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!

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.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Playground Closed

It's been going on forever; someone buys a piece of ground on which to build a house – or something else – and brings the materials and tools for the building.  At the end of day one he leaves for home, and then returns for day two.  The process continues until the structure is finished.  From time to time people pass by, show an interest or stop to chat, and then move on.  Occasionally a piece of wood or metal which has been discarded as waste will lie nearby, and an informal permission will be obtained for its removal to be used elsewhere.

Before WW1 part of a field in Fleetville was stacked with bricks brought for use in nearby house-building.  A number of children who were swiftly populating the district used the space around those brick piles for informal games of football; maybe even borrowing a few bricks for temporary goal markers.

In the 1930s, married couples in search of a new home wandered the building estates on Sunday afternoons, entered the partly completed homes through spaces which would later become front doorways, and assess the possible suitability for them and their growing family.

Families who had come from London at the end of the Second World War, and whose children had become used to playing on bomb sites, saw the partly finished Fleetville homes as just another playground site; and so we all discovered the joy of exploring, climbing, jumping and leaping, making inventive use of the levels, spaces and materials at hand.  No-one was given permission, but on the other hand, no-one told us not to, or if they had we had  discovered the art of selective hearing!

Open building site at Jersey Farm
Naturally there were occasions when an accident occurred and a child returned home with a cut knee or even a fractured arm; and there were Monday mornings when the builder called the local police station to report a door missing, or a couple of planks of wood that had been present the previous Friday.  No doubt the police would have advised the builder to lock items away, and almost certainly the retort would have included the phrase, "it's a building site, not an occupied house."  

It probably did not happen quickly, but there began a time when building sites were found with chain link fences around them, and wide gates with padlocks.  Possibly under pressure from insurance companies.  Then signs warning of hard hat regulations.  More recently one or more people  on site did no building at all; this was the security department; no-one passed in or out except via security and their signature forms and walkie-talkies.  All very efficient, but children's adventure was denied.

Marketing panels in Sutton Road.
But have you noticed?  Many building sites have become artistic marketing devices for what is being constructed, whether for apartments, offices or shopping opportunities.  The old-fashioned chain link fences are now replaced by solid – and often higher – panels with colourful designs, pictures or sales advertisements.

Night watchman.
Everyone is shut out; safe and healthy has become health and safety.  Even the old-fashioned night watchman and his hut and brazier has disappeared.  Youngsters out in the early summer evenings, or walking back from friends or events might have stopped to talk to him.  But there are now far fewer of us who remember such transitory individuals occupying our neighbourhood.  Every building site is now most definitely a no-go zone.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Travelling East

A January walk along country lanes and footpaths can be bracing in the windy sunshine on biting cold days.  Yes, really!  As we pass by or across field after field we are not necessarily aware which farm or farms manage each patch of land.  After all, there's no sign to inform us.  Once former farms have become part of the urban landscape we are even less certain, as there are no clues left to former fences and hedges.

One farm boundary had been near the top of the rise just eastwards of Beechwood Avenue.  Unless we had an old map to hand we would not have known; the land to the south of Hatfield Road from that point eastwards until reaching the industrial estate on the other side of Oaklands, belonged to Hill End Farm.  Until around 1920 it was owned by the hospital authority of the same name, but being far from the hospital buildings it had no use for the fields sandwiched between Hatfield Road and the former branch railway.

Detached homes along Hatfield Road between Oaklands and Butterwick industry.
Houses had already stretched out of the city along the main road towards Beaumont Avenue in the early 1920s and Hill End's opportunity came to sell plots for housing development.  During the next fifteen years a variety of people chose their plot and built their house or bungalow.  There was no sense of creep along the road; plots were built on randomly, with sometimes large spaces of overgrown grasses and shrubs between, at least for the first few years..

One difficulty was the depth of land between the road and railway, which was too long for a house and garden, leaving some awkward backland behind, which was not easy to access.

Although one or two attempts were made to fill in this backland before World War Two (the Willow estate and at Longacres), solving the backland issue began in earnest from the 1960s.  This included developers purchasing the bottom ends of long gardens, such as at Pinewood Close and Gresford; or purchasing and then demolishing one or more pre-war homes to provide access to the land behind where new closes were erected.

Oakdene Way still has an open end, laid before Longacres Park filled the backland gap.
Recognising the size of the very large plots on which a single house had been originally built there came the chance to pull down and erect modern homes on more compact plots.  

Today, there is no spare backland left between Ashley Road and Ryecroft Court, the latter marking the boundary between Hill End and Butterwick farms.  You could say Hatfield Road east is full.  But who would bet against a developer or two stepping forward in the next few years, purchasing a pair or two of original homes and bringing a small collection of new-builds to the south side of Hatfield Road.  There will probably be no development on the north side so those new homes would be blessed with open views to the north.

A detailed investigation into the modern changes along Hatfield Road east can be found on the website.  It is called Hatfield Road East.  Navigate from the Topics link on the Welcome page.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Year's Worth of Delight

Well, that's another year wrapped up, and as far as this blog is concerned we have all been able to share 34 posts on a variety of topics, all related in some way to the eastern districts of St Albans, now known informally as St Albans' Own East End, after the two books of the same name.  The blog on the current platform has been thriving since 2012 (two years before that on the old platform, still accessible on the website's Archive pages): 284 posts in total.  

Throughout 2017 I have enjoyed – and found necessary – consulting the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall.  Consulting is probably making it sound too serious an operation.  The essential bits, of course are the dates, which act as reminders and scribble points.  Most calendars – and the main reason why they are often given as Christmas presents – contain an image for each month.  A calendar is still a calendar without them, but it is the pictures which engage us.

Mine for last year was titled simply St Albans 2017, with image designs by a local business: Hannah Sessions Design   (  The drawings are delightful impressions of their subjects; not, perhaps, everyone's cup of tea, but I consider them to be joyful works of art, and if you want a day to begin well, a few seconds fixed on the current month's picture while you wait for the kettle to boil, is enough to start the morning on a buoyant note!

Here were the twelve subjects for 2017: Abbey Gateway, NSBC Bank, Town Hall, Clock Tower, Ottaways, Lloyds Bank, the Cathedral (two images plus another on the cover),  the Bat and Ball, Town Hall Chambers, War Memorial, and Jones Shoes, St Peter's Street.  

Quite a range of locations in the centre of St Albans.  Now ask twenty residents to suggest 12 (or thirteen) buildings in St Albans (note: not in the centre of St Albans), most lists would specifically include six or seven of the above, and more if it is specified that each picture must show a different building.  And overwhelmingly the inclusions would be constrained by our idea of the centre of the city – with the possible exceptions of the Fighting Cocks and Sopwell Hotel.  Of course, in St Albans we are spoiled for choice, and could have included the Peahen, Waxworks, St Peter's Cottages, Ivy House, Holywell House ... and so on.  Then we should ask whether modern buildings which contribute to the streetscape could be included.

Opposite the cemetery gates is St Paul's Parish Church

Now we could also ask the question, what would be your list if the theme is St Albans' Own East End; in other words, 12 (or 13) photographs of buildings eastwards of the City Station.  Here is a baker's dozen to begin with:  Three Horseshoes, Fleetville Institute, St Paul's Church, Nicholson's Coat Factory, Beech Tree Cafe, Cricket Pavilion, Victoria Square, Beaumont School, Queen's Court, Cemetery lodge, Hill End surviving ward block,  Nashes Farm, Hall Heath Cottages.  
We've passed it hundreds of times: Three Horseshoes
at Smallford.

Without even including street scenes or smaller scale domestic buildings the above full dozen is by no means exclusive.

One feature of Hannah Sessions' drawings is that they are engaging; they encourage you to think about the subject (well, that's two features, but never mind) comparing what you see with what you know.  But Hannah's subjects are already well known.  When we engage with images in the East End collection many residents, even some who have lived here for decades, might have little idea of some of the locations.  So in this collection we are encouraged to engage in a different way: by exploring.

So, what would your list for a future calendar include?