The history of Hatfield can be traced back over a thousand years to 970 AD when King Edgar granted 40 hides of land to the monks of Ely. A century later the Domesday Book records ‘Hetfelle’ (derived from the Saxon Haethfeld, meaning heath-covered open land) as having a Parish Priest and 54 other inhabitants (18 villeins, 18 bordars, 12 cottagers and 6 serfs). There were 4 water mills, woodland to support 2000 pigs and as much arable land as could be ploughed with 30 ploughs. Although nothing remains of the Saxon settlement the monks undoubtedly erected a timber-framed place of worship, which they dedicated to the Saxon Princess Etheldreda.
The earliest parts of the present Parish Church of St Etheldreda date from the 13th century. Soon after his appointment as Bishop of Ely in 1479, Cardinal Morton commenced the building of the Bishop’s Palace, of which only the West Wing remains, now used as a regular venue for Tudor banquets. In 1538 the Manor of Hatfield became the property of the Crown and Henry VIII’s children all spent time there. It was, however, his younger daughter, Elizabeth, who had the closest association with Hatfield as she was confined there for some three years and reputedly it was, while sitting under an oak tree in the Park, that she received news of her accession in 1547. Records show that Elizabeth held her first Council in the Great Hall (The Old Palace) of Hatfield.
In 1607 King James I indicated a strong desire to acquire an estate known as Theobalds located in the south of the County, which was owned by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury and the King’s Chief Secretary and Lord High Treasurer. Naturally Cecil agreed to an exchange and thus acquired the palace at Hatfield. He immediately set about building Hatfield House, the completion of which virtually coincided with the death of the 1st Earl in 1612. However, the great House and its surrounding Park have remained the principal home of subsequent Earls and Marquesses of Salisbury for over 400 years. The existence of the Great House has brought numerous visitors to the town over the centuries. These have included British and foreign royalty, government ministers, particularly the latter part of the nineteenth century when the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was Prime Minister on three occasions. Other historic figures to visit Hatfield have included Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens.
Its strategic location on the main road leading from London to the north brought steady growth in trade to the town which was well served by a selection of alehouses, coaching inns, not to mention its well established brewery, that prospered until its closure in 1920. Major changes took place in the mid nineteenth century with the arrival of the mainline railway in 1850 which coincided with the beginnings of a development to the west of the existing town, to become known as “Newtown”. Over the following decades the railway played an important role as Hatfield served as an interchange for three branch lines to St Albans, Hertford and Luton and Dunstable. The new settlement on the western side of the railway also provided homes for many of the new railway workers.
The years following the end of World War 1 were a period of the growth in Newtown with new shops and housing and in 1927 further opportunities opened up with the building of the Barnet-by-Pass on western fringes of the town. In 1933 Geoffrey de Havilland (later Sir Geoffrey) relocated his new factory alongside the new road on a site already used by the London Flying Club. The new factory brought increased employment opportunities and this led to the development of three housing estates on the edge of the airfield at Ellenbrook, the Garden Village and Birchwood. It also attracted other factories to the area and in the next few years modern factory buildings appeared nearby for Jack Oldings and Cooks Corrugated Cases. The de Havilland Company became world famous during the Second World War as the birthplace of the Mosquito and later the Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, and the Trident.
The immediate post-war years saw the designation, in 1948, of Hatfield as one of the ring of “New Towns” planned around London to meet the needs of the growing population and also to replace the thousands of properties lost during the war years. Much of this new development took place to the south of the existing town. It also included the establishment of a Technical College which eventually become the home of the University of Hertfordshire.
In the 1970s measures were taken to alleviate the road traffic problems along the stretch of the Barnet-by-Pass, by then re-designated as the A1, it ran through that busy part of the town. A cut and cover tunnel was built along that stretch of road, this was opened in 1986. The Galleria Shopping Centre, now called the Galleria Outlet Mall, was built over the southern end of the tunnel opening in September 1991, with a variety of shopping outlets, eating places and accommodating the Odeon Cinema, Europe’s first DCI compliant fully digital multiplex.
Shortly after these developments the aircraft factory, the town’s major employer that had earlier become part of the British Aerospace Group, closed which had a serious effect on the town and the workers. This site has now been developed partly with an Industrial Park for alternative employment opportunities and also with new housing to meet growing demand. Moving into the twenty-first century the University of Hertfordshire experienced a considerable expansion and the airfield has become the site of the University’s de Havilland campus.
With the dawning of the twenty first century plans were drawn up to redevelop the town centre but progress stalled with the downturn in the economy during the past decade. Fortunately, as conditions have improved this development is now beginning to take shape and it is the fervent hope of the whole community that this will now come to fruition and reinvigorate this vital part of the town.