Sunday, 27 October 2013

"Friendly" conference at Verulamium

An informal group which was first established in 2011 held its third annual conference on Saturday 26th October at Verulamium Museum.  The St Albans and District Local History Network is now firmly established on the local scene and already the format is spreading around the county, with an inaugural conference already held in Hitchin.

Around seventy delegates heard presentations from nine different speakers throughout the day, with sufficient time left for Soapbox speakers to 'pop up' and provide a five minute update on a particular project.

Among the presentations was an update on the future of the old Town Hall for conversion to a museum  which would replace that MoSTA site in Hatfield Road.  Kris Goodyear explained the geophysical survey now taking place in Verulamium Park, and the machinery being used to provide the data.  Other subjects ranged from historic gardens, the first fixed-site cinemas, a WW1 Home Front project, and the current High Street, Wheathampstead, funded project.  Then there was an update on the Smallford Station project, the research being undertaken to prepare a map of the Second Battle (of St Albans) landscape, preparations being made for the Sandridge 900 commemoration, and further information about Highfield Park Trust.

The fact that places at the venue, limited to 70, were all booked within a period of eight days, suggests that it was an event eagerly anticipated.  Not surprising really, as one delegate told me it was such a friendly conference; another that she had met so many interesting people during the day; a third that all the visiting speakers for the next twelve months at a local group had now been secured!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Jolly music on a Sunday afternoon

If a visitor to this city inquires of you what interesting places might s/he visit, it is easy to rattle off the usual great locations, almost all of them in the centre.  Of course, if there is time to spare on a Sunday afternoon, and you've exhausted all of the garden centres with their teas and cakes, what else is there?

Here is one which even a number of locals have never heard of, let alone visited: St Albans Organ Museum.  Situated in Camp Road and adjacent to Camp School, it was created on the site of an old Goodwin and Hart building yard by one of the yard's owners, Charles Hart.  Although he was an extensive builder of houses – including most of the 1930s homes around the museum – Charles developed a keen interest in fairground rides and, in particular, the musical equipment which made visitors to the fairgrounds happy, the organs which spewed out their jolly tunes using punched hole concertina books.

Many members of the public became aware of Charles' collecting habits when the Herts Advertiser photographed a newly redundant cinema organ which he had acquired and which he needed to find space for in his yard.

Today, on Sunday afternoons you can hear the full history of the Hart collection of organs, with demonstrations from all of the collected instruments, including a few musical boxes.  The Trust which is now responsible for the collection, also presents concerts, the next being on Saturday 9th November at 7.30pm by Mr John Mann.

The mysterious story of Smith's Printing Agency, the firm which began Fleetville, takes another intriguing twist from a recent discovery, but it will require a separate blog to explain all!

Meanwhile, trawling though Herts Advertiser photographs from the 1920s, I have come across pictures taken in the accommodation at Oaklands Mansion, home of the Hertfordshire Agricultural Institute; and a gymkhana which took place in the grounds of the former Marshalls Wick House, between Marshals Drive and Sandpit Lane.

Finally, Fleetville Diaries, the local history people, have an unusual evening coming up.  Several members and friends of the group are going to tell the short story of one person on their family tree.  Inevitably, we will be hearing of unusual people, members of the family which stood out from the crowd.  Will we hear of heroes, colourful characters, or helpful lives?  More news of this event on the next blog.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Eastbourne link

Some time ago I reprinted an advertisement which had first appeared in the Herts Advertiser in 1938.  I reproduce it here.  At Smallford, during the height of the craze for speedway motor cycling, there appeared such a track between the eastern boundary of the nursery (now Notcutts) and Popefield Farm homestead.  The layout of this field and its track did appear in the 1937 OS map.

Google Earth shows what remains very clearly, as the land has not been developed since WW2, when the track was closed for the last time, and not re-opening after the war.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to reproduce that image here as there are copyright restrictions on Google Earth imagery.

The track itself seems to have been in the middle of the field, where the densest scrub grows now.  Around three sides was space for cars to be parked; on the west side cars could be parked right up to the track for an extra charge.  I have no record of which individuals or organisation owned, leased or rented the ground and organised the meetings – but someone might!  Someone might even have a copy or two of any programme printed for a meeting.

Quite by chance, in a local history organisation magazine printed recently in Eastbourne (the town the Smallford team was competing against at home in the advertisement) a detailed article appeared, giving much information about the increasing popularity of speedway, the types of motor-cycle used, and the success of the Eastbourne Speedway site at Arlington, north of the town.  The names of a few nationally successful riders were also named: Mick Murphy, Vic Huxley, Ron Johnson, George Newton, Phil Hart and George Saunders; they probably rode at Smallford in their early days before graduating onto the major tracks.

One press photo which appeared in the article is shown here, and it shows a structure which is probably similar one at Smallford.  Maybe it was for the starter?  There may also have been a platform next to it for officials.

The Smallford track will have given a small occasional income to several local people, as the car parking and other entrance fees would have to be collected, mechanics would have been on hand, and casuals would have been engaged to sweep or rake the dirt track between races.  In fact, the author of the Eastbourne article was such a person in his youth and he recalls that his position in the centre of the oval track was probably the "best seat in the house"; although I doubt whether the sweepers ever had the chance to sit down.