|This study focuses on the role and contribution of women in the context of the social and economic development of two towns in Hertfordshire during the nineteenth century. Although the age saw an increase in urbanisation, Hertfordshire remained an agricultural county with long established land owners, a middle class with influence in the towns and its closeness to London attracting the newly wealthy in search of a country estate. The towns selected for this study, Hertford and Hitchin, changed little in their character and, compared with others which experienced industrial expansion, saw a modest population growth. This, however, brought the consequential pressures on housing and poverty.
This research is unique in combining the study of the activities of women and the challenges faced by two market towns over a period of time of change and thus making a contribution to the debate on the concept of “separate spheres” by demonstrating that women had a place in the public arena. The daily life of a country town was reliant on a thriving economic environment. As this research demonstrates, many women had trades and businesses, contributed to good causes and were central to the education of children and adults. Their philanthropic efforts supported the building and maintenance of churches, schools, and hospitals. It charts the role of ordinary women, operating in a small town environment, before extension of the suffrage and Equal Opportunities legislation established their position as legitimate influencers of policy and practice.
Little work has been done on how the English small town coped with its growth in population and the summons from central government on compliance with an increasing body of legislation on how the town should be run. It was men who undertook the necessary offices associated with this seed of local government but a micro-history of the people who inhabited these two towns demonstrates that women made a significant contribution to social and economic life of these towns.