Saturday, 2 November 2019

Contrasting tracks

Most of our streets came about during the period of expansion and utilisation of former fields into residential or mixed development.  Before Kingshill Avenue there was a field sloping downwards towards the former Marshalswick Farm.  Royston Road and its neighbouring streets were carved out of a large field where cattle had grazed; and Cavendish Road, though there may have been a footpath of sorts, was created from an orchard or a tree nursery or a small crop field, depending on time. 

Although there are minor roads which were formerly footpaths crossing the countryside, and roads linking towns which have existed for several centuries, it is rare to come across a road with a life stretching back into antiquity, probably part of an ancient network of trackways which traversed the region.

Pre-development Beaumont Avenue at the Hatfield Road end.
Part of one such route is now Beaumont Avenue and forms an attractive residential road linking Sandpit Lane and Hatfield Road.  Along this road was a minor spur leading to Beaumonts Farm.  The spur today is part private (Farm Road) and part adopted, absorbed by the residential estate as Central Drive.

Remove the homes which line each side of the Avenue, all but three of which arrived since 1899, and you are left with the remains of a double stand of fine trees.  

The track which wandered through the former manor estate had extended through wooded land of uncertain age north of Sandpit Lane.  Today we know this as The Wick.  Also part of Beaumonts Farm was a continuation of the track towards Hill End.  Now Ashey Road, it is a mix of early 1930s semi-detached homes, a post-war industrial estate and the green acres which are now Highfield Park, formerly Hill End Hospital.  How this section of the track contrasted with the Avenue: it had been dug for the clay and was home to a brickworks as a result; and with the exception of isolated groups of trees did not appear to have been treelined.

One further difference: the southern section, though a track snaking through the farm, was a permissive route for traffic other than that which was farm business.  The Avenue, on the other hand, had always been considered private (whether legally so is another matter) and gates were installed at both the Sandpit Lane and Hatfield Road ends.

The former BT building next to the railway, now Alban Away,  Today
part of an industrial estate and earlier a brick works and rubbish tip.

Today's Alban Way still intersects Ashley Road and demonstrates a further difference between the two sections.  But before feeling too satisfied that the avenue escaped the smoke and steam of railway tracks, it was a close call.  The Midland Railway's early iteration proposed a route which would have clipped the northern end of Beaumont Avenue and crossed in front of the former Marshalswick House.  Although Thomas Kinder, owner of Beaumonts, had not been found to have objected to the compulsory purchase of a small portion of his land, the Marten family certainly did, and as a result Beaumont Avenue retained its rural and ancient landscape.  No railway crossing the Avenue.  Same track, but quite a contrast.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

It might have been Richmond

Fifty years is a long time ago; if you lived in our East End in 1970 you would no doubt have been disappointed to learn of the recent closure of Ballito Hosiery Mills.  But the excitement surrounding its arrival on the Fleetville scene stretches back to 1925, over ninety years ago.

Edward Gould Richmond
Ballito was a major source of employment in the period when the east end of St Albans was still growing; it occupied a building where many of us today carry out our shopping: Morrison's.  At the time of its arrival the mill was as if the company was a new-start operation – lucky Fleetville.

The name Ballito may have been a new brand name (from Ballington Hosiery Mill, the manufacturer's initial name), but the company from which it developed had a long pedigree, more recently in the UK where silk stockings were imported by two New Yorkers, Alexander and Charles Kotzin, at premises in the City of London.  To secure the success of their enterprise the Kotzins had a close business relationship with the cotton mills of Edward Gould Richmond in the cotton belt city of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  

One of his mills still turned out finished cotton stockings in the early years of the twentieth century, and when silk became fashionable the company built a new mill specifically for the new product.  Cotton costs had been kept low partly as a result of the plantation system, originally based on slavery, and then on a flexible arrangement of employment in the mills which often made use of children who were, the company said, "just helping out".

There was little doubt about the success of the new Ballington silk stockings over here in the UK, but before long the government took the decision to add import tariffs on to a range of silk products, partly to raise funds for the Treasury and to protect the emerging home market.  The Richmond company's response was to allocate substantial funds for building a brand new mill near London in order to avoid the tariffs.

Well, someone saved some money, because the Kotzins discovered an empty former printing factory in Hatfield Road, Fleetville, and their only major task was to import the machinery.  Having brought over skilled operators and trained new employees Ballington Hosiery Mill, Fleetville was under way and quickly expanded.

Ballito advertising in the 1920s
Ballito may well be associated with Fleetville, but it was not, strictly a British enterprise; just a Tennessee business using its financial clout to avoid its products being too expensive when imported to the UK.  It's the way international trade often works.

There are still many families living in and around St Albans whose relatives once worked at the Ballito.  The local history group, Fleetville Diaries, is currently working on a project which includes recollections from former employees, as well as the manufacturing background to the manufacture of silk and nylon hose, the competition which Ballito faced and the success of its marketing.


Monday, 7 October 2019

New homes everywhere

We have become used to ticking off the new housing developments we come across in our local travels, not to mention those which are  proposed as private enterprises or will result from district plans, the largest for large estates in the vicinities of Redbourn and Tyttenhanger.

But lest we imagine this is a modern phenomenon alone, the demand for homes in huge swathes of Middlesex between the two wars, and resulting from families escaping the privations of poor housing in London, largely created the modern outer boroughs of the metropolis.  And it touched St Albans too in a small way, with the typical semi-detached estates, the largest of which was primed to grow from Marshalswick Farm.

As a result of such frenetic activity there developed a super-charged energy in the formation and  expansion of house building firms, most of which had previously been small family enterprises of fewer than a dozen employees.  Gone were the days when builders offered bids on a few plots on a field development sold off by a farmer.  Construction companies sought whole farms which their owners wish to dispose of; the farm name living on in the marketing,  display advertisements and show home welcome days – the flag poles and fully-furnished show homes had their genesis in the late 1920s.  Buses and taxis were even laid on to woo prospective purchasers, then a novel method of acquisition for ordinary families.

In 1938 news came through that Marshalswick Farm had been purchased by the north west London building company of T F Nash.  Already a well-known company for its many well laid out estates to its name, TFN was not afraid of programming in excess of two thousand dwellings, including small numbers of detached properties in key entry locations to an estate, and was an early adopter of both cavity wall construction and built-in extras,  garage-width sideways and garage-included homes, all with generous gardens.  As for the designs, the front elevations are certainly distinctive.  In Harrow the company even developed blocks of flats with a modernist curved-end balconies.  Throughout the 1930s it was completing up to one thousand homes a year.

St Albans was one of the company's rare forays beyond north-west London.  There was therefore a possibility that, had the war not intervened, Nash may have spread its building wings even further.  As it was, the firm joined other similar enterprises in bidding for  government infrastructure projects after domestic building ceased.  It was not until 1954 until building controls finally disappeared, but it seems that Nash had already decided to call it a day as a house builder in its own right.  Stocks of materials and equipment had been auctioned and sites sold.  Other builder-developers re-launched ready to take on the 1950s housing expansion; at Marshalswick it was McGlashan & Co.  Its office was at The Quadrant.

If you live, or have lived, in a T F Nash home you will usually know, and there are people out there who still search for the company's original brochures which set out the elevations and plans of a handful of designs in which it specialised, including their tapered rooflines, porches and shutters.  Most have now been altered, and few still sport the shutters, but recognising a Nash home is not always a challenge.

The Nash family may not have lived in St Albans, but it is a name which St Albans has taken to its heart; people just know where the Nash home are.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Cunningham Avenue

As with many areas of St Albans their boundaries are difficult to fix, and the limits of St Albans' Own East End have always been considered flexible.  But stand in the vicinity of the former Cunningham Hill Farm and walk south-westwards, down the sweep of the open space that was home to many territorial camps in centuries past, we encounter an allotment garden few of us are probably  aware of.  Faded green railings separate us from a quiet road of homes which lead us to the busy London Road.

This is Cunningham Avenue which, before the 1920s was not even a farm track, unlike its immediate neighbour Cunningham Hill Road which had enabled an access to early agricultural shows.  The lower slopes of Cunningham Hill Farm were still being farmed, and   there is an echo of former use in the allotments as a large swathe of sloping ground was in use during the First World War as emergency allotment gardens.  

Building companies, the 1920s versions of which were minnows compared with today's combines, are constantly searching for new opportunities to continue their operations, and a connection seemed to have been made between the land owner, Earl Verulam, and a well-known builder and brick maker at the time, William Bennett.  The result was the acquisition of a parcel of land which became Cunningham Avenue and its attractive homes, all built in the 1920s and with no evidence of later infilling or unsympathetic adaptations or re-building.  

The fact that the road is a cut-de-sac may lead us to suggest fewer local people will have explored the road than would be the case if there were onward connections for vehicles.  But it does make a fruitful circular stroll from the farm, walking along the avenue, the short stretch of London Road and up Cunningham Hill Road returning to the former farm at Cell Barnes Lane.

Whether Bennett constructed each house for a specific owner is uncertain, but it is clear that, although there are features or designs common to many of the homes, each has its distinctive face to the road.  Red brick, tile-covered porches, gable timber facings and other embellishments were incorporated into almost all of the dwellings.  The garages, many of which were probably added later, have been designed to complement the design of the main structure.  The front gardens remain planted and few have been opened to the street by boundary wall removal and covered in tarmac or blocks.

It therefore seems likely a number of covenants remain in place and  the road does benefit from being within a Conservation Area.  Cunningham Avenue is one of this city's delights.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Engaging With Our Locality

Whenever families, individuals, classes at school and visitors to the district, are able to share in some of the history of their home district, the experience is always positive.  More than that, what we discover is quite joyous.

Heritage Open Days have proved the point once more, although other casual meetings throughout the year have a similar effect.  September and October is also the period of time in the school curriculum when children explore their home patch, both the school itself and the shops and homes, where we and our friends live and what we can buy at the shops.  It is therefore a delight to meet the children as they find out how the school day was conducted, how children behaved and the playground games they may have played fifty or a hundred years ago.
Fleetville School playground in the 1930s.

Throughout the year members of Fleetville Diaries carry out deeper explorations in the form of projects.  St Albans had been the home of Frederick Sander and his renowned orchid nurseries in Camp Road, and this formed the basis of a major project last year.  Its culmination was to share our findings in a glorious celebration with members of the Sander and Moon families today (Henry Moon turned Sander's orchids into exquisite watercolours).

This year the organisation has taken Beaumont Avenue as its next subject in the series Right Up Our Street; and to focus on the former hosiery mill, Ballito, which grew on the site now occupied by Morrison's, where thousands of local men and women came to work, both in peacetime and war.  Although largely based on recollections it has been important to understand how the factory came to Fleetville in the first place.

Heritage Open Day on Saturday 14th September was an appropriate occasion to bring people together, to view three exhibitions and chat with the project leaders, to do so in a building (Fleetville Community Centre) first erected in 1942 as a nursery for the young children of women encouraged to work at the Ballito works that had been turned over to making shell casings for the war effort.

Factory managers' houses in Woodstock Road south
It comes as a surprise to many that competitive circumstances dictated the original Fleet Ville did not realise its full potential and which may otherwise have become a good deal larger.  The fact that it did not enabled one of this city's major benefactors, Charles Woollam, to acquire the field left over for the recreation and enjoyment of the people of Fleetville in the form of the Rec, or as many people refer to it these days, Fleetville Park.

Summer view of The Alley.
We then take a short guided walk around early roads; are amazed that Fleetville had a unique cinema – where no-one was fortunate in watching a film there; stood on the spot where several WW2 spies were charged, discover the homes built for the factory employees in one road and those built for its managers in another; and the function of The Alley which most Fleetville folk claim never to have walked along.  There are parts of Fleetville, too, which are more ancient than the Cathedral, and a stream to cross without getting our feet wet!

People love to ask questions and are often amazed by the answers; almost always a conversation ensues.  We are all part of a community and feel a personal responsibility to learn more about it.  And it matters not whether you are a 9-year-old who has already made sense of where he lives, or an adult who has lived here for three times as long and come to realise it's no longer sufficient to take local history for granted.

One way or another we all yearn to become more involved.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Does the shoehorn actually work?

There appear to be two related definitions of the term shoehorn: it is a curved tool to help ease our feet into a tight-fitting shoe, probably an early indicator that a larger shoe size might be appropriate.  Used as a verb, it can also describe forcing something into a space which is really too small.

The north side of Hatfield Road, when first laid out, was a mix of small houses and then increasingly shops.  Living accommodation for the shop owners was in the form of an upstairs flat; house occupiers had a tiny front garden, and both groups enjoyed a small private rear garden.

In time the rear gardens were lost to rear extensions, preparation buildings and stores.  Where possible vehicle access was squeezed in from the side roads.  Even in a nearby residential road a corner property owner has foregone a rear garden in favour of building three accommodations.  Recently, it was revealed that a property in Hatfield Road undergoing alterations was about to add a  similar number of one bed accommodations on the first floor, shoe-horned into  space too awkward and inadequate for the purpose.  And our  residential districts are littered with examples of a jarring streetscape created through unsympathetic and over-sized extensions intended to overfill the plot.

A variety of well-proportioned homes form a backdrop to the open spaces of Clarence Park.

This week St Albans celebrated the publication of a delightful little book about one of the district's foremost architects, Percival Cherry Blow (1873 to 1939).  The book launch was held in one building which he had designed – Thomas Oakley's grocery, now Waterstone's – and followed up with a meal for some at another of his buildings, Ryder's Exhibition Hall, now Cafe Rouge.

A Percival Blow designed house in Clarence Road.

While most of Blow's residential buildings were substantial in size and on good-sized plots, it appears that the architect was as concerned about how the proposed dwelling would sit in the street scene, and so space was as important as the physical structure.

One suspects that if Blow had been called back to add something to  one of his houses he would have given it the same meticulous attention as the original, and would know the limit of what was aesthetically possible on any plot.

Elements of the previous building on the site are captured in the red brick
Rats' Castle public house in Fleetville, designed by Percival Cherry Blow.

In the eastern districts of the city there are examples of his domestic work in Brampton, Blandford and Stanhope roads, and a range of semi-detached and detached houses in Clarence Road.  If such detailing attention is paid to the building elevations themselves it would seem natural to apply the same attention to the street boundaries.  Of course, today this is difficult to achieve as the imperative seems to be to get cars off the road at any cost, a requirement not foreseeable in the period when Blow was practising his profession.


All of us would benefit from a read of the new book, St Albans' Architect Percival Blow, published by St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society.  As we do so we will discover so many more buildings Percival Cherry Blow was commissioned to design; our streetscape is the richer for his endeavour.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Yes, But Is It safe?

The city has many alleys, examples of former countryside public footpaths.  Some are well trodden; others come as a complete surprise when discovered.  They exist because they were rural community ways of getting about.  When a town encroached on the countryside, homes, gardens and residential streets had to be accommodated round the public routes already present.  Most are unnamed, such as the former track between Camp Road east and Ashley Road, between Breakspear Avenue and Vanda Crescent, or between Woodstock Road south and Beaumont Avenue.  Occasionally, as in the path between Marshals Drive and Marshalswick Lane, we find a name, Wickway in this case.

It is rare to find such an urban alley which does not have street lighting.  Sure, these units are not always appropriate for the task they are required to serve – very narrow paths between gardens, and often with dog-legs and blind corners – but at least there is lighting.

Farm Road, formerly "Muddy Alley"
A form of alley, in that it was a farm lane which failed to become a public road, remains unadopted.  It is Farm Road, between Beechwood and Beaumont avenues.  The responsibility for adding lighting is that of the owners of the formerly-named muddy alley, and presumably they feel it is unecessary, although, from memory, I think one householder has fitted a lighting column.

A well-known and lengthy track, Jersey Lane, which provided a link between the drive serving the old Marshals Wick House and one of its farms, had for centuries been unlit, except by the moon; it led to open country. Nowadays it is a recognised walking and cycling route passing through Jersey Farm residential area, and because we expect to remain out and about on occasions during the night-time hours it is equipped with street lighting, especially useful given the extent of tree cover.

Jersey Lane
Another well-used walking and cycling route, one which does not have a history in the same way as Jersey Lane, it being a former branch railway, is Alban Way.  This delightful and well-used route is a hybrid, being neither between the houses, nor beckoning towards the countryside.  Instead it serves as a kind of bypass around parts of the south and east of St Albans, parallels Hatfield Road in the unbuilt distance between Colney Heath Lane and Ellenbrook, before carving its way past the Hatfield residential areas towards its old centre.

Alban Way may be one of the busiest tracks of its type in the district and is certainly enjoyed.  But there are users who do feel unsafe; their experiences of walking along it tells them so.  There are others who presume it to be unsafe at times because others have told them so.  It does not help that the local press describes the Way as "the notorious crime-ridden pathway," even though anyone who has been a victim of verbal or physical attack will likely concur with the newspaper's headline sentiment.  There will undoubtedly be statistics to demonstrate the frequency and severity of incidents – it is probably for the newspaper to justify the accuracy of the wording used.

Alban Way east
However, it seems a precedent exists for whether or not tracks such as these are, or should be, lit.  Closed circuit television is another matter, but once the principle has been established, we also have to justify the spending of required funds on the basis of need and whether other paths have been similarly funded.  Where we go from here is another matter, but it would be a shame if we are genuinely put off from making use of this gem of an open space because we feel uneasy about being there.