Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The naming of where we are

I once was approached by a perplexed motorist near my Watford home. He was looking for a place near the motorway called Watford Gap.  He was crestfallen when informed he had a long journey ahead of him!

A rather similar puzzlement comes over people when they feel there is a simple answer to the question, where exactly is Fleetville.  It is a question I am often asked.  Of course, most inquirers do know where it is – on the east side of St Albans – but like all of us we cannot be sure where its boundaries lie.

As with most smaller towns St Albans has never placed the names of its suburbs along its main roads, although Watford at one time did.  Suburbs such as North Watford, Garston and Oxhey were announced as you approached them.  A few towns provide additional information on their street plates, usually on a coloured band, so that everyone knows exactly whether you are in one suburb or another.  Other authorities use the first part of a postcode, but these only loosely define where you are.

Let's return to Fleetville.  The name is not ancient, like Sopwell; nor was it named as a developing district, like New Greens.  It seemed, instead, to be named by a growing number of people who lived close to the Fleet Printing Works which had arrived in 1897.  At this point the new works were surrounded by fields.  To accommodate some of the key employees the factory owner had houses built opposite the works which collectively were referred to as Fleet Ville (the Fleet Village).  Fleet, in this instance, was derived from Thomas Smith's other factory site, just of Fleet Street, London.  Fleet-space-ville became Fleetville by common usage within a year or two.

The next issue is whether you can draw a reasonably accurate boundary around Fleetville.  St Albans City & District Council voting wards of Clarence and Ashley together include Fleetville, but they also spread further, so those sources are probably not helpful.  Few residents north of Brampton Road will tell you they live in Fleetville.  But they probably don't live in Marshalswick either.

Possibly more Camp residents ally themselves with Fleetville, but there is a permanent difference of opinion about where Fleetville ends and Camp begins, or perhaps Camp is a part of what could be called wider Fleetville.  How far must one walk west along Hatfield Road to leave Fleetville and enter – well where? – Crown perhaps.  In the easterly direction, does Fleetville merge into Oaklands, or is there something in between?  Beaumonts maybe.

Only in recent years have local direction signs appeared pointing the direction to places such as Fleetville and Quadrant.

Naming where we live is very personal, and there are countless examples of people refusing to add a name to their address for a reason which is valid for them, but maybe not for others.  A sizeable body of residents living in Twickenham still insist they live in Middlesex, though their borough, Richmond, replaced the ancient county name nearly half a century ago.

Fleetville Community Centre informs us that their area of benefit – the area they officially serve – is between Clarence Road and Colney Heath Lane, and from Sandpit Lane to Camp Road.  So that is another Fleetville.

Perhaps our blog readers can let us know whether or not they live in Fleetville.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Smiles and whistles

Hertfordshire, and in particular St Albans, was in at the beginning of Scouting in 1908.  In fact, Hertfordshire is considered to be the first Scouting county in the world, given that so many facets of the organisation were tried out here before being taken up successfully elsewhere.

Although much has changed and there have been openings and closings of Groups (in the earliest days known as Patrols) throughout its history, including a few mergers, a number of extant groups have run continuously for all of scouting's history.  Among these we should acknowledge the 1st and the 4th St Albans.

There are groups who have opened quietly, especially during periods of scouting revival, and then become too small in number, or lacking leaders who were thin on the ground, that they equally quietly closed.

Those groups which attracted young people from the east end of St Albans included 2nd (Camp), 8th (Trinity/Camp Road), 9th (Sandpit Lane), 13th (Marshalswick), 15th (SS Alban & Stephen/Camp Road), 16th (St Paul's) and 18th (Homewood Road).

But there was another group, probably formed in the post-WW2 period, and closed by the 1990s.  That was the 12th St Albans (Cell Barnes) Group.  Little is now known about it, except for two events.

The first occurred in 1950.  The Herts Advertiser reported in July of that year that an 8-day camp was held in a field next to the Watford ByPass, for 11 Cubs, 12 Rovers and 28 other Scouts of the 12th St Albans (Cell Barnes) Group.  That is a camp of considerable size and therefore must reflect the success of the group at that time.

The book, Always a Scout, published in 1983, briefly mentions on page 41: “The 12th St Albans Group is attached to Cell Barnes Hospital.”  The use of the present tense suggests the group was extant at that date.  However, Cell Barnes Hospital had closed completely by 1998, so it is  assumed the group had also closed by  then.  

The second event was in 1965 when a number of the 12th scouts had created a small boat in the hospital's workshops.  The "three in the boat" are the County Scout Commissioner Melville Balsillie, and scouts John Sanders and and Anthony Spencer-Palmer.  Also featured are Tom McLean, Andrew Goldstone and David Polhill, scoutmaster and assistant scoutmasters of the 12th Group.

Dry land launch for the boat the 12th Scouts built.  COURTESY HERTS ADVERTISER

We know that the Scout Association has always urged that scouting is an inclusive organisation, and at the time this photo was taken Charles Cade was the Assistant County Commissioner for what were referred to as Handicapped Scouts.  It is likely that the group was begun by parents of youngsters who were part of the Cell Barnes family; this being a great way of enabling children to participate in fulfilling and active pursuits.  

The County Scout Archivist, Frank Brittain, has recently stated, "it is important that the presence of this scout troop is recorded in the history of the hospitals."  The hospitals in question are, of course, Hill End and Cell Barnes, both now closed.  But research into their respective histories is being carried out by trustees of Highfield Park Trust.

We would welcome contact with any former members of the former 12th St Albans Scouts, their supporting group of parents and friends, or former members of the Cell Barnes family, so that the life of this scout group can be recorded.  Members of the 12th, after all, "smiled and whistled*" as much as members of any other troop.

   [*This is a reference to part of the Scout Law which every member agrees to when joining the organisation.]

The usual contact address is

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Over the tracks

OS 1924 map.
The Midland Railway is laid out on a broadly north-south alignment through St Albans, and when travelling the roads in and around the city we need to negotiate the railway.  Fortunately we do not suffer the constant noose of a level crossing, but we've always had bridges: over on the bypass, under at Cottonmill Lane and London Road, and over at Victoria Street, Hatfield Road, Sandpit Lane and the King William IV.

The over-bridges have all had improvements made at some time or other, and Sandpit Lane probably the most drastic of all, considering its original width.  The "Lane", in Sandpit Lane, gives us an image of a narrow rural cart lane with wastes on each side, partly wooded and partly hedged.  At the western end it descended from the town hill before climbing again onto Hall Heath and finally descending once more onto the wider plain east of Newgates.

The map illustrates that the line of the bridge, when constructed in the 1860s, still allowed for carts and pedestrians to continue along the original route while the work took place to build it.  The original alignment was then neglected once the bridge was opened for traffic and the work completed at railway level.

The bridge today.
The bridge was wide enough for two carts to pass.  After all, it was a country lane and vehicles and pedestrians had always shared the same space.  That is how it remained until a narrow footpath was added on one side in the 1950s.  In fact, the houses fronting Sandpit Lane at the end of Gurney Court Road still have their private footpath, because none was available on Sandpit Lane itself when the homes were first built in the 1930s.

As for the traffic itself, there was light movement until Marshalswick, Newgates and Jersey farms were developed, and more latterly the business and university traffic at Hatfield.  Most of the vehicles were cars or other light vehicles, and passing over the bridge was not an issue even if two opposing vehicles were passing.  Nevertheless add cyclists to this mix and a

Private footpath through the gate.
 further proposal for two full width footpaths,  and the potential issues mounted up.

The bridge was the responsibility of the railway and, after a century of use, bearing in mind it was designed as a rural light vehicle bridge, the structure required replacement.  Meanwhile, a weight limit was imposed, which had an immediate impact on heavy vehicles, including the double-deck 354 bus.

With the railway closed work continues to widen the bridge.
So, in 1968, work began on removing the old bridge and extending the ramp, which made the approach easier for pedestrians and cyclists, the only groups of users that were able to cross while the work proceeded.  Other traffic was diverted to nearby bridges, and finally a two lane roadway of full width, plus two footpaths, was available, with better sightlines at Lancaster Road, Lemsford Road (always an awkward junction) and Clarence Road.

The widened road extends over the original alignment of the
Lane.  View eastwards from the bridge deck.
It all seems such a long time ago – nearly fifty years – but in coping with today's traffic levels it reflects the gradual change from rural lane to urban radial road, and unofficial northern by-pass   for Fleetville.

Incidentally, if anyone has a photograph of the original Sandpit Lane bridge, do please email