Thursday, 28 February 2019

Piecing Together Another Story

The previous post told of a confirmed story with an important, though unverified, supporting element.

This time a further story appears to have verified elements, but recently new information has thrown the known story out of kilter; it is therefore important for the right account to be recorded.

The existing record concerns a building put up in a small area of cleared land at the western end of Butterwick Wood.  Today we know this land for Homebase and Alban Point.  None of the factories and warehouses in 1939 were present and, other than the clearing, the rest was Butterwick Wood.  As part of wartime preparations the government relocated many of the central London food distribution facilities.  The foods
London Central Meats in Fleetville after a rename to Baxters.
relevant to this account were the central meat warehouses.  New cold stores were built on London's fringes, including the building, North London Meat Cold Store, listed at Butterwick in 1939.  It is also believed there was a retail arm to this operation, known as London Central Meats, one branch of which was in Fleetville, next to the Post Office.  The retail operation was later purchased by Baxter's.

The meat store building shortly before demolition, the photograph being taken
from the end of the railway siding.

It is not surprising that details of wartime operations were difficult to come by, but when post-war economic activity normalised the Butterwick Meat Store lay empty before being occupied by the British Banana Company for ripening stock in preparation for distribution to local wholesalers and shops.  The building, or an adjacent one, was also home to a grocery warehouse and distribution centre by the 1970s.  The 1939 building was demolished for the layout of part of the modern industrial and business estate at Alban Point.  Several local young men have recalled their employment at the banana store and the experience of loading and unloading from the adjacent railway siding – which is also how the meat had earlier arrived.

The group of buildings between Hatfield Road (top) and the branch railway and siding (diagonally through centre of photo).  Butterwick Wood, now gone, still very much evident.  The meat store in this 1951 picture faces the railway. COURTESY BRITAIN FROM ABOVE
The new information which has come to light and not referred to previously is the possibility of the meat store being partly a cover story.  A correspondent states that he visited the "well camouflaged" building and his more detailed account is recorded on the Your Turn page of the St Albans' Own East End website.

The key surprise in his account was the meat store's purpose and function for US Army frozen supplies, the operation there being American owned and administered.  Of course, the building may well have been a dual use space.  However, this is the first occasion we are informed of the site having a US military function; slightly odd to our minds today given Hertfordshire wasn't known for its US 8th Army and/or US Air Force presence, except for Bovingdon and Nuthampstead, unless anyone knows differently.

Which is where you come in, readers.  Any confirmed and verified information would be welcome.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Piecing Together a Story

In this and the next post I'll explore further a couple of incomplete stories which have been reported and re-told, in the hope that further details might come to light.

This post focuses on a 1943 account of a military incident which, in itself, has been well-recorded and is available to view on the internet, and I don't doubt its level of accuracy, given the source –  Military History Forum. It concerns a training flight by an RAF Lancaster on 22nd October 1943.  The flight was notable for us in that the plane crashed into a field at Warren Farm near Colney Heath.  All details of the flight had been recorded, including the names of the crew of seven who were all killed in the wreckage.  Even more, the places where they were all buried.  A book has even been published of the incident.

So far the story recorded is of the flight, the plane and the crew.  But others were also part of the story, and saw or heard the event as bystanders; maybe in contacting the authorities or attempting to give assistance.  Elements of the account are circumstantial; with little or no evidence recorded.  So we would love to learn their experience in this dreadful crash.

It is alleged that a group of scouts were in the vicinity that night.  They may have been undertaking their own scout activities – night hikes, camping, wide games – or may have been present on observational duties on behalf of the Air Raid Precautions.  It is said that the boys observed the crash and how the plane presented itself after it had broken up on impact.  Exposed were the contents of the bomb bay.  The proximity of the crash to the nearby farm house and other buildings posed a potential risk to life and property, and the scouts made what might be considered by some a reckless decision; by others a selfless act of group bravery.  An unknown number of bombs were carefully removed from their splintered compartment and carried to relative safety a distance away from the flames engulfing part of the plane.

The usual post-crash evaluations were made, the remains of the plane recovered and the bodies removed from the site.  The scouts resumed their duties and presumably returned home to bed.  It would be presumed that for such service the scouts would have been honoured with a bravery award; not that the boys would have been expecting to be rewarded; after all, they were scouts.  Nevertheless, a fuss ensued in the period of time which followed.  The obvious question: why were they not recipients of an award?  The reason given was that an award was quite unnecessary as the bombs were not live, given that they had been loaded onto a training flight.  But, of course, the scouts did not know they were dummies and carried out their duties as if they handling live ammunition.

The scout element in the Lancaster crash story needs to be credited with some authenticity and so far the author has not discovered it.  Even the detailed book Milestones of 105 Years of Hertfordshire Scouting, compiled by Hertfordshire Scout Historian Frank Brittain does not relate the event.  So, now it is open to all of us to take the story further if we know of evidence.  The scouts themselves if still alive would now be in their late eighties, but their accounts may have been passed down through their children or grandchildren.

How much, if any, of the above account is true? Do respond if you have any relevant details you could contribute.

Friday, 8 February 2019

How many miles?

Find a drawing of of Dick Whittington, probably with cat as part of the story, and the picture will probably include a milestone  "How many miles to London?"  Our mind's image of any open road, in the days before motor vehicles, will probably include these stones.  Although they were likely to have been placed along some highways before the days of Turnpike Trusts in the 18th century, when it became a legal requirement to install them, it is the turnpike roads we most associate them with today where they still exist.

Here are three brief references to them on the Turnpike Road, now Hatfield Road, as it passed through Fleetville.  

From Fleetville: four miles to Hatfield, and
later 13 miles to Ware.
You have, no doubt, spotted the mile marker at the corner of the recreation ground at Royal Road.  When it was first manufactured in the 1760s it wasn't planted in this spot; it first measured the fourth mile from Hatfield about a hundred yards further east, roughly where Simmons, the baker is today in Bycullah Terrace.  Even after the shops were built c1900 the marker was tolerated in its rightful place until the 1920s – we're not sure exactly when.  It was then deemed to be "in the way" and languished in a storage depot somewhere until it saw the sunlight once more in a more convenient location.

An extant mile marker on the road to Ware,
manufactured by a different trust.
You may have thought that someone, at some time, defaced the surface of the Fleetville mile marker on the east facing panel.  Since Hatfield was the next town it is probable that this panel had always been blank.  At some time during the lifetime of the Trust it probably took over responsibility for the road onward to Hertford and Ware, and provided helpful mileage information beyond Hatfield.  Painting the details on was much cheaper than casting completely new markers, but whatever paint was used, the handwritten characters have certainly lasted much longer than the metal paint on my garden railings!

Today, it is difficult to imagine the true width of these old roads, and when we boast about the modern width of Hatfield Road it has only been engineered that way in modern times.  So here is an example of an unwidened section, although it is not in the East End of St Albans.  Almost no-one drives along the Old Watford Road today to reach that town; we have a wonderful dualled-carriageway nearby which better serves our needs.

Old Watford Road where a toll gate had been located.
In turnpike days this WAS the Watford road, and on the right in this image, where modern homes have been constructed, had previously been sited a turnpike gate, where travellers paid for the right to use the next section of road as far as Hagden Lane, Watford, or in the other direction, the Peacock PH.  There is no evidence that the road width has been narrowed since the 1880s when the Old Watford Road became a public highway.

To hear more facts, urban myths and – as Dr Lucy Worsley likes to playfully suggest – "fibs",  Fleetville Diaries has an illustrated presentation about the Reading & Hatfield Turnpike Trust on Wednesday 27th February at Fleetville Community Centre; coincidentally one hundred metres from the Fleetville mile
marker!  Further details on the Welcome page of