Hemel Hempstead is a town in Hertfordshire in the East of England, to the north west of London and part of the Greater London Urban Area. The population at the 2001 Census was 81,143 (but now estimated at around 89,000 by Hertfordshire County Council).
Developed after World War II as a new town, it has existed as a settlement since the 8th century and was granted its town charter by King Henry VIII in 1539. It is part of the district (and borough since 1984) of Dacorum and the Hemel Hempstead constituency.
Origin of the name
The settlement was called by the name Henamsted or Hean-Hempsted, i.e. High Hempstead, in Anglo-Saxon times and in William the Conqueror's time by the name of Hemel-Amstede. The name is referred to in the Domesday Book as "Hamelamesede", but in later centuries it became Hamelhamsted. In Old English, "-stead" or "-stede" simply meant a place, such as the site of a building or pasture, as in clearing in the woods, and this suffix is used in the names of other English places such as Hamstead and Berkhamsted.
Another opinion is that Hemel probably came from "Haemele" which was the name of the district in the 8th century and is most likely either the name of the land owner, or could mean "broken country".
The town is now known to residents as "Hemel" however before The Second World War locals called it "Hempstead".
The town has given its name to the town of Hempstead, New York. Immigrants from Hemel Hempstead migrated to the area which is now Hempstead, New York, including the surrounding areas such as Roosevelt, in the late 17th century.
Hemel Hempstead on its present site is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a vill, Hamelhamstede, with about 100 inhabitants. The parish church of St Mary's was built in 1140, and is recognised as one of the finest Norman parish churches in the county. The church features an unusual tall spire, added in the 12th century, one of Europe's tallest.
After the Norman conquest the land thereabouts was given to Robert, Count of Mortain, the elder half-brother of William the Conqueror, as part of the lands associated with Berkhamsted Castle. The estates passed through many hands over the next few centuries including Thomas Becket in 1162. In 1290 King John of England's grandson, the Earl of Cornwall, gave the manor to the religious order of the Bonhommes when he endowed the monastery at Ashridge. The town remained part of the monastery's estates until the Reformation and break-up of Ashridge in 1539.
In that same year, the town was granted a Royal charter by King Henry VIII to become a Bailiwick with the right to hold a Thursday market and a fair on Corpus Christi Day. The first Bailiff of Hemel Hempstead was William Stephyns (29 December 1539). The King and Anne Boleyn are reputed to have stayed in the town at this time.
Unusually fine medieval wall paintings from the period between 1470 and 1500 were discovered in some cottages in Piccotts End, very close to Hemel Hempstead in 1953. This same building had been converted into the first cottage hospital providing free medical services by Sir Astley Cooper in 1827.
In 1581, a group of local people acquired lands — now referred to as Box Moor — from the Earl of Leicester to prevent their enclosure. These were transferred to trustees in 1594. These have been used for public grazing and they are administered by the Box Moor Trust.
Hemel's position on the shortest route between London and the industrial Midlands put it on the Sparrows Herne turnpike Toll road in 1762, the Grand Junction Canal in 1795 and the London and Birmingham Railway in 1837. However it remained principally an agricultural market town throughout the 19th century. In the last decades of that century development of houses and villas for London commuters began. The Midland Railway built a branch line connecting to its mainline at Harpenden in 1877 (see The Nicky Line). Hemel steadily expanded, but only became a borough on 13 July 1898.
During World War II 90 high explosive bombs were dropped on the town by the Luftwaffe. The most notorious incident was on 10 May 1942 when a stick of bombs demolished houses at Nash Mills killing 8 people. The nearby Dickinson factories which were used to produce munitions, were the target.
After World War II, in 1946, the government designated Hemel Hempstead as the site of one of its proposed New Towns designed to house the population displaced by the London Blitz, since slums and bombsites were being cleared in London. On 4 February 1947, the Government purchased of land and began work on the "New Town". The first new residents moved in during April 1949, and the town continued its planned expansion through to the end of the 1980s. Hemel grew to its present population of 80,000, with new developments enveloping the original town on all sides. The original part of Hemel is still known as the "Old Town".
Hemel Hempstead was announced as candidate No 3 for a New Town in July 1946, in accordance with the government's "policy for the decentralisation of persons and industry from London". Initially there was much resistance and hostility to the plan from locals, especially when it was revealed that any development would be carried out not by the local council but by a newly appointed government body, the Hemel Hempstead Development Corporation (later amalgamated with similar bodies to form the Commission for New Towns). However, following a public inquiry the following year, the town got the go-ahead. Hemel officially became a New Town on 4 February 1947.
The initial plans for the New Town were drawn up by architect G. A. Jellicoe. His view of Hemel Hempstead, he said, was “not a city in a garden, but a city in a park.” However, the plans were not well received by most locals. Revised, and less radical plans were drawn up, and the first developments proceeded despite local protests in July 1948. The first area to be developed was Adeyfield. At this time the plans for a double "magic" roundabout at Moor End were first put forward, but in fact it was not until 1973 that the roundabout was opened as it was originally designed. The first houses erected as part of the New Town plan were in Longlands, Adeyfield, and went up in the spring of 1949. The first new residents moved in early 1950.
At this time, work started on building new factories and industrial areas, to avoid the town becoming a dormitory town. The first factory was erected in 1950 in Maylands Avenue. As building progressed with continuing local opposition, the town was becoming increasingly popular with those moving in from areas of north London. By the end of 1951, there was a waiting list of about 10,000 wishing to move to Hemel. The neighbourhoods of Bennett's End, Chaulden and Warner's End were started. The Queen paid a visit shortly after her accession in 1952, and laid a foundation stone for a new church in Adeyfield — one of her first public engagements as Queen. The shopping square she visited is named Queen's Square, and the nearby area has street names commemorating the then-recent conquest of Everest, such as Hilary and Tenzing Road. This conquest is also celebrated in the name of a pub in Warners End – the 'Top of the World'.
The redevelopment of the town centre was started in 1952, with a new centre based on Marlowes south of the old town. This was alongside a green area called the Water Gardens, designed by Jellicoe, formed by ponding back the River Gade. The old centre of the High Street was to remain largely undeveloped, though the market square closed and was replaced by a much larger one in the new centre. The former private estate of Gadebridge was opened up as a public park. New schools and roads were built to serve the expanding new neighbourhoods. New housing technology such as prefabrication started to be used from the mid-50s, and house building rates increased dramatically. Highfield was the next neighbourhood to be constructed. The M1 motorway opened to the east in 1959, and a new road connecting it to the town was opened.
By 1962, the redevelopment of the new town as originally envisaged was largely complete, though further expansion plans were then put forward. The nearby United States Air Force base of Bovingdon, which had served as the town's de facto airport, closed at this time, though private flying continued for a further seven years. A campus of West Herts College, the library, new Police station and the Pavilion (theatre and music venue) were all built during the 1960s. The town seemed to attract its fair share of celebrity openings, with shops and businesses opened by Frankie Vaughan, Benny Hill, Terry-Thomas, and the new cinema was opened by Hollywood star Lauren Bacall. The last of the originally-planned neighbourhoods, Grovehill, began construction in 1967. However, further neighbourhoods of Woodhall Farm and Fields End were later built as part of the extended plans.
Like other first generation new towns, Hemel is divided into residential neighbourhoods, each with their own "village centre" with shops, pubs and services. Each neighbourhood is designed around a few major feeder roads with many smaller cul-de-sacs and crescents, intended to minimise traffic and noise nuisance. In keeping with the optimism of the early postwar years, much of the town features modernist architecture with many unusual and experimental designs for housing. Not all of these have stood the test of time. A significant issue was how to choose names for all the new roads. Many areas of the new town used themes e.g. fields, birds, rivers, poets, explorers, leaders, etc.
In 1974, the government abolished the Borough of Hemel Hempstead and the town was incorporated into Dacorum District Council along with Tring and Berkhamsted. The first chairman of that council was Chairman John Johnson (1913–1977). In the 1980s, Dacorum District Council successfully lobbied to be recognised as the successor for the Royal Charter establishing the Borough of Hemel Hempstead and thus regained the Mayor and its Aldermen and became Dacorum Borough Council. The political atmosphere of the town has changed significantly. Once a Labour Party stronghold, the town has seen an increase in Conservative Party voting in recent years, and the current Member of Parliament, Mike Penning, is Conservative.