Hitchin (St. Mary and St. Andrew)

HITCHIN (St. Mary and St. Andrew), a market-town and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Hitchin and Pirton, county of Hertford, 15½ miles (N. W.) from Hertford, and 34 (N. N. W.) from London; containing, with the hamlets of Langley, Missenden, and Preston, 6125 inhabitants. This place, which, during the Saxon heptarchy, formed part of the demesne of the King of Mercia, was given by Edward the Confessor to Harold, after whose death, at the battle of Hastings, it was retained by William the Conqueror. It is noticed in Domesday book under the name of Hiz, a probable modification of its Saxon name Hicce or Hitche, from which its present appellation is deduced. The town is situated on a level spot of land, environed on every side but the north by rising grounds, and intersected by the small river Hiz, which has its source at the distance of about a mile to the south-west. The streets, with the exception of that which forms the principal thoroughfare to Bedford, are spacious, and partially paved and lighted by subscription; the houses are in general neatly built of brick, and the inhabitants amply supplied with water. The environs are pleasant, and a considerable portion of the adjacent ground is cultivated by market-gardeners, who supply the neighbouring towns with fruit and vegetables. A public subscription library, with a museum, in which is a good collection of antiquities and natural curiosities, has been established; there are several book societies; and assemblies take place periodically, during the winter, at the Sun inn.

Hitchin was celebrated at a very early period for its manufacture of woollen goods, and many of the merchants of Calais resided in the place prior to the removal of that branch of business from the towns on the continent. The trade at present is principally in corn and malt, for the latter of which the town had obtained a high reputation in the reign of Elizabeth. The soil in the vicinity is favourable to the growth of barley and other grain, of which great quantities are sold at the market. The manufacture of straw-plat affords employment to many of the females; a silk-mill employs about 300 persons, and there are some extensive breweries. The market, which is toll free, is on Tuesday; the fairs are on the Tuesdays in Easter and Whitsun weeks, and are pleasure-fairs. The great railway from London to York will pass by Hitchin; and an act was passed in 1846 for a railway from the town to Royston. The town is divided into Bancroft, Tilehouse, and Bridge wards, for each of which two constables and two headboroughs are appointed at the court leet of the lord of the manor, held at Michaelmas. The county magistrates hold a petty-session here every Tuesday: the powers of the county debt-court of Hitchin, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Hitchin. The bridewell, situated at the extremity of Bancroftstreet, is a small brick building.

The parish comprises 6460a. 2r. 38p. The living is a vicarage, valued in the king's books at £25. 6. 8.; net income, £650; patrons and impropriators, the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. The church, originally dedicated to St. Andrew, was, on being rebuilt prior to the reign of Henry VIII., dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is a spacious structure, principally in the later English style, with a low massive embattled tower, surmounted by a small spire, and having a turret at one of the angles; the south porch is a beautifully enriched specimen of that style. The interior is very highly ornamented, and on each side of the chancel is a large chapel, separated from it by a handsome screen of carved oak; over the altar is a fine painting of the Offering of the Wise Men of the East, by Rubens, and there are numerous interesting monuments, and a font of singular beauty with carvings of the Twelve Apostles. Underneath the eastern part of the chancel is a crypt communicating by a staircase with the chapel on the north side, which was used by Cromwell as a prison for the royalists. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, and Independents. The free school was principally founded by John Mattocke, of Coventry, who in 1639 endowed it with land; its present income arises from fifty-seven acres of land, and a rent-charge of £5. A school for girls, on the national plan, is supported partly by the dividends on nearly £1000, the amount of several benefactions vested in the funds. Almshouses for eight persons were founded and endowed by Mr. Skinner in 1668; and there are other almshouses for six persons; and rooms for eighteen women in a house called the Biggin, said to have been a religious establishment. Various benefactions have also been made for apprenticing boys, and other charitable purposes. The union of Hitchin comprises 28 parishes or places, of which 27 are in the county of Hertford, and one in that of Bedford; and contains a population of 22,346.

Near the church was a small priory of Gilbertine nuns, whose revenue at the Dissolution was £15. 1. 11.; there are still some remains, which have been converted into dwelling-houses. Towards the western extremity of the town was a house of Carmelite friars, founded by Edward II., and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, the revenue of which at the Dissolution was £4. 9. 4.; the cloisters and a small part of the buildings are yet existing, and a handsome mansion called the Priory has been erected on the site. There was formerly a chapel at Missenden, now nearly demolished, and another at Temple-Dinsley, in the parish; the latter belonging to a preceptory of the Knights Templars. At Wildberry Hill, over which the Ikeneld-street passes, within a mile of the town, was a Roman exploratory camp, occupying an area of seven acres and a half, and surrounded by a vallum; here a fine silver coin of Faustina, consort of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was discovered some years since. Dr. Mark Hildesley, Bishop of Sodor and Man, was vicar of Hitchin, and a great benefactor to the town.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.