Sunday, 19 July 2015

Mind your head!

Last week the British Film Institute launched its online Player, having digitised hundreds of community films which are now available for us to see when we want to, rather than being inaccessible in film vaults.  The East Anglian Film Archive was probably one of the first to begin collecting amateur footage (although someone may be forced to correct me on that information).

It did not take more than a day or two before emails began arriving asking whether I had seen a film taken of St Albans in 1954.  I hadn't then but I have certainly viewed it now, and what a little treasure it is.  I have selected one screen shot which demonstrates what difference 61 years can make.  Many of the film's scenes might have been taken recently, if we ignore the clothes people are wearing and the cars being parked or driven.

But this one is very different.  When anyone now talks about the Sutton Road railway bridge most of us have to rely on the briefest of recollections, or use the notion of a simple bridge slung across a road with a steam train passing over; we just have no memory of it at all.

So, let me take you to the site.  Sutton Road, where the Alban Way crosses between the Morrison's side and Coach Mews.  Ordinary road, level, good sightlines, no overhead obstructions.  What's the problem?

Former Sutton Road railway bridge looking towards Hatfield Road.
Courtesy British Film Institute and East Anglian Film Archive.
Now wheel back the decades and pause on 1954, and look at this photo.  I know, that cannot possibly be Sutton Road, can it? But it is.  Of course the bridge abutments have been removed to enable a gentle slope to be excavated down to road level.  But look at the sign which warns of a ten feet headroom.  Then the dip carved out of the road; without that hollow the headroom would have been more like 6 or 7 feet, which is all that would have been needed for a mid-19th century private farm track, which is what Sutton Road was.  The road on both sides was full width after the houses arrived, and for decades a battle of words ensued between the railway company and the council to have the road under the railway bridge widened, and paid for by the Great Northern.
Some of us may have been told of the frequent flooding at the bridge, partly resulting from run-off from Hatfield Road, partly because cutting down into the ground brought the water table perilously close to the surface.  Welcome to the Sutton Lakes.  That's what many locals called this little spot during wet weather.

When this scene was taken the year was 1954; passenger rail services had stopped in 1951, but freight traffic – mainly coal and scrap – continued well into the 1960s.  As soon as the line was officially closed the bridge deck was removed, but it was still a while before the re-levelling and widening of the road took place and you could drive a bus along Sutton Road.  Not that one ever was driven along the road (unless you count the buses which turned into Sutton Road from Hatfield Road and reversed into Castle Road before making their return journey 'into town'.

This picture is a historical gem from a notorious little corner of St Albans' Own East End.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Getting engaged

No, not engaged to be married, but engaged with a particular interest group.  Choose an interest, any interest or activity, and there will probably be a group we could join somewhere in the St Albans district.  If not here, perhaps within a five mile radius of the Town Hall.

An increasing number of us are taking an keen interest in local history, or our family's history; and that's great for this blog, the website St Albans' Own East End, the local history group Fleetville Diaries, and for the St Albans & District Local History Network.

The Network will this year celebrate its fifth birthday.  It throws a bash each October at Verulamium Museum, but, of course, the nature of the event is in the form of a one-day conference.  This year's conference programme was published on Friday last, and what a variety of topics will be covered.

Smallpox in St Albans, investigating the local story (Elanor Cowland, former curator, Museum of St Albans)
Agincourt Veterans in St Albans (Peter Burley)
Medieval Lives and Liberties (Elizabeth Adey)
"Look What We've Found" (Catherine Newley, Curator, Museum of St Albans)
School Log Books: a Rich Resource for Local Historians (Patrick McNeill, Wheathampstead)
Archaeology and Town Twinning (Brian Adams)
Vickers Experimental Tank (James Brown)
Flicks in Fleetville (Mike Neighbour)

If you are unfamiliar with the term flicks, those of a certain age and urban upbringing will have referred to a cinema visit as "going to the flicks"  after the irritating flickering experience sometimes noticed on the screen.  Of course the observant will already have noticed that this presentation is offered by the author of this very blog!  If, by any chance, you are puzzling over where "the flicks" might have been in Fleetville, then book your place now for Saturday 17th October, 10:30 to 16:30 at Verulamium Museum.  Booking is essential as the number of places is limited.  Email

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Soup, Soap and Salvation

General William Booth
One hundred and fifty years ago a couple made history.  Through the dedication of Catherine and William Booth was formed the East London Christian Mission, which was later re-branded The Salvation Army.  It was in the earliest days that the Mission, serving the poorest and most desperate families of Mile End, that the motto "soup, soap and salvation" summed up its prime function.

While, today, we see the SA as a benevolent organisation with a huge international reach and wide-ranging support networks, the early days were very different.  Through its street work campaigning against the effects of alcohol, such was its success that street riots broke out, often at the behest of breweries and publicans, whose trade was negatively affected.

Courtesy Salvation Army
Courtesy Salvation Army
The Salvation Army is well known for two publications, which it printed at Mile End: The War Cry and Junior Soldier.  With the increasing volume of copies produced each week, production was moved to St Albans, and soon afterwards its musical instrument works also moved next door, in Campfield Road; neither building exists here today.  But The War Cry does, and Junior Soldier has a modern offshoot, KidsAlive.

The organisation's main base in St Albans, its citadel, is in Victoria Street.  It had arrived in the city to carry on its evangelising work, and in 1883, purchased the former private baths and swimming pool site in that road. Later the structure was rebuilt with a fine frontage.  But the Army encountered the same battles here as elsewhere, and police had to be marshalled to quell the frequent riots.

The Salvation Army had other sites in the city too.  The little church on Camp Hill was opened by the Salvation Army as a Sunday School in the late 1950s, having borrowed other accommodation in the interim.  A site in Fleetville had been acquired from the brewery Benskin's.  Now, that WAS a coup!

The printing works after extensions in Campfield Road.
Many people living in St Albans, whether or not they worked at the printing works, felt the Army was part of their lives.  Its brass band turned out at the then-new housing estates in rotation, and I recall it playing on Sunday afternoons on spare ground at the junction of Central Drive and Woodland Drive.  On Sunday evenings, whether they had cycled or walked, the band finished up in the Market Square outside the (old) Town Hall, band players playing and songsters singing, the familiar gusto hymns we knew from our own churches and schools.
The Citadel in Victoria Street.

If we lived in the Camp and Fleetville districts we all knew at least one Salvation Army family, and possibly several.

Today the Salvation Army may appear to be a very different kind of organisation from the traditional one some of us remember, but if there is one service the Army has always been known for it is putting in touch parents and their offspring when the latter have encountered issues which resulted in them leaving home and tearing apart from their roots.

On this one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, happy birthday Salvation Army.