Friday, 30 June 2017

Nine Nine Nine

Nice surprise for St Albans folk this morning to discover in the Daily Telegraph (and possibly other papers, as well as the BBC website) a grand photo of a pre-war wooden police call box – as in telephone call.

St Albans City Police Remote Police Box 1931
The reason for this and other photos issued from BT's archives, was the 80th anniversary of the 999 emergency telephone number in 1937.  And there, above the door of the box shown, is the name of the owner: St Albans City Police.  Yes, St Albans had its own police force until after World War Two.

Before proceeding further we should clear up one or two confusions.  Firstly, the impression is given that, because 999 began in 1937 and the box looked freshly painted, the box itself also dates from 1937.  In fact, St Albans City Police invested in six of these boxes in 1931, not for the prime purpose of the public making telephone calls, emergency or otherwise, but as a remote police station in miniature, where duty constables could complete their reports and file them by phone to the station in Victoria Street.  Since many officers lived local to their patch it saved the journey into the town and back again.  Since the phone was there anyway (and an electric light and small heater) an external grill was fitted to enable anyone to call the police station directly – no dialling, you simply pressed the call button and waited for the desk sergeant or another station officer to inquire the purpose of your call.  In fact, these boxes were not technically 999 phones with a dial, but of course the police station would call out other services on your behalf as required.

St Albans City Police Remote Police Box 1931
Unlike the AA and RAC roadside boxes, where members had a Yale-like key to open the door, so that they could make their calls in the dry, only police officers had a key to the police boxes.

By 1939 it was considered that a stronger box would be required during wartime conditions, and so the wooden boxes were replaced by brick structures with reinforced concrete roofs.

The question is, where were these police boxes located?  I know of two sites: Sandridge Road (but that is a long road and a more precise location isn't yet known); and the junction of Beechwood Avenue (which had just been laid out) and Hatfield Road.  The latter was, apparently, box number 1.

St Albans City Remote Police Box 1939
The two photographs appear not to be the same box, judging from the nearby homes, and neither is the Beechwood Avenue location.  If any reader can offer the possible whereabouts of the other five boxes, or at least the locations of either of the boxes shown in the photos, that would be helpful.

Incidentally, a smaller, pillar-mounted enclosure version, introduced in 1935, included, for the first time, a blue lamp which flashed to indicated to a passing police officer to call the central police station; but of course there was no little office to shelter in!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Chalet Shops

Most railway stations are abuzz with activity aside from the coming and going of trains.  The platform leading to the exit, if it wasn't in the booking hall, inevitably has a newsagent, and there are purveyors of snacks by the thousand (snacks, that is, not their purveyors).  It has always been so.

Another trader was often to be found too, and that was the local coal company.  These have now disappeared but often their trading posts are still in place.  At St Albans City Station, when the station and its forecourt was off Ridgmont Road, Charrington's had a little brick building at the foot of the steps leading from the bridge down into the space where taxis pulled in and buses sometimes turned.  The delightful building is still there, but, as with many other coal merchants their businesses have burned out with the universal arrival of gas and oil central heating, and better insulated homes.

Charrington's, however, was not the only coal merchant in St Albans.  Until the 1960s Kendall's was based at the Fleetville Siding, and clustered around the City Station there were several other firms, generally arriving in the 1930s.  Previously they might have each had their own section of the station goods yard, with their ordering counters in various of the town's shops.

Shops with flats above had climbed Victoria Street from Beaconsfield Road towards the railway bridge by the turn of the twentieth century, but in the space between them and the edge of the railway cutting, someone decided to add yet more.  This was probably, though I can't confirm it, railway land.  Two flat-roofed single storey shops, the left one being occupied first by an optician and then by an enterprising estate agent called Graham Barnes.  The right shop was rather better known after its first occupier, a jeweller, left, because it became Tominey's Chocolate Box shop, where later the family  owned its Vaudeville Cafe.

Next to this pair was a "flat-packed" chalet with a pitched-roof, wedged into the remaining space before the edge of the almost vertical drop down to platform one (today number four).  This was for coal merchant Brentnall and Cleland.  Today it is an estate agency.

Across the road and at the top of the steps referred to above is a small chalet perched on stilts, such is the lack of solid level ground.  From memory this tiny shop was the home of Lockhart coal merchant, and later became the home of a local driving school and later still was Yeoman Antiques.

Fortunately these little former coal merchant chalets are still standing.  Not so the third building, having been removed when the station was rebuilt, in the 1970s, to the other side of the tracks, and the former coal yard access road opened up to make Station Road.  Right on the curved corner was a chalet used for a time by Martell coal merchants and Hichcliffe's.  As with the others, this chalet arrived in the 1930s, and I can recall calling in to pay for the previous delivery of coal and, because it was often possible to gauge how long five hundredweight would last, order the next five sacks.  There were times when coal could not be delivered when we wanted.  Harsh winters, miners' strikes and shortages caused by priorities being given to power stations and hospitals, all formed part of the logistics of timing we might expect something to keep us warm.

I have been searching for some time for photographs of Hinchcliffe's chalet without success.  So the call is out for anyone who possesses an image of the chalet which disappeared

!  We will see how long it takes before it turns up on this blog, or on the website.  The clock is ticking!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Portsmouth Ahoy

In the 1950s Beaumont was just an ordinary Secondary Modern School.  There were none of the modern buildings that spread around the site today; just the original brick structure, and three temporary ROSLA classroom buildings put up in preparation for the Raising Of the School Leaving Age – to fifteen.  A few students were, even then, encouraged to remain until they were sixteen, taking GCE exams.

Among the most remembered events were the school journeys.

I suppose, as a boys’ school, as it was between 1954 and 1960, it was inevitable that there would be connections with the armed services.  There had been the Sea Cadets which had met and trained at the school before removing to HMS Verulam at Westminster Lodge.  But post-war there must have been a constant requirement for youngsters to “join up” in order to replace those who had been serving in the lean years immediately after the war.

In 1959 Mr Arthur Coxall, who taught woodwork and lived in Elm Drive, organised a Monday-to-Friday school journey  to Portsmouth where our accommodation was HMS Vanguard, a battleship which was laid up in the harbour and was used, as far as I can recall, as a training and recruitment ship.  There were about twenty or so fourth years (year ten) who went with Mr Coxall and the newly appointed headmaster, Mr George Humphries.  

Quite why I became part of the group I am not sure, since I knew I had no intention of joining up as a career – even though they got you anyway at that time through the National Service route.  Nor was I a particular fan of the water.  It was one of those moments when, if your friends said they were going, that's what you told your parents, and they were supposed to agree.  Fortunately, they did, but with one caveat.  Whatever it cost I had to fund it.  So that would be another raid on my paper round income.

I cannot remember as much as I probably should for such a unique experience, but found myself enjoying the novelty of sleeping in hammocks, which were amazingly comfortable, until, that is, the ridiculously early wake-up call by the sailors who were in charge of us.  I wonder whether the teachers were in hammocks, or or whether they were afforded the luxury of a cabin?  

Naturally, we were given a tour of the the dull grey ship, and we joined in many of the mess activities: some of the best basic meals I can remember – there always seemed to be seconds available if we wanted them. Just as the sailors benefited from down-time, we also enjoyed games room activities; and instruction sessions on various topics I have long since forgotten.  Oddly enough I can recall a film night; a black-and-white feature film called Twelve Angry Men.  I imagined ships always possessing a constant background throbbing noise from its engines, but this was absent from HMS Vanguard, instead, being attached to mainland life by a cable!

Every day we skitted around the harbour in a little naval launch to various places.  There was a visit to HMS Victory, and a gunnery simulation building where we were able to score our ability to shoot simulated cannons at ships, and simulated guns at aircraft, with the winning team being awarded some kind of prize.  The Royal Marines hosted one day but I am not certain what we did with them.

I have to admit that the week was thoroughly enjoyable.  Who else went on this trip?  It will have been others who were also 15 in 1958.  Did it only happen once or was it a regular feature of the Beaumont programme in the 1950s?  What is almost certain is that the Vanguard week was the last one.  The ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1960, news which very much disappointed me.

I know, you are dying to know whether the experience changed my mind about the armed forces!  Well, no, it didn’t, and by the time I was 17 the government of the day stopped compulsory National Service, thank goodness.  I am sure that school journeys at Beaumont School have become increasingly adventurous, but we tend to remember the ones organised just for us.  It's just a shame I didn't take a camera!

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Some people like barley-sugars ...

Possibly one of the most beautiful roads leading from the town of St Helier in Jersey is the one through wooded St Peter's Valley.  But its splendour could only be appreciated when driving a car along the road; and many of those drivers were becoming more irritated as an increasing number of cyclists slowed traffic to a crawl in the uphill direction on what is a narrow roadway.  Recently, the States of Jersey has begun to make improvements; a separate foot (there was none before) and cycle path now winds its way beside the road, but separated from it by granite walls or rough timber fencing.  An aggregate or all-weather surface enables more residents and visitors to enjoy the managed woodland through shade, dappled sunlight or the muted light of the woodland edge.

Open Space at The Wick.
The former branch railway which thousands of us know as Alban Way has been walked ever since the tracks were lifted in the 1960s.  The ground on either side of the line had previously been open, managed by the railway company to ensure nothing overhung the track.  Gradually, seedlings became saplings, which became young trees, and until recently trees as old as fifty years jostled with shrubs, grasses and other ground cover until the latter were largely crowded out by the large trees, which in turn made continuing to walk the dark path less attractive for many of us, especially in the evenings when an early dusk enveloped us.  Recent work to managed the trackside was, inevitably, criticised by some walkers who had become used to the prevailing conditions.  But now that we have restrained ourselves for a season nature has painted us a new version of the canvas.  Light, has been given the chance to reach the woodland floor as a result of thinning, and the woodland floor has responded with new ground cover species probably not seen there since the 1970s.  The walkway, which had deteriorated with increased passage of feet and cycle wheels, has been resurfaced.  There has been less talk of official vandalism and more talk of a pleasant, enjoyable and even stimulating walking route, providing a quiet way to and from our city.

No doubt there are a few people who would still prefer the increasingly dark route and the adventure of donning wellington boots each time they venture into the wilds of eastern St Albans.  But then, some people like barley sugars while others prefer mints, or no sweets at all.  We all have our tastes in life.

The woodland floor may hold many secrets.
Which brings us to the subject of The Wick; a small patch of unmanaged woodland in the middle of residential Marshalswick.  It had been at serious risk of being obliterated altogether in the encroachment of the housing estate of old Marshals Wick.  However, it was rescued following a sustained campaign largely led by the local Scout movement who used The Wick for regular activity evenings.  Finally, it was acquired by Sir Arthur Peake of Wickwood House, opposite The Wick, and was given by him to the city.

When a space or a building is gifted in this manner there is an ongoing cost to the recipient.  Buildings have to be kept in good repair, open spaces have to be mown and woodland needs to be managed.  Peeling paintwork, overgrown and weed-infested open spaces and dark unchallenged woodland indicate that the gift is being neglected.  The Wick is also an ancient site and some of its ground surface shows evidence of former occupation.

To be utterly responsible for the care of the woodland, it is sensible to allow a number of specimen trees to grow more strongly, thinning unlikely survivors around it in the process.  Have you seen the extensive plantings at Heartwood Forest?  The density of the planting will ultimately result in thinning of a proportion of the trees to permit others to grown on.  Those it is proposed to thin at The Wick are non-native or invasive species which randomly arrived at some time in the past.  And as at Alban Way, ground cover species not seen in decades will undoubtedly colour the woodland floor according to their season.

There, of course, remains the question of the path.  Vehicles have required access to the open space since it became a public area; we used to watch as the gang mower trawled up and down the field, interrupting our games of cricket or football.  Its visits, and those of other council vehicles were not frequent, but presumably they were necessary.  However we think of The Wick, it is a managed space.  Public toilets, children's play area, shelter, scout hut, emergency wartime warden's post – and some residential encroachment – have all played their part in how The Wick has been used.  An aggregate or other prepared pathway winding its way from one end to the other may not be a huge priority in the entire scheme of council spending, but since it has been proposed and offered, why would we not take advantage?  Like many similar additions, they stand out boldly when new, but the path will surely blend into the landscape within a short time.  Let's continue to enjoy The Wick for what it is, a wonderful little public space which everyone can use in their own way.