Watford as a town gets very little mention in early county histories and guides such as Chauncy (1700, available online), Britton (1807, see extract) Clutterbuck (1815), Crawley (1880, see extract), Cussans (1881), Foster (1891), and the Victoria County History (1908, available online). While Watford is mentioned these books variously concentrate on the church, the manors and major houses (such as Cassiobury), and the free school rather than the town itself. The town is not even mentioned in the index of Andrew's Bygone Hertfordshire (1898) and Standing's Memorials of Old Hertfordshire (1905) starts by saying "Watford, the manor of which once pertained to St Albans monastery, is the largest and most commercial town in Hertfordshire." It then discusses Cassiobury and The Grove - and nothing else. Tompkin's Little Guide to Hertfordshire (1903) has a few words to say on the impact of the railway, and lists some Victorian developments, saying "The antiquities of the town itself are less interesting and indeed less known than those of other towns in the country," Ten years later, in Highways and Byways in Hertfordshire, Tompkins noted "I can stay but an hour or two in Watford ... so have been walking briskly from end to end of the High street, and here and there turning into a byway in search of the picturesque, which I hardly find."
More useful are the Post Office & Kelly's Directories for Hertfordshire, as a number are available online and others may be purchased on CD. These were published at about 4 yearly intervals from the middle of the 19th century, and contain increasingly lengthy descriptions of Watford - with details of the institutions and lists of the gentry and traders. Local directories and town guides came in later and can be even more useful as one moves into the 20th century - but are hard to find - unless you are prepared to visit the Watford Central Library or HALS.
There are four local publications published before the Second World War which are both useful and reasonably accessible:
In 1884 Henry Williams published History of Watford - Trade Directory which includes a much relevant to life in the town at a human level (including advertisements) and this was republished in 1976.
Watford in 1891, reprinted as Shopping in Victorian Watford in 1979, was clearly produced as a commercial promotional document. In addition to a description of the town, illustrated by photographs and engravings, it includes long accounts of a number of Watford manufacturing and retail businesses. Commercial activities are described in verbose and flowery style which suggests that those mentioned had paid for inclusion, and this almost certainly explains why many important businesses are not mentioned.
Early in the 20th century a series of "Homeland Handbooks" were published describing towns in a manner suitable for tourists. Watford and its surroundings appeared in 1906 and provides a good practical description of the town as it was at the time, together with descriptions of surrounding villages. As far as I know it has not been republished.
Easiest to find is the History of Watford by W. R. Saunders. This contains some useful history and attractive line drawings. In some places it tends towards becoming a miscellaneous collection of facts, which reflects the fact that is is based on articles reprinted from the West Herts and Watford Observer. It was first published in 1931, reprinted in 1970, reprinted in 1986 with an additional forward and photographs, and is now available on CD.
Following the war there have been a number of published collections of photographs, sometimes with brief historical commentary, which shows old and and sometimes new Watford:
Watford - A Pictorial Record was published by the Festival of Britain Committee of the Borough of Watford in 1951, and was republished in 1973.
Watford - A Pictorial History 1922-1972, by Alan Ball, records the changes that had taken place in the 50 years after Watford became a borough,
Watford - A Pictorial History, by Dennis Edwards, 1992
Watford Past - A Pictorial History in Colour, by J. B. Nunn, was published in 1999.
Watford Past - Robert Bard, 2005
Watford (Britain in Old Photographs) HALS, 2012
However the most important modern publication is The Book of Watford by Bob Nunn. This monumental work is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the town, and particularly its development over the last 200 years. The only problem is that there are two editions and there have been very significant changes between the two editions. For instance it is hard to find many similarities between the pictures and text in the opening chapters and it is therefore essential to know which edition one is referring to.
There are, of course, many local books which look at one particular aspect of Watford, such as the Football Club or the branch railway lines. It is not possible to do more than give details of a few of them to indicate the range of material that is available.
The High Street Revisited - a guided historic tour of the centre of Watford
Street and Place Names in Watford - review page includes section of a map showing the Union Workhouse.
Maps of Watford 1766-1938 - showing how the town has grown over the years
Aspects of Nineteenth Century Watford - some interesting detailed studies
Two Nineteen-Century Diaries (Henry Lomas of Watford, 1822, 1825-27)
Page updated March 2013