Roger Baker (rclbaker @t tiscali.co.uk) of Cold Ash, Berkshire, writes: My daughter has recently purchased The Priory, Church Street, Rickmansworth which appears to have been built in the early 1500s as a "church house". The house has probably only been called "The Priory" since the late 1800s, so it is difficult to trace it in earlier records. The key seems to be the fact that it was originally built as a church house, i.e. built by public subscription for use for community purposes, though it appears to have been sold to two individuals in 1589 (William Tipper and Robert Dawe). From that date it was presumably used as a dwelling house. I have no names for subsequent occupants and don't know what name(s) the house has had but it does appear that Church Street has had that name continuously since the 1300s. I have been on a preliminary visit to the Herts. Archives and Local Studies. Do you have any tips, please?
The first thing to say is that you have to decide how much time and effort you are prepared to put into this project. Identification of individual houses in towns from old documents can be hard work for periods before population increases in the 19th century and increased literacy and the needs of the post office made house naming and numbering important. Before that most cottage-type houses were simply identified by the name of the occupant, or their business, and Rickmansworth would have been so small that this was perfectly adequate. As the 16th century building is in a very distinctive position between the Church and the Feathers Public House (15th century, initially a farm, public house by 1780) [see Google Map] it should be comparatively easy compared with other small houses in the town. Even so it could still involve a significant amount of work, particularly for the 18th century and earlier and you may have to learn to read early handwriting!
The basic techniques for investigating the history of old houses are well described in a number of guides, as are architectural history and the elements of genealogy (see also the tutorial on this site) and it is not appropriate for me to try and paraphrase what they say here. I will just issue the warning that many people who rush into historical research get into difficulties unless they first "do their homework." There are problems in merely "looking up facts" if you don't understand what the person who recorded the data hundred of years ago intended. One thing the original clerk did not anticipate was that the words they wrote would be used by you several hundred years later as part of a historical study, SO beware - reading an 18th or 19th century document with a 21st century mindset can lead to errors and misunderstandings.
Instead I will highlight some of the areas where you may find information specifically relevant to the research on the Priory, Church Street. As they were next door neighbours, it could be useful to note what was happening at the Feathers (or the Cock as it was previously known) - as some of the references to the Priory might be in the form of "Next door to Hannah Stone's beer house" (Hannah was landlord of the Cock in 1839). You should also be aware that the original building has at sometime been divided into two (Numbers 38 and 40 Church Street) and you should be aware that the number of households in the building may have changed over time.
Obviously you would like to know if anyone has already carried out research into the house's history. You should contact the Rickmansworth Historical Society which published a magazine, The Rickmansworth Historian, starting in 1961 which may have includes an article on the Priory. (The index on their web site only covers a later quarterly newsletter.) Their web site includes a query form so why not ask them what they have got. There may well be copies of the magazine in the Watford Central Library. The Three Rivers Museum of Local History could well be worth approaching as well.
For the 20th century the best source of information on the occupants will be the electoral registers and Kelly's Watford area street directories (Watford Central Library). For instance in 1960 part of the building was occupied by Arnold Matthew & Baldwin, solicitors & commissioners for oaths while the other part was occupied by Graham Cox, O.B.E. Both were still there in 1968. The 19th century trade directories for Hertfordshire will include references to The Cock/The Feathers, naming the landlord, but are unlikely to include any identifiable references to The Priory, as its occupant do not appear to have a high enough status.
There could also be pictures available, from the late 19th century onwards. Rickmansworth - A Pictorial History includes a picture of The Priory from the churchyard - and it is likely that several of the books listed on the Rickmansworth page include pictures showing the Church Street frontage along with The Feathers public house. The sources mentioned above may well have other, unpublished pictures.
For the period 1841 to 1911 the census returns are available online and should help. However you must remember that the hoses may not be named or numbered and so you may he looking for the house (houses if multiple occupation) adjacent to The Cock/The Feathers.
HALS holds an undated manuscript Enclosure Map of Rickmansworth (probably early 19th century) and a Tithe Map dated 1839. These would have originally been produced with lists of property owners/occupiers but whether these survive I don't know. (Several copies of these maps were produced and Watford Central Library may have a copy, with name list, but you will need to check.)
HALS holds Rickmansworth land tax returns from 1753 to 1825. There are separate returns for each year and the information they contain as to location varies according to the year and place (i.e. it records what the clerk thought important). Quite often the returns were recorded along one side of a road and back on the other - so careful analysis of different years may make it possible to locate the house in Church Street on the Church side of the pub! This can be a very time consuming process!
Another approach involves manorial records and estate papers, and these could go back even earlier. The Victoria County History (published 1908 and available online) refers to "The Priory, an old red-brick and tiled house, now the residence of Mrs Allan Edward and the property of Lord Ebury." Lord Ebury lived at Moor Park, and undoubtedly owned a lot of property of the area. I don't know if the Estate archives have survived, or where they might be held, but if they exist they may well contain significant information on his tenants - including those in the house by the parish church. The estate papers may include manorial papers which could well go back to the 17th or even 16th century - but in the later case you may need to brush up your medieval Latin.
As to the architectural history of the building, the Priory is Grade II listed and details (full of technical terminology) are given on the Images of England web site (Reference 158779).
Page created August 2009