Sunday, 26 October 2014

Exhibitions and conferences

The group of volunteers who have been researching the community of Smallford and the history of the branch railway between Hatfield and St Albans, celebrated a significant milestone last Wednesday.  At the University, where many meetings and workshops have been held during the past two years, we all gathered for the 'big reveal': the exhibition called Bringing The History of Smallford Station to Life.

It was appropriate that the celebratory evening was held at the University, the home of the Heritage Hub, which has provided so much support to the project.

This was the first occasion on which members of the project team were able to see the compete range of the research to which they had contributed, and the first occasion for their guests as well.

Although there is no immediate prospect of the exhibition being available for a season, there will be 'pop-up' opportunities at other events during the coming year.  We will publicise these pop-ups on the SAOEE website.

Yesterday, another significant event took place at Verulamium Museum: the fourth in the series of Autumn Conferences arranged by the St Albans & District Local History Network.  Over fifty representatives of local history organisations and groups came together to hear presentations by specialists in their field, on a coin find in London Colney, St Albans boundary extensions, the University's Heritage Hub, the role of Scouts during WW1, activity in the city during the 18th century, a report on the Museums' collections, a biography of John Griffith, and the history of Rothamsted Manor.

The Network is a loose amalgam of those people who have an enthusiasm for their local history and environment, whether they are part of a group or organisation, or whether they are keenly interested on a particular project, working on their own.  We do not 'belong' to the Network, but by contacting the organising committee on you can add your contact details to the database, which is used to communicate details of events, queries about aspects of research, and of course details of the Autumn Conference each October.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

New Generation Oaklands

The name Oaklands first became a location on the east side of St Albans in the early 19th century.  Before that the buildings, no longer extant, had been known as Three Houses at least as early as the 14th century.  William Knight purchased the land and that part of Oak Farm on the south-east side of Sandpit Lane, on which to built his mansion and establish a farm.  It is possibly the Oak Farm stub that gave Mr Knight the idea for the name of his mansion.

The mansion ceased to be purely residential at the outbreak of WW1, when Italian POWs were based here, as well as troops in training.  After the war the entire site came into the ownership of Hertfordshire County Council as an agricultural institute, later college.

Since WW2 there have been countless re-organisations of tertiary education and the current version is an amalgamation of several former colleges under the unfortunate name of Oaklands.  I only say unfortunate, because a multi-campus institution with the umbrella name of one of its, then, non-central locations, has inevitably confused large numbers of potential students and visitors, requiring the Oaklands site of Oaklands College to have the subordinate title of Smallford Campus, even though it is not in Smallford.

Detail of part of the south elevation at Oaklands Mansion.
The college's move from central St Albans to its new hub at "Smallford Campus"  involved a substantial upgrade of existing buildings, and  the construction of new ones too.  The plans had been agreed, and funding prepared, by the previous government, but the present government removed funding support as part of the austerity plans, which rather left the college searching for solutions.

Although the answer was seen in the development of part of its estate for housing, in fact housing had always been part of the mix, although not quite as extensive as now intended.

The residential proposals are controversial for three reasons: firstly because most of the estate is within the metropolitan green belt; secondly, because it has been recognised as a site for future housing in the new draft District Plan, now out for consultation.  Finally, it is controversial because there are residents in modern houses nearby who thought they would always look out onto green pastures, and now find that they may not.

The new District Plan does identify the proportion of the entire estate to be used for housing, and identifies a need for a two-form-entry primary school.  This in itself is interesting because the residential proposals would not, by themselves, require a 2FE school.  The cushion, presumably, is being provided because there is little flexibility within the remaining schools to the east of the city; will provide places for Smallford children, who currently have no nearby school; and possibly the council is looking towards the two other substantial housing proposals: Coopers Green Lane and Little Nast Hyde.

The rather neglected East Drive and lodge.
What possibly exercises the minds of many people already living nearby is the capacity of Hatfield Road and Sandpit Lane to cater for the number of new homes and their occupants' cars.  The District Plan does raise this issue, and the need to make improvements, but the only specific reference is to intersections.  The is no detail on the need to increase the capacity of these key arteries.

It is clear that with the current university population, the planned student/tutor increase at Oaklands College, the new homes destined for Beaumont's south field, and the three residential developments mentioned, it is not just higher-capacity roads and improved junctions which will be required.  These roads lead to other places, especially the centre of St Albans.  What will be required is a sustainable transport policy; a different approach to travelling.  Otherwise travelling is the last thing we will be doing in our cars.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Council and its acquisitions

I have recently received a very interesting question about what the Council did, or proposed to do, with land which it acquired by purchase or by gift.  The inquirer was particularly interested in Fleetville Recreation Ground.

In 1913 Charles Woollam acquired the remains of the former field which was not required by the executors of T E Smith, of the printing works which stood where Morrison's supermarket is now.  The field was one of three owned by St Albans Grammar School (Abbey Gateway), and by buying it from the school Charles Woollam, a governor of SAGS, was helping to swell the building fund for the new school buildings.  The field had probably remained unused for a decade, although stacks of bricks had been kept there during the period of building operations in the previous decade.  By 1913, it was probably weed infested and in poor condition.

Before the council had the opportunity do anything with it to turn it into a recreation ground, as intended by its benefactor, WW1 had begun and priorities changed.  Increasing amounts of land were pressed into service as emergency allotments, but recreation grounds and parks were generally not affected.

Of course, by 1918, the food situation was more critical than ever and we can only speculate on why Fleetville rec was still not used; after all, it was still not fit to be used for its new purpose – maybe it was being held strategically for use as a last resort. The council knew it would have to clear and seed the ground at some point, although it had proposed to turf it.  A nearby resident certainly thought it was a waste not to use the ground for allotments in the short term. 

There is also the question of the legality of the council using such land for purposes other than that which its benefactor had intended.  Charles Woollam did indeed place covenants on the transfer of land (to prevent the council using it for housing, for example).  However, the government gave local authorities permission to waive such covenants during the two wars.  This is the reason why the present Fleetville Community Centre was able to be erected as a wartime nursery by Hertfordshire County Council.  This also raised an interesting question afterwards; because the emergency nursery continued to be used for educational purposes – and it still continues to be partly used for that purpose today.  The covenant on that part of the rec has lapsed by continuous usage and is therefore no longer active.  

Hay was a standard means of continuing to make practical use of land in an interim.  When the council purchased Hatfield Road Cemetery field, hay money was earned for some years around the early graves, and this would have been considered legitimate as it helped to defray costs otherwise paid for by ratepayers.  The council would not have seen this as making a profit, simply as making a temprorary income to support that from the domestic and business rate.  The council also owned farms around the district, including, from 1929, what is now Verulamum Park.  Income was obtained from all these locations.  Hay was not obtained from the Fleetville rec field as its condition was probably too poor at the time the council took it over.  But hay was obtained from part of the recreation (front) field of Clarence Park during the first few years.  I suppose that the modern-day equivalent to hay money would be the collection of car parking charges!

Today transfers to the council – now usually by developers as part of 106 funding and other measures – often include elements to cover maintenance for a given number years.  In this way the newly acquired facility is not an immediate drain on rateable (counci tax) income.  In all these matters it is not the council’s money; but our money (either through council tax or national tax) which the council spends on behalf of everyone who lives and/or works here.