Sunday, 25 August 2013

Looking down

From the early days of flight pilots and their passengers have peered downwards on our cities, villages and landscapes in awe.  This, after all, was the perspective on our world which had never been previously experienced, except for the more limited views from the heights of tall buildings; and they were nothing like the height of the Shard at London Bridge.

Companies have, since the end of WW1, taken oblique photos from the cockpit of, or special ports on the underside of, small aircraft.  A collection measured in millions thus accumulated, but there was never an easy method of searching for what people might be interested in, and reels of early negatives on unstable film steadily deteriorated, and continue to do so.

Fortunately, the entire surviving collection is gradually being scanned, digitised and made available online – www.    It is a project of considerable timescale, but this week the organisation announced its most recent batch of newly treated pictures.

Among them were a number of 1939 shots of de Havilland's and even earlier pictures of the airstrip, aero club and the firm's swimming pool.  There are fine studies of Welwyn Garden City before WW2, and in St Albans a number of photos, taken from a variety of angles of the Electrical Apparatus Company (EAC) off Mile House Lane.   These complement earlier arrivals on the site of the Rubber Works, Salvation Army Printing Works and the Electricity Works.

It is well worthwhile searching the St Albans' pictures now available.  You will discover enthusiasts skating on the lake in the winter of 1946/7, the business of Mercer's in St Stephen's Hill, the fields beside the St Albans Bypass before Roger Aylett brought his youthful enthusiasm for a nursery there.  It is possible to spot two cottages which once stood to the north of the junction of Hill End Lane and London Road, before the new housing development and school arrived.  You can almost identify the crops growing in many of the allotments behind Springfield.

However familiar the scene, it is rewarding to simply enjoy the experience of picking out little details in each photograph, and of course our familiarity with streets does not always prepare us for discovering what once
lay behind the facades.  Google Earth may cause us to take for granted how our urban landscapes are laid out today.  Seeing the views from the 1920s or 1930s will always surprise.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Delivery a little late

In last week's blog I related how the curator of the South Africa Astronomy Society in Johannesburg has been seeking information about a telescope we had made for them.

I say 'we' because the device, made by the telescope company with the highest of reputations, was made in Fleetville.  Howard Grubb was a Dublin company until the UK government, in 1916, installed it in the ailing printing works building which later became Ballito.  You can read further details in the previous blog.

A recently taken photo, courtesy Michael Robins, of the telescope within
the building originally constructed for it.
It now appears that the order for the telescope was placed in 1909, but was not finally delivered until 1925!  So, the early work was undertaken in Ireland, but of course progress on the telescope came to a halt for the duration of the war.  It was substantially complete, however, in 1920, and most of the rest of the time was occupied in making a successful casting of the substantial lens, called an objective glass.  To indicate how tentative the delivery date was, the firm made the name plate and dated it 1923, although it was a further two years before the parts were shipped to South Africa for assembly in the building which the Society had completed in 1912.  The cost, on delivery, was £7,375

The curator tells me that serious research was stopped on this particular instrument in the early 1970s because of the high level of light pollution, but it is still in use for viewing and outreach programmes.

It was designed specifically for double star viewing, and the number discovered by 1961 was 6,555, which, the curator informs me, was the most by any telescope at the time.  The instrument is now owned by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement.

Rather like hearing what school friends have been doing with their lives when we meet them later, this news is fascinating in that it makes us aware of unusual products made in St Albans' Own East End, how they have performed and  how long they have lasted.  Proud Fleetville is part of this particular story.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Work in secret

A business arrived in Fleetville in 1916 and remained for nine years; yet at the time, and since, its existence was little known.  Strange, since it occupied one of the most identifiable factory buildings in the district, even though that building no longer exists.  For some I only need to mention the name Ballito; for others it is Morrison's.  They are two of the post-WW2 occupiers, not the secretive company.

During the middle of WW1 the highly reputable Irish company of Howard Grubb, who designed and built optical and refractive telescopes, was contracted by the Government to undertake development work on submarine periscopes and gun sights.  Since this was highly classified research, the Government brought the company to St Albans and installed it in a half-empty printing firm called Smith's Printing Agency, Hatfield Road, Fleetville.  Until 1921 there were active D Notices on the building, preventing  information about Grubb's activities from being  published.

The company's peacetime role included building some of the world's largest telescopes – so large in fact, that much of the construction work had to be undertaken outside, which is where passers-by would have seen the intriguing work in progress.  By 1925, Grubb's was merged with another company in Newcastle, and was renamed Grubb Parsons.

This story has become topical because the curator of the South Africa Astronomy Society (Johannesburg Section) is searching for an operating manual for the Grubb 26.5 inch refracting telescope, which the Society has in the city.  This model was not far off being the world's largest at the time, and if made between 1918 and 1925, was certainly manufactured in Fleetville.

So, if you are keen on astronomy, and if there's the remotest possibility that you have an operating manual for the Grubb 26.5 inch refracting telescope, could you just check your bookshelf or the loft?  I have a curator who is in need of it, and I can put you in touch.

Another alternative road name
A reader of Volume 1 contacted me recently about the lane near the old Hill End railway crossing called Hixberry Lane.  It connects this point near Colney Heath Lane, with Tyttenhanger Green at the Plough.  A friend of his is certain this lane was also called the Ashpath and wants to know whether this is correct.  With local names it is always a possibility, and one lane may have two or more such local names, in addition to a name added to a map.  The tithe map (1840) even states that it was called Beastney's Lane.  As this seems to have occurred on only one surviving document, it is not possible to conclude that it was a name in transition or whether it was a cartographer's error.

The Ashpath is well-known for being the local name for the farm track between Hatfield Road and Hill End Lane, later receiving an official name Ashley Road.  Although Ashpath is only one of the local names for the track; many people also knew it as the Cinder Track.  If you knew Hixberry Lane by another name, do please email me ( ).

Of course, I would also like to receive news of any other road in the district which you or your family called by a name other than the one it was given (its official name).  I can add these to the Streets page of the website.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Getting our history right

When the number of blogs slow down, you can bet that the blogger is busy on other matters!  Not necessarily on matters of local history of course.  This is harvesting time on the allotments, holiday time for some of us, and catch-up time for the rest, who have jobs of various kinds waiting in the wings for the normal lack of opportunity to attend to them.

However, there have been several experiences or events to report.

A younger relative of an elderly gentleman contacted me this week after a visit they had made to the gentleman's childhood home.  All was going well until they arrived at Marshalswick and they were trying to orientate themselves, and he to remember back through time exactly where the house was.  They found the house, only to discover it couldn't be, since it was the wrong street.  Was the man's memory wrong?  I was able to set their minds at rest; the road was renamed c1960 to avoid confusion with an almost identical name close by.  But I can imagine it was a confusing moment, just when his memory needed that final support, only to find a completely different street plate!

Occasionally I come across examples of stories that are mixtures of fact and repeated fiction.  Such is the oft-told legend around the name of the Rats' Castle in Fleetville.  Since there will be blog readers who have not been able to read my book, St Albans' Own East End Volume 1, I have launched a new Rats' Castle page on the website.  The data currently on the page will be added to shortly, and I will find a better version of one or two of the maps.  But it is a start.

An excellent example of diligent research around a story came my way recently, when I had sight of a thoroughly researched document about a bombing incident at de Havilland's in 1940.  The author, Terry Pankhurst, had sourced nearly thirty eye-witness and other very different, and sometimes conflicting, accounts which had been recorded since the incident, teasing out the factually correct, the probable, possible, unlikely, and plainly wrong contents of the reports; and then, using the evidence available, attempting to write as correct a version as records,  common sense and the passing of time would allow.  I have no idea at this moment whether the report has been published.  If it has been I will recommend everyone to read it as a lesson to all of us who are involved in disseminating information.

A delighted reader of St Albans' Own East End Volume 2 this week had discovered a family member who had been named as a member of his school football team in the 1920s, but she did not recognise the book which had provided that information and which I had acknowledged.  I was able to show her, not only the reference, but also two photographs in Bob Bridie's book, now alas out of print, 100 years: a History of Schools Football in St Albans.  A reference to the very same boy a few years later, in the Roll of Honour in Volume 2, enabled the reader to inquire about the young man's final resting place.  Regrettably this was likely to have been "at sea."  However, by using the admirable website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, we were able to establish that his name is attached to the extensive Naval Memorial at Portsmouth.  No doubt she will be arranging a visit in due course.

Finally, and on a more personal note, I discovered, after the event, that I had been sitting almost next to a man I had last seen in 1965, when he was 15 and I was working in the same establishment.  We each of us realised the 'near miss' at the Community Archives Conference only when we each visited the same forum a couple of days later, and our names were revealed!  Since then, a project has been launched to enable the stories of around 40 children of the time to relate their early experiences which led to their arrival in the UK at the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Sussex.

Other projects where have been, or are being, collated in and around St Albans, include Home from Home by Fleetville Diaries, and Smallford Memories by Smallford Residents' Association.