Friday, 19 April 2019

Only Waste Ground

There are plenty of accounts and recollections of a piece of development ground – probably enough for up to ten semi-detached homes.  It ceased to become farmland in 1929 and was nominally reserved as a site for a future church between Central, Woodland and Hazelwood drives.  During the 1930s there was, of course plenty of open space for children to play on, but by the mid 1940s when housebuilding began again "the field" became a centre of attention for a new generation of children; their very own  adventure space.

However, the field, much larger then because fewer homes had been built, was used between 1940 and 1943 by the Home Guard for training – they even had a meeting hut nearby.  One or two trenches were dug for exercises and only filled in later when house foundations were laid out in 1947.

The ground was far from level; grasses and nettles grew tall, and hiding was all part of the fun in playing adventure games.  Two badly mauled trees, previously next to the farm house which straddled Woodland Drive at that point, became their own centre of attention for climbing and swinging .  Between these trees traced the usual rough and worn path which enabled anyone to take a short cut towards, well anywhere really.

An informal game of football on the field not yet built on in Central Drive.

Out went the idea of a church; Benskin's acquired the site for a future public house, and erected a large sign to inform the world the land belonged to them.  Children saw an opportunity and used it for target practice – stones, mud, footballs.  Nearby, almost no-one noticed a square of heavy concrete which told of a former well, used by the farm.

In 1953 when just about everyone celebrated the Queen's Coronation, Woodland Drive held a street party on a part of the field where Oakwood School now stands, and in the evening the adventure field was the location for a giant bonfire and a fireworks display – this time it was the turn of the grownups to have some fun.
Team lineup with the the Central Drive shops behind.

Soon after 1960 St Albans Council's policy of making shopping more convenient for those living in residential areas, came to Central Drive and part of the field was developed for a parade of convenience shops with maisonettes above.  In time this brought a post box, and public telephone kiosk tucked around the corner of the righthand-most shop.  Not forgetting children's play, the council levelled the remaining field, and for the first time children could organise their own football games.  The worn path was still there, although foreshortened where the shops had been built.  Probably with safety in mind the Council erected one of those chestnut paling fences around the edge.  The success of the fence is doubtful, as footballs regularly soared over the top  into the 
roadspace, necessitating an inevitable indirect walk to the gateway to recover the escaped ball, which may have ended up in a garden, or under the only car then parked by the roadside opposite.

Irene Stebbings House replaces the open play space.

All good things come to an end sometime, and that end came with the 1970s building of the flats of Irene Stebbings House.  Today, the two trees have gone, so has the fencing intended to keep the footballs in.  There are no more opportunities for youngsters to engage in adventure games or get thrown into the stinging nettles or  ride their bikes over the uneven ground of little hills and hollows.

It was great while it lasted.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Was the story pieced together?

Last month a blog here revealed an account of a crashed Avro Lancaster bomber on a training flight on 23rd October 1943, and very close to Warren Farm, Colney Heath.  The details of the event had been meticulously recorded, but what brought the story to our attention was the account of a group of scouts allegedly in the area at the time and who carried out the very brave deed of removing bombs from the stricken plane and carrying them a safe distance from the farmhouse, without knowing that they were not carrying   live ordnance.

Further research has now been carried out and it seems likely that two separate stories may have been conflated, and no further information about a group of scouts related to a plane crash has yet been revealed.  There is still the possibility that scouts were present, but rather later, and were not participants in the recovery.  Scouts at camp enjoy retelling stories around a camp fire.  No-one that I can recall from my scouting days ever told me that I could not share a story unless it was true – the phrase "camp fire yarns" comes to mind, and a yarn definitely leans towards a story with an invented core!

Both Colney Heath and St Albans Fire Brigades were in attendance after the crash, with Jack Deuxberry driving the St Albans engine.  Jack was one of those who is said to have removed the ordnance onto a waiting lorry.  Possibly to offer encouragement the Chief Officer suggested this would be medal work.  However, awards would later be denied because the bombs were not live.  Sections of the Lancaster were strewn over a wide area, including Smallford, the nearby bypass and Colney Heath itself.

Inevitably, I doubt whether we have heard the last of this event.  There are many wartime photos of crashed Lancasters, but it seems the Herts Advertiser did not publish this one, even if it could have  identified the location as "somewhere in Southern England".

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Urban village

A village is generally accepted as being a mainly self-contained settlement, quite distinct from a nearby larger town or city.  Although there is a general acceptance that villages are larger than hamlets, that being the main distinction, there is an understanding that a hamlet would not have a church, whereas a village would.  So, it is not the population but the level of cultural and social infrastructure which distinguishes the two.  So we have large villages, such as Wheathampstead, and tiny Childwick Green.  We all know of settlements where continued growth has defied the accepted description and become what we would accept as a town, although for various social reasons the dwellers prefer to still think of themselves as villagers; Radlett and even Harpenden come to mind.

Fast-growing urban communities and conurbations have surrounded former distinct villages, so although the village retains. an original and historic physical community, it is, in effect, yet
another suburb of a city today.  In St Albans, St Michael's village, while not completely swallowed by the city, nevertheless cannot be said to be completely separated from the urban mix.  Historically, Camp Hill might have once been labelled a hamlet, at least until the late 19th century; St Stephen's became completely enveloped between the two wars, and I've not heard anyone label it a village.

There are other specific uses of the term, such as an Olympic Village, where competitors at the Games stay for the duration of the event; and even a changing village at the local swimming pool!

Kingshill Avenue
So, what do we make of the production company (Sidney Street), making an introductory reference to Marshalswick Village in one of its recent television programmes in a series titled Best House in Town?  Those of us who were watching would have picked up on that term for the neighbourhood straightaway.  We may have offered a throw-away comment about it being "estate agent terminology".  But perhaps we should not dismiss the label without further consideration.

In what way could we describe Marshalswick as a village?  Does the settlement  have a historical connection with the land on which it sits?  Well, yes and no.  Yes in the sense that the land for both old (pre WW2) and new (what began as the Nash estate)  Marshalswick was previously and entirely owned by the Marten/Martin families.

Can we trace any part of the built community over an extended period of time and therefore define its growth patterns?  Apart from sparse visible trace remains from Marshalswick House, the answer is no, and no archaeology either from any former hamlet near the house has been undertaken.  Certainly no extant buildings before the 1930s, other than the two lodges.

Marshals Drive
What about the status of service provision?  Covenants precluded the inclusion of shops or offices in Old Marshalswick, laid out from the 1930s – no schools either, just houses.  As for postwar Marshalswick, original plans included a cinema, a range of shops, flats, community centre, youth club, churches, schools, library and blocks of apartments.  The older development would therefore come to rely on the newer community for a range of useful services.  Marshalswick is also intersected by a ring road and is now completely enveloped by other developments. 

Finally, we might test the local vocabulary in social conversations to discover whether or not there is frequent reference to the term Marshalswick Village in everyday language, in newspaper, magazine or online advertising.  None, I'm afraid.  But lest we think this is a clever marketing campaign by local estate agents, just try Googling "Marshalswick Village".  This is the kind of lazy researching the programme production company apparently

undertook.  They probably Googled Marshalswick and on a Wikipedia page they discovered a brief summary page for the neighbourhood, and under History you will find the following introductory statement:

"The village of Marshalswick boasts a history dating back to the thirteenth century, and retains a unique Hertfordshire village feel."

Does that sound like the place you know? 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Piecing Together Another Story

The previous post told of a confirmed story with an important, though unverified, supporting element.

This time a further story appears to have verified elements, but recently new information has thrown the known story out of kilter; it is therefore important for the right account to be recorded.

The existing record concerns a building put up in a small area of cleared land at the western end of Butterwick Wood.  Today we know this land for Homebase and Alban Point.  None of the factories and warehouses in 1939 were present and, other than the clearing, the rest was Butterwick Wood.  As part of wartime preparations the government relocated many of the central London food distribution facilities.  The foods
London Central Meats in Fleetville after a rename to Baxters.
relevant to this account were the central meat warehouses.  New cold stores were built on London's fringes, including the building, North London Meat Cold Store, listed at Butterwick in 1939.  It is also believed there was a retail arm to this operation, known as London Central Meats, one branch of which was in Fleetville, next to the Post Office.  The retail operation was later purchased by Baxter's.

The meat store building shortly before demolition, the photograph being taken
from the end of the railway siding.

It is not surprising that details of wartime operations were difficult to come by, but when post-war economic activity normalised the Butterwick Meat Store lay empty before being occupied by the British Banana Company for ripening stock in preparation for distribution to local wholesalers and shops.  The building, or an adjacent one, was also home to a grocery warehouse and distribution centre by the 1970s.  The 1939 building was demolished for the layout of part of the modern industrial and business estate at Alban Point.  Several local young men have recalled their employment at the banana store and the experience of loading and unloading from the adjacent railway siding – which is also how the meat had earlier arrived.

The group of buildings between Hatfield Road (top) and the branch railway and siding (diagonally through centre of photo).  Butterwick Wood, now gone, still very much evident.  The meat store in this 1951 picture faces the railway. COURTESY BRITAIN FROM ABOVE
The new information which has come to light and not referred to previously is the possibility of the meat store being partly a cover story.  A correspondent states that he visited the "well camouflaged" building and his more detailed account is recorded on the Your Turn page of the St Albans' Own East End website.

The key surprise in his account was the meat store's purpose and function for US Army frozen supplies, the operation there being American owned and administered.  Of course, the building may well have been a dual use space.  However, this is the first occasion we are informed of the site having a US military function; slightly odd to our minds today given Hertfordshire wasn't known for its US 8th Army and/or US Air Force presence, except for Bovingdon and Nuthampstead, unless anyone knows differently.

Which is where you come in, readers.  Any confirmed and verified information would be welcome.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Piecing Together a Story

In this and the next post I'll explore further a couple of incomplete stories which have been reported and re-told, in the hope that further details might come to light.

This post focuses on a 1943 account of a military incident which, in itself, has been well-recorded and is available to view on the internet, and I don't doubt its level of accuracy, given the source –  Military History Forum. It concerns a training flight by an RAF Lancaster on 22nd October 1943.  The flight was notable for us in that the plane crashed into a field at Warren Farm near Colney Heath.  All details of the flight had been recorded, including the names of the crew of seven who were all killed in the wreckage.  Even more, the places where they were all buried.  A book has even been published of the incident.

So far the story recorded is of the flight, the plane and the crew.  But others were also part of the story, and saw or heard the event as bystanders; maybe in contacting the authorities or attempting to give assistance.  Elements of the account are circumstantial; with little or no evidence recorded.  So we would love to learn their experience in this dreadful crash.

It is alleged that a group of scouts were in the vicinity that night.  They may have been undertaking their own scout activities – night hikes, camping, wide games – or may have been present on observational duties on behalf of the Air Raid Precautions.  It is said that the boys observed the crash and how the plane presented itself after it had broken up on impact.  Exposed were the contents of the bomb bay.  The proximity of the crash to the nearby farm house and other buildings posed a potential risk to life and property, and the scouts made what might be considered by some a reckless decision; by others a selfless act of group bravery.  An unknown number of bombs were carefully removed from their splintered compartment and carried to relative safety a distance away from the flames engulfing part of the plane.

The usual post-crash evaluations were made, the remains of the plane recovered and the bodies removed from the site.  The scouts resumed their duties and presumably returned home to bed.  It would be presumed that for such service the scouts would have been honoured with a bravery award; not that the boys would have been expecting to be rewarded; after all, they were scouts.  Nevertheless, a fuss ensued in the period of time which followed.  The obvious question: why were they not recipients of an award?  The reason given was that an award was quite unnecessary as the bombs were not live, given that they had been loaded onto a training flight.  But, of course, the scouts did not know they were dummies and carried out their duties as if they handling live ammunition.

The scout element in the Lancaster crash story needs to be credited with some authenticity and so far the author has not discovered it.  Even the detailed book Milestones of 105 Years of Hertfordshire Scouting, compiled by Hertfordshire Scout Historian Frank Brittain does not relate the event.  So, now it is open to all of us to take the story further if we know of evidence.  The scouts themselves if still alive would now be in their late eighties, but their accounts may have been passed down through their children or grandchildren.

How much, if any, of the above account is true? Do respond if you have any relevant details you could contribute.

Friday, 8 February 2019

How many miles?

Find a drawing of of Dick Whittington, probably with cat as part of the story, and the picture will probably include a milestone  "How many miles to London?"  Our mind's image of any open road, in the days before motor vehicles, will probably include these stones.  Although they were likely to have been placed along some highways before the days of Turnpike Trusts in the 18th century, when it became a legal requirement to install them, it is the turnpike roads we most associate them with today where they still exist.

Here are three brief references to them on the Turnpike Road, now Hatfield Road, as it passed through Fleetville.  

From Fleetville: four miles to Hatfield, and
later 13 miles to Ware.
You have, no doubt, spotted the mile marker at the corner of the recreation ground at Royal Road.  When it was first manufactured in the 1760s it wasn't planted in this spot; it first measured the fourth mile from Hatfield about a hundred yards further east, roughly where Simmons, the baker is today in Bycullah Terrace.  Even after the shops were built c1900 the marker was tolerated in its rightful place until the 1920s – we're not sure exactly when.  It was then deemed to be "in the way" and languished in a storage depot somewhere until it saw the sunlight once more in a more convenient location.

An extant mile marker on the road to Ware,
manufactured by a different trust.
You may have thought that someone, at some time, defaced the surface of the Fleetville mile marker on the east facing panel.  Since Hatfield was the next town it is probable that this panel had always been blank.  At some time during the lifetime of the Trust it probably took over responsibility for the road onward to Hertford and Ware, and provided helpful mileage information beyond Hatfield.  Painting the details on was much cheaper than casting completely new markers, but whatever paint was used, the handwritten characters have certainly lasted much longer than the metal paint on my garden railings!

Today, it is difficult to imagine the true width of these old roads, and when we boast about the modern width of Hatfield Road it has only been engineered that way in modern times.  So here is an example of an unwidened section, although it is not in the East End of St Albans.  Almost no-one drives along the Old Watford Road today to reach that town; we have a wonderful dualled-carriageway nearby which better serves our needs.

Old Watford Road where a toll gate had been located.
In turnpike days this WAS the Watford road, and on the right in this image, where modern homes have been constructed, had previously been sited a turnpike gate, where travellers paid for the right to use the next section of road as far as Hagden Lane, Watford, or in the other direction, the Peacock PH.  There is no evidence that the road width has been narrowed since the 1880s when the Old Watford Road became a public highway.

To hear more facts, urban myths and – as Dr Lucy Worsley likes to playfully suggest – "fibs",  Fleetville Diaries has an illustrated presentation about the Reading & Hatfield Turnpike Trust on Wednesday 27th February at Fleetville Community Centre; coincidentally one hundred metres from the Fleetville mile
marker!  Further details on the Welcome page of

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Streaming through Fleetville

Just imagine: a flow of water making its way along Hatfield Road towards Sutton Road.  Sixty years ago it didn't need imagining.  The drains were poorly connected and surface water had limited escape routes within the pipe network.  The result was extensive flooding following prolonged and heavy rain.
Might this have been a former Fleetville landscape?

Of course, before we all set up our homes in Fleetville and Camp it didn't matter, but there were locations where homes flooded or pooling of water in gardens or the road cause water seepage inside. As we have written here before, there had been, or it was believed there had been, several streams, most of them flowing southwards towards the Colne or Ver.  Two of them still flow on the surface between St Albans and Hatfield.  

Evidence of early settled population groups, possibly one or two family groups, suggested the presence  of a stream flowing from the area of The Wick towards Fleetville and Camp.  These were clear water courses springing from the chalk, and it wouldn't have only been the pure water which gave rise to small settlement groups winning a livelihood from the landscape.

Wherever there is flowing water there is a range of plants not found in drier locations; plants which we could use and can be nurtured in chalk streams and the pools which are often associated with them.   Imagine being able to collect watercress on a walk along a clear rippling stream, perhaps in the vicinity of Eaton Road or Camp Road.   Now, of course, that is not possible for the simple reason they no long flow, largely because we now occupy much of the land area in south and mid Herts.

Hampshire chalk stream and watercress.  Courtesy Geograph.
The most recent watercress beds were at the River Ver at Priory Park, and one family, the Pinnocks, made a living from the plant, having moved from successfully growing it in  Westmill's clear streams, to start again at St Albans and its  Ver.

A member of the Watercress Wildlife Association, Cath Gladding, will be presenting a talk on the watercress and wildlife theme at Fleetville Community Centre on 30th January, but there will be no samples of the wholesome green stuff to take away!  Today it is available on markets and in supermarkets from further afield.  But it is as good for us as it ever was, and can be eaten straight from the bag.  And two or three hundred years ago it was probably picked from just down your road or on your way back from the market.