Sunday, 19 April 2015

A Healthy Hatfield Road?

In 1974 members of Woodville Women's Club, Fleetville, expressed serious concern about the changing nature of the businesses along Hatfield Road, worrying that "Fleetville is gradually becoming a dying area; that there will soon be no shopping centre left, as offices and banks replace shops."

Certainly, the mid-70s was a difficult time for many suburban areas, and it is true that, as business rates for city centre premises increased quickly, firms "on the edge" of financial success moved further out in an attempt to lower their overheads.  At the same time many family businesses were struggling to survive a lack of street parking, as well as the rise of larger shops in better locations accessible by car.

The mid 70s was also the final period grocery and fresh food shopping could put on a show without the intrusion of supermarkets.  But was Woodville Club right, with hindsight, to express such concern?

Both in 1960 and 1975, between Beaumont Avenue and The Crown Hotel (but not including Stanhope Road shops) there were 89 business premises which could be called shops; whether occupied as such is another matter.  Today five more premises exist which, previously, were  other kinds of premises.  Although Morrison's has been counted as one retail unit, it is functioning as a newspaper shop, cleaning shop, cafe and flower shop as well as a source of food.  The only premises not included in the survey were filling stations, of which there were up to five at the peak, though only one exists today, and factories and workshops.

It is not easy to assess what is or is not a shop.  Laundries are included because they are trading with physical products, and often ancillary products can also be purchased; betting shops are not included, as they are dealing purely in financial transactions.

In 1960 eighty-two premises could be classed as shops.  By 1975 this number had fallen to 57, and as Woodville Club members had observed, much of the difference was accounted for by banks, offices, betting shops and insurance companies.  Currently the number is 78.  Between 1975 and 2015 was another change not visible in the statistics given.  Many of the small independent grocery and greengrocery businesses disappeared as the supermarket era opened on what is now Morrison's site, but had begun with the Co-operative Society.  However, many new independents have arrived, some selling a wider range of goods for a wider cultural market.  Still related to food, the number of restaurants, cafes and take-away food shops has increased from four in 1975 to 14.  This includes three adjacent units near the Rats' Castle, the cafe in Morrison's, and the little Beech Tree Cafe at the Rec.  Fleetville Cafe is also included although we wait to discover its future.

Many changes in shopping habits were evident in the 1960s and 70s, as households' income improved, fridges and freezers were purchased, and cars enabled access to shopping experiences further away.  So 1975 certainly appeared to be a nadir for local shopping.  Today, Fleetville is probably thriving as much, if not more so, than in its between-wars heyday when the brand "a mile of shops" was applied to Hatfield Road.  And today, there are more shops opening for trading for longer days, and more days, than in 1975.

Hatfield Road, it seems, is as healthy a shopping district as ever, which just one disappointment – the disappearance of those corner shops which were useful in the side roads of Harlesden, Sutton and Castle.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Roll on; where are we?

We are very used to contract companies arriving nearby to carry out road repairs; especially major works.  But there was a time when most of this work was undertaken by what was known as direct labour.  The council, city or county as appropriate, effectively ran their own company to undertake the contracts required by the authority.

A variety of specialised machines are in use, including those whose sole function appears to be to lay out miles of cones, sometimes doubling up as giant, vehicle mounted, matrix signs.  The driver and mate occupy the cab as the work proceeds, only returning to their duties at the end of the blockade.
City Council road roller working somewhere in the city.

Life was simpler in the early twentieth century.  There were no cones, but generally there was a determination to complete the task as quickly as possible, and if a hole in the road was left overnight, a night watchman was left to supervise, with a hut and brazier.

Among the specialised vehicles then was a version of machine still important today.  The council acquired road rollers, as illustrated in the photos.  It appears that these machines were rarely photographed and it was a surprise to be sent a picture, probably taken between 1913 and the early twenties, located somewhere in St Albans.  The Road Locomotive Society would very much appreciate knowing the location of the roller when "snapped".

Modern photo of the same roller
visiting its old base in Grimston Road.
Photo courtesy SANDY ROSS.
From observation, the pavement had a blue brick surface, which was near-universal within the 1879 boundary, so, at least we can ignore the more modern suburbs.  The only other clue is that work was going on at a T or X junction.  Bearing in mind that a lot can change in nearly a century, much can also remain the same.

So, if eager blog readers think they can recognise the location, do please post a comment.  The Road Locomotive Society members will not be the only people whose minds will be set at rest.  Even if the location proves not to be in the East End of St Albans, we  know that the machine would have worked there, and from 1930 onwards was based at the old prison in Grimston Road, which is at the city end of the East End.  The former prison was the Council's Highways Depot.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

What does a trading centre need?

149 Hatfield Road with a gable bay. Courtesy BARCLAY'S.
It took a while to happen, but Barclay's was the first bank to open premises in the east end suburb of Fleetville.  Well, the Crown actually.  Alexandra House was constructed around 1912 on the corner of Hatfield Road and Clarence Road (not shown here).  Barclay's not only saw opportunities for hundreds of potential personal accounts nearby, but felt it could support the many businesses, including shops, along Hatfield Road.

Since then other banks followed, including Westminster (later National Westminster) and Lloyd's.  Jockeying for position, Barclay's vacated Alexandra House for a shop which had previously belonged to Mr Grimaldi and then St Albans Refrigeration.  From this position it stared the National Westminster in the face across the entrance to Sandfield Road.

Same shop converted for the bank. Courtesy BARCLAY'S
So where are these banks today?  In spite of increasing business activity the banks have retreated to their city centre hot-spots.  Although Barclay's and Lloyd's have strongholds at The Quadrant.

Recently, Barclay's opened another facility, online this time.  Not the usual website banking outlet, but an archive in which it has deposited a number of its own photos to remind us of the great days of banking.  In addition to a 1935 shot of Alexandra House, there appeared before-and-after pictures of the bank's move to 149 Hatfield Road (right), together with a peep inside at what, in the main branches at least, would be known as the banking hall.

Comparing the before-and-after shots reveals just how dramatic the changes to the building were, not only to the frontage at ground floor level, but it involved the complete removal of one of the full-height bays (today there are just two left in this block).

The banking hall at 149 Hatfield Road.  Courtesy BARCLAY'S
For those who recall the days before patrolling police officers had radios, you will be delighted to spot the pillar on the street corner which contained a telephone handset and a flashing beacon to alert attention.  Then of course there was an example of one of the city's first roads to have sodium street lighting installed in 1938, much hated at the time.  It has taken another three-quarters of a century for the softer (and more energy-efficient) LED to be recently installed.

Barclay's at The Quadrant had to wait to expand into a second unit; but just look at the curved counter in the banking hall.  Remember it anyone?

The brand-new banking hall at The Quadrant in the mid-1960s.
Courtesy BARCLAY'S.