According to Watford historian Henry Williams, John Chester was a notable resident. Born in 1791, he married Charlotte Kempton at St Mary’s Church on Christmas Day 1811. A master cordwainer with a shop in the High Street, he was also Under Bailiff to Watford County Court for many years and a keen musician.

Although he favoured the cornet and violin, in his youth he was drummer in the Watford Town Brass Band. After it disbanded, he continued to exhibit a ‘curious big drum’ four feet in length and half the circumference of standard drums, likely with a shoulder strap. He played strong notes with a solid wooden beater in one hand and weak notes with a small stick or ‘switch’ in the other.

John Chester wore 18th century clothing and was fastidious in his dress. Upright in his stance, he sported high boots, salmon-coloured tops, knee breeches, open-fronted waistcoats with brass buttons and a rain-repellent white beaver hat with a long nap.

Watford Observer: John Chester, drawn by Heulwen Jones.John Chester, drawn by Heulwen Jones.

He was an amiable character with cheerful conversation and a ‘light gait’, even in later years.

When widowed in 1846, his daughter Eliza, one of four, became his housekeeper. Some years later he moved to Red Lion Yard then, on retirement, to Cowley’s Yard, near where Jackson Jewellers is today.

There, needlewoman Ann Aldwin, another daughter who brought up four children after her baker husband Charles passed away at just 29, kept her father’s house.

John Chester received an annuity for his Watford County Court work and passed away at 85. Ann lived to 93.

Another curious Watford character was Felix Smith who married Elizabeth Battel at St Mary’s Church in 1767. In 1798, he was churchwarden and organist at St Mary’s. A ‘portly’ figure, he tuned musical instruments and gave tuition on the violin and piano to young ladies in the town. His eccentricity was revealed when, in 1814, on King Louis XVIII’s return to France from Hartwell House near Aylesbury after a five-year exile, he and his entourage passed through Watford High Street.

Watford Observer: Rock & Co. engraving of St. Mary's Church, 1855, published by Downer.Rock & Co. engraving of St. Mary's Church, 1855, published by Downer.

Prepared for the occasion, Felix Smith sat on the steps to his rented home in the High Street and, as the King passed, was seen plunging a dagger into a pillow. Henry Williams was told of this and considered it ‘a token of membership of some society to which the king and he belonged’. What Henry Williams may not have known was that Felix Smith was a dedicated follower of all things military.

In his prime, he had subscribed to Captain Thomas Simes’ A Military Course for the Government and Conduct of a Battalion designed for their Regulations in Quarter, Camp, or Garrison with useful Observations and Instructions for their Manner of Attack and Defence of 1777. Three years later, he purchased Simes’ 1780 Treatise on the Military Science, which comprehends the Grand Operations of War, and General Rules for conducting an Army in the Field and, in 1782, the author’s portable military library, comprising four works in seven volumes.

Watford Observer: Title page and engraving, Thomas Simes' 1777 Military Course, courtesy of Peter Harrington Books.Title page and engraving, Thomas Simes' 1777 Military Course, courtesy of Peter Harrington Books.

Simes was a famed British military author whose textbooks were reprinted in Philadelphia and utilised by armies on both sides of the American Revolutionary War.

Given that the tomes were aimed at military personnel and were prohibitively expensive, I wonder whether Felix Smith put any strategies to early military use or was simply an avid enthusiast of militaria.

Perhaps the dagger and pillow episode was just an isolated demonstration, but he died in 1819 without leaving an answer.

The Hon & Rev William Robert Capel, third son of the 4th Earl of Essex, was born in 1775. Vicar of St Mary’s Church, he was a local magistrate who inflicted the fullest penalties for game poachers on the Cassiobury estate – his family seat – and played billiards at the Essex Arms Hotel. An ardent sportsman, he was often seen with his dog and gun shooting on the estate. A lady apparently admonished him for killing game and playing billiards.

He retorted: ‘My dear madam, game is provided by God for our use and we cannot eat it while it is flying about and as to playing at billiards, I never bet when I play a game or swear when I lose one’. It was also said that a gentleman spoke to him on the same matter and was told: ‘If you think I do wrong, don’t do as I do but do what I tell you to do when I am in the pulpit’.

When conducting a service he preached short sermons so, when the congregation left church early, bystanders knew who they had heard. But Henry Williams added that he was ‘esteemed by his parishioners and his death at Watford Vicarage in 1854 was a source of sorrow to all but the poachers.’

  • With thanks to Matt Dean,; Peter Harrington Books,; and Heulwen Jones, Pump House Painters.

Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.