History is all around us: A look at Hitchin's past through books

The Sanders building in Walsworth Road, Hitchin

The Sanders building in Walsworth Road, Hitchin, was used to make horse-drawn carriageways and the bodywork for early cars at the start of the 20th century - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

Mike Clarke, publications officer for Hitchin Historical Society, looks at some of the books the society has produced over the years exploring the town's rich history.

Hitchin's Historical Society will not be hosting any talks for this year's festival, but, having been meeting regularly for over 40 years and writing and producing books, there is a rich source of local information.

Far from being quaint and irrelevant, history is all around us, and important today if we care to look. Among the books you will find an account of The Hitchin Cabmen's Shelter once sited in the forecourt of the railway station as a refuge for cab drivers, before it became redundant and was saved by someone moving it to their garden. Some years later a project team recovered and restored it and had it placed in Market Place.

The Hitchin Cabmen's Shelter

The Hitchin Cabmen's Shelter - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

Another book tells the story of the Sanders company. At the beginning of the 20th century they made horse drawn carriages and then the bodywork for early cars.

The site of that was in Walsworth Road, now the Kwik Fit business, but the building may soon be demolished – plans are with the district council for approval, with a view to it being replaced with housing. The history of the family, the company and the building is told in Carriages to Cars.

Among the many benefactors who moulded the town in the 19th century was William Wilshere, a local solicitor. He acted for Samuel Whitbread Jr, son of the founder of the brewing empire.

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Samuel was more interested in social issues and became an MP. He sold shares in the company to Wilshere, which did well, and helped him become wealthy. And Wilshere was the main benefactor to help start up Hitchin’s British Schools, now a fascinating museum. An account of the Wilshere family is found in Take 6 Carrots..., which is also a collection of his family’s cooks’ recipes.

Women’s education was in need of reform in Victorian times, and an account of what became the first Cambridge College for women is found in Pioneering Women, describing the origins of the college and its students in Benslow Lane.

A postcard of The Priory in Hitchin

A postcard of The Priory in Hitchin - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

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The Market Theatre is putting on a drama about The Priory in the festival over the coming few weeks. Hitchin Priory Park tells something of the family story, the building parts of which date back to the 14th century and the grounds of the historic building off Bridge Street.

The Priory in Hitchin

The Priory in Hitchin - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

One of the Radcliffe family (who lived there until the 1960s), suffered from a mental illness in the 18th century. The family kept household records which included details of his treatment, and that is found in ‘Cold Baths Don’t Work’. Also in that book about mental health care is mention of one of the most important 19th century reformers, Samuel Tuke, a Quaker who went to school in Bancroft, and whose son James Hack Tuke lived here.

A painting of the Physic Garden in Hitchin by Mark Wearne (1989)

A painting of the Physic Garden in Hitchin by Mark Wearne (1989) - Credit: Mark Wearne

Another medical connection can be traced through The Physic Garden in Hitchin, located by the library. The garden was developed partly to reflect the local pharmaceutical industry, Ransoms, and the pharmacist, Perks & Llewellyn, which both grew in the 19th century.

Ransom’s site has become housing – opposite Sainsburys – and the shop fittings of the pharmacy can be seen in the Museum in Brand Street and at the Ickleford Lavender Farm. The garden also contains a memorial to William Drage, an apothecary of the town in the 17th century, nationally known for his writings on the symptoms and treatment of witchcraft!.

The Physic Garden in Hitchin

The Physic Garden in Hitchin - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

The Society’s most recent book Hitchin – Glimpses of the Past, is an edited selection from the Society’s biannual journals, with many more snippets about people and places. From ‘recent’ times – what changed when Tilehouse Street was no longer the main road through town and the bypass, or Park Way, was built, to the archaeology of Hitchin since the Norman Conquest, accounts of the workhouse, the swimming pool in Queen Street, and even the drains in Bridge Street, a fire at Grove Mill and memories of people and events – there are many fascinating bite sized pieces of history.

Simon Walker, who edited Hitchin - Glimpses of the Past and The Hitchin Journal

Simon Walker, who edited Hitchin - Glimpses of the Past and The Hitchin Journal - Credit: Hitchin Historical Society

Many of the books can be found at Hitchin Information or at Beth’s book stall (Friday’s market, by the Biggin). Glimpses is also available at Waterstones, and all these and more are directly available from the society (hitchinhistoricals.org.uk) as well as on the High Street this Saturday, July 3.

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