Hemel Hempstead

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Hemel Hempstead is a town in Hertfordshire in the East of England, 24 miles (38.6 km) 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.

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.

Remains of Roman villa farming settlements have been found at Boxmoor and Gadebridge which span the entire period of Roman Britain.

The first recorded mention of the town is the grant of land at Hamaele by Offa, King of Essex, to the Saxon Bishop of London in AD 705.

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 200 feet (61 m) 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 dropped on the town by the Luftwaffe. The most notorius 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 5,910 acres (23.9 km2) 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 Jellico, 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 the 1970s, the government abolished the Borough of Hemel Hempstead and the town was incorporated into Dacorum District Council along with Tring and Berkhamsted.

As of the 2001 census, Hemel Hempstead is the most populated urban area in Hertfordshire, narrowly more populated than its traditionally “larger” rival, Watford.

At 6am on Sunday 11 December 2005 there was a major explosion in the town at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, Buncefield. (See 2005 Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal fire). This was one of the largest explosions ever to occur in the UK, and put Hemel briefly in the headlines with the incident being described as the biggest of its kind in peacetime Europe.

The Maylands Avenue industrial estate was severely damaged and much of it needed to be demolished. Nearby residential districts of Adeyfield, Woodhall Farm, Highfield and Leverstock Green were also badly damaged and around 300 people were made temporarily homeless. 41 people sustained minor injuries and two were seriously hurt. It is believed that the only reason that no one was killed was because the explosion occurred before dawn on a Sunday.

Hemel Hempstead grew up in a shallow chalkland valley at the confluence of the rivers Gade and Bulbourne, 27 miles (43 km) north-west of central London.

The main railway line between London Euston and the Midlands passes through Apsley and Hemel Hempstead railway stations a mile south of the town centre, as does the Grand Union Canal. These links, as well as the A41 trunk road, follow the course of the River Bulbourne river valley. The New Town expansion took place up the valley sides and on to the plateau above the original Old Town. In the 1990s, a motorway-style bypass numbered A41 was built to the south and west of the town across the upland chalk plateau, which does not follow the lie of the land. Hemel Hempstead is also linked to the M1 motorway to the east. The M25 is a few miles to the south. To the north and west lie mixed farm and woodland with scattered villages, part of the Chiltern Hills. To the northwest lies Berkhamsted. To the south lies Watford and the beginnings of the Greater London conurbation. To the east lies St Albans, a historic cathedral and market town and now like Hemel Hempstead, part of the London commuter belt. Possibly the best view of Hemel Hempstead in its physical setting is from the top of Roughdown Common, a chalk hill to the south of the town.

The grand design for Hemel Hempstead new town saw each new district centred around a parade or square of shops called a neighbourhood centre. Other districts existed before the new town as suburbs, villages and industrial centres and were incorporated into the town.

Jarman Fields was previously agricultural land. The developments, including that of the adjacent McDonalds restaurant were built on land originally donated to the town for recreational purposes.Land had also been reserved for a hotel, but still remains derelict. Replacement openspace was created to the east of the town, near Leverstock Green, Longdean Park and Nash Mills. The first phase of recreational facilities, which opened in 1978, was the Loco Motion Skate Park. Subsequently, it became a dry ski slope with a small nursery (Jack & Jills) next to it. Both areas were removed to make way for The Snow Centre which opened in 2010. A Tesco superstore was built in 1994, which was later expanded into a Tesco Extra and was the first to be built with natural light let in. The Leisure World complex opened in 1995. The Odeon Cinemas complex had eight film screens and is currently operated by Empire Cinemas. In addition there is an ice rink (Planet Ice, originally Silver Blades), a water park (Aqua Splash), a Burger King, an athletics track for the local sports group Sportspace and a Pizza Hut. It also included Toddlerworld (play area) until it was closed. Other facilities that were opened included, ten pin bowling (Hotshots), a small bar with snooker and pool tables and a large arcade next to it, and night clubs (Lava and Ignite, previously Visage & Ethos) which all closed down in September 2011. This was due to their parent Luminar Leisure going into administration. Currently plans have been submitted by the landlords Capital & Regional to redevelop the site. It will become a collection of family friendly cafes & restaurants, with Aquasplash closing down, with a brand new play area, gym, & bowling alley with the ice rink and cinema. The Leisure World complex will be demolished as soon as the new unnamed project is completed which is expected to begin construction in summer 2012 and be completed in early spring 2013. There is also an athletics track used by the local sports group Sportspace that opened in 1996. It is also used by local schools for sports days. The most recent facilities, which opened in July 2011, comprised an extreme sports centre (XC), which contains a skate park, caving, climbing walls, high ropes, a cafe and counselling rooms for young people.

The former John Dickinson Stationery mills site, straddling the canal at Apsley, was redeveloped with two Retail parks, a Sainsbury’s supermarket, 3 low rise office blocks, housing, a mooring basin, and a hotel. A further office block is planned. Some buildings have been retained for their historic interest and to provide a home for the Paper Museum.

An indoor shopping mall was developed adjacent to the south end of the Marlowes retail area in 1990, and in 2005 the Riverside development designed by Bernard Engle Architects was opened, effectively extending the main shopping precinct towards the Plough roundabout. The new centre includes several outlets for national retailers including Debenhams, Starbucks, HMV, Waterstones, and more. These two developments have moved the “centre of gravity” of the retail centre away from the traditional market and the north end of Marlowes has become an area for secondary outlets.

Further extensive redevelopment of the northern end of Marlowes has recently (October 2007) been given the green light and is scheduled to be complete by 2013.

Isle of Man based residential developer Dandara have redeveloped the old Kodak headquarters into an exclusive block of flats, with a new bridge to go with it.

Since the 2005 Buncefield fire the former Maylands Avenue factory estate, badly affected by the fire, has been re branded as Maylands Business Park and a 40 tonne sculpture by Jose Zavala called Phoenix Gateway placed on the first roundabout off the M1 to symbolise its renewal.

The now disused mill site at Nash Mills is being redeveloped to build housing and community facilities, retain some historic buildings and use various watercourses as amenities.

Hemel Hempstead returns its own MP at Westminster as the Hemel Hempstead parliamentary constituency.

Hemel Hempstead, as part of the Borough of Dacorum, is twinned with Neu-Isenburg, Germany.

Historically, the area was agricultural and was noted for its rich cereal production. The agricultural journalist William Cobbett noted of Hemel Hempstead in 1822 that “..the land along here is very fine: a red tenacious flinty loam upon a bed of chalk at a yard or two beneath, which, in my opinion, is the very best corn land that we have in England.” By the 18th century the grain market in Hemel was one of the largest in the country. In 1797 there were 11 watermills working in the vicinity of the town.

The chalk on which Hemel is largely built has had commercial value and has been mined and exploited to improve farmland and for building from the 18th century. In the Highbarns area, now residential, there was a collapse in 2007 of a section of old chalk workings and geological studies have been undertaken to show the extent of these workings.

In the 19th century, Hemel was a noted brickmaking, paper manufacturing and straw-plaiting centre. In later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hemel was also a noted watercress growing area, supplying 1/16 of the country’s national demand — following development of the New Town, the watercress growing moved to nearby Berkhamsted and Tring. The cress beds were redeveloped as the modern-day Water Gardens.

Joseph Cranstone’s engineering company was founded in 1798, and was responsible for much of the early street lighting in the town as well as it first gasworks. It became the Hemel Hempstead Engineering Company and stayed in business until World War II . In 1867 Cranstone’s son built a steam powered coach which he drove to London, but which was destroyed in a crash on the return journey. A local Boxmoor pub commemorates the event.

In 1803 the first automatic papermaking machinery was developed in Hemel by the Fourdrinier brothers at Frogmore. Paper making expanded in the vicinity in the early nineteenth century and grew into the huge John Dickinson mills in the twentieth.

A traditional employer in the area was also Brock’s, manufacturer of fireworks. The factory was a significant employer since well before World War II, and remained in production until the mid-1970s. The present-day neighbourhood of Woodhall farm was subsequently built on the site.

From 1967 to 1983, it was home to one of the most remarkable newspaper experiments of recent times, when the Thomson Organisation launched the Hemel Hempstead Evening Post-Echo. This comprised two evening papers – the Evening Echo and the Evening Post – and was based at a modern headquarters in Mark Road which had previously been used as a hot water bottle factory. The dual operation was conceived by Lord Thomson of Fleet to take on the Northcliffe and Beaverbrook domination of the London evening paper market and tap into what he saw as a major source of consumer advertising. The papers were remarkable not only for technological innovation but also journalistic excellence. Both the Evening Echo and Evening Post won design awards during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it was the Evening Echo that took the major writing honours, with John Marquis being voted Provincial Journalist of the Year in 1974 and Melanie Phillips being named Young Journalist of the Year in 1975. Many outstanding journalists worked on both papers during their heyday, with several going on to be editors and leading Fleet Street figures. Unfortunately, the operation fell victim to the freesheet revolution of the 1980s, the titles closing in 1983 with the loss of 470 jobs.

Significant historic local firms:

  • Addressograph, address labels & labelling systems
  • Apple Computer’s UK operations were originally based in Hemel, though they moved to much larger premises in Uxbridge during the late 1980s.
  • British Petroleum.
  • Brocks Fireworks, Firework manufacturer
  • Crosfield Electronics — digital imaging systems, now part of FFEI Ltd.
  • Hemel Hempstead Evening Post-Echo, then part of Thomson Regional Newspapers and one of the few nightly regional newspapers
  • John Dickinson and Sons, paper manufacturing
  • Kodak.
  • Lucas Aerospace — relocated (as TRW Aeronautical Systems) to Pitstone in 2002.

Hemel Hempstead has a mixture of heavy and light engineering companies and has attracted a significant number of information technology and telecommunications sector companies helped by its proximity to London and the UK motorway network. However, (and again in common with many new towns) it has a much narrower business base than established centres, particularly Watford and St Albans.

Significant firms with a local presence include:

  • 3Com, Telecommunications equipment
  • ACT (formerly Apricot Computers)
  • Aquascutum, Clothing manufacturer
  • ASOS.com, UK’s largest online fashion retailer
  • Bourne Leisure
  • BP Oil, petroleum
  • BSI Product Services
  • Gist Food distribution for Marks & Spencer
  • Glanville Consultants, Civil and Structural Engineering Consultants.
  • British Telecom, telecommunications
  • BSI (British Standards Institution) materials testing
  • DSG International plc (formerly Dixons Group), electrical retailer (global headquarters)
  • Dixons, electrical retailer (national headquarters)
  • DuPont, petrochemicals
  • Epson, Consumer Electronics
  • Friedheim International, pre- and postpress printing & bookbinding equipment
  • Filippo Berio UK Olive Oil
  • Hewitt Associates, Human resources (personnel) out-sourcing organisation
  • HSBC Bank, Telephone services & Head Office Operations
  • Kent Brushes (G B Kent & Sons Ltd) — Established in 1777 & has been manufacturing brushes in Apsley for most of that time.
  • Kodak, photography — (formerly in central Hemel, now located on 3Com Campus)
  • NEXT, clothing (distribution centre)
  • Northgate Information Solutions, specialist software for human resources
  • Sappi group, paper, at Nash Mills. Has announced the mill will close in 2006
  • Steria computers, IT services
  • Transcend UK office of DRAM and Flash memory manufacturer
  • Unisys, computers
  • Xerox Office Supplies, Document supplies, paper development

Hemel is famous for its “Magic Roundabout” (officially called the Moor End roundabout, or “The Plough Roundabout” from a former adjacent public house), an interchange at the end of the town centre (Moor End), where traffic from six routes meet. Traffic is able to circulate in both directions around what appears to be a main central roundabout (and formerly was such), with the normal rules applying at each of the six mini-roundabouts encircling this central reservation. It is a misconception that the traffic flows the ‘wrong’ way around the inner roundabout; as it is not in fact a roundabout at all, and as such no roundabout rules apply to it. It was the first such circulation system in Britain.

Hemel claims to have the first purpose built multi-storey car park in Britain. Built in 1960 into the side of a hill in the Marlowes shopping district, it features a giant humorous mosaic map of the area by the artist Rowland Emett.

The new town centre contains many sculptures by notable artists from the 1950s including a 1955 stone mural by sculptor Alfred Gerrard entitled Stages in the Development of Man . There is also the Rock & Rollers sculpture, the Discobulous fellow, who once resided outside Bank Court but has been moved to the water gardens, Water Play, a fountain, a 3D map of 1940s Hemel, and a giant rainbow mosiac, which is the most recognisable sculpture in Hemel.

The new town centre is laid out alongside landscaped gardens and water features formed from the River Gade known as the Watergardens designed by G.A. Jellicoe. The main shopping street, Marlowes, was pedestrianised in the early 1990s.

Hemel also was home of one of the first community based television stations West Herts TV which later became Channel 10.

For many years the lower end of Marlowes featured a distinctive office building built as a bridge-like structure straddling the main road. This building was erected on the site of an earlier railway viaduct carrying the Hemel to Harpenden railway, known as The Nicky Line. When the new town was constructed, this part of the railway was no longer in use and the viaduct demolished. The office building, occupied by BP, was designed to create a similar skyline and effect as the viaduct. In the early 1980s it was discovered that the building was subsiding dangerously and it was subsequently vacated and demolished. Adjacent to BP buildings was a unique double-helix public car park. The lower end of Marlowes was redeveloped into the Riverside shopping complex, which opened on 27 October 2005. Retailers taking residence at the Riverside complex, include Debenhams and HMV.

A few metres away, overlooking the ‘Magic Roundabout’, is Hemel’s tallest building; the 22-storey Kodak building. Built as the Kodak company’s UK HQ the tower was vacated in 2005. It was then temporarily reoccupied in 2006 after the Buncefield explosion destroyed Kodak’s other Hemel offices. It is now being converted into 434 apartment homes.

The Heathrow airport holding area known as the Bovingdon stack lies just west of the town. On a clear day, at peak times, several circling aircraft can be visible.

The national headquarters of the Boys’ Brigade is located at Felden Lodge, near Hemel.

A series of 10m high blue steel arches called the Phoenix Gateway has been installed on the roundabout closest to the Hemel Hempstead junction of the M1 motorway. The aim is to regenerate the town after the Buncefield explosion with a striking piece of commercial art. It is funded by the East of England Development Agency.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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