SMITH, Hemel Hempstead, mid 19th Century

July 2002

Midge Walstrom of Marietta, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, wrote: I live in USA and am at sea when it comes to the area of which you have such expertise. Recently acquiring knowledge that my grandfather William Smith, was born in Great Gaddesdon, Herts, a birth cirtificate was found with the following info - William Smith, Birth date: 3, Dec 1844, Place of birth: Ricotts End, parish of Hemel Hempstead, county of Hertfordshire. Father; George Smith, Mother: Elizabeth Wilson (have reason to believe it could be Willson and that Ricotts is instead, Picotts End). Is Picotts End, then, the address of Hemel parish? I had thought it was William Smith's birth address. Might you indicate a course for me to follow or advise me in some way? I wrote asking for more information and was given a lot of supporting information, which I use in the following reply.

What appears to be established is that a George and Elizabeth Smith lived at Piccotts End, a small group of houses to the north of Hemel Hempstead, in the 1840's. It would seem that they had a number of children (James, Eliza, Martha, and William) during this period and probably married in the early 1830s (unfortunately before civil registration). I am treating this as correct but it should be noted that the information you have provided is incomplete. In particular it has come from third parties who clearly have been selective in what they passed on, or from indexes which only give partial information and which need to be checked on microfilm.

I am worried (on the information supplied to date) as to whether it is definitely established that he is the William Smith described  as "William Smith and Emma Maidman (born in Seetapore, East India) were married and I have a copy of the certificate of said marriage, April 17, 1882. The record shows him to be 37 (would have been 38 the following Dec. 3) and Emma to be 20 (had turned 20 the month previous (March 23, 1862). It listed him as a labourer and think he worked for the Gas Works. His father was listed as George Smith, a labourer. The marriage took place at St. Matthew church, parish St. John Westminster, county of Middlesex. Their residence was listed as 13 Romney Place." You that the 1891 census shows him to have been born in the parish of Great Gaddesden - which is not far from Piccotts End, which is, however, in the parish of St Mary's, Hemel Hempstead.

The reason is quite simple. One must always be careful about confusing two (or more) people with the same name - even when the surname is rare - see Right Name, Wrong Body. In this case the name William Smith is extremely common and the 1881 census suggests that well over 50 William Smiths were born in Hertfordshire within 5 years of 1844. In fact the 1881 census for Hemel Hempstead contains some worrying entries:

Chaulden Lane, Hemel Hempstead




Labourer Ploughman

Piccotts End





Cold Harbour

Puller Rd (Crouchfield N Side), Hemel Hempstead

William SMITH


Piccotts End


Grocer & Coal Merchant






Elizabeth SMITH


Puller Road





Two Waters


Grocers Shop Assistant



Puller Road



For reference Crouchfield is between Boxmoor and the old centre of Hemel Hempstead, while Chaulden Lane is to the west of Boxmoor. Both are south west of Piccotts End - but an easy walk in the days before the motor car made people lazy. (Great Gaddesden is to the north west of Piccotts End.)

James Smith would appear to be the James, son of George and Elizabeth, baptised at St Mary's, Hemel Hempstead on 1st December 1839, while at first sight the William Smith living nearby would at first sight appear to be his brother, baptised on the 2nd March 1845, at the same place. But if this William is the William of the birth certificate described above the William (bachelor?) who married in Westminster in 1882 must be someone else (or a bigamist?). In particular it should be noted that William Smith, coal merchant, was still at Puller Road in 1886, when he is listed in the Kelly's directory for Hertfordshire.

My guess (and it is no more than a guess based on occupation status) is that the William at Puller Road in 1881 is likely to come from a different social class to the James at Couchfield, and that it is possible (although far from proved) that your great grandfather really is James' brother - but there may be yet other possibilities. Unless you have some clinching information - such as being certain from old family memories that your grandfather's birthday was 3rd December - there is a real danger of chasing up someone else's family tree by mistake.

Clearly more investigation is needed as there could be more than one possible William Smith, and at present I don't have time to do more that to look up a few trade directory entries. The 1850/1 Post Office Directory lists 14 different Smith households and businesses in Hemel Hempstead - and because the directory was highly selective this probably only represents a small percentage of the households. There were two George Smiths listed (a mat maker in the High Street and an auctioneer, etc., in Marlowes). If your George Smith was a labourer he would not be listed - meaning at least 3 George Smiths in Hemel Hempstead - and possibly more in surrounding villages such as Great Gaddesden. There was also a John Smith, baker and miller, of Two Waters and Piccott's End, Hemel Hempstead, so there were other Smith families associated with this tiny hamlet.

My suggestion is that initially you concentrate on consolidating what you know - filling in the missing gaps in the information others have supplied you. A search for other William Smiths on the 1851 census for the Hemel Hempstead and Great Gaddesden area would be essential and a look at the microfilm of the parish registers (baptisms) of St Mary's, Hemel Hempstead, could clarify some of the "who is who" questions. A look at the 1861 census returns for the area could also clarify the situation as to which William is which. It could be very useful for you to look at the original records for another reason. It is very easy to be mislead if you are unfamiliar with the kinds of documents the data comes from, and the potential errors that can arise if you do not adequately understand the sources. For instance once you had seen for yourself the handwriting and the standards of literary of some of the documents you would realise that the distinction between the name Wilson and Willson is unlikely to have any significance. For instance the 1881 census CD contains references to Picots/Picotts/Piccots/Piccotts End and Picotsend/Piccottsend and this is typical.

You should be able to order the microfilms of the documents I mention for viewing at the LDS Family History Centre, 3195 Trickum Road, Marietta, phone 770-973-4510. Details of their opening times are given on the familysearch web site. You could find it useful to familiarise yourself with the geography of the area using online maps.

I wish you luck with your William Smith and once you are happy you have the right William the census return will give his parent's birthplace and you will be in a position to go back another generation. If you have problems at this stage I will be happy to advise again. I can assure you that it is not impossible to research the Smith family if you are careful, although it can be hard work eliminating all the alternative possibilities. For many years I was "stuck" with one of my ancestors - a John Smith - and I only resolved it by chasing up a cousin branch. Once I knew the answer I found that my early "brick wall" had been due, in part, to a clerical error in my own notes - emphasising the importance of accurately recording everything and checking original records.

August 2002

Midge replied: You had asked, regarding William Smith's father's occupation on William Smith and Emma Maidman's marriage certificate, what was listed as his father George's occupation.  My nephew tells me it was simply "labourer". Thank you very much for your time.

This occupation would reduce the chances of confusion with the George Smiths listed in the 1850/51 Post Office Directory. Unfortunately families of labourers tend to be harder to sort out before the introduction of civil registration (1837) and surviving censuses (1841) because they left less records that the trading and upper classes (except when they needed poor relief or ended up before the courts).

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