How people lived

Our social history

Hertfordshire was historically an agricultural area, and most of the population were engaged in it in one way or another. This western side of the county, with small river valleys, scattered farms and villages and small towns (and even Watford was small - in 1801, less than 4,000 inhabitants) had what we would now call 'mixed' farming - wheat and barley, cattle, sheep and pigs all featured, while Rickmansworth and the area to the east of it were part of the hay belt which ran round the north of London. So the greatest part of the [male] population were agricultural labourers ('ag lab', as the census enumerators noted them), and many of the women and girls were straw plaiting, an occupation which very often kept families from destitution. The plaited straw was bought by dealers to provide materials for the hat factories of St Albans, Luton and other towns, and you can read something of that here. The farms also provided opportunities as 'male' or 'female' servants, living-in and working in various roles.     

There were, of course, other local industries (notably paper making and silk thread spinning), and each village had its own blacksmith, wheelwright, baker, shoemaker and dressmaker. There were also in this area a number of large houses of London merchants, bankers and other wealthy people, and there were plenty of opportunities to 'go into service' - around Rickmansworth, Moor Park and Rickmansworth Park, and to a lesser extent Scotsbridge House, were all examples.

Families in our area usually rented a small cottage, sometimes but not usually associated with their work, while some of those better off would own their own house. Single people either lived with their parents, or (especially 'in service') with their employer. Some industrial premises had an accommodation block, and Batchworth Mill, spinning cotton thread, seems to have been one of these. And of course, there was the 'workhouse', where the parish (the basic unit of local government until the late nineteenth century) accommodated those who could find no other provision - this happened at intervals to a surprisingly large proportion of the population, as rural life ebbed and flowed according to the season and the weather.