Many of Hitchin’s industries derived from its rural setting. Hitchin Lavender is a notable example, with its importance to the pharmaceutical industry. William Ransom founded the UK’s oldest independent pharmaceutical business in Bancroft in 1846. He distilled lavender products and had the honour of presenting a bottle to Queen Victoria on her visit to Hitchin in 1862.
Straw plaiting was a hugely important cottage industry for Hitchin in the 19th century. Mostly done by women and girls in their own homes, nimble fingered plaiters could make a significant contribution to the family budget. Decorative items and straw hats were made, the hatting trade famously being centred on nearby Luton.
Another industry using agricultural produce is of course brewing. At one time the town had over 40 pubs and beer houses. Many of them were served by the Lucas Brewery, which operated in Sun Street from 1709 to 1923.
As it was in many English market towns, tanning was also a major employer in Hitchin. Treating the skins and hides of animals to make leather is an ancient industry. G W Russell and Sons tanning business in Bancroft closed in 1987, bringing to a close at least 200 years of the trade in the town.
Hitchin’s most famous industrialist by far was Sir Henry Bessemer. Actually born in the nearby village of Charlton, being only a mile from the Town centre we claim him as our own!
Bessemer was the ‘father of the steel industry’ and invented a process which dominated the global steel production industry from the 1850s to the 1950s.
The arrival of the railway in 1850 led to modernisation, urban expansion and greater prosperity for many. It was also a major employer in the town.
Hitchin has not had the more modern industrial expansion of surrounding towns such as Stevenage and Luton.
Instead Hitchin has blossomed with a wealth of small independent businesses and retailers.