley with eight houses or Mrs Ebbs, grocer of Lilley with four cottages, or people who simply had made an investment. Cottage property was a well known way of providing for a widow, sometimes identified as such, as with Widow Domfield of Whitwell, but widowhood may well have included Mrs Saunderson, Mrs Timpson and Mrs Wabey who between them owned over 20 houses at St Paul’s  Walden.

It is important to appreciate that some owners of village cottage property, whether male or female, seem to have had no other connection with the village. Mrs Horne of Hertford,  a distant investor, owned 20 houses in St Ippollitts  and was second only in importance to Mrs Amos, the resident ‘lady squire’.


Springs, wells and drains: the problem of sanitation 

How far it made any difference to the tenant whether their home was owned by a wealthy landowner or by a person whose social status was nearer to their own is not easy to say. One might expect to find cottages owned by a wealthy landowner in better repair than those owned by less well-off proprietors, but it is not easy to assess the level of maintenance of cottages relative to the status of their owners. Where the sanitary inspector can help us is in his descriptions of water supply and sanitary state.

The quality of water supply is one way we might measure the standards of various categories of cottage proprietor.  There were no piped mains. Let is assume that access to a pump or a well would provide acceptable water at least preferable to the nearest pond or ditch.  This is not a cast iron guarantee of quality. Earlier in the century an outbreak of cholera at Barton-le-Clay, Bedfordshire was attributed to a contaminated well in the village. The inhabitants could have had recourse to a spring in the chalk hillside had they gone to the trouble of going there or even realised the risk they were running by using the local well. Conversely we may also be fairly sure that water supply from a pond or a ditch was not satisfactory. This seems to be a function of location as much as anything, and little to do with ownership.  Residents of Preston, St Ippollits and Ashbrook had access to communal wells.  In Offley, even the cottages in the main street that were owned by Mrs Hughes, the lady of the manor got most of their water from ponds.  Only the Red Lion public house had its own well. Sometimes outlying hamlets such as Cockernhoe in the parish of Offley had no proper water supply at all. Lilley possessed several wells in the main village while its satellite of Mangrove Green had only a ditch, even though the cottages belonged largely to Squire Sowerby in both instances. At Hexton it so happened that cottages owned by Squire Young had access to a pump while 35 cottages could only use the brook. Pirton, the Waldens and St Ippolitts had a plentiful supply of water from wells.

Sanitation was also variable but only in a few cases had anything to do with ownership. It was more a question of geography. Preston with a good well on the green had virtually no drainage. At Hexton, the inspector found little fault with the houses belonging to Squire Young but severely castigated the premises owned by a Mr Davis as being filthy and infested with pigs and other animals. This was a case of the main agricultural landowner having the means to maintain his tenancies rather better than a minor marginal cottage owner who happened to have a minority holding in the same parish.

Owner occupiers

One type of home ownership was very rare. There were very few owner occupiers of cottage property. Given that many people seem to have invested in houses for others to rent this may be surprising.  Hertfordshire had only two building societies at this date both some distance away in Hertford and Cheshunt and it was very difficult for anyone dependent on a wage to afford their own house.  John Todd, agricultural labourer, of Horn Hill, Whitwell did own his house but he was most exceptional in doing so.  Owner occupiers who were also shopkeepers or beer house keepers were slightly more frequent.  In the nineteenth century, the owner of a single house may have nearly always seen an opportunity to open a tiny shop or get a licence to sell beer as a way of making something out of their property. Owners of larger houses in the same spirit might open a private school or a boarding house.

In conclusion

What conclusions can we come to? First, the great agricultural estate owners owned and provided a substantial number of houses and may have set the standard, but they were not universally dominant. In no case did anyone have an actual monopoly of houses. Second, the tied-cottages owned by famers for their own workers certainly existed but were rather uncommon and usually confined to isolated settlements. Farmers did own cottages, as did shopkeepers and publicans, but did not necessarily rely on them to control their workforce, nor indeed were they always local farmers. Cottages could amount to a pension scheme for a farmer who was no longer tenant of  a local farm. Third, women played an important role in house ownership partly in the role of widows. It is probable that many wealthy female estate owners, such as Mrs Anne Hughes of Offley Place, were women who had outlived their husbands but continued to run their late husband’s estates. Widowhood may have been the case with some, possibly most, of the female shopkeepers or innkeepers who owned cottages. Finally, and this does seem to be a surprise, many village cottages were owned by some very remote and unlikely proprietors living in quite remote towns and villages, or even in London. How this situation arose and how it was administered needs further research.


I would like to thank Helen Hofton of Pirton for her information about that village.


  1. The places represented in Lark Rise to Candleford were Juniper Hill, a hamlet near the civil parish of Cottisford in Oxfordshire where Flora Thompson grew up, Buckingham, the nearest town, and the nearby village of Fringford. [Ed.]
  2. HALS RDC10/6/1
  3. Personal communication from a trustee of the charity.


Nigel Agar is a retired lecturer in history who lives in Hitchin. A graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, he was awarded his PhD in 1979 for his work on the nineteenth-century history of rural Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. His publications include The Bedfordshire Farm Worker in the Nineteenth Century and, for Hertfordshire Publications, Behind the Plough: Agrarian Society in Nineteenth-century Hertfordshire.



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