Folly Island, Hertford

The view from Folly Bridge -Folly on the Folly Day August 8th 2010
The view from Folly Bridge – Folly on the Folly Day August 8th 2010

Folly Island is at the centre of Hertford where the River Lee (or Lea) splits into two. Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire. It has a bus station, two train stations and easy access to most major road networks to London and airports.

There are 122 houses on Folly Island. They are two or three bedroom, mid-terrace cottage style homes built in the last years of the nineteenth century by the Andrews and Thornton families.

There is also a pub – The Old Barge, a freehouse which can be found in Camra’s Good Beer Guide 2017 and serves a wide range of real ales, ciders, export lagers and food until late seven days a week.

Folly Island is a true island between the two streams of the River Lea and there is only one access for vehicles over Folly Bridge. The absence of through traffic, the closeness of the town centre and the open spaces of Hartham Common nearby adds to the attraction of the Island as a place to live.

The history of Folly Island begins in the days of William the Conqueror when a mill was built on the site of a priory close to modern day Priory Street. In 1636 the mill was relocated down stream to where the Dicker Mill Industrial Estate is today as other mills closer to the centre of town took more water for their own workings.

A 1700 map of Hertford shows Folly island as an open space between the two branches of the River Lea and split into three separate parcels of land; Old Hall Mead (Old Hall Street is named after this), Little Hartham and Priory Orchard, now cultivated as allotments.The earliest recorded use of the ‘the Folly’ (the street called The Folly runs from Folly Bridge to the crossroads with Thornton Street) was in 1732 when Little Hartham was conveyed by Thomas Ashby to John Nicholson. It was referred to as ‘Ashby’s Folly’; that small piece of land was later to be the site for a militia hospital and a dumping ground for the waste from Hertford goal.

The transfer of the lease to Nicholson signalled a dramatic increase in the development of commercial interests on the adjoining stretch of the island. Late nineteenth century maps show an abundance of maltings, timber mills and warehousing operations.

The River Lea was the dominant inland route for the transport of malt and barley, tapping into some of the richest barley country in Hertfordshire, most especially around Ware, Hoddesdon and Stanstead Abbotts. Hertford’s great rival Ware prospered to become the centre of England’s malting industry.

The Navigation Act of 1738 was of such importance to the prosperity of Hertford that the corporation paid ten shillings for the bells to be rung. It enabled the then mill stream to be widened and navigation improved to allow barges right into the centre of Hertford and alongside the mills rather than along the course of the old river.

Although it was essential for the malt to be transported down to London the River Lea also opened up opportunities for barge owners to return from London with coal, dung to fertilise the market gardens along what is now the A10 corridor; and animal feed for the continuing reliance on horse drawn transport.

For many years the only access to Folly island was over a footbridge at Bull Plain. Mill owners successfully applied for the widening of the bridge to allow carts but the high sides still made getting goods off the island easier by barge than by road.

The narrowness of the bridge was as much the reason for the decline in the Folly as a trading centre as the coming of the railways. Movement by barge was still far cheaper but the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had reduced the price of corn and encouraged large landowners to sell off land to commuters that sought the green fields of Hertfordshire.

Folly Island is designated a Local Conservation Area and cherry trees planted along Thornton Street recreate an original feature from the end of the last century.

© John Barber. First published in Hertfordshire Countryside, August 2000.

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