Hertfordshire Genealogy

Guide to Old Hertfordshire


Towns & Villages in Herts

The Importance of Understanding Administrative Boundaries



In 1871 my ancestor Jacob Reynolds moved to Heath Farm. When he moved there Heath Farm was in the Parish of Sandridge. Without moving house he died in the City of St Albans and the Parish of St Saviours. Why did this happen?

It is important to realise that place names often refer to administrative areas - sometimes fragmented - and that the boundaries can change. This page briefly describes the terminology used and gives some examples. To simplify matters it will concentrate on the 18th-20th centuries.

Manors: In medieval times a manor was an agricultural estate with a landlord (the lord of the manor) and tenants.  It was the unit of local government and held courts to transact business. Early records, sometimes up to 1733 were in Latin, and were held by the lord of the manor - and many have been lost. By the 18th century the work of the manorial courts had been greatly reduced, and was mainly concerned with matters such as the management of common land and the transfer of copyhold property. By the end of the 19th century most manorial courts had ceased to operate. The boundaries were those of the landholding, and in many cases have been lost.

Parishes: Ecclesiastical Parishes date back before the conquest, but in Tudor times civil power, initially relating to the care of the poor, started to move from the manor to the parish. Parish records, including the registers, were kept in the parish chest in the church, and most surviving records are now held at HALS. A parish often included a number of manors, and the boundaries did not have to coincide - although they often did. Sandridge was a large parish and in the 18th century the boundaries of the parish and the manor were identical, except in one place where 4 acres of the manor were in the parish of St Michael.

Villages and Hamlets: This is the way most people tend to look at things in agricultural areas. The village is a group of farms and houses round the parish church (or in some cases a chapel of ease) while a hamlet is a smaller cluster of farms and houses without a parish church. Some hamlets may be on the site of, and named after, former manors. When people are asked where they live or were born - for instance in census returns - they will usually give the name of the relevant village, hamlet, or sometimes farm. 

Towns and Boroughs: For larger centres of population, including many tradesmen, the manorial system was inappropriate, and in medieval times such places were given a charter with allowed them to provide local government. The area covered would be the built up area and may include all or part of one or more parishes. For instance the Borough of St Albans consisted of the Abbey parish of St Alban, and parts of the parishes of St Michael, St Peter and St Stephen. The ancient records that survive for Hertfordshire towns. may still be with the modern council or may have been deposited at HALS.

County: These are of Anglo-Saxon origin, and were the largest administrative areas. They were headed by an appointed sheriff and until 1888 they were run through the Quarter Sessions. The "Liberty of St Albans" was a part of Hertfordshire which lay outside the jurisdiction of the sheriff. At this time elected councils were introduced and the county councils began to take their present form.

Hundreds: In medieval times the county of Hertfordshire was divided into the following hundreds: Braughing, Broadwater, Cashio, Dacorum, Edwintree, Hertford, Hitchin and Odsey. They are now totally obsolete. Unless you are doing medieval research the chief relevance of these is that all the major histories of Hertfordshire, up to and including the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire, are organised by hundred.

Courts: An important factor in the court system is that prior to 1874 the county was divided into two. In addition to the County Court Division, there was the Liberty of St Albans Division, which administered justice over the parts of Hertfordshire which had been owned by the Abbot of St Albans prior to the Reformation. 

Poor Law Unions: In 1834 an Act was passed setting up workhouses in, or near major towns, which managed the poor of a Union of neighbouring parishes. Where a Union was close to a county boundary it might include parishes in a different county. The Unions are important because they were used as the basis for civil registration of births, marriages and death in 1837 - and the place name used in the indexes relates to the Union rather than the parish where the event took place. The Unions were also used for the basis of census taking - which is why some parishes are found in the "wrong" county.

Diocese: The church is organised into dioceses and these are archdeaconries down to parish level, and historically these divisions are unrelated to county boundaries. As the Church was responsible for proving wills, the pre-1858 wills were originally held in the relevant diocese archives. Bishop's transcripts were also kept by the diocese. Many Hertfordshire parishes were in the Diocese of Lincoln. The diocese of St Albans was created in 1877. See the Diocese web site at www.stalbans.anglican.org for the current parishes and contact details - including in some cases email addresses and church web sites.

Modern Boroughs: In 1977 Hertfordshire was divided into ten boroughs (see the Hertfordshire County Council page). Dacorum took the name of a former hundred. These are the councils currently administering the area where your ancestors lived.

Postal Towns: As postal traffic grew the post office organised a distribution network and people were encouraged to use the postal town as part of the address. Thus the postal address of Marsworth would be "Marsworth, Tring, Herts" although Marsworth is in Bucks! Care must be taken when dealing with small villages and hamlets near a county boundary - for example near Luton.

Other "Administrative" Areas: Areas such as parliamentary constituencies are of interest in the late 18th and early 19th century because of the existence of poll books - which record who voted, and for whom. The catchment areas of non-conformist churches and chapels were not confined to Church of England parish boundaries.


Understanding the boundaries, and the way they have changed, can be important in your local history research. You may find some of the following examples helpful:

Coleshill was a small part of the Hundred of Dacorum, Hertfordshire, and was situated on the middle of Buckinghamshire, several miles from the county. It was easy to overlook (by the Hertfordshire tax collectors and courts??) and is not described in any of the major early histories.) It is now part of Buckinghamshire. 

Caddington is a parish which was split in two with part in Hertfordshire and part in Bedfordshire. Studham was mainly in Bedfordshire but had a detached part in Hertfordshire, Kensworth was in Hertfordshire, as was Flamstead. In 1897 the civil parish of Markyate (also known as Market Street) was formed in Hertfordshire out of parts of Flamstead, Caddington and the detached part of Studham. At the same time Kensworth and the whole of the remaining parts of the parish of Caddington became part of Bedfordshire. 

In a rural parish many people may not have lived in the village - and some may have been far closer to the village (and church) in an adjacent parish. Farms such as Gibraltar Farm, Flamstead, may have been given the name, as a joke, because it was so far away from the village of Flamstead.

Because of the weird shape of the county boundary Nettleden used to be in the Parish of Pitstone, Bucks, although it was much closer to Great Gaddesden.

As towns expanded, as a result of changes in the 19th century, they expanded their boundaries - which is why Jacob Reynolds "moved" from the civil parish of Sandridge to the City of St Albans.

It was considered convenient to live outside, but close to, a town, because you had the convenience of being close to facilities - but did not pay rates to the town council. Boundary Road, Sandridge, appears to have been built just outside the St Albans boundary for this reason.  

The coming of the railways also meant the start of commuting, and housing often started to appear close to the railway station. The town centre of Hemel Hempstead was some way from the main London to Birmingham railway line, and Boxmoor, close to the station, developed in Victorian times.

As towns expanded into rural areas more churches were needed. Jacob Reynolds was actually the churchwarden who masterminded the creation of the parish of St Saviours out of parts of the parish of Sandridge.

Hertfordshire has been the home of a number of new towns in the 20th century. The first was Letchworth Garden City. Welwyn Garden City was founded between the wars, while several, such as Hemel Hempstead, were created after the second world war. 


On this web site I have created a page for all the ancient (pre-Victorian) parishes and given details of adjoining ancient parishes. (This can be complex as some parishes had may have areas geographically separated from the main parish.) For towns such as St Albans (later a city), which contain all or part of several parishes there is a web page for the town with separate pages for the individual parishes as appropriate. In addition there are pages for some of the newer parishes, and other places where I feel it would be useful. 

In most cases I have not attempted to include mention of the modern boroughs.

If you can add to the information given above tell me.


Page updated July 2007