Origin of the name
The settlement was called by the name Henamsted or Hean-Hempsted in Anglo-Saxon times and in William the Conqueror's time by the name of Hemel-Amstede. The name is referred to in the Domesday Book as "Hamelamestede", but in later centuries it became Hamelhamsted, and, possibly, Hemlamstede. In Old English, "-stead" or "-stede" simply meant a place, such as the site of a building or pasture, as in clearing in the woods, and this suffix is used in the names of other English places such as Hamstead and Berkhamsted.
It is theoretically possible for a previous name to have become corrupted to something very similar to Hempstead, and that "Hemel" originated as a way of specifying Hemel Hempstead as opposed to nearby Berkhamsted. Hemel is reflected in the German "Himmel" and Dutch "Hemel", both of which mean 'heaven' or 'sky', so it could be that Hemel Hempstead was in a less-forested area open to the sky, while Berkhamsted (which could mean 'birch') was in a forest of birch trees.
Another opinion is that Hemel came from "Haemele", which was the name of the district in the 8th century and is most likely either the name of the landowner or meant "broken country".
The town is now known to residents as "Hemel" and is often colloquialised to "'emel". However, before the Second World War locals called it "Hempstead".
Emigrants from Hemel Hempstead, led by one John Carman, migrated to the American colonies in the early 17th century and founded the town of Hempstead, New York in 1644.
The first recorded mention of the town is the grant of land at Hamaele by Offa, King of Essex, to the Saxon Bishop of London in AD 705. Hemel Hempstead on its present site is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a vill, Hamelhamstede, with about 100 inhabitants. The parish church of St Mary's was built in 1140, and is recognised as one of the finest Norman parish churches in the county. The church features an unusual 200-foot-tall (61 m) spire, added in the 12th century, one of Europe's tallest.
After the Norman conquest, Robert, Count of Mortain, the elder half-brother of William the Conqueror, was granted lands associated with Berkhamsted Castle which included Hemel Hempstead. The estates passed through several hands over the next few centuries including Thomas Becket in 1162. Hemel Hempstead was in the Domesday hundred of Danais (Daneys, i.e. Danish) which by 1200 had been combined with the hundred of Tring to form the hundred of Dacorum, which maintained its court into the 19th century. In 1290 King John's grandson, the Earl of Cornwall, gave the manor to the religious order of the Bonhommes when he endowed the monastery at Ashridge. The town remained part of the monastery's estates until the Reformation and break-up of Ashridge in 1539. In that same year, the town was granted a royal charter by Henry VIII to become a bailiwick with the right to hold a Thursday market and a fair on Corpus Christi Day. The first bailiff of Hemel Hempstead was William Stephyns (29 December 1539). Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are reputed to have stayed in the town at this time.
In 1953 a collection of unusually fine medieval wall paintings dating between 1470 and 1500 were discovered in a cottage in Piccotts End, a village on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. This same building had been converted into the first cottage hospital providing free medical services by Sir Astley Cooper in 1827.
In 1581, a group of local people acquired lands – now referred to as Boxmoor – from the Earl of Leicester to prevent their enclosure. These were transferred to trustees in 1594. These have been used for public grazing and they are administered by the Box Moor Trust.
Remains of Roman villa farming settlements have been found at Boxmoor and Gadebridge which span the entire period of Roman Britain. A well preserved Roman burial mound is located in Highfield.
18th to mid-20th century
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Hemel Hempstead was an agricultural market town. Wealthy landowners built a few large country houses in the locality, including The Bury, built in 1790, and Gadebridge House, erected by the noted surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Cooper in 1811.
As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, commercial travel between the Midlands and London increased greatly. Hemel Hempstead was located on a direct route between these areas of industry and commerce and this made it a natural waypoint for trade and travel between the two. Initially the Sparrows Herne Turnpike Road was opened in 1762. It attracted a lot of traffic that resulted in its surface wearing out quickly and it became notorious for its ruts and potholes. .
In 1793 construction began on the Grand Junction Canal, a major project to provide a freight waterway between the Midlands and the Port of London. In 1798, the canal from the Thames reached Two Waters, just south of Hemel Hempstead, and opened fully in 1805.
Hemel's position on the commercial transport network was established further in 1837 when the route of the new London and Birmingham Railway reached the town. The line's construction had been delayed for several years by vigorous lobbying by a number of powerful local landowners, including Sir Astley Cooper of Gadebridge House, who were all keen to protect their estates from invasion by the "iron horse". Their campaign was successful and the main line was routed along the River Bulbourne instead of the River Gade, skirting around the edge of Hemel Hempstead. As a result, the railway station serving Hemel Hempstead was built one mile outside the town centre at Boxmoor; Boxmoor and Hemel Hempstead railway station (today's Hemel Hempstead railway station) opened in 1837. The railways continued to expand and in 1877 a new route opened connecting Boxmoor to the Midland Railway at Harpenden. The Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead branch railway — affectionately known as the Nickey Line — crossed the town centre on a long, curved viaduct, eventually serving three local stations in the town at Heath Park Halt, Hemel Hempsted (Midland) and Godwin's Halt.
Despite the incursion of various forms of transport, Hemel remained principally an agricultural market town throughout the 19th century. In the last decades of that century development of houses and villas for London commuters began. Hemel steadily expanded, but only became a borough on 13 July 1898.
During the Second World War ninety high explosive bombs were dropped on the town by the Luftwaffe. The most notorious incident was on 10 May 1942 when a stick of bombs demolished houses at Nash Mills killing eight people. The nearby Dickinson factories which were used to produce munitions, were the target.
After the Second World War, in 1946, the government designated Hemel Hempstead as the site of one of its proposed new towns designed to house the population displaced by the London Blitz, since slums and bombsites were being cleared in London. On 4 February 1947, the Government purchased 5,910 acres (23.9 km2) of land and began work on the "New Town". The first new residents moved in during April 1949, and the town continued its planned expansion through to the end of the 1980s. Hemel grew to its present population of 80,000, with new developments enveloping the original town on all sides. The original part of Hemel is still known as the "Old Town".
Marlowes shopping centre and pedestrianised high street
Hemel Hempstead was announced as candidate No 3 for a New Town in July 1946, in accordance with the government's "policy for the decentralisation of persons and industry from London". Initially there was much resistance and hostility to the plan from locals, especially when it was revealed that any development would be carried out not by the local council but by a newly appointed government body, the Hemel Hempstead Development Corporation (later amalgamated with similar bodies to form the Commission for New Towns). However, following a public inquiry the following year, the town got the go-ahead. Hemel officially became a New Town on 4 February 1947.
The initial plans for the New Town were drawn up by architect Geoffrey Jellicoe. His view of Hemel Hempstead, he said, was "not a city in a garden, but a city in a park." However, the plans were not well received by most locals. Revised, and less radical plans were drawn up, and the first developments proceeded despite local protests in July 1948. The first area to be developed was Adeyfield. At this time the plans for a revolutionary double roundabout at Moor End were first put forward, but in fact it was not until 1973 that the roundabout was opened as it was originally designed. (It was quickly christened 'The Magic Roundabout' by locals, echoing the name of the children's TV show.) The first houses erected as part of the New Town plan were in Longlands, Adeyfield, and went up in the spring of 1949. The first new residents moved in early 1950.
At this time, work started on building new factories and industrial areas, to avoid the town becoming a dormitory town. The first factory was erected in 1950 in Maylands Avenue. As building progressed with continuing local opposition, the town was becoming increasingly popular with those moving in from areas of north London. By the end of 1951, there was a waiting list of about 10,000 wishing to move to Hemel. The neighbourhoods of Bennett's End, Chaulden and Warner's End were started. The Queen paid a visit shortly after her accession in 1952, and laid a foundation stone for a new church in Adeyfield – one of her first public engagements as Queen. The shopping square she visited is named Queen's Square, and the nearby area has street names commemorating the then-recent conquest of Everest, such as Hillary and Tenzing Roads. This conquest is also celebrated in the name of a pub in Warners End – the 'Top of the World'.
Riverside, extension to the Marlowes shopping precinct opened 2005
The redevelopment of the town centre was started in 1952, with a new centre based on Marlowes south of the old town. This was alongside a green area called the Water Gardens, designed by Jellicoe, formed by ponding back the River Gade. The old centre of the High Street was to remain largely undeveloped, though the market square closed and was replaced by a much larger one in the new centre. The former private estate of Gadebridge was opened up as a public park. New schools and roads were built to serve the expanding new neighbourhoods. New housing technology such as prefabrication started to be used from the mid-'50s, and house building rates increased dramatically. Highfield was the next neighbourhood to be constructed. The M1 motorway opened to the east in 1959, and a new road connecting it to the town was opened.
By 1962, the redevelopment of the new town as originally envisaged was largely complete, though further expansion plans were then put forward. The nearby United States Air Force base of Bovingdon, which had served as the town's 'de facto' airport, reverted to RAF use at this time, continuing as an active military airfield until 1971. A campus of West Herts College, the library, new police station and the Pavilion (theatre and music venue) were all built during the 1960s. The town seemed to attract its fair share of celebrity openings, with shops and businesses opened by Frankie Vaughan, Benny Hill, Terry-Thomas, and the new cinema was opened by Hollywood star Lauren Bacall. The last of the originally-planned neighbourhoods, Grovehill, began construction in 1967. However, further neighbourhoods of Woodhall Farm and Fields End were later built as part of the extended plans.
Like other first generation new towns, Hemel is divided into residential neighbourhoods, each with their own "village centre" with shops, pubs and services. Each neighbourhood is designed around a few major feeder roads with many smaller cul-de-sacs and crescents, intended to minimise traffic and noise nuisance. In keeping with the optimism of the early post-war years, much of the town features modernist architecture with many unusual and experimental designs for housing. Not all of these have stood the test of time. A significant issue was how to choose names for all the new roads. Many areas of the new town used themes e.g. fields, birds, rivers, poets, explorers, leaders, etc.
In 1974, the government abolished the Borough of Hemel Hempstead and the town was incorporated into Dacorum District, along with Tring and Berkhamsted. The first chairman of that council was chairman John Johnson (1913–1977). In the 1980s, Dacorum District Council successfully lobbied to be recognised as the successor for the Royal Charter establishing the Borough of Hemel Hempstead and thus regained the Mayor and its Aldermen and became Dacorum Borough.
At the 2001 census, Hemel Hempstead was the most populated urban area in Hertfordshire, narrowly more populated than its traditionally "larger" rival, Watford.