The Pest House of the parish of Rickmansworth - and the Dorrofields

A note by Mike Collins and Alison Wall

Croxley Green was, until 1872, part of the large parish of Rickmansworth, and several of the parish facilities were based here. An example is the parish pest house.

The threat to the community of infectious and contagious disease was well recognised, and most parishes had a pest or plague house to which those suffering from such diseases would be consigned, usually with a keeper. They tend to date from around the mid 1500s, and were originally funded by wealthy donors or the church, although by the end of the 16th century generally from the parish rates. Some were built specifically for the purpose, others were existing buildings. Some had a cemetery near by. In times of plague or other infectious diseases a nurse paid by the parish would move into the pest house and care for the sick, although with what qualifications is perhaps unclear. The use of pest houses declined by the early decades of the 19th century, being replaced by workhouse infirmaries under the new Poor Law of 1832.

Croxley Green had the Rickmansworth parish pest house. It was located between the footpath from Copthorne Road to Loudwater and the river Chess about 150 yards beyond the path down to the Chess bridge. On the censuses it is usually the next entry to Loudwater Farm with the address sometimes given as Old Pest House, Loudwater Farm. It is not clear when it was built, but from a painting and later photographs it had a tall triple chimney typical of those found on known Tudor buildings. By the early 1800s, perhaps the 1820s, it was in ruins apart from the chimney, and came into the possession of the Dorrofield family.

The links between the Dorrofields, well known watercress growers and, later, farmers, and the pest house are worth detailing as local social history. They may always have owned the house. The chimney had been at one end of the pest house, and William Dorrofield built a new cottage utilising the chimney as an end wall but with the rest of the new building on the opposite side to the old ruins. Later the new building became known as ‘Fishery Cottage’, and is called this on the 1939 Register. The Dorrofields also built stables and possibly other buildings nearby for their watercress business, but these were destroyed in a fire, possibly in the mid 1920’s. The cottage remained a Dorrofield family home until the early 1940s, when it was so badly damaged by a nearby bomb that it became uninhabitable. The old chimney remained visible for many years, but now nothing remains apart from a few bricks scattered across the site.

William Dorrofield had been baptised on 1 November 1767 in Rickmansworth, the son of William and Elizabeth (nee Collins). He married Amelia Stretch 21 January 1794 in Rickmansworth, and they had at least ten children. He presumably lived in the new cottage for a while, although no documentary evidence has been found. William and Amelia’s son Thomas was baptised 3 February 1805 and died in 1881. He married Ann East 1 August 1829, and although they had three children Ann died young. Thomas remarried, in 1843, Amy Rhodes, a widow with four children. They had two more, James (1844 - 1886) and Amelia. In 1841 Thomas was living ‘The Old Pest House’ (ie the new cottage) with daughter Elizabeth age 10. In 1851 Thomas, Amy, and six children were in Croxley, presumably still in the same cottage, though not identified as such on the census. They were still in ‘The Old Pest House’ in 1861 with James, Amelia, and Charles Rhodes (from Amy’s first marriage). In 1871 and 1881 Thomas was there on his own. Amy died in 1875, but has not been traced on the 1871 census. On some censuses Thomas is described as a Farm Labourer, on others as a Watercress Grower.

James Dorrofield, the son of Thomas and Amy, married Ann Palmer on 5 October 1867 in Rickmansworth. In 1871 they were in Watford Road, Rickmansworth (next entry after Scotsbridge House) with daughter Ann aged two. In 1881 they were in Church Street with five children including Susan aged eight. The 1885 Electoral Roll has James at The Pest House, Loudwater Farm. He died in 1886, and in 1891 Ann, now a widow, was in ‘The Pest House’ with six children including Susan aged 19 and Fanny aged seven. She was still there in 1901 with Susan, Fanny and two sons. Ann died in 1907, leaving effects valued at £216.19s.2d. In 1881 James was described as a Watercresser; Ann in 1891 and 1901 as a Watercress Grower.

In 1911 Susan and Fanny were in ‘The Pest House’, Susan being described as “Forewoman of Paper Mill”. Susan died in 1971 age 99 while living at ‘Woodlands’, Oxhey Drive, South Oxhey, leaving effects valued at £2,093.

In ‘Fishery Cottage’ on the 1939 Register are five Dorrofield siblings, the children of William Dorrofield and Rose Charlotte Atkins who married in1896. William was the son of James and Ann and thus brother to Susan and Fanny. The five siblings included Bertram, b. 14 July 1915. He married Esther Collins in 1942 and they appear to have lived all their married life at 10 Yorke Road, Croxley. He and his siblings ran the Croxley Green Laundry. Bert died in 1991 the value of his effects not exceeding £125,000; Esther in 2015 at the age of 97.

Barbara Owen, a founder member of the Three Rivers Museum and its Chair for many years until her death in 2019, recalled that when her daughter Helen (born 1950) was a baby she and husband Jack used to walk Helen in her Silver Cross pram, together with older sister Margaret (born 1948), down through the field behind Copthorne Road to the site of the old Pest House ruins. There they would collect a few old bricks, put them on the tray under the pram, and take them back to their house at 23 Copthorne Road. In time, it seems, they collected enough to build the front wall at 23. The wall is still there today, comprising roughly 1000 bricks which appear to include some from the original pest house, some no doubt from the later cottage, and some modern ones.