These pages draw their information from Ayot St. Peter, The Parish Story first published in 2000 as a community project to commemorate the year 2000 and the advent of the third millennium of the Christian era. This record of the present and examination and record of the past was produced under the guidance of Peter Shirley as co-ordinator and editor in chief. Copies of the publication were deposited with the British Library, the University Libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, The National Libraries of Scotland and Wales and the library of Trinity College, Dublin as well as the Hertfordshire county library service. Publication was facilitated by a grant from Millennium Festival Awards for All – Eastern Region. The grant made it possible for each household in Ayot St Peter to receive a complimentary hard-back copy in 2000. Soft-back copies of the book are still available to order – please Contact us
The text has been updated and corrected to 13 June 2018.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, Ayot means ‘gap or pass of a man named Aega.’ The word is first found as Aiegete in 1060, and in the Domesday Book it is rendered as Aiete. There seems to be no information about who Aega was or why he was important enough for his name to have become so firmly attached to the area as to have survived for over 1,000 years. Furthermore, one wonders at the concept of a gap or pass in such apparently tame terrain. Perhaps what was in mind was a path between the valleys of the Lea and the Mimram – most probably following the line of the road from Wheathampstead to Codicote, which does run along a shallow valley in a north-easterly direction until it leaves the parish at the ford on the Mimram known as Pulmer Water. The north-western boundary of the parish runs along the middle of this road.
There are several other theories about the meaning of Ayot. It could signify a wild uncultivated place, or a marshy place or an eyot or isle, or a corruption of the French word haut to signify that it stood high amongst the woods. In an article in The Herts Advertizer of Saturday 8 November 1879 it is asserted (without any authority being cited) that ‘Ayot’ is a compound of ‘a’ water with the syllable ‘yott’ and means the road by the water.
We are driven to conclude that both the origin and the meaning of Ayot are obscure and uncertain.
The affix St. Peter is, of course, a reference to the dedication of the parish church.
In C18th the parish was sometimes known as Little Ayot, indicating (apparently correctly) that it started life as a subsidiary adjunct of its neighbour to the north, Ayot St. Lawrence, which was also known as Great Ayot. For poor law purposes the C18th overseers used the name Ayott Parva, its neighbour being Ayot Magna. On the tithe map Ayot is spelt Ayott throughout. In the C19th census returns the enumerators (all residents of the parish) gave its name as Ayott St. Peter’s until 1881, when its current name was used (with one exception), only for it to change again to Ayott St. Peter in 1891. In 1901 and 1911 the census enumerator, William John Wells, used the modern name of Ayot St. Peter throughout.
The current boundaries of the civil parish of Ayot St. Peter are shown in the section of this website entitled “Ayot St Peter today”. These boundaries are very similar to those of the ecclesiastical parish of the same name:- the southern, western and northern boundaries of the ecclesiastical and civil parishes are the same but there is some difference on the eastern boundary in that no properties in Whitehill or Homerswood Lane are in the ecclesiastical parish. The south-western and northern boundaries of the parish coincide with boundaries of both Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council and Welwyn Hatfield Parliamentary Constituency. The south-western boundary from Waterend Lane under Hunter’s Bridge to Codicote Road is clearly marked by a bank and ditch which must have been there for very many centuries. It was the boundary of the ancient Hundred of Broadwater at this point.
A very important primary source is the tithe map drawn in 1838 under the scheme for replacing the medieval obligation to cede one tenth of the produce of the parish to the incumbent in kind with a monetary obligation in the form of a rentcharge – a subject dealt with later under RELIGION. Our tithe map is unusual in that a schedule of owners and occupiers is to be found on the face of the map rather than solely in the tithe apportionment (a separate document). The map is to the generous scale of three chains (66 yards) to the inch and is seven feet long and four feet wide. It was made and signed by ‘Robt. K. Dawson Cap. R.E.’
There is firm evidence (in the tithe map) that the ecclesiastical parish extended over 1,100 acres and 37 perches (approximately 445 hectares) – or less than two square miles. The tithe apportionment was agreed on the basis that the area subject to payment of tithes was 1,020 acres, of which 710 were arable, 135 meadow or pasture and 175 woodland. In his massive History of Hertfordshire, John Edwin Cussans gives the area as 1,097 acres. The 1881 Ordnance Survey found that the parish covered 1,093.236 acres. The modern civil parish extends over some 1,144 acres (463 hectares). More than 10 per cent. of the area is woodland; the rest of the undeveloped land is arable or pasture. No reliable watercourse traverses the parish but there are several ponds – notably beside 11 Ayot Green and at the entrance to the sawmills at 25 and 27 Ayot Green. To the north east the parish is bounded by the valley of the Mimram and outside the parish to the south west lies the valley of the Lea. The parish occupies the watershed between these two small rivers. Its highest point (127 metres above Newlyn Datum) is on Waterend Lane between numbers 11 and 19-23 Ayot Green and the lowest point is beside the Mimram between Pulmer Water and the Welwyn parish boundary (71 metres).
A map produced by the British Geological Survey shows that, despite its small area, the geology of the parish is relatively complex. Upper Chalk (soft white chalk with many flints) from the Palaeocene period has overlays of Reading Beds (mottled clay, sand and pebbles) and, from more recent times, boulder clay and glacial gravel – reminding us that the region was in the terminal moraine of the last Ice Age. There are numerous chalk pits, and chalk gives Whitehill its name.
The Ayot brick pits alongside Homerswood Lane were de-notified as a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1986. For nearly a century before that, however, they were the subject of frequent field study and scientific visits as they exposed a complete section through the lowest Tertiary deposit in the area – the Reading Beds. Vertical and horizontal variations in the original Reading Beds cover were able to be evaluated and plotted using information from the Ayot brick pit exposures, which occasioned considerable academic controversy. A collection of sharks’ teeth (Lamna, Odontaspis and Phyllodus) was recovered in the brick pits from the sands of the Reading Beds of the Lower Eocene period some 40 to 50 million years ago.
Given these subsoils and the chalk it is likely that the area of the present parish was always relatively sparsely wooded. On the evidence of surviving pockets of oakwood, there would have been an unbroken carpet of bluebells covering the wooded area in springtime.
We have included an interesting aerial photograph of the parish taken from 5,000 feet on 11 April 1955 – when the branch railway was still in operation, the A1(M) had not been built and a tract of ancient woodland between Whitehill and School Lane had not been cleared.
SETTLEMENT AND CLEARANCE
No doubt the earliest inhabitants would have been small groups of hunter-gatherers some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence, particularly in the vicinity of the existing farms, would seem to indicate that land in the parish was under cultivation over 5,000 years ago. Prehistoric settlement is borne out by the discovery of palaeolithic tools and implements – flint flakes found at the brickfield near the former railway station, flint flakes and a hammerstone found at Greggswood in 1971 after clearance of four acres of ancient woodland and a further flint implement which is now in the British Museum. Aerial photographs have revealed a number of potentially interesting anomolies in the parish. Four circular marks just inside the northern boundary of the parish to the east of Ryefield Farm and further circular features to its west may be prehistoric ring ditches. The double ring marks north-east of Melbourne Stud and the three linear ditches west of Linces Farm could indicate prehistoric enclosures. Certainly these features warrant further investigation.
After the hunter-gatherers Bronze Age peoples would have settled on the light chalky soils which were easier to cultivate and readily productive because of their alkalinity.
It is impossible to give a date for their arrival, but certainly there were Belgic people here shortly before Roman times. They would have brought with them the iron implements necessary to clear and cultivate the gravel areas. The field between Sunset Cottage and Melbourne Stud is known to have been the site of a Belgic settlement, and Belgic Iron Age pottery and a silvered brooch with yellow paste cabochon were found at Linces Farm. These ‘Belgae’ (so called because Julius Caesar thought that they originated in Belgium) will have been Catuvellauni, who had a stronghold at Wheathampstead and others at St. Albans and Colchester linked together by a road which (as we will see) was adopted by the Romans and passed through the parish. The Belgae at Wheathampstead were responsible for the still impressive earthworks known as the Slad and the Devil’s Dyke.
Pottery remains at Manor Farm point to late pre-Roman Iron Age occupation there and further pottery unearthed near Linces Farm provided evidence of Romano-British settlement in the area.
It is probable that Saxon settlement in the parish was quite late (C8th to 10th). The incoming Saxons would have chosen more favourable lowland sites near water first, moving into upland areas later. Presumably Aega was one of the early Saxon settlers.
Clearance of the natural woodland would have been a slow and laborious business. By C18th the process was more or less complete and the boundaries between cleared land and woodland were approximately as they are now.
The parish lies in a rather dry part of England. The prevailing wind is from the south-west, but with quite frequent spells of weather coming in from the east. Only rarely is severe weather experienced. Remarkably, it is recorded in the Ayot St. Peter registers that on Sunday 8 February 1795 there was a great flood in Welwyn and Tewin owing to the overflow of the Mimram. As we shall see, there was a violent thunderstorm on Friday 10 July 1874 which destroyed Ayot St. Peter church. There are photographs of the damage caused to 16 Ayot Green in the late 1920s (shortly before 18 Ayot Green was built) when a big oak tree was blown down onto it in a gale. There was a drought in 1976, with restrictions on water use. A fairly recent instance of severe weather was the ‘great storm’ of Friday 16 October 1987, which was made famous by the ‘no hurricane’ forecast of Michael Fish on the BBC. Considerable damage was done to trees by this storm, which is commemorated by a tree planted near 3 Ayot Green. There was another very violent gale on Thursday 25 January 1990. On this occasion a huge oak tree in the field between Crackendell Cottage and Manor Farm came crashing down and a barn at Linces Farm was demolished. A telegraph pole which was supporting the barn crashed through the side of the farmhouse and landed on the owners’ bed. Happily they were not in it at the time. Such events tend to bring out the best in the population in that enthusiastic working parties quickly go to work clearing up the damage; and such is the regenerative power of nature that a visitor today would be hard pressed to point to any evidence of what seemed rather dramatic damage at the time. More insidious than the damage wrought by the occasional gale was the devastation of Dutch elm disease which, roughly between 1975 and 1980, accounted for all the many mature elms in the parish. Elm suckers still grow but they never reach a height of more than about four metres before dying off.
There is an old saying that ‘they who buy a house in Hertfordshire pay two years’ purchase for the air thereof.’
The first documented record of land ownership and use is to be found in this famous source. The information was collected in the Domesday Survey of 1086 on the orders of King William I (the Conqueror) but, according to some authorities, the Domesday Book itself (summarising and collating the collected information) was not written until shortly after the accession of King William II (Rufus) in 1087. According to Domesday, Hertfordshire had very few vills and manors in its southern half but more (including the two called Aiete) in the northern half. It had a small, scattered population. There were only five boroughs (settlements with burgesses) in the county – namely Ashwell, Berkhamsted, Hertford, St. Albans and Stanstead Abbots.
This is what is said about the area (in modern translation)-
XX THE LAND OF ROBERT GERNON
In Ayot St. Peter William holds 2½ hides of Robert. There is land for 6 ploughs. In demesne is 1 [plough], and there can be another. There 6 villeins with 3 bordars have 3 ploughs, and there can be a fourth. There is 1 slave, meadow for 1 plough, pasture for the livestock, [and] woodland for 150 pigs. All together it is worth 40s.; when received 60s.; TRE £6. 2 thegns, King Edward’s men, held this land and could sell. William, Robert’s man, seized this to the king’s loss, but he claims his lord as his warrantor.
We are here looking at the perfect feudal system which William the Conqueror was able, by virtue of his victory at Hastings in 1066, to impose on England. It remains to this day the basis of English land law that all land in England is owned by the Crown and (insofar as not in the Crown’s actual occupation) is held directly or indirectly from the Crown on conditions. The conditions are as to services (tenure) and time (estate). A manor was a tract of land the owner of which (the lord) had jurisdiction over tenants. A manor was not necessarily a whole vill – which might have several manors just as one manor might include land in more than one vill. A hide was the land reckoned to be necessary to sustain a peasant family (often 120 acres but not at all universally), and the word is to be found in local place names such as Cromer Hyde, Beech Hyde and Symondshyde to this day. Demesne was the land devoted to the lord’s profit, whether a manor or a portion of land within a manor, worked by peasants as part of their feudal obligations. Often it equates to the home farm. Villeins, bordars and cottars were, in descending order, classes of unfree tenants (or peasants); above them were the free tenants called freemen and sokemen. Serfs were the slaves, and they were the property of the lord. Thegns were pre-Conquest nobles below the level of earls – they would have at least five hides of land and a residence. TRE is Latin shorthand for ‘in the time of King Edward the Confessor.’ Between three and five plough [teams] might be expected per square mile.
What does the quoted passage tell us? The pre-Conquest manor of Aiegete was granted by Edward the Confessor to two of his thegns. William, the occupier, had seized it (presumably from the thegns) but looked to the new Norman lord Robert for protection. The manor would have incorporated the two Ayot vills. Great Ayot would have been the first to be established, with Little Ayot at first simply a subsidiary hamlet. In 1086 Robert Gernon (who was a Norman baron) was a man of significant property and power. In the entries for Hertfordshire the king’s directly held land is listed under Roman numeral I. Then are listed the holdings of the king’s tenants-in-chief from the Archbishop of Canterbury (II) down through the ranks of senior clerics and nobles. Robert Gernon at XX is the second ranked tenant-in-chief without some sort of title. His holding in Ayot St. Peter is but one among 13 holdings of his in the county – and he had holdings in other counties as well. Robert held much of Ayot St. Peter but had let this holding to William (who later called himself William de Montfichet because his main estate was at Stansted Mountfitchet and who was probably Robert’s son or brother). Robert seems to have held directly from the Crown and not indirectly from intermediate (mesne) lords.
In contrast to the one mention of Ayot St. Peter, Ayot St. Lawrence is mentioned twice in Domesday. Ranked at IX in the list of landholders in Hertfordshire was the Abbey of Westminster. In Broadwater Hundred the abbot had several holdings including 2½ hides in Ayot St. Lawrence, worth 60s. Ranked at XLII were the king’s thegns (a miscellaneous group of Englishmen, priests and royal servants). In Broadwater Hundred one of these servants, ‘the reeve of this hundred’, held nine acres of the king in Ayot St. Lawrence. The holding was worth 9d.
In C14th the single manor of Ayot St. Peter was split into two parts, or moieties, when it had to be divided between two daughters on the death of their mother. One moiety, which kept the name of Ayot Montfichet, passed eventually into the ownership of a family called Fyshe (or Fish) – after whom the middle part of the wood to the north-west of Ayot Montfitchet (Ayot Place) is named Fish Wood – and from them into the hands of the Hale family. It remained with the Hales until 1832, when it was bought by Lord Melbourne and became part of the Brocket Estate. The other moiety came into the ownership of a family called Westynton after whom it eventually became known as the manor of Westingtons. This moiety was purchased by John Brocket in 1555. Westington was purchased by Sir Matthew Lamb in 1746. His grandson, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, therefore reunited the manor by his 1832 purchase of the other moiety. The rights and incidents of manors were progressively abolished by statute. Since the passing of the Law of Property Act 1925 manors have had no practical significance.
According to an inquisition carried out in the Hundred of Broadwater in 1561 there was only one freeholder in Ayot Monfychet, namely William Peryen (gentleman). In C15th and C16th the Perient family owned the manors of Digswell, Ayot St. Peter, Ludwick, Holwell and Lockleys and other land at Digswell, Tewin, Hatfield and Welwyn. In the third quarter of C19th this feat was more or less replicated by the Cowper family.
It has been estimated that the population of the settlement in what is now Ayot St. Peter was between 25 and 30 at the time of the Domesday Survey. Between then (1086) and the first census (1801) there is no readily accessible evidence about the population of the parish. It is not at all certain how large the medieval parish church was, and the earliest extant domestic building is a part of Ayot Montfitchet (Ayot Place) dating from about 1485. Any traces of humbler abodes from 1600 and before have entirely disappeared. They would have been constructed of wood, mud and straw. Given the location of the earlier parish churches, one can speculate with reasonable confidence that the centre of gravity of the parish has shifted in an easterly direction over the centuries. The large feudal fields with their strip cultivation probably radiated from a point close to the site of the old churchyard.
In 1801 the population was 168. In 1826 the combined populations of the two Ayots was about 390. In 1841 the population was 240, in 1851 282, in 1861 234, in 1871 232, 1881 219, 1891 215, 1901 221 and 1911 180. Recent censuses give those present on census night as 152 in 1971, 174 in 1981 and 158 in 1991. The figure for 1981 had to be adjusted from the return figure of 147 to take account of the fact that the boundary of the civil parish was altered with effect from 1 April 1986 by the Welwyn Hatfield (Parishes) Order 1986. For 1991 the number of persons usually resident (as distinct from present on census night) was 174. The latest censuses were taken on Sunday 29 April 2001 and Sunday 27 March 2011. The returns of the censuses taken on Sunday 31 March 1901 and Sunday 2 April 1911 were opened for inspection on Wednesday 2 January 2001 and Tuesday 4 January 2011 respectively.
In 1838 there were only 13 landowners in Ayot St. Peter, of whom by far the most important was the 2nd Viscount Melbourne of Brocket Hall. Much of the northern end of the parish was owned by Levi Ames, the tenant of Lamer Park. All but four of these 13 landowners were also occupiers of land in the parish. The early censuses were very inexact about addresses, but the 1838 tithe map enables many of the names found in the 1841 census to be placed with total, or a high degree of, certainty in particular properties. This in turn allows extrapolation into the seven later censuses which are currently open to inspection.
The land in the parish owned by Lords Melbourne and Cowper formed part of the Brocket Estate. The estate was bought by Matthew Lamb in 1746. It was Matthew Lamb, who became a baronet, who pulled down the old Tudor Brocket Hall in about 1751 and built the current house (and the pair of gatehouses now called 13 and 15 Ayot Green) to the design of James Paine (1716-89). On Sir Matthew’s death in 1768 the estate devolved to his son Sir Peniston Lamb Bt., who was later created 1st Viscount Melbourne. The 1st Viscount’s son William, the 2nd Viscount, had the estate from his father’s death in 1828. It passed to William’s brother Frederick James, the 3rd and last Viscount, in 1848. Then on his death it passed to his sister Emily Mary Lamb. She married, first, the 5th Earl Cowper (who died in 1837) and, secondly, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (who died in 1865). On the death of Lady Palmerston in 1869 the estate passed to her grandson the 7th Earl Cowper (his father having predeceased him). Lord Cowper preferred Panshanger, and Brocket Hall was accordingly let, often to distinguished tenants. Lord Cowper died on 19 July 1905 without a male heir, and the estate passed to his sister, Lady Amabel, who was married to Admiral of the Fleet Sir Walter Talbot Kerr (later Lord Kerr). The Kerrs moved to Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire in 1922-23 when the estate was sold to Sir Charles Alexander Nall-Cain, DL, JP, who became the 1st Baron Brocket in 1933.
What did the people of the parish do with their lives? Certainly until the arrival of the railway in 1860 it has to be safe to assume that all but the very grandest toiled away in the fields and at home without any thought that any alternative existed or ever would. Occasionally no doubt some men were mustered into service in local contingents of yeomanry to join campaigns at home and abroad, but for the most part life had an unchanging pattern from generation to generation. Various trades were established at Ayot Green to service the Great North Road in C18th and C19th. Thus, according to local trade directories, in 1864 we have a publican and a carrier, in 1870 a whitesmith, a carrier, two shopkeepers and a bricklayer and in 1899 a sub-postmaster. The C19th census returns show clearly that there was work to be had, also, at the brickworks located on the south side of Homerswood Lane, which were not in the ecclesiastical parish but were nevertheless known as Ayot brickworks. St. Peter’s church is roofed with tiles from this source and bricks with the word AYOT stamped into the frog can be seen in various buildings in the parish.
In 1967 the trustees of the Brocket Estate began to sell the freeholds of properties in the parish. This precipitated great changes. The sitting or former tenants could not afford the freehold auction values of their cottages and were obliged to leave the village. Many were doubtless pleased with the modern comforts and convenience of the new houses to which they moved in Welwyn Garden City and elsewhere. The new owners extended and otherwise improved the old properties inside and out. Ayot Green became a conservation area and many of the cottages were listed Grade II. This newly prestigious status would, no doubt, have been a considerable surprise to former tenants who had endured earth floors, outside sanitation and sometimes extreme overcrowding – traditionally solved by the device of putting children ‘into service’ from about the age of 12.
Until the middle of C19th the parish would have been almost entirely self-sufficient. The only sources of energy were animal- or man-power and wood. There is no record of a wind- or water-mill in the parish. Today hardly anything which is used or consumed in the parish is produced within its boundaries. An extension of social history is the story of when and how the amenities of life which are now familiar first became available to residents of the parish. These are examined in the next two sections.
GOODS AND SERVICES
Shopping and the post
There was a small shop and sub-post office from at least 1841 (and probably earlier) at the south end of what is now 37 Ayot Green. The last shopkeeper and sub-postmaster at 37 Ayot Green was George Draper (1854-1931). In the 1891 census Emily Gayler was described as a ‘shopkeeper (grocer)’ and the cottage where she and her husband James (‘jobbing gardener’) lived – probably but not certainly 12 Ayot Green – as ‘grocers shop’, indicating that there were at that time two shops competing for trade. In 1897, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, goods were purchased from both shops by the committee organising the celebrations. It is recorded that £1 6s. 3d. was spent with Mrs Gayler and £1 11s. 4d. with Mr Draper. Perhaps in the interest of fairness, the order for ginger beer was split between the two suppliers. In 1917 Mr Draper’s shop closed.
In the 1911 census what is now 6 Ayot Green was described as the sub-post office. The postmistress was Fanny Gayler (42, single). Living with her were her widowed mother Emily (80), her brother Frank (38, single), her widowed aunt Eleanor Jaques (79) and a lodger called Arthur Moore (71, widower, retired baker, born at Welwyn). By 1917 the sub-post office was being run by Clara Gayler, her sister-in-law Fanny Gayler and her niece Dorothy May (Dolly) Fever. James and Emily Gayler were the parents of Clara’s husband James and of Fanny. Clara died on 2 July 1927, Fanny on 30 June 1958 and Dolly on 26 November 1977. The three ladies are buried together in the new churchyard.
The sub-post office at 6 Ayot Green was discontinued on 31 May 1970 (after Dolly had been attacked) and the shop associated with it closed in 1977 when she died. From June 1970 the GPO (as it then was) continued to provide some postal services at the Reading Room until it was demolished towards the end of 1972. The parish received a small amount of rent from the GPO during this period.
There were regular postal services by 1864, and probably from the time of the penny black (1840). Cassey’s Directory for 1864 records that letters arrived from Welwyn at 7 a.m. and were dispatched at 7 p.m. Kelly’s Directory for 1899 names George Draper as the sub-postmaster and records that letters arrived from Welwyn at 8 a.m. and were dispatched at 6.50 p.m. Postal orders were issued at the sub-office but not paid – you had to go to Welwyn for this purpose and to use the telegraph. There was a postbox on the opposite side of the station approach road from Station House. It was an early example with the letters VR on it. When the GPO announced that it was to be removed in 1967 there was an unsuccessful protest by the parish. Until quite recently there was a postbox outside 6 Ayot Green, but after the shop closed and the property changed hands the postbox was relocated to its current site beside the new bridge over the A1(M). There is another postbox close to the church.
The parish now has its post delivered from the sorting office in Welwyn Garden City. The whole parish is in the AL6 postcode area (AL standing for St. Albans).
Fortunately both George Draper and the Gaylers had contemporary photographs of the village made into a series of postcards for sale in their shops and equally fortunately some examples have survived.
The ecclesiastical parish
The parish dates from late Norman times. Until the Reformation it was in the diocese of Lincoln, the archdeaconry of Huntingdon and the deanery of Hertford. From then until 1836 it remained in the diocese of Lincoln and then passed, somewhat surprisingly to us today, into the diocese of Rochester (the second oldest after Canterbury). It has been in the diocese of St. Albans since that see was established in 1875. The parish was run alongside that of Ayot St. Lawrence from 1875 until it was amalgamated with the parish of Welwyn a hundred years later in 1975. Since 1 August 2005 (in accordance with a scheme made by the Church Commissioners on 7 July pursuant to the Pastoral Measure 1983) it has been part of the benefice of the Welwyn Team Ministry, which comprises the parishes of St. Mary’s Welwyn with St. Michael’s Woolmer Green, Ayot St. Peter, Tewin and Datchworth and is in the diocese of St. Albans, the archdeaconry of Hertford and the deanery of Welwyn Hatfield. The Welwyn Team Ministry has been further enlarged to include the parish of St. Giles, Codicote. Although it is part of the team ministry, Ayot St. Peter is still independent and has its own parochial church council. Pledges to support St. Peter’s are made with its PCC.
The former churches and churchyard
There have been churches on what is now the old churchyard (close to the entrance to Ayot Montfitchet) from very early times. A team of dowsers have plotted the locations of no fewer than 10 altars and associated walls on the site, the earliest dating to 770. For the most part these churches were of post frame and clapboard construction, with reed thatch roofs. They were all located slightly to the east of where it is known for certain that the last church on the site was built in 1862. The medieval church in its final iteration had a tower with a short spire and stone walls. Possibly on account of the advent of Puritanism, it seems to have been superseded from about 1640 by two other wood-framed churches which had by 1750 become ruinous. It is recorded that in about 1700 (when he became rector) Rev. Charles Horne ‘built half the rectory house and the chancel.’ Apparently there is no drawing or painting of any church prior to 1750. There is a memorial from the chancel to be found leaning against the west wall of the current church. It bears this inscription: ‘Here lyes ye body/ of Eliz. Horn wife/ of Cha. Horn Rect./ of this place who/ died in childbed Novbr/ ye 10 1688’.
The replacement of all the medieval churches was most unusual – octagonal with a separate bell tower in the south-east corner of the churchyard (facing onto the open fields and a footpath which ran in a straight line almost due east) – but it in turn was pulled down in 1862. In her book Ayot Rectory published in 1965 Carola Oman (who was Lady Lenanton and lived at Bride Hall, Ayot St. Lawrence) there is this passage: ‘On a particularly serpentine bend they passed a building, or rather a couple of buildings, dark against the westering skies, a small octagonal brick edifice, and a belfry, separate from it, with a lych-gate forming an entry to a burying place. It was Ayot St. Peter church. Villagers said it reminded them of a lock-up.’ At the Hertfordshire County Record Office there is preserved a note by Moses Hawkins, the churchwarden, about the building and dedication of this Georgian church: ‘The Church of Ayott St. Peter was Built or finished in ye year 1751 at ye greatest Charge of ye Reverand Doctr Freman then Rector of this Parish; The first Sermon was Preached Octr ye 6th 1751 by the Revd Mr. Kidgel Curate. The Tex was taken out of ye 93 Psalm. 5 ver. Holyness becometh thine House O Lord for ever.’ In Clutterbuck it is said that Matthew Lamb (the owner of Brocket Hall) contributed a small donation towards the cost of this church.
The new (and final) church, still on the original site, was designed by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-97) and mostly paid for by Rev. Edwin Prodgers junior. It had a tower and spire and incorporated some remnants of Dr. Freman’s church – in particular the west wall and entrance door. An article in The Hertford Mercury of 6 December 1862 provides much detailed information. Work on the church began in mid-July 1862 and it was completed and ready for its service of dedication by the Bishop of Rochester at 2.30 pm on Tuesday 2 December. The nave was 15 feet wide and 32 feet long; the chancel was also 15 feet wide and 22 feet 6 inches long, with an apsidal end. A tower 72 feet high was attached to the north side of the chancel. There were three lancet windows in the apsidal end, their main panels depicting (in the centre) the Crucifixion and (on the left and right respectively) the Agony and the Resurrection. All were dedicated to the memory of Edwin Prodgers senior, who had died a year earlier on 5 December 1861. The Pearson church was struck by lightning on Friday 10 July 1874 and largely destroyed by fire. Rev. Henry Jephson, the recently installed rector, was able to save the registers and the church plate (including a chalice and paten, each bearing a London hallmark for 1638 and still in use on important occasions). The medieval bells, which had been saved from the earlier churches, were melted in the fire. The molten bell-metal (an alloy of about four parts of copper to one of tin) was sold as scrap to a foundry in Loughborough but the rector saved one small lump as a memento. Of the building only the apsidal end remained. It was converted for use as a mortuary chapel but was itself demolished as recently as 1954. The bell from the mortuary chapel (which had been furnished by Charles Willes Wilshere, DL, JP, of The Frythe in 1876) was rehung in the new church of St. Michael and All Angels at Borehamwood, of which Princess Margaret laid the foundation on 23 October 1954. According to a newspaper article about the demolition ‘a tablet will be set up in the old churchyard to show that there was once a church there.’ This does not seem to have happened. Certainly, no trace of any of the former churches can be discerned today in the old churchyard, although there is a gateway in the south-eastern boundary wall which is not far from where the separate bell tower of the Georgian church stood. The old churchyard is a beautiful place, particularly in early spring when first the snowdrops and then the wild daffodils are in flower. According to legend there was a plague pit here, and until recent times some of the villagers apparently preferred to give it a wide berth. This may relate right back to the Black Death plague of 1348 or perhaps to an outbreak of smallpox which occurred at Ayot St. Peter in 1770. On 5 May 2010 the old churchyard was registered with title absolute and title no. HD500495. The registered proprietor is ‘the incumbent of the benefice of the Welwyn Team Ministry in the county of Hertfordshire in the diocese of St. Albans and his successors.’
The old churchyard has attracted the notice of a number of antiquarians and local historians over the years. We are particularly fortunate in that Richard Busby (author of the Book of Welwyn) recorded all the monumental inscriptions in the 1970s and that they were published by the Hertfordshire Family History Society in 1982. There are three fenced tombs: to the north of where the churches stood is a large marble tomb dedicated to the Peacock family of Ayot Lodge (1 Ayot Green) and an altar tomb for members of the Prodgers family of Ayot Bury; and to the south there is a large marble tomb chest over a vault containing the remains of four persons, including Thomas Forsyth of Empingham, Rutland, and Upper Wimpole Street, London. The Forsyth tomb was erected in 1800 and its inscriptions are now very hard to read. Again, we are fortunate that Ernest Squires, a member of the East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society, wrote them down in 1913 and that his work is available to us in volume 5, part 2, of the Transactions of the society. A history of the Forsyth tomb was compiled in 2017 and is kept with other archival material in the parish chest in the vestry of the current church. A copy has been deposited with the county archivist at Hertford.
The current church and churchyard
In the aftermath of the loss of the Pearson church there was a great sense of urgency about the provision of a replacement – although services continued to be held in the newly built schoolroom. The 7th Earl Cowper (who had only recently provided the site for both school and schoolhouse) generously donated an adjoining site of half an acre for the new church. The foundation stone (which came from the doorway of the destroyed church) was laid on 7 April 1875 not by Lord Cowper (as it says) but by his wife; he was unwell on the appointed day. The building contract was awarded to Robinson Cornish of Tudor House, North Walsham, Norfolk (later called Cornish & Gaymer). Within just over six months – on 26 October 1875 – the present church was dedicated by the Bishop of Rochester (who was also by this time the first Bishop of St. Albans). On 12 January 2009 the church and churchyard were registered with title absolute and title no. HD489008. The registered proprietor is the same as for the old churchyard.
St. Peter’s was designed by a famous architect, John Pollard Seddon FRIBA (1827-1906), is generally acknowledged to be very fine and is a listed building. It is one of only 13 churches in Hertfordshire included in England’s Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins (1999); of these 13 two have three stars and five (including St. Peter’s) have two. Interestingly (to the author, at least), J.P.Seddon was also the architect of Ettington Park, the Warwickshire home of the Shirley family who had the distinction of being identified in 1986 as one of the very few families who were still in possession of the lands which they had held 900 years earlier at the time of the Domesday Survey. The choice of J.P.Seddon followed an open competition. It is clear that J.L.Pearson, who had designed the earlier Victorian church and the rectory, was (perhaps understandably) not best pleased by the decision. In a letter to Rev. Henry Jephson enclosing a claim for his expenses for visiting the site in the sum of £5 19s. 3d. he wrote: ‘no doubt there was sufficient reason for not employing me.’
The chancel arch in St. Peter’s is unique; it was the first and only commission by the famous Martin Brothers for a church. The Martinware Pottery was started in Fulham in 1873 by Robert Wallace Martin, the eldest of the four brothers. In 1877 the business moved to Havelock Road, Southall, where it remained until it closed in 1923. In the church there is another unique piece of Martinware. It was made and signed by Robert Wallace Martin himself in April 1876 and is a stand for ‘Bell-metal found in the ruins of Ayot St. Peter Church destroyed by Lightning 10th July 1874.’ This refers to the lump salvaged by Rev. Henry Jephson. In early 2000 a walnut base and perspex cover were purchased so that this most unusual artefact can be displayed more effectively. Evidently both the chancel arch and the stand were produced in the early days of the pottery when it was in Fulham.
Some of the stained glass was designed by the architect. The glass at the western end is dedicated to Jane Ann Robinson of Ayot Bury (about whom more later); along the south side of the nave there are windows dedicated to William Henry Wills of Sherrards, who was a founder of Punch, an editor of the Daily News and a collaborator with Charles Dickens. By 2000 many panels were in need of refurbishment and in 2001 plans were made for funds to be raised and for the work to be put in hand. Barley Studios of York were selected to carry out this important project, and (as phase I) the nine panels in the apsaidal end were removed in December 2001. They were reinstalled in June 2002. Further phases have followed and the project was completed in the week before Easter Day 2006 (Sunday 16 April).
The lectern was also designed by Seddon and was donated by Robinson Cornish. The fine stone pulpit was donated by Mrs. Robinson. The font and the bells were the gift of the rector’s uncle, Dr. Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who also paid for his nephew’s education at Cheltenham College and Oxford University. Dr. Jephson established the fashionable and successful Royal Leamington Spa, and a park named for him is the centrepiece of the town.
The cost of the new church exceeded the estimates somewhat and accordingly some internal fittings and furnishings, the clock and the vestry were not ready to be dedicated by the Bishop of St. Albans until 8 February 1898. It appears that Mr. C.W. Wilshere (in addition to paying for the bell for the mortuary chapel) paid for the vestry because on one of its internal walls is to be found one of his chronograms. These devices were placed on buildings which he designed or paid for. The Latin inscription on the example in the vestry reads: EO ANNO EXSTRVCTVS IN QVO LVSTRA QVINQVE HAC IN PAROECHIA SVA EXPLEVIT HENRICVS IEPHSON PASTOR FIDELIS A NOBIS DILECTVS STRENVVS SAPIENSQVE RECTOR. The date of construction is picked out in capitalised letters; if the Roman numerals (V=5, X=10 and so on) are totalled the result is 1897. Some degree of subsidence is affecting the vestry today.
In the church there is a list of incumbents going back to 1291. Some of the spellings and dates on this list are suspect or certainly wrong. Notable rectors have included Rev. Charles Horn (in whose time the first register was begun), Rev. Dr. Ralph Freman (who demolished the medieval church), Rev. James Prince Lee (in whose very brief time the tithe apportionment was agreed), Rev. Edwin Prodgers and his son, also Edwin (who demolished Dr. Freman’s Georgian church and bell tower and built the Pearson church), Rev. Canon Henry Jephson (in whose time the Pearson church was destroyed and the current one was built), his successor Rev. Henry Ryland (who organised outings to the seaside and elsewhere) and Rev. Jim Davies (who was a prime mover in the establishment of the Ayots’ Horticultural Society in 1952).
It is said that when he was a curate Rev. Edwin Prodgers senior had saved a young heiress from drowning. Her name was Caroline Blades. They were married on 21 October 1828 at St. Matthew’s, Brixton, and consequently he came into a considerable fortune. On Monday mornings he would put on his red coat and go off hunting with the hounds. They had four children. One son, Edwin (who was baptised by his father at St. Matthew’s on 11 September 1833), succeeded as rector following the death of his father on 5 December 1861. The second son was Herbert (1835-1917). A daughter, Emily, was born in 1831 but died in 1850. The other daughter, called Caroline after her mother, married a captain in the Austrian navy called Giovanni Battista Giacometti on 15 February 1862 but the couple were divorced in 1871. Giocometti, who was born at Trieste, became a naturalised British subject in 1876. Caroline died at her home, 54 Queen’s Road, St. John’s Wood, on 29 April 1890 aged 60. She left an estate of £9,059 19s. 8d. Her executor was William Wright of Ayot Place, Ayot St. Peter (now called Ayot Montfitchet).
Emily Prodgers was 18 when she died on 19 March 1850. Her father died aged 75 on 5 December 1861. His widow Caroline survived him for only 15 months, dying aged 70 on 4 March 1863. These facts can be gleaned from the incription in capital letters on their fine altar tomb, which is surrounded by iron railings and is located in the north-west corner of the old churchyard. Edwin senior was baptised on 1 October 1786 at St. Swithin’s church in the city of Worcester. He left a very large estate, valued at ‘under £80,000.’ His place of death was 12 Upper Berkeley Street, Mayfair. Caroline died at the rectory and left an estate of ‘under £18,000’ in the hands of her son Edwin as executor. She was born at 5 Ludgate Hill in the city of London on 2 December 1792. She was baptised with two sisters and a brother on 19 January 1801 at St. Bride’s, Fleet Street. Her parents were John and Hannah Blades of Brockwell Hall, Surrey.
Rev. Edwin Prodgers junior married Elizabeth Ellen Surtees of Dane End, between Watton at Stone and Braughing, in the second quarter of 1864 in the registration district of Ware. Mr Prodgers gave a dinner for the villagers on Ayot Green on his wedding day. Two years later he relinquished the living and the couple moved to the Surtees family home, Dane End House. In recent times it has been the rather smart Green End Hotel. Mrs Prodgers was the daughter of a Hertfordshire landowner and persuaded him away from the church. In the 1871 census he was described as a landowner and magistrate. He died at Nice on 18 March 1918 leaving an estate of only £702 1s. 5d. The solicitor acting in its administration was a brother of Capt. Christopher Balfour (see below under WARS).
In his Book of Welwyn Richard Busby included a photograph of Rev. Henry Jephson with this intriguing caption: ‘it is said he was a bush ranger in Australia before taking holy orders.’ Bushrangers were, of course, criminals and their most famous exemplar was Ned Kelly. Sadly, no support can be found for the myth of criminality and redemption. In an obituary published in 1911 the more likely claim is made that he tried his hand at sheep farming in Queensland in the years between graduation and ordination. Australian records show that he was indeed in Queenland, droving sheep on a huge station called Forest Vale. In January 1866 he gave evidence at the trial at Toowoomba of a man accused of attempted murder at Forest Vale the previous November; and in August 1866 he was a saloon passenger on a coaster from Brisbane to Sydney, which was presumably the first leg of his passage home. Henry Jephson seems generally to have been rather conventional; he was born in 1839 in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, and matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, on 3 December 1857 when he was 18. He graduated BA in 1862. He was curate of Evesham 1867-72 (deacon 1867, priest 1868) and rector of Ayot St. Peter for 39 years from 1872 until his death on 29 November 1911 aged 72. He was buried with great mourning near the door of the mortuary chapel in the old churchyard. The grey granite cross marking his grave, shared with his wife, daughter and son (who died in World War I), was erected in February 1914 and is still to be seen in the old churchyard. A brass plate was also placed in the new church which he did so much to create. In addition, a large brass ewer ‘in pious memory of Annie Beryl Jephson’ is to this day in use for flower arrangements in the church. Henry Jephson’s daughter Annie was born in 1881 and died aged 30 in Suffolk in 1912. The memorial ewer was presumably presented to the church by her widowed mother Jane Susan Jephson (née Brown), who herself died aged 72 at Frensham in Surrey on 28 June 1917. Henry Jephson left an estate of £12,984 9s. 10d. and appointed his widow as one of his three executors. Jane Jephson’s estate was £1,636 2s. 8d. and one of her executors was her son Rev. William Vincent Jephson. He was also the executor for his younger brother, George Douglas Jephson, commander RN, who died of natural causes at Nice in 1916 leaving an estate of £4,450 5s. 11d. William Jephson played cricket for Hampshire, the MCC and Dorset between 1903 and 1925. He died near Bath in 1956.
The advowson (or right of presentation of the living) of Ayot St. Peter seems to have belonged to the lords of the manor from the earliest times, but it passed through many hands over the centuries. Shortly before 1728 it was sold to Rev. Dr. Ralph Freman and his heirs and by 1755 it was in the hands of his granddaughter Katarina. In that year she conveyed it in marriage to Hon. Charles Yorke. Their grand daughter was Anne, Countess of Mexborough.
As already mentioned, the tithe map drawn in 1838 under the scheme for replacing the medieval obligation to cede one tenth of the produce of the parish to the incumbent in kind with a monetary obligation in the form of a rentcharge. The last of the rentcharges created under these arrangements were due to extinguished on 1 October 1996 but the process was in fact expedited under the Finance Act 1977. In the case of our parish the commutation was settled by agreement between the rector and the landowners made at Ayot Bury on 26 June 1838, following a preliminary meeting in the church on 27 December 1837. The agreement was officially confirmed on 6 March 1841, which became the date of the apportionment. The total of the agreed rentcharges payable annually to the rector was £256 12s. 6d. This was a remarkably large sum – equivalent in 2000 to £129,000 using average earnings or £219,000 using per capita GDP. Lord Melbourne had to pay £165 10s. 6d. (64%). The balance was shared among five other landowners, with Levi Ames bearing the largest share at £68 2s. 6d. (27%). Four adjustments were made between 1920 and 1933 to reflect changes in land ownership and thus liability for the rentcharges.
The rector in post at the time of the commutation agreement is listed in the church as J. P. Lee; he was appointed on 10 August 1837 and was replaced by Philip Yorke Savile on 11 February 1839. He was James Prince Lee (1804-69) and was a very distinguished man. He was an alumnus of Cambridge University, where he was said to be one of the most brilliant classical scholars in that university’s history. At the same time as he was rector of Ayot St. Peter he was a master at Rugby School under Dr. Arnold. When he left his post here he became headmaster of King Edward’s School, Birmingham. His final appointment was to be the first Bishop of Manchester from 1847 until his death in 1869.
At the time of the 1841 census the Earl of Mexborough (aged 55) was living at the rectory, as was the rector, Rev. Philip Yorke Savile (aged 25). Savile was the family name of the Earls of Mexborough, and this was no doubt a case of father living with son. Lord Mexborough held the living until 1843. His widow, the Countess Anne, kept the living until 1853 when she sold it to Rev. Edwin Prodgers senior, on whose death in 1861 it passed to his son Edwin. As we have seen this latter gave up holy orders after the living had come into his hands but he retained the advowson until 1906, when it was acquired by Miss Wilshere. Cassey’s Directory for 1864 records that the living was worth £250 per annum, with a residence, and that it was in the patronage of Mrs Prodgers. According to Crockford (1890) the patron of the living was Edwin Prodgers Esq. and it yielded tithe rentcharges of £240 nominal (£194 average), Queen Anne’s Bounty of £28 and income from the Ecclesiastical [now Church] Commissioners of £80. The gross income was £302 per annum (net £243) and the rector also had the benefit of glebe land of two acres and a house. The same entry gives a population figure of 208. In contrast, the censuses of 1861 and 1871 give the population as 234 and 232 respectively; 208 may simply be the number of members of the Church of England.
Ayot Bury was the rectory in 1838 and for many years before. As we have seen, it is recorded that in 1700 Rev. Charles Horne added substantially to it. A new rectory was built in 1866-67 to the design of J.L.Pearson (the church architect) for the use of Rev. Edwin Prodgers junior. The house turned out to be very conveniently located when the Pearson church was ruined and replaced by the current church. No doubt because it had become too large for a modern rector, the 1866-67 rectory (now called the Old Rectory) was sold in February 1965 to the trustees of the Brocket Estate for £12,250. In 1962 the rector had obtained from the Church Commissioners a loan of £8,370 (secured on the glebe land) to fund the building of a smaller replacement – the house now known as the Grange – and the loan was repaid in 1965 out of the proceeds of sale. The Grange in turn was sold for £32,700 by the St. Albans Diocesan Board of Finance in January 1976 as part of the arrangements under which Ayot St. Peter was to be amalgamated with Welwyn and Ayot St. Lawrence with Kimpton. The incumbent of the large modern parish which includes Ayot St. Peter resides in 2 Ottway Walk, Welwyn.
The cure of souls
The list of incumbents does not suggest any great disturbance in the life of the parish church during the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII (1509-47). The dissolution of the monasteries occurred during the time of Rev. Henry Bullok. As for the controversial reign of Mary I (1553-58), it is perhaps noteworthy that the date of the start of the incumbency of Rev. William Doneham is unknown or unremembered and that he was replaced by Rev. John Piggott in 1559.
In 1646, during the troubled times leading to the execution of Charles I, 63 Puritan ministers of Hertfordshire petitioned the Long Parliament praying for church government according to the covenant and so on: this was signed by ‘John Birch, Ayott St. Peter’s.’ According to Non-conformity in Hertfordshire by William Urwick MA, the pastor of the Congregational church in St. Albans (1884), Rev. John Birch was appointed rector in 1641 and continued in office throughout the period of the Commonwealth (1649-60) until he died on 26 July 1682 at the age of 73. He apparently had the assistance of a curate called John Leigh who never became rector. If so, the list of incumbents in the church is wrong in that it includes Rev. John Leigh, albeit without dates. In 1655 there was a national collection for the Protestants of Piedmont which, in Hertfordshire, raised £754 14s. 3½d. to which the contribution of Little Ayott was 12s. 0d. and that of Great Ayott 19s. 7d. In 1662 Rev. John Birch conformed. In 1682 it is recorded that at Ayot St. Peter they have ‘no surplice, no Prayer Book, no minister.’ Before the year was out Nathaniel (or Nathan) Veryard was instituted as rector.
A survey of religion in Hertfordshire conducted by William Upton, a Baptist minister in St. Albans, between 1847 and 1851 was disparaging about the state of affairs in Ayot St. Peter. He found that the services conducted by Rev. Edwin Prodgers senior (usual attendance 60) were ‘cold and unevangelical.’ He noted that the Wesleyans had a usual attendance of 100 at their chapel and that about 50 children attended the National and the Sunday schools. He observed as follows: ‘The people here are ignorant and little attended to. The population is very thin and scattered.’
The earliest register of baptisms, marriages and burials begins at 7 September 1686. The register was bought by Jonathan Davis, the churchwarden, on 6 June 1721 and he copied into it the entries for prior years, which were certified as accurate by the rector, Charles Horn. The last baptism in this register took place on 26 November 1772, the last marriage on 18 February 1754 and the last burial on 14 March 1773. The early register, together with many other records, are deposited for safe keeping at the Hertfordshire County Record Office. Still in the church is the register of baptisms running from 30 August 1896 onwards. The burial register running from 1 January 1813 to 9 January 1986 shows that all burials were in the old churchyard until after the end of World War I and that some occurred from then until the mortuary chapel was demolished in 1954; the first burial in the new churchyard was that of Fred Gayler on 22 September 1919.
The parish was host to non-conformity in C19th. John Wesley had some following locally and a sister living in Hatfield. When he and his band passed through Welwyn they were cold-shouldered both by the parish church and the Independents. That is why, when they decided to set up a Wesleyan group locally, they had to go to Ayot Green, where the Ephgrave family had become devout followers. John Ephgrave (1779-1841) was born and lived in what is now 37 Ayot Green. He learned the shoe- and boot-making trade from his father (also John). On 10 July 1809 at Wheathampstead he married Maria Williams. He was so staunch a Protestant that his wife was obliged to call herself Sophia or Sophie rather than Maria. They had seven children between 1811 and 1821, and then Sophia died in 1822. John applied to the Archdeacon of Huntingdon for permission to use his cottage as a place of worship for Protestants and the licence to do so was granted on 8 May 1822. On 3 August 1829 at Ayot St Peter John at last remarried. His second wife was Elizabeth Lawrence from Codicote. In 1837 John and Elizabeth built a small Wesleyan chapel, which adjoined their home and is still visible as part of 37 Ayot Green. There were apparently congregations of over 60 people at one time (100 according to William Upton’s survey) but the chapel closed in about 1887. John Ephgrave died on 24 May 1841. In his will made in 1838 he left his business, home and chapel to Elizabeth and, on her death, to Edward Humphrey (blacksmith) and Thomas Wells (bricklayer) in trust for his children. Edward Humphrey lived next door to the Ephraves and Thomas Wells lived at 16 Ayot Green. Elizabeth’s maiden name was Westwood, and her brother Thomas Westwood was in 1851 living in Jeeves Cottage on Digswell Hill and working as the village blacksmith at the old smithy (now 39 Ayot Green). Another Ephgrave (Thomas, of Lower Handside Farm) lived nearby and was no doubt related to John; it was with Thomas that the first minister of the Welwyn Independent (or ‘Bethel’) chapel stayed when it first opened in June 1792. Among the seven children of John and his first wife were a daughter Elizabeth (b. 25 August 1818) and a son Thomas (b. 23 April 1820). Elizabeth married Charles South and they ran the shop adjoining 37 Ayot Green from about 1848 until 1886, when George Draper took over the business. Elizabeth Ephgrave died aged about 75 at the Souths’ cottage in the third quarter of 1860. Thomas was, like his father and grandfather, a shoe- and boot-maker and lived with his family in one of the two little cottages where 35 Ayot Green now stands. A local farming family, the Garratts of Ryefield Farm, were non-conformists but they were involved with churches in Welwyn and Codicote and not with the Wesleyans at Ayot Green.
There was very little local schooling prior to C18th and the clergy were usually involved with such as there was. We have a local example in that it is known that in 1626 John Rudd, the curate of Digswell, visited Ayot St. Peter from time to time to teach local boys. In Welwyn there has been a school of some sort for over 250 years. St. Mary’s school celebrated its 250th anniversary on October 1999. The rector, Dr Edward Young, managed that school and its precursor for 30 years until 1760, when he established a trust to look after it. One of the first trustees of Dr Young’s Charity named in the indenture of 15 April 1760 was Rev. Dr. Ralph Freman, the rector of Ayot St. Peter.
It is recorded that in Ayot St. Peter in the early C19th a small school for 40 pupils at the rectory (Ayot Bury) was supported by Lord Melbourne until about 1848. The 1838 tithe map shows that what is now 8, 10 and 12 Ayot Green was used as a parish school at that time. As we shall see, in 1849 John Henry Peacock of Ayot Lodge endowed a charity for the education of the children of the parish. The 1851 census records that a member of the household at the rectory was Miss Harriet Sculthorp, aged 28, a schoolmistress from Worksop in Nottinghamshire whilst that for 1861 shows that Mrs Rebecca Emily Barrow, aged 35, born in the parish of St. Dunstan’s, Fleet Street, was the schoolmistress and that she lived with her husband James (a coachman) in a cottage in Ayot St. Peter. How these schools relate is not known. Perhaps, for a time at least, there were two small schools – one at Ayot Green and the other at the rectory. The school at the rectory may have been held initially either in the main house (which seems rather unlikely) or in the lodge which formerly stood beside the entrance from School Lane. What is now called Ayot Bury Lodge was built in 1841 and it could well have served as both a schoolroom and a teacher’s residence. Perhaps in 1848-49 the financial support of Lord Melbourne was replaced by that of Mr. Peacock’s charity.
Cassey’s Directory for 1864 records a school for boys and girls supported by voluntary contributions, principally from the rector (at that time Rev. Edwin Prodgers junior). The Post Office Directory for 1870 records a National School run by Miss Warrant. She occupied the new school house at the time of the 1871 census.
In 1871, on land at Saul’s Wood (named after John Saule, 1641) made available by the 7th Earl Cowper, a National School was built with a headmaster’s house attached. In 1838 the land in question was owned by the 2nd Viscount Melbourne and occupied by two cottages, so there was both a change of owner and some demolition between 1838 and 1871. Lord Cowper’s deed of grant was dated 15 November 1871. After the school closed in 1948 the freehold was purchased by the Brocket Estate. The freeholds of Sauls Wood House and Hornbeam House (the current names of the school and the schoolhouse respectively) were sold by the trustees of the Brocket Estate in 1976.
In 1874 the school was officially inspected and the quality of the teaching was praised by the inspector. Between 1876 and 1879 the school was enlarged to accommodate 65 pupils. In 1881 the teacher was Miss Mary Smythe, who was living in the schoolhouse with her widowed mother of the same name. By 1891 the teachers were Misses Norah and Helen Pascoe. Kelly’s Directory for 1899 records an average attendance of 52 pupils, with Misses Harriet Pilgrim and Sara Newell as the schoolmistresses. These two ladies were still in post in 1901. On 4 May 1905 the Board of Education made a scheme for regulating the Charity of John Henry Peacock for Education. The scheme directed the trustees to use the income of the charity to fund educational bursaries and prizes for children of parents bona fide resident in the parish of Ayot St. Peter. In 1911 the school house was occupied by Edith Alice Bott (41, single) and her sister Jessie Grace Bott (39, single). These ladies hailed from Waltham Cross. Kelly’s Directory for 1912 confirms that the school was in the hands of the Misses Edith and Jessie Bott. The remarkable numbers of 65 and 52 give an insight into the great changes in the population profile of the parish over the last century or so. A former pupil remembers that there were two class rooms (junior and senior) and a lobby equipped with hooks and benches. A tap on the outside wall provided drinking water and the ‘dubs’ (toilets) were behind the school – very open plan with stable doors. Most of the children walked many a mile to school in their hob-nailed boots. Each child had a little patch of garden to tend. In the late 1930s pupils came from Ayot St. Lawrence by Mr Clark’s taxi, which picked children up from Dowdells Cottage as it passed. Daphne’s teacher was Miss Crowther, and she was succeeded by Mrs Higson. In 1936-37, there were 15 or so pupils. In the 1939 register Alice Higson, her husband Frederic and their son Richard were living in the schoolhouse. The village school was closed in 1948.
In the years up to and including World War II Eileen Mary Roskell operated a small private ‘dame’ school at 31 and 33 Ayot Green. The school was in one of the cottages and Miss Roskell (1880-1976) and her elderly mother Mary Gertrude Elderhorst (1854-1946) apparently lived in the other – although neither was doing so when the 1939 register was made up. Her pupils, drawn from great houses in the area, could be seen doing their physical jerks on the green in front of the cottages. Pauline Matarasso describes her time in the care of Miss Roskell and her mother in her memoir entitled A Voyage Closed and Done (2005, Michael Russell (Publishing) Limited). It is worth noting that Miss Roskell had an elder sister, Gertrude Lucinda Roskell (1879-1915), who is commemorated on the war memorials at both Welwyn and Knebworth. She served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Egypt in 1915 and was nursing in the enteric fever ward. She had only been at the hospital at Alexandria a few weeks when she was taken ill. She died of appendicitis on 31 October 1915.
Before 1885 there were six MPs for Hertfordshire (two each for the boroughs of St. Albans and Hertford and two for the rest of the county). Between 1885 and 1971 Ayot St. Peter fell into several Parliamentary constituencies, most recently Hertford, but from 1971 to date it has formed part of the Welwyn Hatfield constituency.
Great figures in the world of politics were resident at Brocket Hall in C19th, namely the 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848) and his son-in-law the 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865). Lord Melbourne was Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister and held office for over six years – for five months in 1834 and from March 1835 to September 1841. Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister for three years from March 1855 and again from June 1859 until his death. Queen Victoria visited Lord Melbourne at Brocket Hall in July 1841, but whether she set foot in the parish of Ayot St. Peter is not known.
The parish was in the Hundred of Broadwater and then from 1894 in the area of the Welwyn Rural District Council. Originally the two Ayots had separate councillors but with effect from 1 April 1965 the two parish wards were combined.
Until it was demolished towards the end of 1972 the Reading Room served as the polling station for the parish at national and local elections. For the local elections of 21 October 1972 and 12 April 1973 the polling station was at 39 Ayot Green (the Old Smithy). After that the polling station was picturesquely located in a caravan parked temporarily for the purpose on Ayot Green. In 2018 the caravan was discontinted and the polling station was located in the church.
In 2000-01 there were 145 registered electors in the parish. Prior to the boundary changes in 1986 there were about 130 electors. The parish is too small to have a parish council. Instead it has a parish meeting which is convened twice a year in April and October. Since April 2001 the meetings have been held in the parish church, for which purpose the ecclesiastical parish is paid a very welcome hire fee by the civil parish.
For almost 20 years from 1963 parish meetings dealt with the question of the ownership of the Reading Room and its site and then its demolition and the use of the compensation moneys. Early in 1966 it became known that the Great North Road was to be rebuilt as a motorway and that under one of the proposals the new road would have crossed Ayot St. Peter Road near to its junctions with Ayot Little Green Lane and Homerswood Lane. The A1(M) project naturally engaged the attention of parish meetings until it was finished in 1973. A huge effort was devoted to dealing satisfactorily with these two important issues by successive chairmen and clerks and by others in the parish – most notably Lord Sanderson, Rev. Hendrik Loysen, George Davies and Michael Banks. It is right to record that today we owe a debt of gratitude to them. At a ceremony following the parish meeting on 21 June 1968 Lord Sanderson, on behalf of the parish, presented Mr Davies with a leather desk blotter and pad in recognition of his many years of service to the parish and district.
LAW AND ORDER
The Anglo-Saxon system of mutual pledging and mutual responsibility gradually evolved into the system of parish constables, which continued in Hertfordshire until 1841. Each year a parish would appoint one of its number to be parish constable for a year. There were no wages; payment was by fee for each function performed in connection with the administration of justice. An account for the parish constable of Ayot St. Peter for the year 1778 survives, showing that the cost to the parish was £1.6.3. There is a record in the Hertford Quarter Sessions of 1680 noting the indictment of Edward Habgood, a constable of Little Ayot, for refusing to execute a warrant for the arrest of John Roberts. About 100 parish constables were supervised by a head or high constable, who was paid a wage. He was appointed by the Quarter Sessions.
In the late C18th, in response to an increasing crime rate, many farmers and tradesmen formed associations to protect their property and offered rewards for the apprehending of felons and thieves. An association formed in Stevenage was offering £10 for the conviction of murderers, housebreakers, incendiaries, highwaymen, horse-stealers and maimers.
The County Constabulary was established on 12 April 1841. Ayot St. Peter was in the Hatfield division, which extended from Harpenden to Essendon and covered 55 square miles. In his first annual report (at 31 March 1842) the chief constable recorded that 1,642 people were charged and 1,180 convicted. In the Hatfield division only two sheep were stolen and no officers were injured.
System of justice
The first surviving English written law dates from the time of Aethelberht of Kent in C7th. It showed that early Christian rulers relied on the senior clergy to enforce the laws of God and man.
The areas conquered by the Vikings were subject to Danelaw, but the majority of England was under a legal system based on custom rather than legal principles. The will of the local lord usually prevailed and any self-help in a community usually consisted of a meeting of families to sort out feuds and disputes.
As already noted, Ayot St. Peter was in the Hundred of Broadwater. Hundreds were first mentioned as legal and administrative divisions in 939. They consisted of areas containing 100 households and were further divided into 10 tithings. Broadwater was exceptionally large and was a ‘double-hundred’, and had a small detached part comprising the modern village of Totteridge right on the edge of London. Shires also came into existence around the same time and these form the basis for our present day counties. The lord of the shire would send out his reeve to look after his land and administer justice. The shire reeve became the sheriff.
The Norman conquest in 1066 left this system largely intact, as William I promised after his coronation on Christmas Day. However, his court began to be worried about the power of the reeves and sent out justiciars (bishops, courtiers and so on) to look after the king’s interests. By 1176 this system had expanded to around 30 justices who looked after six circuits. These were the original assizes. Edward III took power from the sheriffs and in 1328 a system of itinerant justices of the peace was introduced for the whole kingdom. They held sessions every quarter at Michaelmas, Epiphany, Easter and the Translation of St. Thomas. This is the origin of the system of quarter sessions. Smaller crimes and other disputes were dealt with in more regular petty sessions.
Ayot St. Peter was in the southern, Hatfield, petty sessional division of Hertfordshire. This included Hatfield, Welwyn, Digswell and Ayot St. Lawrence. In 1828 the local justices formed a new division of their own, consisting of the two Ayots, Welwyn and Digswell. The petty sessions were, until 1848, held in any suitable private premises. One such for Welwyn was the White Hart inn. The rector of Ayot St. Peter, Rev. Charles Chester (who was a justice from 1804 to 1836) would have heard cases in the White Hart. In 1939 the Welwyn bench moved their sittings to the new courthouse in Hatfield.
Happily there are not many instances of crime affecting Ayot St. Peter in the old records. There is no mention of the parish in the assize records from the reign of Elizabeth I, but there are a few from the time of James I onwards. Here are some examples taken from the Hertford sessions books (using the original spellings)-
- on 14 March 1623 John Potter, labourer, was indicted for petty larceny (in that he stole a hat, value 10d, at Ayott St. Peter on 2 February 1623 from Thomas Ruffen, gentleman) but found not guilty
- on 12 July 1669 the justices heard a petition from Margery Gibson of Little Ayott that her landlord, Mr Jesper Wilshere, be required to forgive her rent arrears so that she and her children might not utterly perish
- on 12 July 1716 John Thompson of Ayott Parva was indicted for assaulting Thomas Pursey on the footway in Ayott Parva (verdict not recorded)
- on 12 July 1756 Rachael, wife of John Bigg (labourer), of Little Ayot was indicted for stealing two ducks (value 10d) from Francis Day and four bushels of wheat (value 10d) from Thomas Salmon, found guilty and sentenced to be whipped next Saturday between 10.00 and 12.00 from the Old Cross in Hertford through Maidenhead Street and the Butchers Market thence to gaol and to suffer the same next Saturday fortnight
- on 22 July 1765 a maintenance order was made in respect of the bastard son of Isaac Rainsdon (file maker) of Little Ayot and Mary Serry of Wellwyn
- on 16 May 1792 an appeal against a warrant removing Thomas Holloway (labourer) and his six children from Ayott St. Peter was dismissed
- at the Lent assize 1824 Joseph Faulkener and John Richardson, both of Ayot St. Peter, were jointly indicted for the larceny of 200 pigeons (£10), a half bushel of oats (1s) and a whip (3s), the property of John and Samuel Wright and on 4 March each was sentenced to seven years’ transportation although Joseph Faulkener was later pardoned
- on 26 January 1828 James Miles (labourer) of Ayott St. Peter was convicted of poaching at night in Saul’s Wood (in the occupation of John Wright) and sentenced to six months’ hard labour
- on 28 December 1833 William Sullivan (labourer) of Ayot St. Peter was convicted of stealing a watch (£1) and a seal (1s) from George Wardall (labourer) and sentenced to one month’s hard labour and to be whipped
- at the Summer Assize 1849 Charles Wells of Shoreditch was convicted of breaking and entering the dwelling house of Rev. Edwin Prodgers at Ayot St. Peter and stealing a variety of valuable items, and for this and two similar offences committed elsewhere he was sentenced to ten years’ transportation
It is possible to suggest identities for some of the victims. In 1838 and subsequently, William Wright was the farmer at Place Farm (later Ayot Place or Ayot Montfitchet). In the 1841 census William’s age was given as 40, but (as was usually the case with this census) it will have been rounded down to the nearest multiple of five. The fields to the north of Saul’s Wood formed part of Place Farm. Neither John nor Samuel Wright appeared on the tithe map or in the 1841 census. It seems likely, therefore, that John was the farmer at Ayot Place and that he was succeeded by his son William. Perhaps Samuel was John’s brother. It is tempting to think that George Wardall was in some way related to the Wardill family who bought properties at Ayot Green in 1913, but impossible to prove. We have, of course, already encountered Rev. Edwin Prodgers senior, who was living at Ayot Bury as rector in 1849.
As to the offenders, in 1838 the tithe map named John Falkner as the occupier of Rose Cottage (14 Ayot Green). On census night in 1841 John was not at home; his wife Elizabeth (rounded age 60) was listed as living in the cottage with their daughter, another Elizabeth (rounded age 25). In the old churchyard there is a headstone recording that Elizabeth Faulkner, spinster, daughter and only child of Joseph John and Elizabeth Faulkner, died on 31 January 1844 aged 35 and that Elizabeth Faulkner, wife of Joseph Faulkner, died on 17 November 1847 aged 70. It seems likely that Joseph Faulkener (1824), John Falkner (1838) and Joseph John Faulkner (1844) are one and the same person. It also seems likely (despite his absence from home in 1841) that he was still alive in 1847: his wife is memorialised rather than his widow, and if he did not arrange and pay for the headstone and inscription then who did? We have not traced his death in the indexes from 1837 onwards but this could well be because of the variations in the spelling of the surname. No Richardsons or Sullivans are to be found on the tithe map or in the 1841 census. The same applies to the name Miles. On the other hand, William and Mary Males lived at 21 Ayot Green, and James could have been one of their sons. They had two children living with them in 1841, at which date William’s (rounded) age was given as 60 and Mary’s as 40. As to Charles Wells, his is a not uncommon name and he is identified as ‘of Shoreditch.’ It is, however, certainly possible that he knew of the concentration of wealth at Ayot Bury from childhood. In 1838 and 1841 John Wells lived at 16 Ayot Green and James Wells lived at 3 Ayot Green. John (65 in 1841) and his wife Sarah (60) had several children. James seems to have been their son, and they certainly had another son called Thomas (35 in 1841). The Wells family were unusual. John Wells was one of only nine owner occupiers in the parish in 1838. He owned 16 Ayot Green, where he lived, and (coincidentally) 14 Ayot Green, where the Falkners lived. James Wells was equally unusual in that his landlord at 3 Ayot Green was not the ubiquitous Lord Melbourne but one of the four absentee landlords, Richard Rainsdon, and in that he and his family occupied the whole of a building which on the tithe map is shown as comprising two dwellings. We can safely conclude that the Wells family had wealth and station above the level of most of their neighbours. John, James and Thomas were all described as bricklayers in the 1841 census, but it would perhaps be more accurate, in today’s usage, to describe them as builders. Given that, as we shall shortly learn, Charles Wells received favourable treatment ‘beyond the seas’ it seems reasonable to conjecture that he was an errant son (or nephew or cousin) of the Wells family of Ayot Green. En passant, it must be a possibility that the owner of 3 Ayot Green was the bastard son of Isaac Rainsdon for whose benefit the maintenance order was made on 22 July 1765, or one of his sons.
The fates of the two men sentenced to transportation to Australia for offences committed in Ayot St. Peter have been investigated, and the results are quite interesting – if only because of the fact that the name of the then owner of most of the land in the parish was bestowed upon Australia’s newly established second city in March 1837 and that the connection lives on in the parish in the name of Melbourne Stud.
John Richardson was among 172 men who sailed from London on the ‘Minerva’ on 14 July 1824. She was a ship of 530 tons built at Lancaster. She took 128 days to reach Sydney by way of the Cape of Good Hope, arriving on 19 November 1824. 170 men were disembarked, only two having died on the voyage. This was the fourth convict trip undertaken by the ‘Minerva.’ According to his convict indent, John Richardson was born in 1792 at Strood in Kent; height 5’10”; colour of eyes hazel; hair light brown; complexion pale, fresh; remarks good; calling groom. Only one week after arriving in Sydney, on 26 November 1824 he sailed on the ‘Sally’ up the coast of New South Wales to Port Macquarie, where he was to be a ‘government employee’ for the next seven years until the anniversary of his sentence on 4 March 1831. Port Macquarie was established in 1821 as a settlement for convicts banished for crimes committed in New South Wales. He was probably sent there because the authorities in Sydney believed that this was his second sentence of transportation. According to the indent he had previously been transported under the name Edward Footman. On 12 January 1814 a man of that name, aged 24, was convicted at the Middlesex General Gaol Delivery, sentenced to seven years and sailed on the ‘Baring’, arriving in Sydney on 7 September 1815. By 1821-22 he would have been free to return to England. How it was that he came to be in Ayot St. Peter in 1823 with Joseph Faulkener stealing from John and Samuel Wright we shall never know. Certainly his first sentence was served when New South Wales was a very young colony – it was established at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.
Charles Wells went to Swan River (Perth) in Western Australia. Transportation to New South Wales had ended long before 1853 but, for male convicts only, it was to continue in Western Australia until 1868. His ship, the ‘Pyrenees’, was of 832 tons and built at Sunderland. On her second convict voyage, having embarked 296 men (including Charles Wells), she sailed on 2 February 1853 and, after 87 days, disembarked 293 on 30 April 1853. According to the local records, on arrival in Western Australia Charles Wells (who was allotted the convict number 1963) was aged 24 (and therefore born in 1829), 5’5” tall and had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, an oval face, fair skin, stout build and a scar on his right wrist. He was a warehouseman and unmarried. Charles Wells was granted a ticket-of-leave on 1 May 1853 – the day after his arrival. Whereas in New South Wales tickets-of-leave were only granted to newly-arrived convicts who possessed property or social standing, or had been transported for an action not involving criminal turpitude, in Western Australia prior to 1857 they were not infrequently issued on or about the day of arrival. The authorities did not want too many convicts in Perth or Fremantle and labour was needed in rural areas. The holder of a ticket-of-leave did not have to work as an assigned man for a master and he was free from the claims of forced government labour; he could spend his sentence working for himself, wherever he pleased, as long as he stayed within the colony. In this case the ticket-of-leave expired in August 1860 – which is rather odd, because it was more than seven years from the date of issue of his ticket-of-leave and more than 10 years from the date of his conviction. Furthermore, it is recorded that Charles Wells left Western Australia for South Australia (which is proud of the fact that, although carved out of New South Wales as early as 1836, it was never part of the transportation scheme) on the ship ‘Lochinvar’ in March 1857. It was not usual for ticket-of-leave men to be allowed residence in South Australia – indeed every person arriving in South Australia from Western Australia in the early 1860s had to carry a document stating that he had never been a convict. A possible explanation is that Charles Wells was working for a free settler who decided to move to South Australia and successfully petitioned for our convict to go with him; another is that he was on his way to the goldfields in Victoria.
Whether today there are descendants of either John Richardson or Charles Wells ‘down under’ and whether they have prospered is not known. Both names are too common to make a search practicable. Such an outcome would not be particularly unusual and it would be a ground for pride and celebration these days – although unmentionable in polite company as recently as 40 years ago.
There is a dearth of records about criminality in Ayot St. Peter in C20th. This is because successive chief constables have ordered police records to be destroyed. From 1898 to 1914 all records over 10 years old were destroyed. During World War I, for fear that they might fall into enemy hands, all records over two years old went the same way. The same line was taken during World War II, and furthermore the barn in which were stored such records as there were was hit by a bomb.
Until 1914-18 the impact of war on the parish and its inhabitants appears to have been slight.
Whether Julius Caesar and his army marched across land which is now part of the parish at the time of his battle with Cassivellaunus and the Catuvellauni at Wheathampstead in 54BC cannot be known. It is clearly not impossible. Similarly, how (if at all) the invasion by Claudius in 43 affected the area is not known. The Icenian revolt under Boudicca was suppressed in 60 after the sack of Colchester, London and St. Albans. Given that the road between St. Albans and Colchester ran through what is now Ayot St.Peter, the forces of either the Romans or the Icenians or both may well have passed through: again, we shall never know.
There is very little evidence of local involvement with the campaigns of the middle ages. However, it is worth noting that Sir John Peryent (whose family, as we have seen, held several manors including Ayot St. Peter in C15th and 16th and who died in 1432) twice appeared on the muster rolls to provide men-at-arms. In the first instance he had to help the newly-crowned Henry IV at Cirencester in 1400 to suppress an armed insurrection. This was presumably connected in some way with the revolt in Wales headed by Owen Glendower. More strikingly, he had to provide three men-at-arms and nine foot-archers for Henry V’s expedition to France in 1415, which culminated in the Battle of Agincourt. Whether any of the men provided by Sir John lived in Ayot St. Peter is not known but it is obviously a possibility.
It is recorded that in 1585 Sir John Brocket of Brocket Hall was entrusted with the training and inspection of the men who were levied and trained in these parts at the start of the tension with Spain which culminated in the Armada (July 1588). The local contingent (who clearly may have included men from Ayot St. Peter) were sent to the camp at Tilbury, where they were placed under the command of Sir Rowland Lytton, the Lord Lieutenant of the County.
In the Civil War the sympathies of Hertfordshire were generally with Parliament, but any direct impact of the struggle on the parish and its population cannot now be detected.
By C18th the parish officers had responsibility for providing men for militia service. Any man unable to serve had to find a substitute. Thus it was that in 1762 John Day of Ayot St. Peter, having been chosen by lot to serve in the militia on 23 September 1761, offered William Dowsing as his substitute. The parish officers were ordered to pay Dowsing £5 for his service – this being one half of the rate payable to a volunteer in Hertfordshire for one year’s service. The order was signed by two Deputy Lieutenants for the County. One of these was William Cowper (1731-1800). He it was who converted the slave ship captain John Newton to Christianity. Newton (1725-1807) was ordained and wrote ‘Amazing Grace,’ which was the coded story of his own conversion and became the anthem of the movement to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. Abolition was achieved in the year of Newton’s death.
Among those who served in the army abroad in the days of empire was Lt. Alfred Howard Reynolds, Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was born at Highgate on 16 November 1877, the son of Sir Alfred and Lady Reynolds of Digswell House (1901) and Ayot Bury (1911). He died at Meerut, India, on 1 November 1904 and was buried there. His father was the administrator of his modest estate of £591 10s. 0d. He is commemorated in the old churchyard on the tomb of his father and mother, who died in 1931 and 1936 respectively.
Also in the old churchyard lies buried another such, namely Capt. Christopher Egerton Balfour DSO. Capt. Balfour was born at Shanklin, Isle of Wight, on 14 August 1872 and ‘served in the defence of Ladysmith and throughout the Boer War.’ The badge of the King’s Own Royal Rifle Corps adorns his granite monument. Capt. Balfour’s father was Archibald Balfour (1840-1922), who at the age of 10 in 1851 was among the 76 boys boarding at the recently-established St. Peter’s College, Radley, and who became a merchant in the Russia trade. He left an estate of £57,444 15s. 6d. Capt. Balfour married Dorothy Cecilia Paget on 28 October 1902 at St. Luke’s, Chelsea. There were two children of the marriage: Cecilia Christina born in 1904 at Cork and May Lettice born in 1907 at Welwyn. Capt. Balfour died aged 35 on 29 July 1907 in the Hatfield registration district. On 21 October 1907 Rev. Henry Jephson baptised May Lettice Balfour, the daughter of the late Capt. Balfour and his wife Dorothy Cecilia. The two girls were staying with their grandparents at 65 Pont Street, Chelsea, on census night in 1911; we have been unable to trace their mother in this census but she was to remarry in 1912 and to die in Italy in 1936 leaving an estate of only £894 1s. 0d. Her second husband was Reginald Charles Lowry Corry, who appears to have had no occupation and died at Worthing in 1945 leaving an estate of £4,076 15s. 5d.
As for the whole country the impact of what, at the time, was called the Great War was quite traumatic for the parish. No fewer than 20 men are commemorated on the war memorial in the churchyard. It was unveiled in 1919 with 19 names on it and repaired and refurbished in the spring of 2000 when the 20th name was added. A service was held on 4 May 2000 when the war memorial was re-dedicated. At the Remembrance Sunday service in 2014 short accounts of the lives of all 20 men were read out by members of the congregation. The accounts have been bound in a book, which will be kept in the parish chest in the vestry for future reference. It is worth noting that in World War I the Reading Room was apparently used as a drill hall.
Unusually, no names were added to the war memorial after World War II. This must mean that no resident of the parish was a casualty in that war. Presumably unknown to all but those who needed to know, work of the highest secrecy went on just to the north of the parish at The Frythe – ingenious weapons were designed and produced there at what was Station 9 of the Special Operations Executive, intended for use by (for instance) agents parachuted or flown into occupied France. It was to be blown up rather than fall into enemy hands, and Ayot Green was incorporated into plans for its defence in the event of invasion. There was an anti-aircraft battery beside an oak tree on Linces Farm. Brocket Hall became a maternity home. In addition, sharp eyed villagers will have caught sight of experimental aircraft like the Mosquito and Vampire from de Havilland’s at Hatfield as they flew over on circuits.
The aristocracy and gentry (including the rectors) are known to have followed the traditional country pursuits. In Brocket Park Lord Melbourne had a racecourse, apparently visited by the Prince Regent (later George IV) in 1803. Melbourne Stud, Messers Stables and the Horse & Jockey are names associated with the racecourse. In the C19th census returns are to be found jockeys, horse trainers and attendants at stables. The Enfield Chase has held occasional meets in the parish.
For the majority of villagers, however, there will have been few opportunities for leisure until quite recent times. The arrival of the branch railway line in 1860 and the opening of Ayot station in 1877 ushered in a broadening of experience for residents of the parish. Excursion trains operated from Ayot station to seaside resorts such as Skegness, Great Yarmouth and Clacton. The third class return fare from Ayot to Clacton was 8s (40p). Special trains were laid on to the annual horse races at Harpenden and to other attractions. For instance, on Saturday 1 August 1903 villagers could have taken a train from Ayot to Wood Green for Alexandra Park races for a return fare of £0.2.3.
A social club was established in 1884, principally at the instigation of Rev. Henry Jephson, and a small hall for its use was built in the north-east corner of Ayot Green – the Reading Room. How its construction was financed can now, unfortunately, only be the subject of conjecture. By 1884 the site would have been in the ownership of the Cowper Estate and in 1970 it was assumed that the site had passed into the ownership of the Brocket Estate. It would have been entirely in character if the 7th Earl Cowper had made the site available for a peppercorn rent and had also contributed to the cost of construction. Equally, the rector and George Robinson of Ayot Bury very probably contributed. The building work was presumably carried out (using Ayot bricks) by villagers employed at the brickworks. The Reading Room was the venue for the commemoration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 and again when her diamond jubilee was celebrated 10 years later. Henry Garratt, a direct descendant of the builder of Ryefield Farm, has told us that he thinks that Ernest Garratt, the eldest son of Joseph Garratt (who left fascinating notes of his childhood at Ryefield Farm which have been transcribed by Henry and made available to us) won the first prize for one of the children’s races held on Ayot Green in 1897. Sunday schools, whist drives and other community functions were held in the Reading Room.
It is recorded that cricket was played on Ayot Green. In 1890 CF Morris was the captain and JT Wells the secretary of the cricket club. James Thomas Wells and his family were living at Ayot Green in 1891 (apparently but not certainly at no. 9) but no one named Morris was recorded as present in the census of that year. Exactly where on the green the cricket square was located is a mystery.
On 26 June 1902 Lady Mountstephen gave a tea party at Brocket Hall for some 600 Lemsford and Ayot folk to mark the coronation of King Edward VII – which in the event had to be delayed until 9 August. On 2 June 1953 the present Queen’s coronation was marked by games and sports on Ayot Green commencing at 4 p.m. (after the day had been spent in the Reading Room watching the pageantry on television). From 9 p.m. the day was rounded off with a bonfire and a fireworks display. The coronation was also commemorated by new oak gates for the churchyard, which lasted for 52 years. It appears that Basil (later Lord) Sanderson of Ayot Bury arranged for the gates to be made by shipwrights employed by one of the shipping lines with which he was associated – probably Shaw Savill.
In April 2006 the oak coronation gates were replaced by a replica pair, using the original ironwork. The new gates were the generous gift of the ladies who keep the church beautifully decorated with flowers throughout the year.
The silver jubilee of Elizabeth II in 1977 was not marked by any particular celebration at Ayot St. Peter. The queen’s golden jubilee in 2002 again passed without any events comparable with those arranged in 1887. However, the parish did secure a grant of £250 from Welwyn Hatfield Council to mark the golden jubilee. This sum went towards the cost of rebuilding a section of the churchyard wall, which incorporates a brick incised with suitable wording. As we have seen, the diamond jubilee in 2012 was marked by the installation of a new notice board for the civil parish. It also so happens that in 2012 the road frontage of the church was improved by the replacement of the pitted and muddy verge alongside the wall with a surface of ‘grasscrete’ paving. The work was carried out by Hertfordshire County Council.
The Ayots’ Horticultural Society was founded at a meeting held at the home of George Davies, Ayot Lodge (1 Ayot Green), on Monday 20 October 1952. As already mentioned, the prime mover was the rector, Rev. Jim Davies. He was appointed as the first chairman, and volunteered to invite the 2nd Lord Brocket to become president – which he agreed to. The first treasurer and secretary were W S Messer (then living at Ayot St. Lawrence but later at 41 Ayot Green) and A A Wells respectively. The first event was a talk at Ayot St. Peter school on Friday 21 November 1952 at 8 p.m. on the subject of ‘The growing and preparation of vegetables for exhibition.’ In 1953 there were two shows: on Saturday 27 June (in conjunction with the church fête across the road in the garden of the Rectory) and what was called ‘the main autumn show’ on Saturday 5 September. There were 271 entries for the autumn show, held at Ayot St. Peter school. George Davies won the challenge cup; second prize (a load of manure given by Ernie Jeakings) went to Mrs F K Turnbull of Ayot St. Lawrence. The first annual general meeting was held at Ayot St. Lawrence village hall on Thursday 29 October 1953, at which point the society had 56 members and cash of £17.9.3. The first show to be held in a marquee on Ayot Green was the 1957 autumn show on Saturday 21 September, when there were 350 entries. The committee thought it right to ask Lord Brocket’s consent to the use of the green for this purpose – which he cordially gave. It is minuted that Charlie Potter had arranged with Inspector Winser from Welwyn Garden City for an hourly inspection of the marquee during the nights of the show! The 1957 summer show on 29 June was the last to be held in the school hall. At the autumn show in 1960 there were no fewer than 567 entries and the society had 130 members. For over 25 years the two shows have been consolidated into one, held in a marquee on Ayot Green in July. It remains an important feature of life in the parish. Usually the show is followed by a party in the evening. On 15 July 1977 a barn dance was held in the marquee to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee.
The Ayots Women’s Institute was founded on 2 December 1969. Its rules were adopted at the first meeting, held in the Reading Room on 15 January 1970. The 30th anniversary was celebrated at a meeting in January 2000. The Ayots WI, like the Horticultural Society, brings together the people of the two Ayots. So it is that members have produced an attractive appliqué wall hanging showing features of the two parishes to mark the year 2000. It is currently displayed in St. Peter’s. Reports of the doings of the Ayots WI are regularly reported in The Welwyn Magazine.
The Reading Room was demolished when the A1(M) was under construction in 1972. At the time of its demolition the hall was called the Reading Room but in the parish magazines of 1948 it was called the Parish Hall, and in those of the 1960s the Ayot Green Hall. The sum paid by way of compensation (over £7,500) became the capital fund or endowment of the Ayot St. Peter Recreation Ground Charity. As a result, since 1981 the residents of Ayot St. Peter have had the use of a hard tennis court on a site adjoining 31 Ayot Green.
The village sometimes entered the Best Kept Village competition organised annually by the Hertfordshire Society and won a prize in 1961. In 1984 it came second in its group and won a prize of five trees which were strategically planted by volunteers around the parish. In July 1986 it was the winner of the Best Kept Hamlet. The Lord Lieutenant of the county, David Bowes-Lyon, attended a ceremony on Ayot Green at which the winner’s sign was unveiled. It stayed in place (where the lanes divide) for a year. In recent years the policy of the parish meeting has been against further participation in this competition.
There is ample scope for the golfers of the parish to indulge their passion. There has been a golf course at Welwyn Garden City for many years. It used to come right up to the rear fence of the Waggoners and run alongside the Great North Road – onto which balls could be hit all too easily. The course had to undergo major change to its layout when the A1(M) was built. There are recently built courses at Danesbury, Lamer Park and Mill Green and there is Mid-Herts Golf Club at Gustard Wood, which is over 100 years old. Two golf courses (and a nine-hole ‘executive’ course) have been built in Brocket Park. The first, called the Melbourne, was built when the current Lord Brocket was still involved with the management of the park and house. It opened in 1992 and the second course, named the Palmerston, was built in 1998-99 and nine of its 18 holes were officially opened on 9 September 1999. The remaining nine holes opened on 5 June 2000. Ternex (London) Limited supplied the fine timber structure for the clubhouse, which serves both courses.
Film-makers are occasionally attracted to the parish. For instance, scenes for Stephen Spielberg’s Band of Brothers were filmed on the Ayot Greenway where it leaves the parish at Hunter’s Bridge.
WELFARE BEFORE THE WELFARE STATE
Poor law administration was in the hands of the vestry. The parish was in the Hatfield Union for these purposes. In the Hertfordshire County Record Office there are tables for the poor law rate for Ayott Parva for 1749, 1767, 1770 and 1772. The overseers calculated that at 6d in the £ the parish was worth £9.9.3 in 1749 but only £9.7.0 in the three later years. There was, therefore, modest deflation (probably to do with agricultural depression) and certainly no inflation. Of the £9.7.0 the principal overseer himself owed £4.5.6. In 1767 the total paid by way of relief to the poor of the parish was £34.18.6.
John Henry Peacock, who was living at Ayot Lodge in 1838, died on 27 November 1849 and in his will dated 4 May in the year of his death he established two charitable funds. First, he left £333 6s. 8d. invested in 3% Consols for the benefit of the poor. The annual interest of £10 was to be applied in purchasing clothing, blankets and fuel on Christmas Day for the poor. Secondly, as already mentioned, he left another £333 6s. 8d. invested in Reduced 3% Consols to produce £10 per annum for education. Both charities still existed in 2000. The Charity of John Henry Peacock for the Poor had the registered number 238481 and that for Education number 310960. At the beginning of 2000 their combined assets totalled just over £600. The Peacock family tomb is one of the finest in the old churchyard.
George, Lord Mountstephen (1829-1921) was tenant of Brocket Hall from 1892 until his death. He was President of the Bank of Montreal and first President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He established the Ayot St. Peter and Lemsford Nursing Home, known as the Mountstephen Trust. The nursing home was closed and sold in 1952. The proceeds of sale were allocated as to two thirds to Lemsford and one third to Ayot St. Peter. On 26 March 1996 Ayot St. Peter PCC received the sum of £6,689.41 following the winding-up of this charity.
Under his will dated 18 September 1934 the 1st Lord Brocket (who died just under nine weeks later on 21 November) left £250 to the rector to be applied for the benefit of the poor of the parish of Ayot St. Peter. Like the two Charities of John Henry Peacock, Lord Brocket’s Charity for the Poor still existed in 2000. It had registered number 258076 and at the beginning of 2000 it had assets totalling approximately £225. During 2000 these three small charities were wound up (following the proper procedures laid down by the Charity Commission) and their assets were remitted to Ayot St. Peter PC
The important Roman road from St. Albans (Verulamium) to Ermine Street at a point near Braughing (a distance of 19 miles) ran through the parish from the south west to the north east. Also near Braughing there was a connection to Stane Street (the modern A120), which ran eastwards through Great Dunmow and Braintree to Colchester (Camulodunum). It is known that the road through the parish forded the River Lea at Waterend and the River Mimram at Welwyn, very near to where the bridge in the High Street stands today. The hill up from the ford to Sparrowhall Cottages is on the line of the Roman road. It has been suggested that from this point to Welwyn it may have followed the line of an ancient trackway which passed through Warren Wood and past the old churchyard. It seems, however, that in typical Roman fashion it in fact took a straight course from Sparrowhall Cottages. The line of the road enters the parish very close to the southern buttresses of Hunters Bridge and continues in a north-easterly direction (for a short distance on the line of the dismantled railway) to the point where it crosses Ayot St. Peter Road between the old and new churchyards. The crossing point is marked by a barely discernible hump in the road and, on the north side, by a field gate into the grounds of Ayot Bury. Inside the gate the road ran in a long, narrow spinney for 150 metres to the small open area between the two stiles on the public footpath. On the 1838 tithe map the field (no. 59) abutting the spinney, which was part of the glebe and on which the Grange and the Old Rectory have subsequently been built, was called Strattons Field. This is a Saxon name meaning ‘the enclosure on the street’ and is good corroboration for the line of the road. From the northern stile the footpath runs on the line of the Roman road straight across a field to another stile in School Lane. The line then runs through Rectory Wood – where the road was known as Grimshalestreet in C14th and C15th – but no trace of the road can be seen today. It leaves the parish on School Lane, Welwyn, just to the west of the entrance to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital. Beyond the hospital entrance its line is marked by the hedges forming the northern boundaries of the houses in School Lane (which itself runs parallel to the line of the road). The Romans probably followed very closely, if not precisely, the line of a road made by the Catuvellauni to link what were their pre-Roman settlements at St. Albans and Colchester. There is evidence that this road remained in use until C6th. When it was built is unknown, but it presumably dates from some time between the successful invasion of Britain by Claudius in 43 and, say, 150.
Another Roman road, a lateral way about nine miles long, began (or ended) in the parish. It left the principal road at the open space between the stiles in the grounds of Ayot Bury and headed off in a west-north-westerly direction towards the old churchyard. A short length of Ayot St. Peter Road at Ayot Bury Cottage, and the field track beside Tamarisk Cottage, are on the line of this road. There is no trace of it as it crosses the field in a straight line towards Dowdell’s Wood, but in the wood itself the line of the road is clearly marked by a bank which runs parallel to the modern road until its junction with the road from Wheathampstead to Codicote. On the centre line of this road the line of the Roman road leaves the parish. The road continued in a slight arc until it joined Watling Street at Friar’s Wash, close to junction 9 on the M1. It crossed two other Roman roads leading north from Verulamium – at Bride Hall, Ayot St. Lawrence, and at Gustardwood Common. We now know that this secondary road continued across the principal road in a south-easterly direction to join Ermine Street in the vicinity of Hoddesdon – making it therefore a little like a Roman M25. Its line crosses Knightsfield at its junction with Ingles in Welwyn Garden City. The diviners dated its construction to 280 at the crossing point in our parish.
The minor roads of the parish in 1838 are, with one or two exceptions, in the same use and alignment today. They remain narrow (mostly single track). In Ayot Rectory Carola Oman described a journey along the lanes of the parish on the night of Thursday 22 September 1831 in this way: ‘They seemed to be driving into a tunnel of brilliant autumn leaves. Branches were interlaced overhead; tawny foliage, close on either side, brushed the sides of the new chariot. The sound was sweet, but the coachman began to mutter. The passengers moved strangely towards one another as they shattered over large bumps. These rural roads, under parish maintenance, unsurfaced, undrained, were not at all desirable for chariots, let alone those inside. Ellen wondered, but forbore to vex her caro-sposo by asking what happened if they met another vehicle. There certainly was not room for even a man on a horse to pass.’
There was a track (as important in 1838 as any of the others) which ran from where Hill House stands on Waterend Lane to the north edge of Little Hocketts Wood (called Brocket Wood on the tithe map) where there was a T junction. To the right the track went on north along the side of Sauls Wood to emerge at the current T junction near the church and thus making it a crossroads at that time; to the left it went off in a great sweep around the eastern side of Ayot Place. No bridges were provided for these two tracks where they were intersected by the Dunstable branch railway so they both became footpaths only and for the most part survive as such today – at some points in quite deep cuttings betraying their more important former status. It is from such sunken or hollow roads that we get the name Holloway.
The principal Roman road north out of London was Ermine Street, which ran up through Ware to Royston. By the late C17th this road, very heavily used by waggons and packhorses, had become unsatisfactory for ‘polite’ traffic. A reasonable road ran from London to Hatfield through Barnet and Potters Bar, and a branch of the Roman road from St. Albans to Colchester ran from Welwyn north through Stevenage to Baldock and thence on through Sandy to meet Ermine Street at Godmanchester. Minor tracks from Hatfield to Stanborough, Lemsford and Welwyn were improved to provide a link. This road through the middle of Hertfordshire became known as the Great North Road and the road through Ware became the Old North Road. It was, of course, the stretch from Lemsford to Welwyn which passed Ayot Green. For a few hundred yards the western edge of the Great North Road was the eastern boundary of the parish. Since 1986 that boundary has been along the middle of the central reservation of the A1(M), making ‘beating the bounds’ at this point both life-threatening and illegal.
A turnpike trust based in Welwyn was established in 1726 to improve and maintain the Great North Road between Lemsford and Baldock. The trust set up a turnpike at Ayot Green in about 1730 and took over a newly-built cottage on the east side of the road to accommodate the gatekeeper. It had been built on waste land owned by the lord of the manor of Digswell which was given in 1723 to Henry Bethell and Mary his wife to build a cottage. The building was completed by 1728. It is recorded that in 1735 Nicholas Ludford, the gatekeeper at Ayot Green, was accused of stealing tolls of £5 4s. 0d.,which he had reported to the turnpike trust as missing. In early C19th the trust engaged the son of Thomas Telford to straighten the road between the Bull at Stanborough and Welwyn. As a result, Lemsford was by-passed, Brickwall Hill ran in a straight line from Valley Road to the Waggoners and the alignment of Digswell Hill from the Red Lion to Welwyn was improved. The son of John Macadam was then engaged to provide a good surface for this new and better road. The 1838 tithe map shows the toll house occupied by the Welwyn turnpike trust at Ayot Green on the east side of the Great North Road, and the gate (turnpike) itself blocking the road. The toll house remained in the hands of the turnpike trust until 1877 when it and another some miles away were sold together for £24 10s. 0d. It is said that in 1877, when the toll-bar was removed and the trust ceased to function, the landlord of the Red Lion celebrated by putting a cask of beer on Ayot Green for all to help themselves. In the 1871 census Adolphus Dye (toll collector) was living in the cottage as were Thomas Halsey (woodman), his wife Sarah, their four children and Sarah’s mother Mary Nash. Thomas Halsey was born in about 1836 at what is now 39 Bridge Road, Welwyn Garden City, and is the oldest property in the town, dating as it does from 1604. His father was John Halsey, and he had a brother George who was born in 1840 and lived at Pond Cottage (now no. 11), Ayot Green from 1871 onwards. The eldest son of John Halsey was another John, who was still living at 39 Bridge Road in his 90s when the garden city was inaugurated in 1920. Thomas and Sarah Halsey were still living in the old toll house in 1881 but by now with six children. Thomas Halsey died in February 1887 as a result of an accident sustained in the course of his work as a woodman in Sherrards Wood; his widow Sarah remarried and moved away. The toll house was occupied by Mr Munday in the 1930s and known informally as ‘the house in the woods.’
The Great North Road from the early C18th presented opportunities for trade where it skirted the parish, and no doubt provided the spur for the eastward migration of its centre of gravity. It seems likely that most of the houses facing Ayot Green in 1838 had been built only in the previous 100 years since the establishment of the turnpike trust. People engaged in trade were attracted to the non-conformist churches and it is probably no accident that by 1822 there was a Wesleyan chapel attached to a cottage in owner occupation at Ayot Green.
What had been an opportunity became a threat in the 1960s when schemes for the improvement of the Great North Road, by then more prosaically known as the A1 trunk road, were under consideration. As already mentioned, under at least one of the proposals the new A1(M) would have sliced through the parish between Ayot Green and St. Peter’s church and, no doubt, completely ruptured any connection between the two parts of the parish. In all probability the eastern part would then have ended up amalgamated into Welwyn Garden City under the banner of rationalisation. It is worth noting here that in Louis de Soisson’s plan for Welwyn Garden City (1920) the woodland between Brockswood Lane and the branch railway line is entirely replaced by housing, with a new service road emerging onto the old Great North Road opposite the turn into Ayot Green. Had this plan been carried through the A1(M) would surely have had to be built further to the west. In the scheme for the A1(M) finally implemented (which was known as Scheme 19 of the Eastern Roads Construction Unit of the Ministry of Transport, and which was approved following a public enquiry held at Hertford on 17 March 1970) the parish was cut off from the Red Lion and the telephone box, lost Jeeves Cottage and the Reading Room (but not its monetary value) and gained Brickwall Cottage and the Waggoners. All in all this cannot be said to be too bad a result given the alternatives. Preliminary works for the new road began in May 1971. These included the construction of a temporary bridge just to the south of the line of the permanent structure. The main contract was let to Budge of Retford. Work began in February 1972 and the road was opened for traffic in August 1973.
Scheme 19 originally involved also the widening and straightening of Ayot St. Peter Road. This was vigorously opposed by Lord Sanderson, Rev. Hendrik Loysen and others and as a result of their efforts the only vestige of this part of the Scheme to be implemented was the removal of the railway bridge and buttresses, with some modest widening and landscaping, near the junction with Ayot Little Green Lane.
The A1(M) is the source of very considerable noise pollution which affects much of the parish, particularly when the wind is from an easterly direction.
By 1843 both the east and west of Hertfordshire were served by railways but there was no development in the centre. In 1845 a cross-country railway from Luton to Chelmsford and Maldon, which would have run through both Ayot parishes, was proposed but it failed to go ahead for want of capital. The intention of the promoters of the main line to Peterborough and the north was to go by way of the Mimram valley (so that the great expense and difficulty of the Welwyn viaduct and tunnels could be avoided) and this would have involved the line touching Ayot St. Peter at its north-eastern extremity. Great landowners in the Kimpton area blocked this scheme.
By 1850 the Great Northern Railway had opened its main line from King’s Cross to Peterborough over the viaduct. Two branch lines left the main line in open country at what is now Welwyn Garden City station: one went east to Hertford and the other west to Dunstable. The Act of Parliament sanctioning the Dunstable branch was obtained in 1856 and construction was finished by 1860. Services began on 1 September of that year. The Dunstable line entered the parish at the eastern end of Ayot station, crossed over a bridge at the junction of Ayot St. Peter Road with Ayot Little Green Lane and exited at Hunter’s Bridge on the western boundary – a total distance of about one mile.
Both branches terminated at Hatfield so that, until Welwyn Garden City station was built in 1926 (it was opened by Neville Chamberlain on 5 October), a journey from Ayot to Hertford involved a change of trains at Hatfield. In order to avoid this inconvenience the branch companies wanted to build a bridge or a level crossing over the main line at what is now Welwyn Garden City but the Great Northern Railway would not agree to the proposal.
The arrival of the railway in the area had an immediate impact: in the 1851 census Isaac Bracey appears as a ‘rail lab.’. He must have walked down from Ayot Green to the newly-opened main line to work, because in 1851 construction of the branch line through the parish had not even been authorised by Parliament. By 1861 the branch line had been built, and in the census for that year are recorded two railway porters (Alfred Jones and Joseph Harris) and two railway labourers (Isaac Bracey and William Throssell). It is also striking that from now on increasingly large numbers of those resident in the parish were born elsewhere. Isaac Bracey was still employed on the railway as a labourer in 1871 and he had been joined by a platelayer called George Munday (both of whom had been born in Hatfield). George may have had family already here.
Ayot station was built in 1877 and stopping services were established to provide new amenities for the parish, which were destined to last only for the equivalent of one lifetime. In the 1881 census the first station master (George Young from Sandy, Bedfordshire) and Station House appear for the first time. By 1881 Isaac Bracey was calling himself a platelayer, and his son Frederick James was the signalman. Robert Cornell (the son of a gamekeeper) was employed by the Great Northern Railway as a clerk in 1881 – presumably dealing with tickets at the new station. Like Isaac Bracey, George Munday had been joined on the railway by his son William by 1881. By 1891 Isaac Bracey had retired and his lodger, William Wood, had taken over as signalman. George Young was still in post as station master in 1891; his son Jesse was by then the clerk and his lodger Harry Beadell from Watford was the porter.
Bradshaw’s for 1910 lists ten trains per weekday in each direction stopping at Ayot station. The journey time to Hatfield was 10 minutes and it took 6 minutes to reach Wheathampstead in the other direction.
In September 1920 the Jennings family arrived at Welwyn Garden City from Esher in a horse-drawn caravan. They claimed to be the first residents of the new town. Their horse (which had been hired) was sent back to Esher by train from Ayot station. There was a derailment at the station in 1926 (of which incident a photograph survives) but otherwise life along the single track line seems to have been uneventful. The Ayot station buildings were set on fire by a spark from a locomotive and burnt down on 26 July 1948. Services to Ayot ended shortly afterwards on 26 September 1949 – a long time before Dr. Beeching’s day! Ayot signal box survived the fire and did not close until 3 January 1966. Passenger services on the branch line ended completely on 24 April 1965 and freight services survived for only a few more months. From then until early in 1971 the line was used by trains bringing rubbish from Finsbury Park to a tip at Blackbridge, near Wheathampstead. The track was lifted between Blackbridge and Welwyn Garden City by July 1971, when the bridge over Ayot St. Peter Road and the by now gutted signal box were demolished. As soon as the track east of Ayot station was removed work began on the A1(M). Initially there were fears about how the Ayot station site would be used. Eventually it was acquired from British Railways by Hertfordshire County Council and (as we have seen) it is now a car park intended for use by people walking along the Ayot Greenway.