Schools may be out for the summer, but here’s a topic worth pondering during the holidays.

In the early 1900s, Hertfordshire County Museum Library Curator and Sub-Librarian of St Albans Cathedral, H.R. Wilton Hall, was intent on encouraging local school children to learn the key geographical and historical features of Hertfordshire in parallel with their studies of the geography and history of the country.

Adult books on the subjects were plentiful, but there was a dearth of material in a simple and readable format for children. So, in 1904, he wrote ‘Hertfordshire, A Reading Book of the County’ for local school teachers of ‘all grades’. His aim was to arouse school children’s interest in the county in which they lived.

Watford Observer: Cover of 'Hertfordshire: A Reading Book of the County' by H.R. Wilton Hall, 1904, pub. by Blackie & Son Ltd.Cover of 'Hertfordshire: A Reading Book of the County' by H.R. Wilton Hall, 1904, pub. by Blackie & Son Ltd.

He later wrote ‘Our English Towns and Villages’ (1905) and ‘Social Life in England Through the Centuries’ (1920), both for school children, and also produced extracts from the Bishops’ Transcripts of the Hertfordshire Register of Marriages, 1569-1837; a valuable tool for historians.

The chapters of H.R. Wilton Hall’s book cover the county’s rivers and the Grand Junction Canal; roads and early traffic; towns and villages; agriculture, when Hertfordshire was one of the wheat producing counties of England; industries such as malting and brewing, paper making, silk weaving and straw plaiting; railways; famous Hertfordshire people from the fourth to the 20th centuries; the Hertfordshire Hundreds; and, to put everything into context, the county’s links with the country’s history.

Watford Observer: Hertfordshire roads from Mr. Hall's book, 1904.Hertfordshire roads from Mr. Hall's book, 1904.

It’s curious to read that in 1904: ‘Different classes of traffic used different inns. Even now you may see that the hay carts only draw up at particular houses, while heavy wagons pull up at others.’ He added wistfully: ‘The good old coaching days and posting days are gone forever’.

Surprisingly, even in 1904, Mr Hall considered Watford as ‘quite a London suburb. Watford is the most modern looking of the Hertfordshire towns, though it is the largest. Its ancient features are rapidly disappearing [sadly, even then]. The town has no corporation, but is governed by a local board.’

Watford Observer: Hertfordshire railways from Mr. Hall's book, 1904.Hertfordshire railways from Mr. Hall's book, 1904.

Rickmansworth is mentioned as ‘an old-world town into which the Great Central Railway has dashed.’ And ‘Brickett (sic) Wood or ‘the badger’s wood’ is a favourite place for picnics and excursions, as so much of it is open to the public.’

What I especially love about my copy of the book is that it bears generous black ink splats, a thumb print and a repaired page, indicating it was well read!

Fifty years later, William George Seymour Crook, former Head Master of Boxmoor School, was of a similar mindset to Mr Hall. Born in 1894, he served in the Royal Navy during World War One and was appointed temporary acting warrant schoolmaster in 1917.

Watford Observer: Cover of 'A Child's Hertfordshire Reader' by W.G.S. Crook, c1953, pub. by E.J. Arnold & Son Ltd.Cover of 'A Child's Hertfordshire Reader' by W.G.S. Crook, c1953, pub. by E.J. Arnold & Son Ltd.

His book, ‘A Child’s Hertfordshire Reader’, was published c1953. In his introduction, Mr Crook noted: ‘It is a perfectly natural desire to want to know more and more about where we live. Our sense of belonging is increased as we add to our knowledge and become part of the landscape.’ How very true.

When his book appeared, Watford, had a population of around 73,000 and was the youngest of the boroughs, with ten aldermen and 18 councillors. Mr Crook’s stories include coaching days; highwaymen and the duties of beadles; whilst a chapter on the daily toil includes mechanisation, papermaking and printing, and milk production.

Croxley Green is cited as a manufacturer of paper from raw materials such as esparto grass from Spain and North Africa, linen rags, straw and wood pulp, whilst: ‘The printed word is making Watford prosperous and that includes engraving and photogravure work of the most modern processes. It has a fine new Technical College closely linking education with the needs of local industry.’

There’s the history of the Queen’s Soldiers until World War Two, which ended a few years before the book’s publication; the Hertfordshire Constabulary; good rule and government; and short stories from almost 1,000 years of county history.

At the end is a remarkable summary of the lives and achievements of the 40 Abbots of St Albans, from 791 until the dissolution in 1539. The rather grubby cover and black ink splats denote another well-read book!

Messrs Hall and Crook would have got my vote! What wise and forward-thinking gentlemen. The school children who read their books during the reigns of King Edward VII, possibly King George V, and Queen Elizabeth II, would have had their young minds opened to the significant geographical features around them and would doubtless have been motivated by the abundance of truly exciting history on their very doorstep.

Those really were the good old (school) days!

  • 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.