Monday, 30 September 2013

Live archaeology

We rarely experience the pleasure of live archaeology in the East End of St Albans.  Not so long ago test pits were dug at The Wick, and we are awaiting a report on the findings from that project.

However, yesterday, if you were walking or cycling in the warm sun along Alban Way, you may have come across something completely different.  A short while previously a series of rectangular patches were scalped of vegetation on both sides of the path – the line of the former branch railway between St Albans and Hatfield, closed for passengers in 1951 and freight by 1968.  You might have taken a mild interest in that clearance.

Yesterday morning you may also have spotted a small group of keen young children with trowels and some excitement at one of the cleared patches one hundred metres or so east of Smallford railway bridge.  Viewers of Time Team will have noted the tell-tale sign of a square line pegged out beside the former track: the standard area for a one-metre square test pit.  The calm Sunday morning atmosphere was regularly punctuated with squeals of delight as objects of interest were encouraged to the surface.  Among the more obvious finds of brittle plastic and stones within the soil, were revealed an old bolt, small pieces of coal and the bottom of a small 19th century clay jar or pot.  No doubt many other objects were transferred to the finds tray during the course of the morning, all supervised by the children's parents and the project leader.

The children were all members of the Young Archaeologists' Club and were exploring there on behalf of the Smallford Project ( ), raised to investigate the history of the hamlet, collect a number of stories about the place and restore the former railway station still standing behind a contractor's mech fence.

Children are natural archaeologists, and during the next few weeks they will be making sense of the objects they have found, and no doubt, will continue to find.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


Having only just completed a post and published it, I discovered more about ELECO which places yesterday's post in a slightly different context.

The company was formed in 1895 as Gilbert Arc Lamp Company, based in Chingford, Essex.  The firm moved to St Albans in the early years of the 20th century.  One major contract was to design and supply the lanterns along Victoria Embankment.  The company name was altered to the Electric Lighting and Engineering Company in 1920 and from then until the 1960s it focussed on street lighting and switch gear.

ELECO then widened its interests to include structures when, in 1960, it acquired the 1948-born Hoddesdon firm of Bell and Webster.  It later purchased Goodes Silos Ltd and Davis Sheet Metal Engineering, which specialises in cable trunking, and as late as 1991, Abtus Company Limited which are involved  in railway maintenance equipment.

Helicopter landing lights were developed for the Admiralty, cable trays were supplied for the Channel Tunnel, and ELECO Technology was formed in 1994 for research and development projects for various parts of the company.  Its software has been used on the restoration of the Cutty Sark and by the main contractors of the Shard, a 'sky-tall' building at London Bridge.

ELECO may no longer be in St Albans, but the company has bases in Herriard, Hampshire; Lydney, Gloucestershire; Thame, Oxfordshire; and Telford, Shropshire; as well as many locations in other countries.

That sounds like a terrific St Albans success story.  Some of the company's street lights, made during its time in Campfield Road, can be seen at the website  It may be possible to add further to this story shortly.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Lighting Campfield

At the end of last week's blog I briefly described how a former resident was trying to locate work places at which he had been employed in the 1960s.  The clues given to me were, a firm making 'up-and-over' garage doors, and a company manufacturing immersion heaters for copper heating cylinders.

One firm I had not considered for garage doors, but which the man in question recalled, was the Sphere Works in Campfield Road.  Although the company no longer exists several firms occupy the site which is now known as the Sphere Industrial Estate.

The question now is, do you remember Sphere Works manufacturing metal up-and-over garage doors? If you were employed at the Sphere in the 1960s or 1970s perhaps you could email the author ( ) with some details.

While doing some computer searches for Sphere Works I came across the site    Simon is a collector of street lamps and has provided details of many of the country's manufacturers, including ELECO.  This firm was part of Sphere Works and also had premises in Campfield Road.  ELECO sold most, if not all, of the lamps and posts for St Albans before WW2.  It is always intriguing how firms become successful, get taken over, change their names and their locations.

ELECO, which began in the 1880s, was taken over by Davis Engineering Ltd in the 1980s, but that firm does not appear to be active today, unless there has been another change of name.  But one model the company made was a Windsor.  Is there a connection here with another street lighting firm, called   D W Windsor, which began in 1976?  Did it later take over the Davis Company?

If so, the continuity of ELECO remains in the county, for D W Windsor is at Hoddesdon.  If not, well ...   Any information would be welcome.

Turning to the SAOEE website, the two pages which describe the collection of One Hundred Objects has been static for some considerable time, and before the second book was published it was felt prudent not to display all of the objects in the collection.  A new set of pages is now gradually appearing, displaying and describing all of the objects.  You can now have a peep at the new layout through a link on the Welcome page.  The remaining four pages will gradually appear during the next month or two.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Another Ashpath

When roads have no official name, we have to give them a label in order to identify them to others.  So each of us may use our own family labels.  Take The Ashpath, for example (sometimes also known as the Cinder Track). It had no official name because it was a private farm track.  Sometimes in poor condition  ash or cinders from Owen's brickworks was occasionally spread.  If you are not sure which track I mean, today we all know it by its official name: Ashley Road.  The Ash in this case is the tree, not the burnt leftovers.

A resident of Tyttenhanger Green, and a former resident of the village, have declared that they know of another Ashpath.  Describing a walking route the two took to reach Hatfield Road, they used Hixberry Lane, then Hill End Lane (Station Road) over the railway crossing, and cut through the former Hill End Brickworks site, picking up a track on the edge of the former wooded area; a track which is now Longacres.

A muddy Hixberry Lane.
The lower end of Hixberry Lane can still become waterlogged, and it is Hixberry Lane which the ladies recall their families calling the Ashpath.  I imagine the ash in this case came from the Hill End brickworks.  The brickworks was replaced by Marconi Instruments, which has now been replaced by  the 'Marconi estate.'

The Butterwick Wood industrial estates between Oaklands and Smallford contain two named roads: Lyon Way and Acrewood Way.  But many will know the road giving access to Homebase, began as an access road to the Meat Cold Store and Banana Warehouse adjacent to the former branch railway.  But it has never received an official name, although a nearby road sign now directs traffic to 'Alban Park.'   Could this be the new official name for the road?  What name has your family used down the years for the 'Homebase road?'  The author would love to know.

An interesting request has arrived from the daughter of an retired couple attempting to formalise their pension arrangements.  Although only in St Albans for a short time, the man recalls working in the 1960s for a firm making garage doors (the name Marconi's was mentioned in this context but somewhere along the line memories have become confused), and a company making immersion heaters for copper cylinders.

If you can suggest firms thriving in the 1960s for either garage doors – wooden or metal – or immersion heaters, would you consider prompting the author, either by replying to this blog or emailing the author via the website.

Un-named access road between Dunelm and Homebase.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Right trade, wrong place

The story of the eastern districts of St Albans has been gleaned from many sources, not least the recollections from people who were born and were brought up here, and continue to enjoy their lives as 'eastenders'.  Then, there are many written sources, all of which we have come to rely on for their accuracy.

Among these are the street directories.  Apart from the odd occasion when Amery is printed as Avery, or V Thomas becomes W Thomas, they are largely accurate.  So, when, during the first two decades of the 20th century, the villages sections of Kelly's directories listed Charles Simmons running a post office and stores in Station Road, I assumed that to be correct.

The Colney Heath sub-section, right at the end of these incredibly useful books, included, not only that village, but Horseshoes (the old name for the place we now call Smallford), Sleapshyde, Tyttenhanger, Wilkins Green, Nast Hyde, Roestock and Roe Hyde.  In all of those places there is only one Station Road, between the roundabout (used to be Smallford crossroads) and the bridge over the old railway.  There is a post office and stores in Station Road, but all of the buildings in that road are 1930s or newer.  If there was an earlier post office then that building would have been demolished.

I set aside the obvious question to ask first (why would a post office open in a community of perhaps fewer than a dozen households?)  The question instead asked: did anyone know of an earlier building, or a shop?  For two years we pondered but found no solution.

Former post office and stores, run by Charles and Ann Simmons, near the
Crooked Billet in Colney Heath.
Photo courtesy JOHN ROWLAND
This week a resident of Colney Heath, pouring over a collection of old pictures of his village, thought he had found the answer and passed one photo, of the former Colney Heath Post Office, to me.  Above the window is the name C Simmons.  Old maps were checked, as well as census returns; together with the photo it can be confirmed that the directory entry should have read "Charles Simmons, Colney Heath, post office and stores."  How could the entry have been printed consistently incorrectly for so many years?

There is, of course, one intriguing possibility, to do with the names of roads.  You have to imagine a time before the bypass which intersects the parish between Horseshoes and Colney Heath.  In 1900, where we now have a disconnected road (at the bypass) with three names (Station Road, Smallford Lane and High Street), it was one ambling lane.  Colney Heath villagers had
actively lobbied to have the station name boards read Smallford Station for Colney Heath.  The station was considered the villagers' own station.  Perhaps there was a time when the entire lane was known locally as Station Lane or Station Road.  In which case the directories would have been correct!

Perhaps that should be the next question:  It there any evidence, or recollection of the lane which connects Horseshoes (Smallford) and Colney Heath being known as Station Road throughout?