Much of the information in this article is taken from the leaflet HITCHIN – Blue Plaque Trail, published by the Society in 2000. This is currently out of print, but it is hoped to produce an updated version before too long.
Hitchin, a fine example of an old market town boasts a wealthy architectural heritage. It has also been home to many talented and distinguished residents.
To mark the millennium, a blue plaque scheme was initiated, with much help from local commercial undertakings, and this resulted in thirteen blue plaques being placed around the town. These are described below, with a numbered map, drawn by James Willis, to assist in locating them available to download here.
In 2011, an additional, fourteenth blue plaque was created for local resident, Richard Walker, the renowned freshwater angler, author, journalist and broadcaster.
- 104 Bancroft, SG5 1LY
William Ransom and Son plc, pharmaceutical chemists.
Quaker William Ransom founded the company on this site in 1846. A keen naturalist, William used plants grown locally as well as from elsewhere, manufacturing natural remedies. The fine 15th century house fronting the complex, now a private dwelling, has Grade II* listed status. It is two-storeyed, of timber construction, with two overhanging cross gables. The company, since renamed Ransom Naturals Ltd, has now moved to more modern premises in another part of the town, and its products still supply the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food & drink industries.
- 1 – 5 Hermitage Road, SG5 1LT
Frederic Seebohm (1833 – 1912) was born into a wealthy Quaker family of wool merchants from Bradford. His mother was from Hitchin, and the family settled here. The Seebohms’ home, the Hermitage, was a substantial house in Bancroft with extensive grounds. In 1874, Frederic gave some of the grounds to the town, enabling the building of Hermitage Road. A noted, self-taught historian, he published several acclaimed books, most notably The English Village Community of 1883.
- 7/8 Portmill Lane, SG5 1DJ
Hawkins Russell Jones, 7 – 8 Portmill Lane.
Now part of HRJ Foreman Laws Solicitors, the legal firm of Hawkins Russell Jones occupied this fine building in Portmill Lane, until merging in 2013 with Foreman Laws in Bancroft. The Grade II listed building has probably the best Queen Anne façade of any building in Hitchin. From the 17th century, it had been home to the second oldest firm of solicitors in England, founded by John Skynner in 1591. Historian Reginald Hine worked in the building for 35 years. The building has been converted to residential use.
- 9 Brand Street, SG5 1HK
The Old Library and Mechanics Institute.
This 1860 purpose-built and Grade II listed building brought together Hitchin’s three independent libraries under one roof. These were the Quakers’ Library for Apprentices & Tradesmen, the 1835 Hitchin Working Man’s & Mechanics’ Institute and a public subscription library incorporating a small reading room and museum. The lettering “LIBRARY – MDCCCLX” is still clearly engraved in stone above the entrance. The library amalgamated with the County Library in 1926. The building has been converted to residential use.
- 10 Brand Street, SG5 1HX
The Old Town Hall, dating from 1840, dating from 1840, was built as a venue for public gatherings and committee meetings, previously held in the town’s inns. Another Grade II listed building, it was designed by London Architect Thomas Bellamy. The £2,400 construction cost was met by a private company of citizens set up for the purpose. By the end of the 19th century, the main assembly room was considered to be poorly ventilated, and magistrates withdrew its licence for performances due to inadequate exit arrangements. In 1901, the new Town Hall (now North Herts Museum across the road) replaced the old one. Following a period as a bar/night club, the building has been converted to residential use.
- 5 – 6 High Street, SG5 1BH
Barclays Bank in the High Street is also a Grade II listed building. In 1820 Sharples, Bassett & Co. opened a bank at 20 Bancroft, moving to 25 High Street in 1827. When Pierson’s Bank failed in 1841, their building at 5/6 High Street was bought by the (by now renamed) Sharples Exton & Lucas Bank, and new premises were built on the site. James Hack Tuke became a partner in 1852, and Frederic Seebohm in 1859. The bank joined with nineteen others in 1896 to form Barclays & Co. Ltd.
- 31 Market Place, SG5 1DY
Hitchin Corn Exchange opened for trade in 1853, three years after the railway brought new prosperity to the town. There were 36 dealers’ stalls and a merchants’ office. The building was sometimes used for public entertainment including boxing, dancing and roller skating as well as public meetings. During World War II it became a low cost British Restaurant. The Corn Exchange closed in 1971 and, after a period as a craft market, became a Pitcher & Piano bistro/bar.
- 20 – 21 Market Place, SG5 1DU
James Gatward opened his doors for business in 1760. He and his son Benjamin were watch and clock-makers. Seven generations later, Gatwards is still a family concern; the oldest family jewellers in the UK. The timber framed medieval building, Grade II listed, may originally have been a drovers’ inn. Its cellars are said to extend under the Market Place, and the building abounds in inglenook fireplaces, eight staircases and intriguing nooks and crannies.
- Sun Street, SG5 1AF
The Sun Hotel, dating from around 1575, rapidly became the foremost inn in the town. During the Civil War it was headquarters for 3,000 Parliamentary troops. In 1799, 250 French prisoners were held overnight in the yard. Later it was an important staging post for coaches and, from 1850, ran its own cab to and from the railway station on the arrival of the railway. As well as being an important social venue, much parish and local government business took place here. The building is Grade II* listed. Its brick frontage was added in 1770.
- Tilehouse Street, SG5 2DL
Hitchin Priory is Grade I listed, and one of the oldest buildings in the town. Originally a Carmelite monastery in 1317, it prospered until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538. Ralph Radcliffe, son of a Lancashire landowner, turned it into a school, and it remained in the Radcliffe (later Delmé-Radcliffe) family for eleven generations until it was sold in 1963 to the County Council. It is now a Chartridge hotel & conference centre. Among its principal features are an Adam wing from the 1770s and remnants of the original flint monastery.
- 34 Tilehouse Street, SG5 2DY
George Chapman’s House, a Grade II* listed building, conceals a timber frame beneath its handsome 18th century brick and tile façade. Playwright and poet Chapman (1559 – 1634) a contemporary of Shakespeare, was born near Hitchin and is said to have completed his major work – translating Homer – on Hitchin Hill. He died in poverty, but Keats recalled him in the famous poem Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and he was praised by poet T S Eliot.
- 1 Park Street, SG4 9AH
The Lord Lister Hotel, a Grade II listed building, is the site of Isaac Brown’s Academy where Joseph Lister began his schooling in 1840. Lister moved to Tottenham in 1841, but continued his association with Hitchin through family ties with fellow Quakers, the Lucas and Seebohm families. A display at the North Herts Museum includes some of his drawings, instruments and details of his education. As eminent surgeon Lord Lister (1827 – 1912) he pioneered the use of antiseptic surgery.
- 41 – 42 Queen Street, SG4 9TS
Hitchin British Schools were founded in 1810 by philanthropist William Wilshere for “the sons of the labouring poor”. The present building, dating from 1837 with several later additions, includes the only surviving Lancasterian schoolroom in the world, where 300 boys could be taught by one master in a single room. It is Grade II* listed and the rest of the site Grade II. Also included are a galleried classroom, Victorian and World War II schoolrooms, and the headmaster’s and headmistress’ houses. It is now a unique educational heritage centre, run by a charitable trust, open to the public on certain days and with a thriving programme of school visits.
- 32 Fishponds Road, SG5 1NR
Richard Walker, renowned freshwater angler, author, journalist and broadcaster was born here in 1918 (the house was then numbered 16). Richard was educated at the Friends’ School, Saffron Walden; from there he went to St Christopher School in Letchworth then, in 1936, to Caius College, Cambridge, to read Engineering. The Second World War interrupted his studies, and he spent the next six years playing an important role in radar development. Combining a career as an engineer in the family firm of Lloyds & Co of Letchworth with his love of fishing, Richard contributed articles to a number of angling periodicals, including a weekly column in Angling Times which lasted more than thirty years. He also wrote many books on the subject. Richard appeared on a number of television programmes from the 1950s, and was a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1974.