Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sixty is a Memory

We might celebrate it as a diamond jubilee of events which occurred sixty years ago – 1957.  Some of us were elsewhere then, too young, or not born, to recall, others not here today to remember that year they were a part of.

If you were aspiring to purchase a home in 1957 and desired Marshalswick as a location, new homes on the Nash estate would cost you £2,500.  You would apply at the farmhouse on the part-complete estate.  This was the final full year of the historic farmhouse, before work began on clearance for the high-density developments of flats and The Quadrant shopping area.

A crowd-attracting event for supporters of St Albans Cricket Club and for Clarence Park, was a July benefit match against Surrey CC.  The benefit was for Surrey's David Fletcher, and the boundary was lined with enthusiasts on what turned out to be warm and calm weather conditions.

Sponsored by Interflora

St Albans residents were treated to a colourful advanced view of a parade float sponsored by Interflora.  It consisted of dahlia blooms from the nursery of Ernie Cooper, who had his trial grounds where Longacres Park is today.  Just imagine seeing this photo in glorious colour.

We have grown so used to the road layout as we approach Hatfield that we have no idea what it was previously like; to pass The Comet Hotel on the right; join the North Orbital Road (now Comet Way) at traffic lights; immediately join the right lane and wait for the green to enter St Albans Road at The Stone House (Galleria car park today) en-route to Hatfield centre.  In 1957 we had an additional obstruction: the contractors building our now-familiar Comet roundabout.  Cavendish Way was being constructed towards Bishops Rise – and just look how many trees are still visible.

Comet Roundabout under construction

We can't really call the section on the right Old London Road, but that is
what it is.  The print from the other side of the newsprint page shows through.

Another new road was being carved out of the fields to divert London Road, near the cemetery, towards a new London Colney Roundabout and then a new A6 bypass for the village.  Today we can still use the section where the lorries in the photo are, but it leads nowhere.  That was in 1957 too.

Now, the big news.  Well it was for some residents of south Hatfield.  On a November night a number of new houses in the district lost their roofs in the strong winds which swept the county.  Their occupants, after recovering from the shock, were found emergency accommodation, and the dreadful event was a major feature of the national news.

The scene in Shallcross Crescent, Hatfield, the following morning.
The City council announced early in 1957 that the unmade lane which was still the country route called Marshalswick Lane, was to be constructed as a proper road – but only from Sandridge Road to Furze Avenue, that part being alongside the council's own housing estate.  No further.  It would also improve the six-ways junction at the King William which had some nightmare joining and turning hazards.

A new term was launched in the district, especially among families with employees at de Havilland.  Firestreak.  This related to work being undertaken at the Hatfield site on its new guided weapons system.  That was quite a jump from the "Wooden Wonder" Mosquito war plane production line of fifteen years earlier.

Oh, and I made it to my teens.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Sutton Lakes

Topics for this blog are often prompted by a casual question asked during the course of a conversation or email inquiry.  And so it happened that Roger was puzzled that Fleetville had no station along the Hatfield and St Albans Railway which passed through the middle of the eastern districts of St Albans.  Good question, but as with many other historical questions the answer is far from straightforward.

We start with a date: 1899.  The railway had been here for more than three decades; trains passing through open countryside, using an occupation bridge to pass over a farm track which later became Sutton Road.  In 1899  housing and factory development began over a swathe of fields between Castle Road and The Crown.  Sutton Road was then on the eastern edge of this development.

Many new residents had asked for the trains to stop in the district, and the most obvious place was at a siding built to deliver coal to the factories in Sutton Road.  Station or no station; this was an issue which rumbled on for over three decades, 

In 1906 the issue became political – a nasty on-going battle between the Great Northern railway company and St Albans Rural Council (Fleetville did not become a part of the city until 1913).  Now that houses were being built and roads laid – though rarely properly surfaced – the Sutton Road bridge became a serious barrier because its very low headroom, though satisfactory for farm carts was quite unsuitable for modern traffic.  

"Sutton Lakes" before WW1.  The Lakes remained an irritating feature of
the streetscape until the road was levelled and bridge removed.
An unknown party had been given authority to dig downwards under the bridge to increase headroom, and in so doing reached the water table.  Flooding was a serious problem (it is from this period the sobriquet The Sutton Lakes aka the St Albans Lake District was invented).  The Rural Council instructed the Company to deal with the drainage problem and to widen the bridge, pave and make the road up on either side and under the bridge.  Widening in this case meant from single lane width to full road width. The company stated that in the 1860s it had been required, under the relevant Railway Act, to build and maintain an occupation bridge; after all, at the time it had been farmland.  

Every few months from 1906  the Rural Council repeated its instruction, and every few months the council failed to receive a response from the railway company, no doubt aware that these costs would be substantial for a railway which probably never ran at a profit.

By 1910 the company thought that a solution favourable to the company would be to get “the people” on its side.  It suggested that if the council would take responsibility for the drainage/flooding issue the company might look favourably on providing a station at Sutton Road in accordance with local wishes, and improve the bridge (it didn’t use the phrase “widen”).  By the word station we should probably understand it to be a simple structure with a basic shelter.  

Sutton Road, looking towards Hatfield Road, in 1954.
A sign shows a lineside site was being sold and would
become a caravan site.
There was a bit of an auction, with the council offering to pay 60% of the drainage costs; negotiations, such as they had been, stalled again.  In June 1910 company officials staged what we might today call a marketing exercise.  They boarded a train as far as Hill End, and then walked the track to Sutton Road.  Although  suggesting this was for surveying purposes, it seems clear that, because it was widely reported, it was intended to keep "the people" on-side and exert pressure on the council.

The impasse continued, nothing happened during the First World War, and there were some half-hearted efforts to pick up the issue in the 20s, including with the Ministry of Health.  The company's existing strategy then backfired.  It had been confident in selling a significant number of season tickets from Fleetville to London via Hatfield.  But that was before WW1 and the subsequent arrival of  bus services.  By the end of the 20s buses were running “frequently” along Hatfield Road to the Midland (City) Station.  The company must have realised that the people living in the homes most likely to be commuting to London lived nearer to the Midland Station and further from the proposed Fleetville Station. 

As they say, the business case no longer stacked up!   The company never mentioned the station again, but the new City Council kept plugging away, taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and by c1935 had referred the problem to the Ministry of Transport.  We are not to know, of course, the details of discussions or instructions between the company and the MoT, but a notice was finally published by the company asking for tenders to undertake certain works at the site.  This came to light in June 1939 ...

… just in time for the Second World War to stop the work dead in its single track, and as we know the post-WW2 period was a whole new world.  The locals had wanted a station of course – until something better turned up!  Why take the slow train to Hatfield and then a mainline train to the centre of Town, when a short bus hop gave you access to the direct line to St Pancras.  So, no station for Fleetville, and by 1951 the company had ceased to carry passengers on the line through Fleetville.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

East(er) End Round-up

There are times when we need an opportunity to catch up with events ...  So here we go.

We kick off with a group which has been around informally since 2012.  At Smallford the group took an interest in the vulnerable timber building which was the former ticket office at Smallford Station, located beside Alban Way and recently freshly protected.  The group, then under the auspices of Smallford Residents' Association, applied for, and received, Heritage Lottery funding under All Our Stories; the exhibition and brochure which followed celebrated the community around Smallford and the history of the branch railway line which passed through it between Hatfield and St Albans.  More recently, celebrations were arranged for the railway's 150th anniversary, and now the group is working closely with Countryside Management Service and St Albans City & District Council in the upgrade of Alban Way, including signage and interpretation panels.  In recognition of this the group has created a new organisational structure under the label Smallford Station and Alban Way Heritage Society (SSAWHS), throwing open its membership to anyone with an interest in Alban Way.  Further details will appear shortly at

Every time I visit Heartwood Forest it seems that I notice the recent plantings much as we tend to view grandchildren or the children of friends we haven't met for some while: "oh, my, how you've grown!"  And if you have heard about bluebell woods but never been stunned by the beauty of the scene others are always talking about, then make your way to Langley Wood.  Passing through Sandridge, the Woodland Trust entry and car park is on the left and the forest routes are well-signposted.  You will not be disappointed.

Recently, the front page and Info Needed pages of the website have carried an inquiry raised by a resident associated with Ashley Road Church: "Can anyone offer any information or account of the Ashley Church at the corner of Ashley Road and Hatfield Road?  Formed in 1939, a permanent building opened in 1954.  Between times the church had met in a former laundry outhouse at the end of the garden of 312 Hatfield Road.  The new church was constructed on part of a triangle of land at the road junction.  Missionary Gladys Aylward is reputed to have made a visit at some time in the 1950s.  Does anyone know if this is so, or have any details of this event, or about the church between 1939 and the present?"  The questioner beavered away and herself discovered documents which confirmed Gladys' visit in October 1955.  The documents in question were the ordinary meeting records and visitors' books kept by almost every voluntary organisation, which, when we add to the notebook page each week, we give little thought to why we are recording it.  But here we are, sixty-two years later, the books have survived and useful information has been gleaned.  Gladys' own handwriting, for a start, and an entry in two languages!  Her talk to the group was on October 26th.  Her topic was verse 17 of  the Second Book of Corinthians, chapter 2.  Fifty-one people attended, the largest audience of the period.  If we wonder why we continue to find space for such documents, it is for occasions like this!

In 1899 a plot of land was sold to the Welwyn brick making company of J Owen.  It was the site currently occupied by Ashley Road (Brick Knoll Park) business park.  The launch of the brickworks here enabled much of Fleetville to be built.  The works turned out bricks until 1948 before being taken over, first for waste disposal to fill the many pits, and then for Holloway's plant hire and Hill End concrete suppliers.  New firms, including car showrooms and Polaroid appeared from the late 1970s.  Finally, the time came to remove the remaining brickworks buildings.  The one removal which everyone will remember was the arrival of the 301st Airborne Squadron Royal Engineers one Sunday in May 1979 to detonate the demolish the 100-foot main chimney stack, in front of a considerable crowd.  The same Squadron had attended the same site in May 1954 to remove another stack of the same height.  And just across the road a chimney belonging to the Co-operative Dairy had also been removed in similar fashion.  Quite a pyrotechnic hotspot!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Engineering in the round

For a major Fleetville engineering works it has always seemed surprising that so little of its history is in the pubic domain.  Occasionally someone will reveal s/he was a former employee of the Sphere Works, a business which most of us associated with Campfield Road.

It is not just its early history which is vaguely known; a record of the nature of its activities from the 1930s onwards, and the role it played during the Second World War, which has been largely forgotten.  We are indebted to two sources, Grace's Guide to UK engineering companies, and Simon Cornwell, who has a well-documented history of street lighting, one of ELECO's specialities.

I have, of course, covered this theme previously on the St Albans' Own East End blog, when two specific topics brought it to wider attention.  The first was an alleged incident when one of the firm's demonstration street lighting clusters fell onto a parked car below; and a question included in the Info Needed on the St Albans' Own East End website, about locating a manufacturer of garage doors.  Although there was a possibility of it being the Sphere Works, there was no follow-up – until now.

Dennis, a former employee, has also been disappointed with the lack of information, and decided to record what he could remember of his former work place.  Among the products he recalled were "lamp standards with many different heads.  ELECO bought (I think) Bell & Webster which made reinforced concrete lamp posts; public footpath and bridleway signs cast in aluminium; aluminium road signs for councils; bulkhead lamps and Aldis lamps for the Admiralty; Falcon aluminium wheels for cars; bakelite cases; and garage doors."

He also recalled an impressive list of work colleagues and other members of the company: "Mr Bird, Mr Proctor and Mr Gilby (Directors); Harry Fothergill (Works Manager); Geoffrey Pruden (Technical Manager); Bill Batt (who had interviewed Dennis); Lionel Clowes (lamp head assembly foreman); Mary Zelda (lamp assembly); Barny Spicer (lighting stores); Mrs Deadman (nurse); Alfie (metal stores); Bert Bray (radial driller); Snowy (welder); Dennis (vacuum forming); Charlie Butt, Alf Guilfoyle and Les Twiddy (inspection); Tony Edwards and Ray (designers); Chris (the final apprentice); Butch (lorry driver); Bill Holland, Bill Scivier, Fred, Cliff Bond, Phil Scott, Winkel and Les Barnes (toolmakers); Tiny Hibbert, Bud Fisher and Mick Howell (capstan turners); Peter Freeman (bakelite shop); Harry (paint shop)."

Such an impressive list of names may well encourage others to engage in a conversation about Engineering & Lighting Equipment Company Limited (ELECO).

The company had begun as the Gilbert Arc Lamp Company in Chingford.  That firm had made the ornate lamps which line the Victoria Embankment; the company may have changed its name as early as 1905.  Street lighting was undoubtedly the company's most widely marketed range of products; its products being featured in many specialist journals.

Although a limited amount of historical information is circulating about ELECO there is one aspect of its operation about which there appears to be nothing.  I have seen no photograph of the works, nor of any of the processes or activities which contributed towards the wide range of products which made ELECO well-known.

Perhaps Dennis' recollections will spark the memories of other former employees.  Meanwhile, there is one published recollection which could be included on this site at a later date.

But at least, the identification of a local firm which once made garage doors, seems to have been answered: ELECO made them at the Sphere Works.  Which possibly leaves one major question: what was the origin of the company's address?  Did it have anything to do with the globes, probably made elsewhere, which enclosed the ornate lamps?