Sunday, 22 July 2018

Welcome to our new pad

Voluntary organisations of all kinds are used to working their lives out in sub-standard accommodation.  Buildings originally designed – or at least intended – for quite a different purpose; shared spaces; former living rooms or even kitchens; rooms with no storage; buildings in the wrong place; those which are uninviting.

We continue to use them often because there is no alternative option, funds are short, donated by well-meaning folk who have our interests at heart but who recognise that most major projects will be difficult to achieve.  

Difficult maybe, but not impossible.  Two organisations in the same vicinity were searching for similar solutions, and the result is the delightful little building opened on Sunday 22nd July at Highfield Park, with a green ribbon obligingly cut by Mayor Rosemary Farmer.

Highfield Park Trust had headquartered in the nearby West Lodge, Hill End Lane, from the start of its tenure two decades ago.  OK, so you could run a typical small office from the front living room, and they have, but it wasn't laid out to satisfy the wish of the Trust to invite visitors, show off what was being achieved in the park or hosting functions.

Thanks to the new visitor centre, the Trust can now do all of those things, and probably more.  Today was also a red letter day for Colney Heath Parish Council, because it too was moving into a new home, in the same building.

There is reason enough at any time to visit the delightful Highfield, on the twin sites of the former Hill End and Cell Barnes hospitals. It possesses acres of beautiful and expansive parkland, woods, orchards and ponds.  From today one more attraction can be added to that list – a new visitor centre.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

It's In the Archive

We hear the word Archive without fully understanding that it might have different meanings for different people or organisations.  To one it might refer to their shoebox of photos in the wardrobe; to another memories in their head just waiting to be talked about; and to a third an attempt at storing and labelling a range of images or documents on a particular topic.

Visit the Community Archives & Heritage Group website ( and there are links to community archives all over the UK.  Some of the most endearing are those which contain the memories and stories of individual residents of a particular location, as memories of past times are released.

In the Fleetville district we have also recorded a number of memories, and part of the mission of Fleetville Diaries, the local history group, is to make these more accessible over time.

During the past few years the same group has also collected a range of stories with the theme Laid to Rest.  Right in the heart of Fleetville is a large attractive, and very well-managed, cemetery.  It contains the graves of several thousand men, women and children who have been laid there since the 1880s.  Of course, every one of them had a story to tell us, if only we knew what it was.  While it  was always going to be unlikely we would uncover the lives of the majority, we have nevertheless collected the stories of nearly fifty; well, it's a start!

But how best to share those stories. I am sure we will develop a more permanent archive, but, for now we have realised that the most engaging means of communication is to be present as part of a group at a person's graveside.  Not only are we able to be close to the subject's final resting place, but we can chat with others about each account, experience the landscape and peace of Hatfield Road Cemetery – whatever the weather – and as a result appreciate further what community might mean for each of us.

We have created four Laid to Rest walks, each with ten or twelve life stories or experiences.  The Baker's Dozen, Pioneers, Private Lives and Friends & Family.  Each begins with a brief account of how the Cemetery began and the story of the chapel.

If you have not previously joined one of our Laid to Rest walks do come along to Laid to Rest: Family & Friends on Saturday afternoon 28th July at 2pm.  The event lasts for about 2 hours.  There is no need to book, just turn up.  We meet at the shelter near the chapel.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Sweet Sound

The story this week is set just off the line of Alban Way in Campfield Road.  First sold in 1895 for development, the first building along the unmade track leading into the field was for printer Orford Smith (not to be confused with T E Smith's works in Fleetville).  Shortly afterwards arrived the Sphere Works and then the Electricity Works.

The former Salvation Army buildings, Campfield Road,
now demolished.
Regrettably for Mr Smith his business did not last long and the fine Miskin-constructed buildings were sold to the Salvation Army in 1901, which moved its huge printing operation from Mile End, and was quickly followed by the renowned musical instrument business.  Mr Miskin returned to add more space in Campfield Road.

The company manufactured a wide range of high quality brass instruments, and to this day it is possible to identify Sally instruments on a maintained list.  In the 1970s the company was absorbed into Boosey & Hawkes.

Back to the story.  Last week Stewart emailed me from halfway across the world with a piece of information he thought I might appreciate.  So, our subject is Steven Mead, well-known in musical circles as a virtuoso euphonium player who is ambitious in raising the recognition of this instrument.  You can find out more about him on

Steven Mead (left) with restorer Rick McQueeney.
As you might expect, he owns several examples of his specialist instrument and took the opportunity of acquiring one more, a euphonium in extremely poor condition shown on an online advert.  In spite of its state he completed the purchase last October.  He reported, "it played terribly."

The euphonium was Model A The Triumph, stamped as made at St Albans in 1915; clearly it had been a beautiful instrument at one time.
Restored Triumph euphonium ready for
its first concert.

Steven contacted a friend at McQueen's Musical Instrument Repairs in Manchester.  The instrument was taken apart to reveal the rich and pure brass and regular reports on progress were sent back to the new owner.  As soon as the euphonium had been dipped and returned to Steven he wrote, "It plays with a wonderful sweet sound throughout the range, excellent tuning right up to the top, and the valves are now quite outstanding... The finish is probably superior to that when it was originally made."

He announced that The Triumph is featuring in concerts this year and had its first outing at a concert in Bournemouth in March.

So, 103 years on this great instrument, made in St Albans, is making music for the delight of audiences in the company of its skilful owner, Steven Mead.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Recollections All Round

During the past three months there has been a steady flow of old news arriving at SAOEE.  Occasionally prompted by a previous item on the website; on other occasions quite unsolicited.

Marconi staff photographer (using Marconi technology, of
course) atop the old Hill End water tower.
Let's start with the heaviest; a collection of eight volumes dating from the 1950s, of the staff magazine of the Marconi giant, of which Marconi Instruments Ltd had three bases in St Albans, all in the east end.  The pages contain details of new technologies, developments within the factories, results and snippets from sports encounters, and on occasion the social difficulties of finding sufficient houses for the company's employees.  Time will be taken to abstract the St Albans features, which also include photos not previously seen.

House and shop of Sear & Carter, Hatfield Road
A few years back, and published in the SAOEE books, were details of one half of the Carter family, Charles, who launched a motor garage in Fleetville, which later became Hobbs Garage and is now KwikFit.  So a very warm welcome was extended to a descendant member of the other half of the Carter family.  Thomas had arrived in Fleetville before Charles and had teamed up with nurseryman Frank Sear.  The name Sear & Carter was well-known in the district, not only for its little Ninefields nursery where St Pauls' Place is now located, but also for the more spacious nursery where is now Notcutts Garden Centre at Smallford.  One result of our recent conversations has been the rediscovery of a photograph of the house and shop opposite Hatfield Road cemetery.

Occasionally the topic of the Smallford Speedway crops up (and also the nearby golf links too, but that's another story).  The names of a few cycle speedway teams have been put forward by Bill, another correspondent.  You may recall St Albans Cobras and EAC Hawks, Hilltop Vampires (Redbourn) and Harpenden Aces.  Just to show that none of us has a monopoly on local knowledge, we are trying to establish where the home grounds were.  The Cobras, for example, raced in Cell Barnes Lane, and Bill sent me a photo of a group of the Springfield houses opposite the former farm yard entrance.  Of course, the circus field was close by, so perhaps it was there.  We also need to establish the specific location of the Hawks' track.  Was it in the grounds of the EAC factory, did they share with the Cobras, or was there another Cell Barnes location, for example, at the bottom end?

Advertisement for L Rose & Co Ltd on
back cover of 1953 Pageant programme
Having long been custodian of a souvenir programme of the 1907 St Albans Pageant – printed at the works which launched Fleetville, T E Smith's Fleet Works – I subsequently acquired a cover of the 1953 pageant programme; just the cover!

 Now, through the diligence of Gill, I have both the 1948 and 1953 programmes complete.  Both contain interesting advertisements and these will appear on the website in the months ahead.

Former coal yard and coal office St Albans City Station

Rob delighted me one day recently, supplying me with a picture which had, until then, resided only in my memory; the chalet shop, or coal office, by the railway bridge where today is the road into St Albans City Station (and where many news reports are transmitted from).  There it is, looking a little worse for wear, shortly after closure, and shortly before work began clearing the former sidings and coal yard.

What a great time local history is having.  Long may it last.  Future blogs will expand on all of these topics, and more as they arrive.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Doorstep Pint

The earliest memory I have of milk delivery is an old motor van from the Co-op driven around our estate, and a horse-drawn vehicle, I think in cream and green, led by one of the Corley brothers from Oakley's who came next door.  The horse nibbled at the grass at the roadside, and as the milkman returned to the gate with empties in his hand the horse moved further along the road on its own; it knew where the customers were just as well as Mr Corley.

Then the Co-op received its smart new electric vehicles, and even in those 1950s days we were able to order orange drink in smaller bottles, and eggs too.  As we, along with most people, possessed no refrigerator we devised methods for keeping the white stuff cool, from cold shady doorstep to stone floor in the coolest room and covered with a tall wet inverted clay pot.  Even then in high summer there was a chance the milk wouldn't last until evening before it turned.  Thank goodness, in those days, for Sunday deliveries.  And an additional benefit was in making some rather unedifying cheese hung in a muslin pouch.

Grandmother talked about taking a jug to the cart where milk was ladled from its large container in the days before TT milk was the norm.  She who had lived her younger life in South London recalled walking to a shop to collect the milk, and returning with her jug covered in damp muslin.  Hedges Farm had such a shop on the corner of Hatfield Road and Glenferrie Road, and there were similar shops in the city centre.

Cunningham Hill Farm claimed to be the first to bottle its milk, and Marshalswick Farm claimed to be the first to deliver milk twice a day direct to regular customers – though before World War One quite who they were is uncertain given the emptiness of that part of the district.

The days of the every-day milkman eventually wound down for most of us.  As the keeping qualities of milk improved, thrice-a-week delivery was considered adequate, and then plastic containers proved less expensive than glass, especially when taking sterilising bottle-washers into account.

So almost universally bulk purchase from the supermarket took out the role of the traditional milkman and at a significantly lower price.  But in places a milk round has continued to find a niche retail position, as other dairy products, vegetables and groceries were added to the goods delivered.
Press advertising for a Hatfield-based company
offering glass bottle doorstep deliveries.

Now, the milkman is embracing the internet and the principle of offering cheaper prices for bulk buying.  While customers can still purchase milk in plastic containers, the glass bottle is back on the delivery menu.  Register

with the company by setting up an online account and suddenly buying your pinta* becomes much easier, with no more need to leave a note tucked in the top of an empty bottle, or waiting for the milkman to book you time out while you're on holiday.

From asking the farmer's wife at the farm gate, to internet ordering in one hundred years, there is still an alternative to the shop in spite of availability from petrol stations, paper shops and as many convenience stores as there were in the fifties.

Milk certainly seems to be an enduring retail product.

* Pinta was a marketing word coined in the 1950s to encourage us all to increase our milk consumption, using the slogan "Drinka pinta milka day."

Sunday, 27 May 2018

It's Showtime!

Everyone in the County can mark off this May weekend as soon as they receive their new diaries.  It is the weekend of The Hertfordshire County Show (Herts Show in its abbreviated form).  As this blog is being written the sun is gently warming the Redbourn show ground for its second busy day and lines of cars are being marshalled up in orderly fashion.

It seems that as long as we can remember the Show has set its collective trailers down in fields between the M1 and the old A5 just north of Redbourn for its celebration of most things agricultural – as well as entertainments which would attract the large crowds to ensure the event could cover its costs above the income from trade stands.
Appealing to families.  Courtesy Hertfordshire Life.

However, the Show first arrived at what was to be its permanent home in 1962.  In fact, the statement should be amended to "its second permanent home", in as much as permanence can occasionally be a flexible concept!

The Redbourn show ground.  Courtesy Hertfordshire
Agricultural Society
The society which manages the Show has itself a significant pedigree, having been born in 1801.  Its meetings and events took place on land at Hatfield House estate, and Hertfordshire Agricultural Society pinned the Show's birth to a ploughing match there in 1879.  Although it did move to another Hatfield site the growth of the town made that unexpandable and eventually  unavailable.  In the 1950s the event became nomadic and visited, for example, Childwickbury in 1953 and Letchworth in 1955.

This is where St Albans' Own East End enters the story, for in 1956, shortly after the land had changed hands, Oak Farm in Coopers Green Lane was selected.  The Show came to us!  I'm uncertain when it first became a two-day event at the weekend, but it was previously a single day during the working week, and so it was in 1956.  Thursday was show day.  That was an even bigger weather risk then than today for an open air agri-fest.  Mid May – for it was slightly earlier then – at Oak Farm and the previous day was very wet, so ensuring an adequate amount of mud through which to wallow.  The day itself, according to the Herts Advertiser, was sunny.
The Herts Advertiser reports on the pig classes at Oak Farm.

The requirements for a large tract of land made it inevitable that that the event would be "off the beaten track".  The proportion of visitors with cars would have been low in the 1950s; my memory is unclear about the laying on of special buses to the site.  Perhaps we all walked, but we could only have done so after school.  So perhaps this was an event, which could have been of such wonderful educational value, that passed us by.

I have never discovered a programme for the event, and no-one has recalled the Show as one of their fifties highlights.  Hertfordshire Show at Oak Farm, it seems has retreated to the great chasm of non-memory that exemplifies much of our lives.  But there may be someone somewhere who could still exclaim, "1956?  Oh yes, that was the year Hertfordshire Show came to Oak Farm."

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Price of Coal

As with many other householders I paid my dual-fuel energy bill recently by direct debit online.  As a child I was regularly sent to place an order for coal or coke at one of the many Coal Offices, and subsequently to take the invoice – the bill – with cash to pay for the delivery recently received.

The coal offices were in Fleetville (for Stantons, then Kendalls), at The Crown, and at offices gathered around the railway station.  One of these little portable buildings stood next to the gate leading from the goods yard at the station.  If you have arrived to living in the St Albans district more recently than c1980 you will possibly not realise that the goods yard occupied all of the space which is now the busy station and the car park building. 

Martell's Coal Office c1970.  Today at Station Way.

This week I received a photo, possibly taken c1970, which shows Martell's Coal Office – not an accessible building, I notice.  Today it might not even pass planning regulations as the door steps dropped straight into a blind bend straight off the Victoria Street bridge, and just as the footpath ends.  Inevitably, the building could not be permitted to remain once the new Station Way was laid to join Grimston Road and Hatfield Road with its seemingly endless flows of taxis, buses and cars.


But there it was, and although it appears to have been abandoned at the time, someone thought to photograph it and in the context of the wider scene.  It is clear that the goods yard – which we would probably call freight today – is also neglected as more centralised handling of freight trains had been developed by the seventies.

After just over a century the station, formerly on the Ridgmont Road side of the tracks, was transferred to the other side, and the big talking-point of the period was electrification.

A 1950s coal bill for Charrington's, whose coal office was on the city-side of the tracks.

Today there is nothing left of the coal office, but we know exactly where it stood.  I did attempt to take a photograph from the same spot; taking my life in my hands, it proved impossible given the vehicle flows on the traffic light controlled junction.  I will try again early one Sunday morning, but meanwhile here is an alternative courtesy Google Streetview.