Friday, 30 March 2018

Pothole Alley

With a title such as this you could be preparing to read a thoroughly modern story about the state of our roads and the inadequate amount of funding available to do a proper job in maintaining  thoroughfares and residential streets.

The state of our roads debate is probably as old as the proverbial hills.  Hatfield Road is in a variable condition at present, with entire slabs of macadam broken away like giant broken biscuit, and a few jolts here and there sufficient to wake a dozing passenger.

In the years leading to 1881 there were reports of a similar neglect of the road's condition, complaints at the authority responsible for receiving funds through the turnpike tolls, and then not spending it on repairing the road.  

The Reading & Hatfield Turnpike Trust was not considered to be very effective body at the best of times, but it did its best, at least until its final few years when closure was inevitable and take-over by a public authority.  Neglect set in, and it's anyone's guess where the income was spent.  The pictorial evidence?  The 1870s and 1880s are within the realm of early photography, though not with the popularising of techniques thirty years later.  Nevertheless, no identifiable early plates appear to have survived, if they were ever produced.  We might otherwise be able to publish spot the difference images in the newspapers!

There are many residents who will recall other potholes, although at the time of their experiences the route was on private land along a permissive way.  Who remembers The Ashpath, aka The Cinder Track?  A cart driver originally beginning at Hatfield Road, opposite Beaumont Avenue, would be pitched and jolted on his vehicle all the way to a bend close to the present Cambridge Road.  The only relief came when the horse pulled the load up the steeper gradient to pass a humped railway bridge (its modern version still takes traffic across the former railway across Ashley Road).  

When the homes on the Willow estate were built in the early 1930s the first section of the Ashpath was made up.  Our memories remain, however, of the next section.  It was wide, but there was a fearsome collection of variable holes along the whole length of the road.  After rainfall it was not possible to walk in a straight line for more than a few yards.  

Modern factories replace old Nissen huts near Hedley Road; the
former brush factory to the right, behind the hedge.

The owner, Thomas Kinder, had died in 1881 (coincidentally the year the nearby Turnpike was taken over), and from then until the 1960s when the City Council created a road out of the mess, it appeared to be no-one's responsibility.  Holes were occasionally filled with ash from the brick ovens on the east side.  Which brings us neatly to the same question posed above.

The first modern building along the Ashpath replaced the
former Owen's brickworks.
What visual evidence remains of the Ashpath as it used to be between the early 1900s until the 1960s?  The brickworks and subsequent quarry holes, eventually used for tipping rubbish?  The brush factory spewing out wood shavings and sawdust beside the track?  The large Nissen huts between Hedley Road and Cambridge Road, both of which joined the Ashpath in an uninviting way?  The ancient oak tree, only recently removed?  The bend where the path continued to the entrance of Hill End Hospital?  The latter remains as a much narrower way than in its earlier days.  Or the temporary pedestrian bridge slung over the cutting while the old bridge was being replaced?  Finally, where is a photograph of the brickworkers' cottages opposite near the end of Cambridge Road?

Photos of modern industrial estates are all very well.  But those irritating obstructions along pothole alley and the activity which grew up around them, are now limited to descriptions on the page.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Just Dropping In

While in London recently I took the opportunity of calling in at the refreshed IWM London.  Not familiar with the name?  We all used to know it as the Imperial War Museum; IWM also has a new museum in Manchester.

Museums can be explored with a broad brush, of course, but if you have sufficient time, or simply come across some little detail you can come away feeling very satisfied.  One gallery, Secret War, is devoted to the undercover world of espionage and covert operations.  One display lists the locations of spies who were subsequently picked up during World War Two.  I didn't need to read through the entire list, as the names Tyttenhanger and London Colney stood out clearly from familiarity.  So, let's spell out the details of the event and then return to that information I had previously acquired.

Karel Richard Richter
German from Czechoslovakia
Landed by parachute at
Tyttenhanger Park
London Colney, 13 May 1941
Arrested at Tess Road police station
Hanged 10 December 1941

What, then, was the story?

We start with the police station in Tess Road.  The road is now Woodstock Road south, and the station, in a pair of former houses now demolished was on the site of the present nursery car park.  This was a base for Hertfordshire County Police (the city police station was in Victoria Street).

Now demolished Wireless Station in Smallford
A war reserve constable, Alec Scott who lived at Colney Street, had the regular duty of keeping guard outside the wireless station in Oaklands Lane, Smallford, now replaced by the Radio housing estate.  When cycling home from duty late one evening he came to London Colney roundabout.  A lorry driver asking which road would take him to London, from a stranger waiting to use a phone kiosk, became suspicious about the man's accent.

The roundabout was more of a square-about in those days, had no dual carriageway, or bypass around London Colney.  The phone box was immediately to the south of the roundabout, alongside High Street.

The stranger had been dropped on the previous day and had hidden in woodland near Tyttenhanger Park, just in case his parachute had been spotted.  He had his essential gear, including wireless set, in two suitcases!  The parachute wasn't noticed, but his presence at the roundabout was.  The lorry driver passed on his suspicion to Constable Alec Scott, who questioned the stranger outside of the box, there being a caller inside – at 11.45pm.  Apparently the stranger, who was later revealed as a spy, stated he was waiting to call a hospital about his injured leg.  Constable Scott took the matter into his own hands and said he would notify the hospital on behalf of the injured party.  Good policing!  Once inside the kiosk, though, he called the Fleetville police station for back-up instead.
Much enlarged London Colney roundabout. The phone box was located at the
entrance to High Street off the picture to the right.

Karel Richard Richter was formally arrested and searched at the station, then questioned.  He was sent for trial and removed to Wandsworth Prison, from where he was later hanged.

The full story wasn't made public until 1958 when an article appeared in the Herts Advertiser (August 8th).  

Revealing a story can happen when, 77 years later, an inquisitive visitor to a museum spots a familiar landmark in a list.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Decidedly Dodgy

There are unusual stories behind many facets of life, if only we knew where to look.  And in this case we need to look upwards.  Even then it would be difficult to notice any mismatch after nearly eighty years.

So, what might we be looking at, and where?  In this case we are looking at a group of semi-detached homes in Woodland Drive, which were constructed by the building firm of Arthur Welch.  As they were completed between 1938 and 1940, their first occupants will have felt proud to finally own their own castle.

The little story which follows is recalled as a result of old documents which have been retrieved; the kind which include letters, copies of forms, orders and receipts, from people who never threw anything away!

There wasn't an extensive aerial bombardment in St Albans during the Second World War, so those events which did exist definitely stood out, and one in November 1940 obliterated one house and severely damaged three others in Beaumont Avenue.  Four people lost their lives, either at the scene or later in hospital.
"For taking down and rebuilding dangerous chimney."

During the months which followed the householders in nearby Woodland Drive north began to notice something awry with the chimney stacks connecting the kitchen solid fuel boilers at the side of the properties.  A number of cracks began to appear; although in a few cases these cracks failed to materialise until later in the war or afterwards, even though there were no further bomb drops in the area.

Was this a weakness in the workmanship of the building company?  Or was it the Beaumont Avenue bomb blast which weakened the structures?  Of course, the builder blamed the war, and the local representative from the War Damage Department claimed a construction fault that today might have been rectified under the NHBC ten-year guarantee.

£13 in 1947.
Each householder was responsible for making his own damage claim, and inevitably not all did, partly because of the complexity of everyday bureaucracy during wartime and partly because damage, which relied on ground-level observation, did not become evident until many years later.

Once started, an inspection took place, followed by an application for permission to undertake remedial work – materials and manpower were in short supply even in the early years of Peace.  If approved, the householder then engaged a builder to provide an estimate of cost.  The War Damage Department then spent some time deciding whether the cost was within the approved limits; if so, giving its authority to proceed with the repair.  However, the bill, paid for initially by the householder, was sent to the approved insurance company.

Sorry, you're too late!
However, the householders who applied later discovered one expensive truth, no doubt contained in small print somewhere: there was a time limit on applications for war damage.  As the official letter, dated exactly seven years after the bomb, stated, the householder at number 57 was too late.  He had to bear the £13 cost of re-constructing the chimney himself.  Of the fourteen homes it is not known how many householders made applications, but most of the chimneys had been renewed by 1960 and only two or three original chimneys remained.  They seem to have survived!

Today, of course, it is likely that none of the chimneys are still in place, gone when extensions were added or modern heating systems made the chimneys unnecessary.  But if they had survived, and you looked upwards, it is just possible that you might notice a more modern piece of brickwork than the age of the house might suggest.  Ah well!