Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sixty is a Memory

We might celebrate it as a diamond jubilee of events which occurred sixty years ago – 1957.  Some of us were elsewhere then, too young, or not born, to recall, others not here today to remember that year they were a part of.

If you were aspiring to purchase a home in 1957 and desired Marshalswick as a location, new homes on the Nash estate would cost you £2,500.  You would apply at the farmhouse on the part-complete estate.  This was the final full year of the historic farmhouse, before work began on clearance for the high-density developments of flats and The Quadrant shopping area.

A crowd-attracting event for supporters of St Albans Cricket Club and for Clarence Park, was a July benefit match against Surrey CC.  The benefit was for Surrey's David Fletcher, and the boundary was lined with enthusiasts on what turned out to be warm and calm weather conditions.

Sponsored by Interflora

St Albans residents were treated to a colourful advanced view of a parade float sponsored by Interflora.  It consisted of dahlia blooms from the nursery of Ernie Cooper, who had his trial grounds where Longacres Park is today.  Just imagine seeing this photo in glorious colour.

We have grown so used to the road layout as we approach Hatfield that we have no idea what it was previously like; to pass The Comet Hotel on the right; join the North Orbital Road (now Comet Way) at traffic lights; immediately join the right lane and wait for the green to enter St Albans Road at The Stone House (Galleria car park today) en-route to Hatfield centre.  In 1957 we had an additional obstruction: the contractors building our now-familiar Comet roundabout.  Cavendish Way was being constructed towards Bishops Rise – and just look how many trees are still visible.

Comet Roundabout under construction

We can't really call the section on the right Old London Road, but that is
what it is.  The print from the other side of the newsprint page shows through.

Another new road was being carved out of the fields to divert London Road, near the cemetery, towards a new London Colney Roundabout and then a new A6 bypass for the village.  Today we can still use the section where the lorries in the photo are, but it leads nowhere.  That was in 1957 too.

Now, the big news.  Well it was for some residents of south Hatfield.  On a November night a number of new houses in the district lost their roofs in the strong winds which swept the county.  Their occupants, after recovering from the shock, were found emergency accommodation, and the dreadful event was a major feature of the national news.

The scene in Shallcross Crescent, Hatfield, the following morning.
The City council announced early in 1957 that the unmade lane which was still the country route called Marshalswick Lane, was to be constructed as a proper road – but only from Sandridge Road to Furze Avenue, that part being alongside the council's own housing estate.  No further.  It would also improve the six-ways junction at the King William which had some nightmare joining and turning hazards.

A new term was launched in the district, especially among families with employees at de Havilland.  Firestreak.  This related to work being undertaken at the Hatfield site on its new guided weapons system.  That was quite a jump from the "Wooden Wonder" Mosquito war plane production line of fifteen years earlier.

Oh, and I made it to my teens.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Sutton Lakes

Topics for this blog are often prompted by a casual question asked during the course of a conversation or email inquiry.  And so it happened that Roger was puzzled that Fleetville had no station along the Hatfield and St Albans Railway which passed through the middle of the eastern districts of St Albans.  Good question, but as with many other historical questions the answer is far from straightforward.

We start with a date: 1899.  The railway had here for more than three decades; trains passing through open countryside, using an occupational bridge to pass over a farm track which later became Sutton Road.  In 1899  housing and factory development began over a swathe of fields between Castle Road and The Crown.  Sutton Road was then on the eastern edge of this development.

Many new residents had asked for the trains to stop in the district, and the most obvious place was at a siding built to deliver coal to the factories in Sutton Road.  Station or no station; this was an issue which rumbled on for over three decades, 

In 1906 the issue became political – a nasty on-going battle between the Great Northern railway company and St Albans Rural Council (Fleetville did not become a part of the city until 1913).  Now that houses were being built and roads laid – though rarely properly surfaced – the Sutton Road bridge became a serious barrier because its very low headroom, though satisfactory for farm carts was quite unsuitable for modern traffic.  

"Sutton Lakes" before WW1.  The Lakes remained an irritating feature of
the streetscape until the road was levelled and bridge removed.
An unknown party had been given authority to dig downwards under the bridge to increase headroom, and in so doing reached the water table.  Flooding was a serious problem (it is from this period the sobriquet The Sutton Lakes aka the St Albans Lake District was invented).  The Rural Council instructed the Company to deal with the drainage problem and to widen the bridge, pave and make the road up on either side and under the bridge.  Widening in this case meant from single lane width to full road width. The company stated that in the 1860s it had been required, under the relevant Railway Act, to build and maintain an occupation bridge; after all, at the time it had been farmland.  

Every few months from 1906  the Rural Council repeated its instruction, and every few months the council failed to receive a response from the railway company, no doubt aware that these costs would be substantial for a railway which probably never ran at a profit.

By 1910 the company thought that a solution favourable to the company would be to get “the people” on its side.  It suggested that if the council would take responsibility for the drainage/flooding issue the company might look favourably on providing a station at Sutton Road in accordance with local wishes, and improve the bridge (it didn’t use the phrase “widen”).  By the word station we should probably understand it to be a simple structure with a basic shelter.  

Sutton Road, looking towards Hatfield Road, in 1954.
A sign shows a lineside site was being sold and would
become a caravan site.
There was a bit of an auction, with the council offering to pay 60% of the drainage costs; negotiations, such as they had been, stalled again.  In June 1910 company officials staged what we might today call a marketing exercise.  They boarded a train as far as Hill End, and then walked the track to Sutton Road.  Although  suggesting this was for surveying purposes, it seems clear that, because it was widely reported, it was intended to keep "the people" on-side and exert pressure on the council.

The impasse continued, nothing happened during the First World War, and there were some half-hearted efforts to pick up the issue in the 20s, including with the Ministry of Health.  The company's existing strategy then backfired.  It had been confident in selling a significant number of season tickets from Fleetville to London via Hatfield.  But that was before WW1 and the subsequent arrival of  bus services.  By the end of the 20s buses were running “frequently” along Hatfield Road to the Midland (City) Station.  The company must have realised that the people living in the homes most likely to be commuting to London lived nearer to the Midland Station and further from the proposed Fleetville Station. 

As they say, the business case no longer stacked up!   The company never mentioned the station again, but the new City Council kept plugging away, taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and by c1935 had referred the problem to the Ministry of Transport.  We are not to know, of course, the details of discussions or instructions between the company and the MoT, but a notice was finally published by the company asking for tenders to undertake certain works at the site.  This came to light in June 1939 ...

… just in time for the Second World War to stop the work dead in its single track, and as we know the post-WW2 period was a whole new world.  The locals had wanted a station of course – until something better turned up!  Why take the slow train to Hatfield and then a mainline train to the centre of Town, when a short bus hop gave you access to the direct line to St Pancras.  So, no station for Fleetville, and by 1951 the company had ceased to carry passengers on the line through Fleetville.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

East(er) End Round-up

There are times when we need an opportunity to catch up with events ...  So here we go.

We kick off with a group which has been around informally since 2012.  At Smallford the group took an interest in the vulnerable timber building which was the former ticket office at Smallford Station, located beside Alban Way and recently freshly protected.  The group, then under the auspices of Smallford Residents' Association, applied for, and received, Heritage Lottery funding under All Our Stories; the exhibition and brochure which followed celebrated the community around Smallford and the history of the branch railway line which passed through it between Hatfield and St Albans.  More recently, celebrations were arranged for the railway's 150th anniversary, and now the group is working closely with Countryside Management Service and St Albans City & District Council in the upgrade of Alban Way, including signage and interpretation panels.  In recognition of this the group has created a new organisational structure under the label Smallford Station and Alban Way Heritage Society (SSAWHS), throwing open its membership to anyone with an interest in Alban Way.  Further details will appear shortly at

Every time I visit Heartwood Forest it seems that I notice the recent plantings much as we tend to view grandchildren or the children of friends we haven't met for some while: "oh, my, how you've grown!"  And if you have heard about bluebell woods but never been stunned by the beauty of the scene others are always talking about, then make your way to Langley Wood.  Passing through Sandridge, the Woodland Trust entry and car park is on the left and the forest routes are well-signposted.  You will not be disappointed.

Recently, the front page and Info Needed pages of the website have carried an inquiry raised by a resident associated with Ashley Road Church: "Can anyone offer any information or account of the Ashley Church at the corner of Ashley Road and Hatfield Road?  Formed in 1939, a permanent building opened in 1954.  Between times the church had met in a former laundry outhouse at the end of the garden of 312 Hatfield Road.  The new church was constructed on part of a triangle of land at the road junction.  Missionary Gladys Aylward is reputed to have made a visit at some time in the 1950s.  Does anyone know if this is so, or have any details of this event, or about the church between 1939 and the present?"  The questioner beavered away and herself discovered documents which confirmed Gladys' visit in October 1955.  The documents in question were the ordinary meeting records and visitors' books kept by almost every voluntary organisation, which, when we add to the notebook page each week, we give little thought to why we are recording it.  But here we are, sixty-two years later, the books have survived and useful information has been gleaned.  Gladys' own handwriting, for a start, and an entry in two languages!  Her talk to the group was on October 26th.  Her topic was verse 17 of  the Second Book of Corinthians, chapter 2.  Fifty-one people attended, the largest audience of the period.  If we wonder why we continue to find space for such documents, it is for occasions like this!

In 1899 a plot of land was sold to the Welwyn brick making company of J Owen.  It was the site currently occupied by Ashley Road (Brick Knoll Park) business park.  The launch of the brickworks here enabled much of Fleetville to be built.  The works turned out bricks until 1948 before being taken over, first for waste disposal to fill the many pits, and then for Holloway's plant hire and Hill End concrete suppliers.  New firms, including car showrooms and Polaroid appeared from the late 1970s.  Finally, the time came to remove the remaining brickworks buildings.  The one removal which everyone will remember was the arrival of the 301st Airborne Squadron Royal Engineers one Sunday in May 1979 to detonate the demolish the 100-foot main chimney stack, in front of a considerable crowd.  The same Squadron had attended the same site in May 1954 to remove another stack of the same height.  And just across the road a chimney belonging to the Co-operative Dairy had also been removed in similar fashion.  Quite a pyrotechnic hotspot!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Engineering in the round

For a major Fleetville engineering works it has always seemed surprising that so little of its history is in the pubic domain.  Occasionally someone will reveal s/he was a former employee of the Sphere Works, a business which most of us associated with Campfield Road.

It is not just its early history which is vaguely known; a record of the nature of its activities from the 1930s onwards, and the role it played during the Second World War, which has been largely forgotten.  We are indebted to two sources, Grace's Guide to UK engineering companies, and Simon Cornwell, who has a well-documented history of street lighting, one of ELECO's specialities.

I have, of course, covered this theme previously on the St Albans' Own East End blog, when two specific topics brought it to wider attention.  The first was an alleged incident when one of the firm's demonstration street lighting clusters fell onto a parked car below; and a question included in the Info Needed on the St Albans' Own East End website, about locating a manufacturer of garage doors.  Although there was a possibility of it being the Sphere Works, there was no follow-up – until now.

Dennis, a former employee, has also been disappointed with the lack of information, and decided to record what he could remember of his former work place.  Among the products he recalled were "lamp standards with many different heads.  ELECO bought (I think) Bell & Webster which made reinforced concrete lamp posts; public footpath and bridleway signs cast in aluminium; aluminium road signs for councils; bulkhead lamps and Aldis lamps for the Admiralty; Falcon aluminium wheels for cars; bakelite cases; and garage doors."

He also recalled an impressive list of work colleagues and other members of the company: "Mr Bird, Mr Proctor and Mr Gilby (Directors); Harry Fothergill (Works Manager); Geoffrey Pruden (Technical Manager); Bill Batt (who had interviewed Dennis); Lionel Clowes (lamp head assembly foreman); Mary Zelda (lamp assembly); Barny Spicer (lighting stores); Mrs Deadman (nurse); Alfie (metal stores); Bert Bray (radial driller); Snowy (welder); Dennis (vacuum forming); Charlie Butt, Alf Guilfoyle and Les Twiddy (inspection); Tony Edwards and Ray (designers); Chris (the final apprentice); Butch (lorry driver); Bill Holland, Bill Scivier, Fred, Cliff Bond, Phil Scott, Winkel and Les Barnes (toolmakers); Tiny Hibbert, Bud Fisher and Mick Howell (capstan turners); Peter Freeman (bakelite shop); Harry (paint shop)."

Such an impressive list of names may well encourage others to engage in a conversation about Engineering & Lighting Equipment Company Limited (ELECO).

The company had begun as the Gilbert Arc Lamp Company in Chingford.  That firm had made the ornate lamps which line the Victoria Embankment; the company may have changed its name as early as 1905.  Street lighting was undoubtedly the company's most widely marketed range of products; its products being featured in many specialist journals.

Although a limited amount of historical information is circulating about ELECO there is one aspect of its operation about which there appears to be nothing.  I have seen no photograph of the works, nor of any of the processes or activities which contributed towards the wide range of products which made ELECO well-known.

Perhaps Dennis' recollections will spark the memories of other former employees.  Meanwhile, there is one published recollection which could be included on this site at a later date.

But at least, the identification of a local firm which once made garage doors, seems to have been answered: ELECO made them at the Sphere Works.  Which possibly leaves one major question: what was the origin of the company's address?  Did it have anything to do with the globes, probably made elsewhere, which enclosed the ornate lamps?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Converting industrial measures

There was a time when you could, more or less, put up a factory or a workshop anywhere you wanted, wherever you had acquired a suitable piece of land.  There was no green belt, no considerations of whether an industrial building was, or was not, appropriate in a conservation area – no conservation areas anyway.  It is only since the advent of the Town & Country Planning Legislation that local authorities were given the powers to zone activities; and, gradually, most of the industrial sites in the East End, and of course in the city centre, were zoned for residential occupation (or retail in the case of the central streets).

Porters Wood industry
This gave rise to locations, mainly in the outer districts, specifically for industry to grow and flourish, although office accommodation was treated more flexibly and can be found widely around St Albans.

Porters Wood had originally been purchased by the City Council for the purpose of creating a new cemetery, but instead became an industrial estate, and has expanded considerably into Soothill Spring in recent decades.  However, access to it, especially for large vehicles, is not brilliant.
Brick Knoll Park, Ashley Road

Butterwick Wood had already become occupied by the odd industrial concern even before it was designated for industry, and early arrivals included J Pearce Recycling, to join the meat store, timber yard and Tractor Shafts.  Then, of course, came Ronnie Lyon and his serviced estates, followed by car showrooms and retail warehouses, and more recently churches and a recent attempt at leisure activity, all attracted by lower land costs, easier access and free parking.

Ashley Road had been a large brickworks before the Second World War.  Many years were spent filling in pits; meanwhile Post Office Telephones moved onto stable land where a former entrance and brick company buildings had been.  Early factories included heavyweights such as St Albans Concrete, piledriving operations and plant machinery hire.  Later these gave way to light engineering,  Polaroid photography, Royal Mail distribution and car servicing.

Lyon Way
At the Camp Road end of Campfield Road – Camp Fields on a 19th century map – the original 1900s concerns of the Salvation Army, Sphere Engineering and the Electricity Works survive as a smaller commercial area, later joined by the Herts Advertiser, now offices.

We were alerted recently to the concerns raised by the District Council.  There have been an increasing number of planning applications

for change of use from office to residential – and, if observational evidence is anything to go by, from industrial to retail and community.  The council is considering whether to apply for powers to allow it to refuse such permissions.

Small businesses at The Courtyard near Acrewood Way
To maintain thriving communities there should be an adequate supply of land for commercial and industrial activities, just as there should be for housing.  We have a buoyant commercial sector in St Albans, but shortage of space pushes up the price.  This will eventually see developers searching industrial estates for office opportunities, which will, in turn reduce industrial capacity.

The years have gone when most people walked to their place of work and often rented their home accordingly, but there continues to be sense in not requiring most of the population to criss-cross each other in their cars as our employment takes us to other towns.

My grandfather lived in Camp Road and walked down the hill to the Salvation Army works; my father lived on the Beaumonts estate and walked to work in Hatfield Road; I had two jobs which were local in the same way, enabling me to cycle to one and walk to the other.  We should applaud the Council for its attempts to keep our local economy balanced.  Article 4, whatever that specifically is, will free the authority from having one arm tied behind its collective back.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Patching Up the Past

Recently there has been good success in re-visiting one of St Albans' Own East End's unanswered questions: the mysterious golf course between Smallford and Hatfield.  Two recent blogs demonstrate what was discovered.

This week is the turn of a largely forgotten exchange scheme which came about at the end of the Second World War.  Raised as an idea by Mr Thomas Slade, the St Albans – Duisburg Relief Committee was launched; the reasons became clear from a Herts Advertiser article in 1948: "It is almost impossible to describe the conditions in the Ruhr.  There is nothing to compare it with ... there are still 2,000 people living in cellars beneath collapsed houses, and more than 1,800 others, including many children, still exist in public air-raid shelters ..."

Vera Robson on her return from the delegation's first visit to
Duisburg, with a presentation plate given by that city.
A delegation from the city visited Duisburg (population then 400,000) to assess how help might be given.  Regular shipments of clothes, blankets and food were sent.  In the other  direction small groups of children and young people arrived in St Albans for extended 3-month holidays and stayed with families, many of them in the eastern districts such as Fleetville, Beaumonts and Marshalswick.

In a further development during the 1960s and 70s an exchange scheme developed with St Albans young people visiting the homes of Duisburg families.

I was one of those young people in 1963 and 1966, and an official West German newspaper (as the country was then known) photographer took the group picture at the Duisburg Town Hall in 1966.  Among the assembled group at the Welcome ceremony were David Walker,  Peter Osborn, Michael and Barrie Gibbs, and Vera Robson.  During that year we had the interesting opportunity of watching the Football World Cup, played at Wembley, from one of many living rooms with our host families in Duisburg.  For those who need reminding, England won, and for us it was a lesson in magnanimity.

Welcome to St Albans guests in Duisburg Town Hall, 1966.

Eberhard, whose parents
welcomed me in 1966.
There will still be current or former residents of St Albans who remember these visits.  We may have found them great fun, or considered them a nervous process to encounter.  We may have learned much about our "adopted" friends and their families and an industrial city with its factory-lined river even larger than the Thames.  Almost certainly we will have learned much about ourselves.  Making some of the earliest holiday arrivals to St Albans welcome and helping them to relax in new surroundings must still be in the minds of several of us.

There is, regrettably, such a limited record of what was a generational project.  Our recollections would be a valuable resource.  Photos would enrich the experience.  If you were involved in any way, do please get in touch –

Sunday, 12 March 2017

No time for a round

Recently I brought to the top of the proverbial pile a so far unanswered question about an alleged golf course between Smallford and Hatfield.  Apart from being taken off the scent by the mis-naming of St Albans Road West as Hatfield Road, there did not appear to be anyone with further information.  Until, that is, a reader discovered a website devoted to former golf courses (Golf's Missing Links).

Great Nast Hyde.  Courtesy HALS
The brief text identified it as Nast Hyde Golf Club.  I guess the text originally came from a golfing yearbook of 1910. "...the opening of a new railway station about a mile from Hatfield, on 1st February.  The station had been built to serve a fine new residential site, and among other features will be an eighteen hole golf course.  In 1914 the Secretary was Colonel Schreiber and the professional E Gow.  An eighteen-hole undulating course on good turf, well drained on gravel soil. Subs for gents were £3.3.0 (£3.15) and for ladies £1.1.0 (£1.05).  Visitors' fees were 1/- (5p) at any time."

Very promising.  It seems from the above information that during the period  to 1914 the course was in development; hence the identification of nearby residents as workers on the golf course in the 1911 census.  The course, and the houses (of which very few now remain) were part of an attempted sale of land at Great Nast Hyde as early as 1889.  The manor house was also a working farm, separate from Little Nast Hyde Farm, and the estate included land on both sides of St Albans Road, including Beech Farm.

Golf course site circled.  Courtesy Google Maps
Eventually, over a decade, some thirty homes were erected, but it was clear that many more were anticipated.  By 1914, as soon as the golf course had opened, the dark clouds of war approached and large numbers of men volunteered or were later conscripted for military service, and were therefore lost to the local community and its trades.

 A further attempt to sell 441 acres of Nast Hyde Estate was made in 1925 by Foster & Cranfield London EC, including what had been the formative golf course, now clearly identified as 36 acres between Coopers Green Lane and St Albans Road West, immediately south of a block of woodland with shooting rights, known as Home Covert.  The 1925 estate sale brochure gave the option to re-open the former golf course, or to develop.  In the words of the brochure: "eminently suitable for the erection of medium-sized detached houses or bungalows, for which there is a great demand as very little building has been carried out in the district for some years past."  On the bulk of the land available north of St Albans Road, I think it is fair to say not a single additional house was built.  The intervention of aeronautical activity at this time is quite another story.

South of St Albans Road West it was a different story.  Although it took a further five years, two fields were developed as the Selwyn and Poplar estates, only part of the latter having been completed before the onset of the Second World War.  Oh, and the part of the 1927-built Barnet Bypass between the Roehyde Interchange and The Comet is on former Nast Hyde land purchased at the time.

Well, in spite of everything, the land which had just about become a golf course, is still undeveloped.  It is within the boundary of Ellenbrook Fields, the country park which has yet to be officially created – look forward to some gravel extraction first, maybe – so there may yet be the opportunity for a golf course, though perhaps not 18 holes.  It may even sport the title Nast Hyde Golf Course.  Speculation!