Thursday 28 January 2021

Holywell Farm

 A History of Holywell Farm, Watford

The name Holywell is common throughout England and Wales and the derivation comes from Anglo Saxon, but not all such place names had a well.

Holywell Farm in West Watford lay at the end of Vicarage Road, about a mile from the town, with land abutting the River Colne and a view across to Oxhey. To put it into today's map, it was where Stripling Way leads onto the Lairage Land and covering the land where Laurance Haines school is now and what became Harwoods recreation ground. It was being farmed before the coming of the Watford to Croxley branch line, which was begun in 1908. In fact, according to early censuses, the address is variously given as Holywell Farm, Moor Lane, Oxhey Hamlet, in the District of Watford.  When it was sold at auction in 1887 it was advertised as being on the High Road from Watford. Further on down Vicarage Road is Brightwells Farm, still in existence. 

In the 1700s into the late 1800s, Watford was very much an agricultural landscape and Agricultural Labourer is often given as an occupation on the early censuses, along with shepherd boy, cowman and cowboy. 

One of the earliest references to Holywell Farm is with regard to a Mr Jonathan Cox Lovett, born July 1739. His father was Daniel, his mother Elizabeth and he was baptised at St Mary’s Watford. He died a widower in March 1787 and there is an interesting reference to him in Henry Williams's History of Watford and Trade Directory published in 1884 regarding charitable endowments in relation to Dame Fuller's Free School, 'without which the income it possessed in the time of the foundress would have proved wholly inadequate to carry her pious intentions into effect had it not been for the benevolent consideration of subsequent benefactors who bequeathed certain sums to supply the deficiencies'. 

Robert Clutterbuck (1772 – 1831) who spent 18 years writing The History and Antiquities of the County of Hertford,  wrote of a circumstance in connection with the said school. He says: "Mr Jonathan Cox Lovett, of Holywell, in this parish, by his will dated the 1st of May, 1780, made a reversionary devise of certain estates consisting of Holywell Farm, etc., to the trustees of this school; this devise, however, from having been made within twelve months of his decease and from not having been enrolled in Chancery, became void by the Act of the 9th of George II. c.36, called the Statute of Mortmain. Had this devise taken effect, the rents of the estates so devised would have been fully adequate to the future support of the school; under existing circumstances, however, its income must, in process of time, from the causes I have mentioned, be insufficient to defray its expenses."

Another early reference to the farm is the 1841 census on which John Tookey (b1781)) is named as Farmer and his birthplace is given as Hertfordshire. He was living at Holywell Farm along with his wife Mary, of the same age and nine others including William Saunders aged 25 (b1816), agricultural labourer, his wife and three children and Thomas Sawyer aged 15, also recorded as agricultural labourer. The others Ellen, Mary, John and Thomas are given as family members.



Holywell Farm, Oxhey/Watford


Place of Birth 

John Tookey





Mary Tookey





John Lennington





Ellen Mahon





Thomas Sawyer


Ag labourer



William Saunders


Ag Labourer



Ann Saunders



b 1816


George     “



b 1836


Mary         “



b 1838


Edward      “



b 1840


George Chil ?





Ten years later on the 1851 census, there is no mention of 'a farmer'  or Head of household (they could have been away at the time), but William Saunders is still in residence as agricultural labourer, along with Ann, recorded as wife/charwoman, son George 15, farm labourer, Mary, just recorded as 'at home', Edward, now 11 shepherd boy, Emma, Eliza and Susannah, daughters. All from Watford, except Ann. 

1851 Census


Holywell Farm 


Place of Birth 

William Saunders


Agricultural Labourer

b 1816


Ann Saunders



b 1812

St Stephens, Herts



Son, farm labourer

b 1836




At home

b 1839



Son, Shepherd Boy

b 1840



Daughter, school




Daughter, school






In 1861, Holywell Farm has clearly changed ownership and the census for that year records: Charles Snewing, b. 1817 in Warwickshire, married, farmer of 108 acres employing 8 men and 2 boys. This is the Charles Snewing of Caractacus racehorse fame (see detailed story in drop-down menu). 

1861 Census


Holywell Farm, Moor Lane


 Place of Birth

Charles Snewing


m. Farmer of 108 acres employing 8 men, 2 boys

 b 1817




Charles Snewing


Son, scholar

b 1853


Ann Snewing



b 1853


Sarah Ann Crofts



b 1830

Wolvery, Warkwicks

John Andrews


Servant, Farm Bailiff

b 1794

Gt Gaddesden

Elizabeth Clever


Servant, cook

b 1823

Wolvery, Warwicks

Mary Wech


Housemaid, domestic servant

b 1846


Charles Dale


Agricultural Labourer, cowboy

b 1847


By 1871 Charles Snewing is still the owner of Holywell Farm and it is notable that William Saunders and his wife Ann are back in residence at the time of the census. 

There are many references to Charles Snewing in the Watford Observer and other publications throughout his time at Holywell, usually with regard to horses and horse sales as, under his ownership, Holywell had become a stud farm. The following is just one example;

Sporting Life - Tuesday 14 March 1882

Holywell Stud Farm, Watford. LORD MALDEN (own brother in blood to Petrarch), a bright bay horse, without white, of great substance, fully 16 hands high, free from hereditary disease, with grand action and fine temper; will serve a limited number of mares, 5 guineas a mare..... etc. For subscriptions apply to Mr. C. SNEWING

There are also references to William Saunders in the local paper who, in a later report is referred to as Mr Snewing's foreman.

From the Watford Observer - Saturday 19 April 1879 -

SEED POTATOES.—For Sale, Surplus Stock of  Ash Leaf Kidney. Price 2s 6d per bushel. Apply to Wm. Saunders. Holywell Farm, Watford. 

Another small example of the farmer's life is shown in  the following short extract from the Herts Advertiser, Saturday 23rd December 1876 - 'Watford Christmas Meat Show' (an annual event by all accounts) when farmers and butchers from around the district would gather to show off their livestock and wares:

"The unseasonableness of the weather on Tuesday last made the butchers wonderfully chary about their display of Christmas fare and the consequence was that there was not nearly so fine a show as last year. Nothing is to be said against the quality of the meat, nearly all of which was of the very primest description  and reflected highly to the credit and ability of the  breeders. The fattening of stock and making it ripe for the butchers has become a very important branch of modern agriculture'. The article goes on to name all the farmers from all the farms around Watford, from as far afield as Winslow and Rickmansworth, together with their exhibits, which included pheasants and other game, hares, geese, turkeys, ducks, fowls, and of course, cattle and sheep. Charles Snewing of Holywell Farm is noted as "exhibiting a fat calf, fed by the exhibitor and 4 very prime southdown sheep, also fed by him".  

1871 Census


 Holywell Farm



Charles Snewing



b 1818 


Charles Snewing



b 1853


Allan Jeffrey



b 1827


William Saunders


Agricultural Labourer

Same William Saunders as in 1851 census  

By 1891 he was living in Estcourt Rd Watford aged 77 with his wife Annie (80), occ Labourer Past Work

b 1814




Ann Saunders



Same Ann Saunders as in 1851 census

b 1811


Frederick Durrant



b 1853


Samual Durrant





Mary Ann Heel



b 1845


Yet a rather more lengthy report from the Watford Observer of October 1872 (here abridged) concerns Henry Robinson and an alleged theft of tools from Frederick Hickford. He was accused of stealing a saw and shovels from Mr Snewing's Holywell Farm. A number of people were called to give statements regarding the tools. William Saunders stated: "I am foreman to Mr Charles Snewing of Holywell Farm, Watford. The hay fork has been lost since the other tools, but I cannot say when. We lost two shovels, a four-tined fork, and a spade last February, belonging to Mr. Snewing. They were taken out of the toolhouse on a Sunday evening. There have been marks on the tools produced where I usually mark Mr. Snewing’s, but they have been removed. The hay fork produced has also been marked in two places, as I usually mark them. Mr. Snewing bought the shovels himself. One of them was light and the other heavy. The heavy one had a tread on it, but the light one had not. The tools have all the appearance of those which belonged to Mr. Snewing".

Mr Boydell stated: I know the saw also by being able to bend it double; I never knew another saw that you could bend double. I also know it by the maker's name stamped on the plate. I do not think there are many saws in Watford by the same maker. I positively swear that the saw produced is mine.  I sold the shovels to Mr. Snewing myself."

Henry Purcell stated: I live at Lodge, Watford. I bought the four-tined fork off the prisoner on the 10th July last. I had previously sold the prisoner a load of dung, and had the fork in lien of money. The fork produced is the one that I bought off the prisoner. My wife gave it up to the police. I am a signalman on the London and North-Western Railway, and was on duty at Pinner Station at the time.

Police Constable Jennings stated: On Tuesday last, the 1st October, I received the fork produced from the last witness's wife at Wiggenhall Lodge. I found the light shovel in a hut on the Rickmansworth line, where the prisoner had been at work. The prisoner told the ganger to give it to me; he said that it belonged to him. I also found the spade produced on the line, hidden under some sleepers.

Saunders was again recalled. He said the spade produced was like one lost from Mr. Snewing’s. The brands had been cut out of it. 

The prisoner pleaded not guilty to all the charges. He was committed for trial. 

1881 Census


 Holywell Farm



Charles Snewing


Widower – farmer of 121 acres, employing 6 labourers

b 1818

d Dec 1886


Personal estate: £1,558. 8s. 11d.

Mary A Heel


Servant, cook

b 1847


Helen Busby


Domestic servant, housemaid

b 1860


George Mason



b 1855


William Harwood



b 1863


Thomas Priest


Servant - Painter

b 1844

Bucks Hill


Much earlier in 1849 there had been a report to the General Board of Health on a Preliminary Inquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of the town of Watford (by George Thomas Clarke, Supt Inspector).

The subject of drainage had frequently been discussed in the five or six years previously at various meetings and the 'existing evils' had been fully admitted, but a want of legislative power had always prevented the application of an effectual remedy. After the passing of the Public Health Act, a meeting was called to consider the propriety of putting in force the "Nuisances Removal Act", but such was the bad condition of the town and the want of the necessary powers in the Nuisances Act to carry out permanent remedies, that, after a long discussion and two adjourned meetings, the petition upon which the inquiry proceeded was determined upon. 

Due to its position and the great extent of meadow land abutting the Colne, Watford was in an excellent position for the distribution of its sewage as liquid manure. In the early days of the Board of Health, the Earl of Essex took all the sewage of the district, which was distributed over his land at Harwood's farm, being pumped up by steam power from the pumping station in the Colne Valley, just below the workhouse. Yet when the Earl discontinued to use the sewage on his farm, the Board bought the site, along with the machinery, sheds etc., and the surrounding land and formed tanks for filtration and precipitation, pumping the effluent water on to the land. This continued for a time, but the town and district was growing and inevitably more land was required. This was again acquired from the Earl of Essex and the amount of sewage sent down to the outfall works accordingly. This state of things was to attract the attention of Mr Snewing, the owner of Holywell Farm, an estate near the outfall premises. He considered the sewage was not disposed of in a legal manner and obtained an injunction against the Board, restraining them from turning the sewage into the stream. The injunction remained in place for some time, but one assumes was eventually resolved (as the report below attains), as more land was purchased and the whole area laid out in terraces.

Watford Observer - Saturday 30 July 1887

The following report of the Sewage Farm Committee was read and adopted:— The Sewage Farm Committee beg to report that they have visited the sewage farms at Bedford and Croydon, and have also, with the assistance of the Surveyor, examined Holywell Farm with a view to ascertain its capabilities for the disposal of the sewage of the district of the Watford Local Board. They are of opinion that it is most suitable for the purpose, and having regard to the successful working of the sewage farms at Bedford and Croydon, the Committee are confident that the sewage of this district can be disposed of satisfactorily and without occasioning a nuisance upon the land which the Board have agreed to purchase. The Committee therefore recommend that the existing iron main be continued past the Isolation Hospital into the Holywell Farm, and across that property the highest and farthest point, plentifully supplied with side delivery sluice valves. That surface irrigation be adopted, the land to be gradually made up year by year as may be found most desirable.” It was resolved that in addition to the sum of £11,500 referred to in the resolution of this Board passed on the 3rd June last, application be made to the Local Government Board for their sanction to the Watford Local Board borrowing a farther sum not exceeding £1,500 (making with the said sum of £11,500 the sum of £13,000), to defray the cost of the proposed extension of the iron pumping main to and across the Holywell Farm and the other works recommended in the Surveyor’s report of the 92nd inst. It was also resolved that the Local Government Board be requested to sanction the payment of the proposed loan being spread over period of 50 years.

This area of land stretched from the Colne below the Holywell farm, right across to Cassiobridge, covering the entire area where now is the residential Holywell Estate, Croxley View, the playing fields and schools.


Charles Snewing died on 23rd December 1886 and on Thursday 2nd June 1887 at One o'clock, the Freehold Residential Estate of "Holywell" was put up for auction.

The Sale was held by Sedgwick, Son & Weall, Surveyors and Auctioneers of 38, High Street, Watford and the particulars and conditions of sale were quite comprehensive.


"A most desirable Freehold Residential Estate exempt from Land Tax, known as 


for many years the residence of the late C. Snewing, Esq. It comprises a somewhat old-fashioned but exceedingly comfortable Residence, approached from the 


by a private Road and is surrounded by 


ornamented with fine Timber Trees, Conifers and Shrubs, very productive 



There are Extensive covered Yards and Farm Premises and ranges of Stabling and Boxes

applicable for an establishment for breeding horses; there is a building erected for the stabling  of the celebrated Race Horse "Caractacus", with rooms, &c which could easily be converted into Cottages, and several other useful detached Buildings. The Land extends over 


of excellent Grass lying very compactly together, well timbered and intersected and partly bounded by the river Colne, in which is excellent fishing. It is in a good hunting district and 


Sold at the Mart, Tokenhouse Yard, by order of the Executor of the late Charles Snewing.


The particulars go on to itemise and describe the assets of the estate, describing it as in a good position with regard to railway accommodation, its proximity to the town of Watford, its dry gravel soil and sporting advantages, and is especially desirable either for the residence of a private gentleman or for a sporting establishment. At the same time it is suggested it is well worth the attention of builders and others who would utilise the many attractive sites presented for good residences so much wanted in the vicinity, and the private road almost dividing the estate would offer great facilities for this purpose. It is Freehold and exempt from Land Tax (except the Cottages numbered 17 and the small meadow numbered 18 on the plan, which are held by lease under the Vicar and Churchwardens of Watford*) and in its entirety is a Compact Property of 107a. 2r. 27p. as set forth in the schedule.

The District is hunted by the Old Berkeley Fox Hounds and the meets of several other well-known packs are within easy distance, in addition to which there is good fishing in the River Colne which flows through the estate. 

As to the Residence itself, it is approached from the High Road from Watford to Rickmansworth by a private road and contains:

On the Upper Floors - 6 Bedrooms and Dressing Rooms with convenient Closets &c, Dining Room 27ft x 18ft (exclusive of Bow Windows), Drawing Room opening to Smoking Room &c 

Ground Floor - Entrance Hall with Fireplace, leading to Conservatory, heated by hot water, with Lavatory, w.c. &c., Inner Hall with Store Closet, Library 18ft x 16ft, Morning Room 16ft x 13ft. 6in. with revolving Silver-plate glass shutters, Kitchen with close Stove, , Dresser and convenient Cupboard, Scullery with close Stove, Pantry and Larder, Store Room with Sink, Glass Cupboard, Coal Cellar, Knife-house, Lamp Room with Entrance from Yard, Laundry and Mangle Room; there are also Three Servants' Rooms approached by separate Staircase and excellent underground cellarage. 

Pleasure Grounds - beautifully timbered with fine specimens of Conifers and other Trees and Shrubs in their prime. It is surrounded by Excellent Lawns, Flower Gardens,Shrubberies &c. with a Large Conservatory and Vineries heated by Hot Water Pipes and constructed some few years since on the most approved principle. A most productive Kitchen Garden, Orchards with Filbert and other trees. 

At a convenient distance is an Ornamentally Brick-Built and Tiled Stable with Loose Box, Harness Room, Chaise House, Poultry House, Dove Cote &c. and Two Loose Boxes.

An Ornamental Building  most substantially erected for the stabling of the celebrated Race Horse "Caractacus", comprising Stabling and Loose Boxes fitted with expensive Marble Mangers &c. and opening into a Yard on a lower level, and above a Suite of Rooms for Trainer and Grooms, with a Gallery over-looking the River (these Premises, at a moderate cost could, if desired, be converted into Cottages and (on No 3 on the plan**) are several convenient Loose Boxes and Sheds. There is also near the Residence a capital set of Farm Premises with extensive Covered Yards; also a range of stabling and boxes with yards &c., applicable for an Establishment for Breeding Horses. 

Under an Agreement with the Railway Company, the late Owner exercised the privilege of Planting the Banks of the Rickmansworth Railway with Fir and other Trees, which having grown up, form a very Ornamental Screen. 

Holywell Farmhouse, late 1800s/early 1900s - Watford Central Library



This is a 'Britain From Above' aero photograph taken in 1921. It shows Holywell Farm bottom centre with the Watford to Croxley Green branch line arcing round off the main Watford to Rickmansworth line. A few trees, described in the sale catalogue, still remain by the side of the disused railway and can be best seen from the Lairage. 

Clearly these 'Estates' were no longer as in demand as they once had been for a country retreat or gentleman farmer and following the sale of ‘Holywell’ it became the Watford Corporation Farm, owned and farmed by Watford Urban District Council. 

(* ** The writer has been unable to locate the plan that accompanied the Sale)


Under the ownership of the Watford UDC, the farming and breeding of pigs became main production. The herd came into being in 1918, becoming prize-winning Large Whites, Middle Whites and Wessex Saddlebacks, although the Corporation did not exhibit their pigs in any of the national shows until 1934. In that year they ‘audaciously launched out’ and entered their best Middle Whites in the Royal Show of England – the Crufts of the pig world. The Watford pigs swept the class in which they were entered, taking the cup for the Middle White female champion and the prize for the supreme Middle White champion of the show.

From that day the boars and sows from Holywell Farm took big prizes at all the principal shows up and down the land. Mr Farquharson, the Farm Bailiff specialised in show specimens and such a degree of excellence was attained that they were exported for breeding purposes to over twenty countries, Watford Corporation supplying the first Middle Whites ever sent to Sought Africa. Such breeding also served to preserve the strain.

To get an idea of the size of the herd, an advertisement appeared in the Bucks Herald in January 1939:

‘Holywell Farm, Watford – First-Class Pure-Bred Middle White and Large White Pigs, comprising a first class selection of about 70 served gilts and 20 young boars, the finest quality and herds’ belong to the Watford Corporation, will be sold at Auction on Thursday January 26th. Catalogues  from F Farquharson, Holywell Farm, Watford of from the Auctioneers. 

Holywell Farm in 1958 - photograph Watford Central Library

During the War, the Council launched a scheme for the collection of pig food. Householders were asked to keep a receptacle separate from the dust bin and put in it all sorts of food scraps. The Council were buying two 60 gallon boiling pans and intended to increase the number of pigs on the Corporation farm. Any surplus food would be sold. 

A report in the Watford Observer in January 1944 read:  "Although they may not be aware of their role, the housewives of Watford are playing an important part in laying the foundations of Europe’s future livestock herds. The scraps and kitchen waste which they assiduously put out for collection each week are being converted into flesh, blood and bone – in fact, the finest pedigree pigs – at Watford’s own municipal farm.  Homesteads will have to be rebuilt, farms re-established and broad acres of grassland stocked with livestock to replace the herds stolen by the hun". 

And this, says Mr Farquharson, the Borough farm bailiff, is where Watford comes into the picture. The breeding qualities of the Watford herd are known all over the world – so much so, says Mr Farqharson, that many of the pigs that will become the nuclei of the Continental herds will be Watford pedigree stock, all bred at the Borough’s own farm – Holywell Farm – which lies just off Tolpits Lane, in the south-west corner of the town.

Sales of pigs, mainly from the pedigree stock during the nine months from April to December 1943 brought in £2,500. The best animals fetched anything up to 80 guineas. In December alone, sales totalled nearly £700.

Then in November 1950, the following appeared in the Hertfordshire Chronicle:

WATFORD CATTLE MARKET, HERTS, FINAL DISPERSAL SALE OF 91 PURE BRED LARGE WHITE PIGS (from the prize-winning herd, the property of the Watford Corporation), comprising, 17 large White In-Pig Gilts. 27 large White Empty Gilts. I large White Sow In-Pig. 4 large White Sows and their Litters. 8 large White Boars. I Middle White Boar and I Saddleback Sow and SUNDRY PIG EQUIPMENT. which Messrs. Hodgson & Faulkner will Sell Auction at the above MARKET on FRIDAY, DECEMBER Ist. 1950. at 11.30 a.m. precisely. Catalogue may obtained from Mr. F. Farquharson. Holywell Farm, Watford. Or the Auctioneers. 

And in January 1951 the Watford Observer reported:

JANUARY 5, 1951: Thirty-two years of pig breeding has come to an end with the disposal of the Corporation's pigs at Holywell Farm. At a meeting of Watford Borough Council on Monday, Councillor Haines said "thank you" to the man who had been largely responsible for the fame the Watford herd had gained. That man was Mr F Farquharson, and the Parks and Recreation Grounds Committee recommendation to give him a £25 honorarium for his work in this connection was agreed to by the Council. Councillor Haines mentioned that the main reason for the disposal of the pigs was the loss of the sewerage farm. He then went on to tell how the herd had been in being since 1918.

Finally, in 1952, the Watford Observer sought to allay any fears future residents might have with a piece entitled “Holywell’s Murky Past”:

“It is not the intention of the Corporation to retain the unsalubrious title “Sewage Farm” for the housing estate mentioned in the plan. “Holywell Estate” is the distinctly more prepossessing name chosen by the Council. Holywell House is still the property of the Council, though the famous herd of Wessex saddlebacks which they owned at Holywell Farm has now been disposed of. Controlled tipping has taken place for years at Tolpits Lane and this area has now been practically levelled off. Eventually it will become playing fields. The Council now use Radlett Road for tipping. By the way, experts made 100 per cent certain that the Holywell estate area is healthy. Some of the earth is being removed for top-soil elsewhere. What is left should be ideal for gardeners, they declare.”

The first residents moved onto the Holywell Estate in 1954.

For a time, the site of the farm became an abattoir, with access just beyond the bridge in Vicarage Road and down the gated small track next to the railway line (where Watford Stadium Halt was later built). It’s a wonder the bridge took the weight of the British Beef lorries that trundled over it during the abattoir’s existence. The Lairage Land behind the later housing development down by the River Colne was probably used for grazing while cattle waited, as there was a large paddock next to the establishment. The abattoir closed in 1985 and further residential development continued beyond Vicarage Road down towards the Colne.


History and research by Lynda Bullock - Written by Lynda Bullock

With thanks to Sue Shrimpton for additional help with Census records


Censuses – 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871

Find My Past

Watford Observer

Sale Catalogue Sedgewick, Sons and Weall 1887

Bucks Herald Jan 1939

Hertfordshire Chronicle 1950

Herts Advertiser 1876

Sporting Life 1882

Henry Williams History of Watford and Trade Directory 1884

Britain From Above photograph

Watford Museum 

Watford Central Library


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