Sunday, 16 July 2017

All mixed up

Sutton Road, which emerges onto Hatfield Road at the Rats' Castle public house, was named by the development partnership of Ekins and Giffen as they laid out their Camp estate in 1899.  Arthur Ekins was brought up in the village of Sutton, near Ely in Cambridgeshire and therefore named the road after his birthplace.

But they weren't the only people with an interest in the road.  On the eastern side, owned by Beaumonts Farm until 1899, the former toll house had been sold off a few years earlier and rebuilt as a house with shop; the public house is now on this site.  Earl Verulam and St Albans School owned the field on the west side and sold it to Thomas Smith in 1897.  Down came the trees lining this part of Sutton Road (no more than a private farm track then) and up went his printing factory.

Under some pressure Beaumonts Farm placed all of the land on the east side on the market in 1899.  Tom Tomlinson and Horace Slade between them acquired development rights up to the railway (now Alban Way) and this became the Castle estate.  South of the railway Alfred J Nicholson purchased land for a coat factory, now awaiting conversion into apartments.  It was he who named Hedley Road, but no other changes occurred until the late 1920s.  The field on the west side from the railway to Camp View Road continued to be grazed by Oakley's dairy cows, and before Fleetville Recreation Ground was laid out, this field hosted many local football matches.  It was, viewed from Sutton Road, an attractive tree lined field.

Two shops and a laundry arrived at the junction of Sutton and Hedley roads in the late twenties.  Mrs Dennison opened a general store and confectionary on the corner; Mr Bowman's pharmacy was next door.  Next to that was built a detached house, to which was quickly added a workshop laundry.  After much open space a pair of houses was added, and after more space a pair of shops at the corner with Cambridge Road: Morley's bakery and Gray's fish shop.  The bakery is closed but the fish shop is very much open for business.  All looked out onto the field opposite.

In 1933 Earl Verulam sold the field, which extended most of the way to Camp Hill.  Ernest Stevens, a well-known house builder of the time, constructed his estate of around 150 homes fronting the west side of Sutton Road and along three new roads, Campfield Road, Valerie Close and Roland Street.  The 1930s was the period when most new housing was built with the intention of selling through building societies.  Mr Stevens built specifically for rent and his homes found tenants even before they were completed.

So, Sutton Road was mainly full, other than the spaces left on the east side.  A proposal was put forward in 1938 for the largest space to be used to bring some entertainment to Fleetville, in the form of a skating rink.  However, a similar proposal had been taken forward by the Ver Hotel in Holywell Hill, and the Sutton Road rink didn't proceed.  St Albans Coo-operative Society acquired the site for its vehicle maintenance centre –  the Society already had a dairy and a bakery nearby.  This was the building which, in the 1970s, the Society intended to make into a supermarket, but following widespread complaints and a planning refusal by the Council the Co-op purchased the former Ballito factory.  Today it belongs to Morrison's.  The original workshops are still operating as D P Motors.  During the history of this site, other commercial buildings grew up, accessed from a private road which only showed its name in recent years, Pickford Road, and the final space was finally built on with two homes in the 1960s.


There is, however, one mystery to Sutton Road.  The plot which is the site of the park homes named Woodvale Park was not sold by Earl Verulam in 1933, which presumably was not his to sell.  Being adjacent to the railway, and being vaguely fan-shaped with the narrow end at Sutton Road, it has never been used for anything other than caravans and then the present park homes.  Indeed the site  extends further west than Woodvale Park.  From Alban Way can be seen the line of the rear boundaries of Campfield Road homes.  Railways with sidings all over the country have similar shapes. Yet the railway never developed it and never seemed to acknowledge it as theirs.

So, that's the mystery, unless you can solve it.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Nine Nine Nine

Nice surprise for St Albans folk this morning to discover in the Daily Telegraph (and possibly other papers, as well as the BBC website) a grand photo of a pre-war wooden police call box – as in telephone call.

St Albans City Police Remote Police Box 1931
The reason for this and other photos issued from BT's archives, was the 80th anniversary of the 999 emergency telephone number in 1937.  And there, above the door of the box shown, is the name of the owner: St Albans City Police.  Yes, St Albans had its own police force until after World War Two.

Before proceeding further we should clear up one or two confusions.  Firstly, the impression is given that, because 999 began in 1937 and the box looked freshly painted, the box itself also dates from 1937.  In fact, St Albans City Police invested in six of these boxes in 1931, not for the prime purpose of the public making telephone calls, emergency or otherwise, but as a remote police station in miniature, where duty constables could complete their reports and file them by phone to the station in Victoria Street.  Since many officers lived local to their patch it saved the journey into the town and back again.  Since the phone was there anyway (and an electric light and small heater) an external grill was fitted to enable anyone to call the police station directly – no dialling, you simply pressed the call button and waited for the desk sergeant or another station officer to inquire the purpose of your call.  In fact, these boxes were not technically 999 phones with a dial, but of course the police station would call out other services on your behalf as required.

St Albans City Police Remote Police Box 1931
Unlike the AA and RAC roadside boxes, where members had a Yale-like key to open the door, so that they could make their calls in the dry, only police officers had a key to the police boxes.

By 1939 it was considered that a stronger box would be required during wartime conditions, and so the wooden boxes were replaced by brick structures with reinforced concrete roofs.

The question is, where were these police boxes located?  I know of two sites: Sandridge Road (but that is a long road and a more precise location isn't yet known); and the junction of Beechwood Avenue (which had just been laid out) and Hatfield Road.  The latter was, apparently, box number 1.

St Albans City Remote Police Box 1939
The two photographs appear not to be the same box, judging from the nearby homes, and neither is the Beechwood Avenue location.  If any reader can offer the possible whereabouts of the other five boxes, or at least the locations of either of the boxes shown in the photos, that would be helpful.

Incidentally, a smaller, pillar-mounted enclosure version, introduced in 1935, included, for the first time, a blue lamp which flashed to indicated to a passing police officer to call the central police station; but of course there was no little office to shelter in!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Chalet Shops

Most railway stations are abuzz with activity aside from the coming and going of trains.  The platform leading to the exit, if it wasn't in the booking hall, inevitably has a newsagent, and there are purveyors of snacks by the thousand (snacks, that is, not their purveyors).  It has always been so.

Another trader was often to be found too, and that was the local coal company.  These have now disappeared but often their trading posts are still in place.  At St Albans City Station, when the station and its forecourt was off Ridgmont Road, Charrington's had a little brick building at the foot of the steps leading from the bridge down into the space where taxis pulled in and buses sometimes turned.  The delightful building is still there, but, as with many other coal merchants their businesses have burned out with the universal arrival of gas and oil central heating, and better insulated homes.

Charrington's, however, was not the only coal merchant in St Albans.  Until the 1960s Kendall's was based at the Fleetville Siding, and clustered around the City Station there were several other firms, generally arriving in the 1930s.  Previously they might have each had their own section of the station goods yard, with their ordering counters in various of the town's shops.

Shops with flats above had climbed Victoria Street from Beaconsfield Road towards the railway bridge by the turn of the twentieth century, but in the space between them and the edge of the railway cutting, someone decided to add yet more.  This was probably, though I can't confirm it, railway land.  Two flat-roofed single storey shops, the left one being occupied first by an optician and then by an enterprising estate agent called Graham Barnes.  The right shop was rather better known after its first occupier, a jeweller, left, because it became Tominey's Chocolate Box shop, where later the family  owned its Vaudeville Cafe.

Next to this pair was a "flat-packed" chalet with a pitched-roof, wedged into the remaining space before the edge of the almost vertical drop down to platform one (today number four).  This was for coal merchant Brentnall and Cleland.  Today it is an estate agency.

Across the road and at the top of the steps referred to above is a small chalet perched on stilts, such is the lack of solid level ground.  From memory this tiny shop was the home of Lockhart coal merchant, and later became the home of a local driving school and later still was Yeoman Antiques.

Fortunately these little former coal merchant chalets are still standing.  Not so the third building, having been removed when the station was rebuilt, in the 1970s, to the other side of the tracks, and the former coal yard access road opened up to make Station Road.  Right on the curved corner was a chalet used for a time by Martell coal merchants and Hichcliffe's.  As with the others, this chalet arrived in the 1930s, and I can recall calling in to pay for the previous delivery of coal and, because it was often possible to gauge how long five hundredweight would last, order the next five sacks.  There were times when coal could not be delivered when we wanted.  Harsh winters, miners' strikes and shortages caused by priorities being given to power stations and hospitals, all formed part of the logistics of timing we might expect something to keep us warm.

I have been searching for some time for photographs of Hinchcliffe's chalet without success.  So the call is out for anyone who possesses an image of the chalet which disappeared

!  We will see how long it takes before it turns up on this blog, or on the website.  The clock is ticking!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Portsmouth Ahoy

In the 1950s Beaumont was just an ordinary Secondary Modern School.  There were none of the modern buildings that spread around the site today; just the original brick structure, and three temporary ROSLA classroom buildings put up in preparation for the Raising Of the School Leaving Age – to fifteen.  A few students were, even then, encouraged to remain until they were sixteen, taking GCE exams.

Among the most remembered events were the school journeys.

I suppose, as a boys’ school, as it was between 1954 and 1960, it was inevitable that there would be connections with the armed services.  There had been the Sea Cadets which had met and trained at the school before removing to HMS Verulam at Westminster Lodge.  But post-war there must have been a constant requirement for youngsters to “join up” in order to replace those who had been serving in the lean years immediately after the war.

In 1959 Mr Arthur Coxall, who taught woodwork and lived in Elm Drive, organised a Monday-to-Friday school journey  to Portsmouth where our accommodation was HMS Vanguard, a battleship which was laid up in the harbour and was used, as far as I can recall, as a training and recruitment ship.  There were about twenty or so fourth years (year ten) who went with Mr Coxall and the newly appointed headmaster, Mr George Humphries.  

Quite why I became part of the group I am not sure, since I knew I had no intention of joining up as a career – even though they got you anyway at that time through the National Service route.  Nor was I a particular fan of the water.  It was one of those moments when, if your friends said they were going, that's what you told your parents, and they were supposed to agree.  Fortunately, they did, but with one caveat.  Whatever it cost I had to fund it.  So that would be another raid on my paper round income.

I cannot remember as much as I probably should for such a unique experience, but found myself enjoying the novelty of sleeping in hammocks, which were amazingly comfortable, until, that is, the ridiculously early wake-up call by the sailors who were in charge of us.  I wonder whether the teachers were in hammocks, or or whether they were afforded the luxury of a cabin?  

Naturally, we were given a tour of the the dull grey ship, and we joined in many of the mess activities: some of the best basic meals I can remember – there always seemed to be seconds available if we wanted them. Just as the sailors benefited from down-time, we also enjoyed games room activities; and instruction sessions on various topics I have long since forgotten.  Oddly enough I can recall a film night; a black-and-white feature film called Twelve Angry Men.  I imagined ships always possessing a constant background throbbing noise from its engines, but this was absent from HMS Vanguard, instead, being attached to mainland life by a cable!

Every day we skitted around the harbour in a little naval launch to various places.  There was a visit to HMS Victory, and a gunnery simulation building where we were able to score our ability to shoot simulated cannons at ships, and simulated guns at aircraft, with the winning team being awarded some kind of prize.  The Royal Marines hosted one day but I am not certain what we did with them.

I have to admit that the week was thoroughly enjoyable.  Who else went on this trip?  It will have been others who were also 15 in 1958.  Did it only happen once or was it a regular feature of the Beaumont programme in the 1950s?  What is almost certain is that the Vanguard week was the last one.  The ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1960, news which very much disappointed me.

I know, you are dying to know whether the experience changed my mind about the armed forces!  Well, no, it didn’t, and by the time I was 17 the government of the day stopped compulsory National Service, thank goodness.  I am sure that school journeys at Beaumont School have become increasingly adventurous, but we tend to remember the ones organised just for us.  It's just a shame I didn't take a camera!

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Some people like barley-sugars ...

Possibly one of the most beautiful roads leading from the town of St Helier in Jersey is the one through wooded St Peter's Valley.  But its splendour could only be appreciated when driving a car along the road; and many of those drivers were becoming more irritated as an increasing number of cyclists slowed traffic to a crawl in the uphill direction on what is a narrow roadway.  Recently, the States of Jersey has begun to make improvements; a separate foot (there was none before) and cycle path now winds its way beside the road, but separated from it by granite walls or rough timber fencing.  An aggregate or all-weather surface enables more residents and visitors to enjoy the managed woodland through shade, dappled sunlight or the muted light of the woodland edge.

Open Space at The Wick.
The former branch railway which thousands of us know as Alban Way has been walked ever since the tracks were lifted in the 1960s.  The ground on either side of the line had previously been open, managed by the railway company to ensure nothing overhung the track.  Gradually, seedlings became saplings, which became young trees, and until recently trees as old as fifty years jostled with shrubs, grasses and other ground cover until the latter were largely crowded out by the large trees, which in turn made continuing to walk the dark path less attractive for many of us, especially in the evenings when an early dusk enveloped us.  Recent work to managed the trackside was, inevitably, criticised by some walkers who had become used to the prevailing conditions.  But now that we have restrained ourselves for a season nature has painted us a new version of the canvas.  Light, has been given the chance to reach the woodland floor as a result of thinning, and the woodland floor has responded with new ground cover species probably not seen there since the 1970s.  The walkway, which had deteriorated with increased passage of feet and cycle wheels, has been resurfaced.  There has been less talk of official vandalism and more talk of a pleasant, enjoyable and even stimulating walking route, providing a quiet way to and from our city.

No doubt there are a few people who would still prefer the increasingly dark route and the adventure of donning wellington boots each time they venture into the wilds of eastern St Albans.  But then, some people like barley sugars while others prefer mints, or no sweets at all.  We all have our tastes in life.

The woodland floor may hold many secrets.
Which brings us to the subject of The Wick; a small patch of unmanaged woodland in the middle of residential Marshalswick.  It had been at serious risk of being obliterated altogether in the encroachment of the housing estate of old Marshals Wick.  However, it was rescued following a sustained campaign largely led by the local Scout movement who used The Wick for regular activity evenings.  Finally, it was acquired by Sir Arthur Peake of Wickwood House, opposite The Wick, and was given by him to the city.

When a space or a building is gifted in this manner there is an ongoing cost to the recipient.  Buildings have to be kept in good repair, open spaces have to be mown and woodland needs to be managed.  Peeling paintwork, overgrown and weed-infested open spaces and dark unchallenged woodland indicate that the gift is being neglected.  The Wick is also an ancient site and some of its ground surface shows evidence of former occupation.

To be utterly responsible for the care of the woodland, it is sensible to allow a number of specimen trees to grow more strongly, thinning unlikely survivors around it in the process.  Have you seen the extensive plantings at Heartwood Forest?  The density of the planting will ultimately result in thinning of a proportion of the trees to permit others to grown on.  Those it is proposed to thin at The Wick are non-native or invasive species which randomly arrived at some time in the past.  And as at Alban Way, ground cover species not seen in decades will undoubtedly colour the woodland floor according to their season.

There, of course, remains the question of the path.  Vehicles have required access to the open space since it became a public area; we used to watch as the gang mower trawled up and down the field, interrupting our games of cricket or football.  Its visits, and those of other council vehicles were not frequent, but presumably they were necessary.  However we think of The Wick, it is a managed space.  Public toilets, children's play area, shelter, scout hut, emergency wartime warden's post – and some residential encroachment – have all played their part in how The Wick has been used.  An aggregate or other prepared pathway winding its way from one end to the other may not be a huge priority in the entire scheme of council spending, but since it has been proposed and offered, why would we not take advantage?  Like many similar additions, they stand out boldly when new, but the path will surely blend into the landscape within a short time.  Let's continue to enjoy The Wick for what it is, a wonderful little public space which everyone can use in their own way.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Lanes That Move

Those 19th century paintings of leafy lanes show something that has always been there; we have the feeling that had we discovered an 18th century painting of the same lane the view would have been much the same.  But is that true?

Not always, and there are many examples: Camp Road in the vicinity of the blue bridge was a new line for the road when the little railway was brought through the district.  George Marten, in the 1850s, thought that his private drive, now Marshals Drive, should be reserved for his family and guests.  Unfortunately, many "ordinary people" used it as a short cut between Sandpit Lane and Sandridge Road.  The impertinence of it!  He decided the most realistic solution would be to build a public lane beyond the edge of his property.  The new road began life as New Road but was later changed to Marshalswick Lane.

Railways have been known for other diversions as well.  The same little railway, between St Albans and Hatfield, had to cross a lane near Colney Heath Lane at a steep angle; carts and pedestrians need to see oncoming trains, so a crossing point needs to be perpendicular.  In the 1860s the railway company therefore diverted a short length of road in Hill End Lane far enough to build a safe crossing at right angles to the line.

The original line of Hill End Lane (red broken line) meandering across this map, now Highfield residential district.
Another lane (brown broken line) connected with the former The Ashpath, now Ashley Road.  The later route of
Hill End Lane (yellow) was laid around the boundary of Hill End Asylum.

This footpath passes behind home to reach Ashley Road and
was formerly known as The Ashpath.
But that was not the only meddling with Hill End Lane.  Thirty years later,  Hill End Asylum was constructed near the railway line.  Unfortunately Hill End Lane, which meandered between the fields separating Hill End Farm and Beaumonts Farm, was in the way.  The asylum planners tidied things up a bit and constructed a much straightened lane along the hospital's boundary from its junction with Hixberry Lane and its junction with Camp Road and a track many locals came to know as The Ashpath – part of that track is still there behind the Camp Road houses and next to the Ashley Road businesses.

The former meandering lane was almost lost, but survived when the railway siding into the hospital grounds was built on the firm road bed in one section; and the only part to survive until today is the new Bramley Way.

There is another former remnant about which all of us will be quite unaware.  From one of the junctions with the old Hill End Lane (now under houses along part of Sovereign Park) there was another lane striking out westwards.  Today any remains lie under a warehouse and then under the access road of Brick Knoll Park, nearly opposite Cambridge Road.
Bramley Way is the only part of the earlier Hill
End Lane which is part of today's road network.

Anyone who recalls Ashley Road (The Ashpath, or Cinder Track as it was also known) in the 1950s, will remember the old clay pits being fenced off.  Part of the fencing was a tall wide (at least it was tall and wide to a ten-year-old) double gate, next to which were the brick workers cottages.

So this un-named and forgotten lane, probably always a very narrow private one, finally achieved some recognition when it was awarded the name Brick Knoll Park when the warehouses and other businesses arrived in the 1970s.  Maybe the footpath behind the Camp Road houses towards the former hospital entrance, became the public pedestrian access to Hill End Lane to prevent public use of the private track.

Of course, that is only one explanation, but without a close study of a wide range of available maps no-one would ever know that the existence and layouts of some our lanes had been altered with time.

While the 1860s are rather early for photos of the former route of Hill End Lane, it is a pity that that no-one thought to take photos of The Ashpath, a wide track which many of us keep in our memory.  If I am wrong, and there is a photo lurking somewhere, hopefully including the brick workers cottages, do please email.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

You'll Never Guess What, Mum

One hundred years ago my grandparents walked with their daughter eastwards from their home near College Road.  They, like many others, were engaged in an afternoon walk into the countryside.  They passed the school on the right, which Winifred attended. A couple of side roads on the left had been prepared but only sparsely built along.  From there the family walked along the hedge-lined fields; the recently-sold Beaumonts on the left, and Little Cell Barnes and Beastneys farms on the right.  There was no Ashley Road then, nor Drakes Drive, although the family could see smoke from the chimney of the brickworks in the distance, and there may have been a farm worker busily occupied in one of the fields.
The former entrance to Hill End Hospital today; the gates have
gone but the Lodge to the right.

Eventually they arrived at the junction with Hill End Lane.  Both of these roads were covered with crushed roadstone to fill in the wheel ruts and pot holes.  If it had been a summer day a passing cart or motor car would have thrown up a cloud of dust, but on this early spring lunchtime the damp road surface clung to their shoes.

Had they not been locals, my grandparents might have been surprised to come across a vast constructed site ahead known as the Hill End County Asylum, but they had watched its buildings  grow out of the ground for the past ten years, and new ones were still appearing.

To the right of them was the lodge building, the home of the site engineer for the asylum.  This impressive little dwelling still exists, of course, though it has undergone one or two less sympathetic alterations.

The asylum entrance one hundred years ago, the lodge to the right.  Courtesy ANDY LAWRENCE COLLECTION

Beyond the striking entrance drive and its globe-topped gate pillars – one of them ivy covered – it was possible to spot Hillside, the home of the hospital clerk or steward, and behind that Keeling, where the medical officer lived.

The family did not enter the asylum grounds, but watched respectfully as a photographer placed his camera-topped tripod in the roadway and studied the scene ahead.  His subject was no series of structures thrown up quickly and cheaply.  The walls were sturdy and capped with stone, the property protected with tall railings, and electric lamps powered from the establishment's own generators.  No other street lamps had been installed within half a mile.

At that moment along the road from Tyttenhanger Green came three young boys who attended the same school as Winifred.  One might have expected that on their own adventure in the locality the youngsters would have been boisterous, chatty, welcoming the opportunity to show off in front of an audience.  But this event was different.  They knew that, given a chance, they could pose in the scene and see themselves in the local shop later as picture postcards were sold.  Mum, you never guess what.  We were walking round by the asylum and we got our photograph taken by the man in charge of the postcard camera.

On that day the story was made by these three young boys.  Courtesy ANDY LAWRENCE COLLECTION

Of course, one hundred years later, I don't know whether the family did encounter the photographer and the boys outside the hospital; we don't know whether the boys came from Tyttenhanger Green; nor do we know they attended Camp School.  We know nothing about their demeanor, and of course we have no idea of their names.  The opportunity offered to them on that day enabled all three to appear on every copy of that postcard sold – and even on this blog version across the internet in the 21st century; it is a little personal publicity they would not have dreamed possible.

However, the quality of the negative does mean that a family somewhere might recognise a relative.  We are presented here with three boys of around twelve, ten and eight years old.  They might have been brothers, relatives or friends.  On that day they made a story – this story – which they are certain to have passed on to their parents, their class mates or their teacher.  If they had any sense they will have persuaded their parents to buy them a postcard – just to prove to whoever challenged them in the playground that they weren't telling a fib! Honest!