Thursday, 22 February 2018

On Your Bike

Council houses appeared in St Albans following the First World War – the much famed Homes for Heroes.  Council houses were also built after the Second World War, though not before the city's allocation of the innovative prefabs, a few of which still remain.  The council homes built by St Albans City Council in the late 1940s and throughout the fifties, had to serve many purposes: the post-war settlers, new families enabled by returning soldiers, sailors and airmen; and of course to enable occupiers of unfit dwellings to upgrade so that old streets could be redeveloped.

Proud father at the new Drakes Drive home.

A significant opportunity for the council came with its 1930s acquisition of Little Cell Barnes Farm and land on the former Cunningham Hill Farm.  It is not clear what instructions it may have received from the Government, but the result was a formal communication to six London boroughs to identify suitable of their  tenants on the infamous housing waiting lists to relocate to units  on the London Road estate in St Albans.  Not all of the selected boroughs participated, and most of the rest found it difficult to fill their quotas, mainly because of householders' commitments to their local workplaces. Nevertheless sufficient homes were let under the scheme for St Albans Council to deem it a success.

Hard work pays off for dad in the best kept garden

Until recently I had met no family with any connection to this scheme, but have recently been in contact with the son of one former north London family who recalls the migration to Hertfordshire very well, and with the aid of a few great pictures.

John's father had already committed to work in St Albans, cycling 20 miles each day to work at the Salvation Army Musical Instrument Works in Campfield Road – and then of course, 20 miles home again.  That is some commitment!  Later he then upgraded his transport to a BSA Bantam, and then discovered the relocation scheme.  Of course, there was no problem in applying for a house in the newly laid Drakes Drive.

A view across Drakes Drive towards Little Cell Barnes Farm.

When the family moved in during 1956 John's father lost no time in taking photos.  Council houses of the time had a simple elegance about them, the cost kept down by straightforward lines and absence of detail; but generally room sizes were generous, as was storage space.  But you didn't expect to walk in to fitted kitchens with appliances installed, or gardens pre-laid to lawns with soils ready to plant.  To encourage tenants to make their plots look attractive at the front and purposeful at the back, the council organised "best kept garden competitions".  Not all took an interest, but John's father needed no encouragement and produced prize-winning results.

Looking towards Hill End and a chicken field.

Primary-aged John could look out across Drakes Drive to the undeveloped fields of the chicken farm at Little Cell Barnes, the cottages at the junction of Cell Barnes Lane, and, a little later and further along the road, a start on the building of Francis Bacon School, finally occupied in 1961; a school he was destined to attend.

Francis Bacon School in build 1960.

John and his family therefore joined a large number of families to put down their roots in St Albans at the same time, having become yet another family whose London origins have become welcome St Albans settlers.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sweets and planes

While many of us are vague about where Fleetville's boundaries lie – because there never has been a defined place called Fleetville – the wider East End of St Albans IS more accurately delineated, as the author has taken it to refer to the boundary of the parish of St Peter east of the Midland railway.  St Peter, that is, before the daughter churches of St Luke and St Mark were created.  So, in the two books and on this website we are interested in parts of Hatfield too, because they were also part of St Peter's parish.

Correspondence from people having a direct family connection with the East End, or who once lived here, regularly flows in; although not all of it results in entries to the website or blog.  But one email, and then another, has created a connection between a small Fleetville sweet shop, a major wartime factory and the city of Seattle.
William and Clarice Grace at a local event.

Let's begin with the sweet shop.  Generations of children down to the 1970s will remember their top-up point in Bycullah Terrace next to the grocer on the corner of Woodstock Road South and Hatfield Road.  These shops had various owners, and so we may have known them by different names.  Before and during World War Two the grocer was Bennington's (Leslie Bennington) and the sweet shop Blakeley's (Mrs Blakely).  When Peace returned Mr Dixon took over the grocery and William Grace became custodian of the confectionery – which also sold ice cream, tobacco products and toys.

In an earlier or later occupation we might image Mr Grace to have been a wholesaler; the local wholesaler for the trade was J B Rollings, and William Grace used this firm to supply his shop.  Or perhaps a travelling salesman.  Several of these plied a regular trade around the shops; one, whose name I now forget, lodged with us for a few days at a time in the 1950s, and could well have been the same trader who visited William Grace's shop and who delighted his children with new toys whenever he walked through the front door.

Mrs Blakeley outside the shop before Mr Grace took over.
William Grace and his wife Clarice had, instead, probably considered their new chosen way of life to be far more relaxed than they had experienced in the previous decade or two.  William's connection with a major wartime factory was, of course, de Havilland's.  For our younger viewers of this blog DH's was located on the present business park and university campus adjacent to Mosquito Way (a clue there!)

The junction of Woodstock Road South and Hatfield Road
in 1964. Mr Grace's shop is the second in line.
He had begun his career with the company when it was at Stag Lane, Hendon, and moved with them to Hatfield when the firm expanded.  William advanced to be a senior production manager when manufacture of the Mosquito aircraft stepped up in the early war years.  

1940 bomb damage at the de Havilland factory.
Of course, the Hatfield buildings were a target and part of the site was bombed in 1940; William being one of many employees injured.  He continued with the Mosquito project until the extensive layoffs as Peace returned, at which point he spotted an opportunity and chose to sell sweets in Fleetville.

Aircraft, however, was in the family blood.  The youngest of William and Clarice's children, Ian, also had an aeronautical career in the RAF and in the United States and has acquired a small collection of DH Moth small aircraft.  In memory of his father Ian has created a webpage which can be seen from

William Grace's story will be featured on the website in the early Spring.