A History of Stevenage

By Tim Lambert

Early Stevenage

Stevenage began as a Saxon village in 7th Century Hertfordshire. It was called Stith ac, which means strong oak. In those days trees were used as meeting places and perhaps one large oak used in that way gave Stevenage its name. At any rate by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, Stevenage was a little village. To us, it would seem tiny but settlements were very small in those days. At the time of the Domesday Book Stevenage belonged to the Abbey of Westminster.

Later the settlement moved position to a place closer to a main road, the Great North Road. The shift may have happened suddenly or gradually. At any rate as a result people were able to sell goods and services to travelers and so Stevenage flourished. Perhaps the people deliberately moved to take advantage of the traffic.

In the late 13th century Stevenage became a small market town. From 1281 it had weekly markets (in those days there were very few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to market). Stevenage was also granted annual fairs. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. They attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area).

In the 14th century, Stevenage probably had a population of not more than 1,000. To us, it would seem very small but towns were tiny in the Middle Ages. Some people in the town made their living at least partly from farming. Stevenage had a common where townspeople grazed their livestock.

Then in 1349 disaster struck when the Black Death reached Stevenage. The town lost much of its population. However, Stevenage soon recovered.

Thomas Alleyne founded a grammar school in Stevenage in 1558.

Through the centuries life in Stevenage continued to be much the same. However, from the mid-18th century, stagecoaches began to pass through Stevenage. By the early 19th century about 20 coaches were passing through each day. Naturally, passengers spent money in the town and it prospered. However, in 1850, the railway reached Stevenage and the stagecoaches ended. From 1763 Stevenage had a primitive fire engine with a hand-operated pump. It was needed in 1807 and in 1829 when severe fires struck the town.

Modern Stevenage

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Stevenage was a tiny market town with a population of a little over 1,400. (Not much bigger than it was in the Middle Ages). By 1901 it had grown to over 4,000. Meanwhile, amenities in the town improved. From 1855 the streets of Stevenage were lit by gas. From 1887 Stevenage had a piped water supply. In 1834 National (Church of England) schools for boys and girls opened in the town. Holy Trinity Church was built in 1862. In 1894 Stevenage was granted an urban district council.

Then in 1946, the New Town Act was passed. The government planned to move people from Inner London to market towns away from the capital. Stevenage was the first community selected to be a new town. In the 1950s and 1960s, six new neighborhoods were created.

The Queen opened the town centre in 1959 and a new railway station was built in Stevenage in 1973. Stevenage Museum was founded in 1954 but it moved to its present location in 1977. In 2023 the population of Stevenage was 89,000.