Sunday, 11 December 2016

Washing taken in

One of the helpful services which arrived on Fleetville's scene in its early days was the laundry.  One was at a house at the junction of Hatfield Road and Ashley Road – Mrs Symons, under the name Handalone Laundry – and the other at a small house almost opposite the Rats' Castle public house.  Both opened their businesses of "taking in washing" within a year or so; Mrs Symons opening first c1909 in a house newly built.

Hatfield Road looking east from Sutton Road.  Mrs Walker's cottage
and the extension beyond for the County Laundry. c1922.
However, Mrs Turner had moved into her new house right on the edge of the former Beaumonts Farm two years earlier, but she had not stayed to see out the decade.  William Moores and Arthur White kept a farrier's yard and coach repair shop behind the house – if you had looked along the drive to the left of the house at any time until the last week or so you would know nothing seemed to have changed in all that time.

In 1910 Mrs Rosa Walker moved into the little house with a bay window, and promptly opened her own washing business.  At that time there were few houses east of the Rats' Castle (which itself was not opened until 1927), and Fleetville, indeed St Albans, finished at Ashley Road; beyond was countryside.

The laundry has become The Emporium.
While Mrs Symons' laundry continued until around 1938, Mrs Walker's may have faltered soon after the start of the First World War.  Important caveat here though; given the large numbers of troops billeted in the city for most of the war, Mrs Walker may have had a successful period until the soldiers went.  What the directories are clear about is that the end of the war didn't mark a closure but a sale.  By 1922 the building had been taken over by a Hatfield firm, the County Laundry, whose owners lost no time in building a dedicated laundry building.  At the back was the boiler room, and washing and drying facilities.  The ironing department was at the front.

It wasn't an expensive building: basic walls and iron roof trusses, with large wooden window doors alongside the road.  Apart from the enlargement of the window spaces at the front and adaptation for retail use, that is how the building remained throughout its life.

In 1953 the fascia panel which ran the full length of the building, was decorated with coloured lights to celebrate the Queen's coronation and in the early sixties the company changed its name to Hatfield Laundry.  The traditional laundry style was modernised to become a dry cleaning operation.  As this required less space the eastern section was let to Charles Gentle.  His builders' merchant trade specialised, first in plumbing supplies and then in decorative tiles, being renamed Tile Depot.

Demolition behind the frontage.
Activity then returned to being rather Victorian in name and style – or you might think rather modern in having concessionary counters each run by a sole trader.  The Emporium, attracted shoppers from Hatfield Road, and it often took some time for them to appreciate there were further buildings at the rear, more recently named Ballito"s, picking up the name from a former, more famous, company nearby.  And not forgetting that, for a short time, a digital design business found a home in the old cottage.

The owners have attempted on several occasions to redevelop the site, and now demolition is finally taking place.  The laundry site is one which many might have considered ripe for development forty years ago.  Most of us will find ourselves surprised once the site is cleared; surprised to discover how extensive the premises were.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Colliding stories

We all enjoy listening to stories, and often to telling them too; it's one of the many ways we relate to each other in our families or our communities or our country.  It is also deeply connected with the celebration or commemoration of anniversaries – including the re-telling of stories.

Tasked with the need to fill a twenty-minute slot in an AGM at Fleetville Diaries, the local history group, I considered an anniversary event as the subject.  It was 76 years ago in November when the heart was torn out of the city of Coventry with an eleven-hour bombing marathon using 500 heavy aircraft.  I had intended it to be referenced to national stories, though aware that at the same time someone else was bound to be relating or remembering the same story as a local event somewhere in Coventry itself.

At the same time I had been browsing lists of surnames in family history websites, when I was handed a scan from pages of the Second World War Roll of Honour for the Civilian War Dead.  These pages referred to loss of life sustained in St Albans, both the city and rural district.  One name from this Roll of Honour also appeared in my browsing list of surnames.  Strowbridge.  To the family historian this surname, though not central to her researches, was nevertheless part of her family, but she had not thus far been able to bring her knowledge forward from the late19th century.  I therefore decided to establish whether her Strowbridge was the same family as the one of which four members  were killed in a dreadful event in St Albans.

It did not take long to confirm the connection, to build some knowledge of the grandparents, parents, children, nephews and nieces, and where and why the had moved from place to place.  In 1939 large numbers of people were on the move – young people being called into the services, far-flung members of families returning to be with each other, being ordered to specific places for work in the national interest.

The Strowbridge family arrived in this way to St Albans and moved into a rented house in Beaumont Avenue.  As other members arrived the now-extended family moved along the road to a slightly larger dwelling, where late in the evening in the middle of November, their shelter was destroyed by a stray bomb carelessly dropped on that endless commute of planes circuiting between their French bases and the city of Coventry.


So, there we had it.  Two stories, seemingly quite separate, but clashing violently here in St Albans.  Taken together it was a pin-dropping account, and that might have been the end of it.  Except that one member of the group announced that she had been there that night in Coventry; a toddler being passed out of a coal cellar of a bungalow after her family's night of hell.  My twin story suddenly found a personal embellishment; someone else's story brought together with mine so movingly.

Not heard by most of the members present was a further recollection in that period of chat at the end of the formal meeting.  It came from a member who remembers chatting to a builder undertaking some work at a nearby house in his road.  In some of the inevitable downtime during the work, the builder related that he had also worked on a re-built house in Beaumont Avenue.  He had discovered evidence of a large hole in the front garden, in which there had still been the evidence of domestic accessories, particularly pots and pans, cutlery and other items; left as it have been thrown around and damaged when the bomb had been dropped.

By the end of the evening two members of a local history group had been afforded the opportunity to  re-tell their own stories, because I needed to fill a twenty-minute slot, deciding to relate an awful event which began by not having anything to do with St Albans.
I am not confident, either, that this blog will be the end of the matter.  Someone out there may have a story which links with the above.

That is what makes story-telling so fascinating; we never know where it will lead.