Growing up in Watford
By John Perry
Born in Aylesbury in 1932, my first memories are childhood fleeting flashes that certain things bring back; my memories of life in Vivian Gardens in Oxhey Herts are to say at the least sketchy, this was a place that I can just remember, and that is a fleeting glimpse of me wearing socks over my shoes to stop slipping in the icy weather. Then we moved to Gladstone Road, this is where my Schooling began and so is more able to be recalled, my being older.
St Andrews School
St Andrews school in Southeron Road was my first, this meant a trip via Gladstone Road across Queens Place by the Queens Tavern public house and through Princes Street to Sutton Road, round the corner where Blowers the printers was on the corner, into Southeron Road and down the way to school. This was a typical infants school of the time, just the three classrooms, with a hall in the centre, the head teacher was Miss Sennet; the hall was used when the various classes did what was then called P.E. with each child having a rush mat to sit on, these were multi –coloured, every child from that era will remember them. We learned nearly everything by rote, this is really hated by the new wave of educationalists these days, however it is effective for the learning of the basics such as tables and the alphabet, I can still remember the letters all around the room, and if you say to anyone from my time at school, what is 6 x 9, the answer is there at once 5 4, so how can it be bad?
Ice cream and the boxing Buxton brothers
Next to the School was the firm of Ice Cream makers called Cerasale, they made ice cream for the Americans during the War. Across the road from the school was the family of Buxton, they were a black family and we all grew up with them very amicably. Claude Buxton did most of the removals for the people in the vicinity, his sons eventually were to box on the same bill at the Town Hall, and they still hold the record for having four brothers boxing on the same bill.
Beechen Grove School
Now when I got to the appropriate age I transferred to Beechen Grove School in Red Lion Yard, this was quite unusual as it had a public house next door!! The Woodman’s Arms. The head was Miss Dempster, there was a Mr Rogers and Mrs Duke, and the other teachers names have gone into obscurity. There were I think four classrooms, two down and two up, with a hall but quite a small one as I remember. I did attend night school there later and was amazed at the smallness of the place. Going to school now meant turning from Gladstone Road into Derby Road, across Queens road, by the Wesleyan church on one corner, Standard range and foundry on the right and the women’s outfitters, Francis J Harding on the other with Horton’s Garage on the left and so into Red Lion Yard, passing the entrance to Loates Lane on your left and right, as this crossed Derby Road at this point.
The market was just past the school and on market days there were lots of distractions, with the stallholders calling their wares. The school had Rogers and Gowletts yard behind; this was a very large yard, producing wood of all shapes and sizes, from the upstairs windows we could see into the wood yard and watch the cranes shifting great logs. The Blacksmiths shop was across the way, this was Sheehan’s, and still in the vicinity I believe? Benskins shire horses were shod here; I can still remember the smell as the smith put a red hot shoe on the hoof to make a mark for the fixing of the shoe, with what looked like very long nails!! Some of the pupils lived in Derby Road with their back entrances just across from the school in Red Lion Yard. I can remember being very jealous of their proximity to the school, they left home and got to school while the bell was still ringing!! Red Lion Yard carried on into Henry Kingham and Sons the Grocers yard; this was a very large company with a large fleet of lorries and took all the land between Red lion yard and Loates lane with a large shop in the High Street and another entrance in Loates Lane for the lorries. Red Lion Yard then continued on down past the market place to the High Street, the oldest market place however was in the middle of the road in the High Street, and where the original charter to hold a market was granted, I believe by Royal Assent.
A Spitfire in Cawdell’s
The thing that comes to mind most vividly about Beechen Grove School is buying Horlicks tablets at play time – the playground really was tiny, not big enough to do much but stand around. I can recall Mr Rogers catching some naughty boys by the ears, can you imagine it today? Near to the school was Cawdells a very large department store, they had a Spitfire on display at one time to get more people to donate their saucepans and kettles to be melted down for the war effort. Us boys were very excited at this, we did occasionally see war planes going over but to actually get near one was heaven indeed.
Playing by the River Colne
We would sometimes go to the top of Sutton Road which was very close to Red Lion Yard, to see the very large water holder called an E, W, S, or Emergency Water Supply, in case of any large fires in the town centre. It occupied a spare piece of land, this was a huge tract of water and a magnet for boys of course, the top had barbed wire to stop any accidents, as it was about five feet deep. The water for this was pumped in an emergency from Water Lane and the River Colne. There were pipes permanently laid all the way from the river to the water reservoir, now and then the firemen would connect their pumps to the pipes and have a play, then all the boys from the local streets would come to see this. Some would run all the way to the other end to see the water coming out of the pipes as they topped up the water, but it was always too high for the small boys to see over the wall. Thankfully it was never used in anger, to my knowledge anyway. As we got older we tried to find different ways to go home and a favourite was to make our way down an alleyway into Earl Street and Duke Street past the back entrance to St John’s church and into Princes Street, passing Crawleys furniture stores to see if the doors were open enabling us to watch the men moving furniture.
In Princes Street there was a private garage, this was very unusual, not many people owned a car in those days. I think there was only one garage in Gladstone Road where I lived; this enabled us to play in the street sometimes, although this usually got the classic retort” I know where you live and will be up to see your Father” Our playground was the Water Fields recreational field, or REC to us, this is still there, on Saturday afternoons there were sometimes quite a lot of spectators watching the football matches. We reached the REC by going into Derby Road and crossing the Bakerloo line, this by a footbridge, watching the trains, which ran with some frequency all day. These lines were electrified and so we kept away from them.
Catching minnows and sticklebacks
The River Colne ran through the REC and you were a sissy until you had fallen in! We all had fishing equipment, mostly the ubiquitous jam jar and string, and many a Stickleback was caught. The big boys had very long strings on their jam jars and this enabled them to catch Minnows. To do this they had to fish over the road bridge in Water Lane – we were not allowed to do this. Water Lane flooded every year, and Watford Council provided a horse and cart to ford the flood by the bridge in Water Lane. My friend lived in a cottage in the fields in water lane, and he used to wave to us as he was stranded in his house, he of course did not have to go to school and we were all very jealous. The fact that the poor devil was flooded out never occurred to us, it was just that he got off school, which to us was not fair. Benskins had a cricket pavilion in one of the fields but it sat on a little knoll and was often the only bit above water.
Victoria Boys’ School
Now I transferred to the big school : Victoria Boys’ School, this was in Addiscombe Road. Now the way to school got a lot farther. From Gladstone Road to my old school in Red Lion Yard and on to the Arcade which led to the High Street, then across by Market Street and on to School passage by the Empire cinema, past the Blacksmith’s shop although this was a gate making enterprise and not a farrier. They did have a lovely trip hammer, and when in use you could get close to the gate maybe a spark would come as far as your shoes. But the favourite on the way to school was to go to the pig market in Stones Alley, this was twice a week I think. There if lucky we could get close to a really big boar, they seemed to mostly be of uncertain temper and would try to bite the railings surrounding their pen. This we thought was lovely. They had calves for sale also which everyone liked. Sometimes animals would escape, this made the top of Market Street resemble one of those cities in Spain with people trying to recapture the beasts.
The D group
The school now was a very large place compared with our previous experience. The girls were segregated by a high wall, and this was definitely a no go area. The hall was immense to us boys from BeechenGroveSchool. The boys were streamed according to ability, this by groups A, B, and C. There was a class for an unruly group, this was ruled with a rod of iron by “Corker” Holmes, he had an artificial leg which squeaked when he walked but he could be silent when on the prowl. The Head was Mr Wells, what a very nice man, everyone loved “Pop” Wells. Each group had three years, so there were nine main classes, plus Mr Holmes notorious D group, we left at Fourteen years of age, all of us were Factory fodder I suppose, but there were jobs in those days thank goodness.
One thing that stands out in my mind, was the size of the boys in their last year and just how worldly wise they seemed to us first years, we were always getting in their way it seemed!! On my getting to the Big School it was time to start earning, so I duly applied for a paper round at Shepherds the newsagents in Queens Road; back then if you were big enough you were old enough. My heart fell to the ground the first time I saw my paper round stacked on the counter, it was taller than me!! The place that all the boys wanted to work was Smith’s in the High Street; all their boys got a really good bike with panniers on the sides. There was always a waiting list to get on their books however, and I just could not wait. An evening round paid less than a morning one, the going rate was seven shillings for the morning round, 35p, and four shillings for the evening round, 20p. I walked just as far with the evening round as I did in the morning. Sometimes when getting near to the end of my round, there would come a car along the road towards me and the School attendance officer would stop and say hurry up, you will be late for school, they were red hot on school attendance.
But now I had a job, that gave a person what we now call” Cred” although the worse part was the getting up each day, especially in the winter, I carried on with my round, even on leaving school, that took some doing. Then I got promoted in the paper shop. There were the papers to fetch on a Saturday afternoon from the Watford Junction station, this being the only day that the newspaper vans did not deliver. There were paper boys from all over all getting the papers for their respective shops, the papers were then taken back to the shop to be made up into rounds for delivery. My first paper on setting out was to the Queens Tavern on the corner of Queen’s Place, and every Saturday the landlord said to me you are late! Now that I am older it occurs to me that perhaps he just did not like spotty little schoolboys!!
Victoria School was hard for us from small schools, when a teacher put a fraction on the board we did not know what it was, this meant that a lot of us went down at first to the lower classes, in my case to the dreaded C stream. We all got on all right in the end but it put a lot of people back. My leaving grade was the B stream so I must have learned something. One day I got to school late to find no one in sight at all!!! There had been an air raid warning, which I never heard; the pupils were down in the Shelters; that was a salutary experience finding myself alone in the school.
We had to attend school gardens, these were in King Georges Avenue, there were other gardens right down the end of Cassiobury Park, and at the time there were American soldiers in a very large camp almost adjoining the school allotments, can you imagine the excitement? Being near to all those film stars, they were all film stars to us in their very soft uniforms, not the least bit like our poor old soldiers in their hairy uniforms. “Got any gum chum” became our cry, how we did not drive them mad I do not know. If the call came to go gardening, there were nearly volunteers, but if we were not going to the park we had got the short straw again, King Georges Avenue was a lot nearer to the school, so it was swings and roundabouts, but not to us, we had missed the film stars again!!
A lot of our teachers were women, they really were out of their depth with us little devils. It was war time so I suppose they had no choice as to where they worked, or with which year, one of them really had us boys attention, she was very young compared to the others. When we had a cricket match she sure could bat, she had played for her college so was very good, at that impressionable age she was our pin up—our Miss Bentley, she certainly looked good running between the wickets.
Woodwork was really dreaded, it was presided over by a mad Scotsman, he would strike out with a length of wood if the mood was on him, everyone wanted to go with another teacher, but we were always given our class on the day and so did not know where we would end up. At playtime we would compare notes, if we were in the nice teachers class we would gather round the others to hear what he had done this time. Mind you some of us would have tried the patience of a saint, so perhaps we deserved our punishment.
Summer time we spent swimming in the River Colne, there was an old swimming pool beneath what is called the five arches. In the 1920s it was the town swimming baths until the river silted it up, I suppose it was dangerous but we could all swim. The area is part of the Water fields recreation ground, someone was always falling in, some of the boys were climbing up to the main railway line. This passed over the five arches, with us swimming below, there they would put money on the railway lines to be flattened when the trains passed by. The Railway Police were sharp so someone was always getting caught, but what could they do then with a lot of the children having their Fathers away in the Army? They were warned, but a lot of the mothers had to work all day, the first of the Latchkey kids I suppose.
Another of our stamping grounds in the summer holidays was what we called the Cobra; this was the land behind the Cobra Polish Works. They had great stacks of Wax in drums piled up like mountains in their yard, there was a pond which legend says had no bottom to it!! Sometimes we would go to the other side of Water Lane to the field where Flanagan’s fun fair came, on high days and holidays, while further over towards Benskins fields, we would have the living daylights scared out of us by the young shire horses, as they saw us coming they would gallop towards us with their tails and manes flying. When I got older one of the horsemen told me that they were lonely for human company, but when they are making the ground shake as they gallop towards you, then that is not the time to stand one’s ground!! Funny enough in all the years of flooding I never saw the Fair get wet. We always reckoned that they decamped in the night as the water threatened.
Bombs around Watford
The Second World War had raged on while I grew up, it did not touch us much. Watford did get the odd bomb though; one of the pupils at Beechen Grove was killed while I attended there. One night a stick of bombs went right a cross Watford. Some landed in Cassiobury Park and others in the Churchyard of St Mary’s church in George Street, the worst of course being the Flying bomb in Sandringham road. We all went to see the damage, and the thing that impressed on me was the silence as everyone looked on. To boys without near relatives actually involved, the war was something to get exited about, we could not see why grown-ups were not as exited as we were, the presence of the American Soldiers in the town we thought was great. In addition to the large camp in CassioburyPark the Americans were stationed at Bushey Hall, where the School is now situated, this and our own soldiers in the drill hall, we were delighted to watch them parade and then march ourselves.
Grillo’s and Gibson’s
No history of these times in Watford is complete without a reference to Grillo’s ice cream and Gibsons Sausages. Grillo’s was at the top of Sutton Road, and at times the shop was besieged with customers, especially after the war when things got a bit easier. There was a cart selling ice cream by the Cassiobury Park Gates, and they sold also in the market at Watford. Gibsons Sausages was in the High Street near to the corner of Water Lane. There were two shops one for pork and one for beef, they were joined but had separate entrances. One of the ladies asked me once to run an errand to the shop to buy some chitterlings, these are pigs intestines cleaned. She showed me what I had bought but not being familiar with them they really put me off, but their sausages however were and still are, really delicious.
The end of schooldays
Inevitably along came 1946, this was the end of my school days, we must have been the last of the school leavers to cease education at fourteen, we only wanted to work like the bigger boys. My ambition was to be a telegram boy, they started on a bike but eventually when they passed their test they were given a B.S.A. bantam to ride, can you imagine the prestige of having a motorcycle to ride, and get paid for it?
My working life however started with Watford Instruments in Loates Lane, they manufactured switchgear and special instruments for industry, such as a Strobilyser, this had a flashing light, the speed of flash could be altered, and when pointed at a moving object it would appear to be stationary. Industry used them to check processes without stopping. My hours in the factory were 39, at fourteen we were not allowed to work more than that. The other workers had to work Saturdays as well then, the standard week being 48 hours, I can still hear the shouts of delight when the working hours were changed to make Saturday an overtime day. My title was Improver, this is an apprentice in all but name, there is no binding agreement as with an apprentice proper, my work was various, such as Plating objects, Turning, drilling, Band–sawing, Presswork, most jobs in fact concerned with low batch production. There I saw my very first television. One of the technicians made up a crude television set and we used to watch the cartoons which were broadcast as a test picture, this in 1946/7.
After two years I moved on to Benskins Brewery, now I know it was a dead end job, but then I knew better! After all sixteen is a fireproof age. When looked at objectively it does not seem to be much of a life, but then with that wonderful thing called hindsight we all could have made something different of our lives, and school was compulsory. My being in these schools and factories seems to have been their downfall, St Andrews— gone Beechen Grove school — gone, Victoria school — gone, Watford Instruments — gone, and Benskins Brewery —gone!!!
My son looked at me recently, as if I had taken leave of my senses when I said that we swam in the River Colne all through the summer, “In the river, arghhhh,” “well I am still here” was my reply, we had not got anything else to do so we made our own pleasures, and those wonderful words ——-I’m bored—– had not been invented. Once these experiences would have been handed down verbatim to the children, but now not many people seem to be interested, maybe this will end up in a dusty file somewhere, but at least it will be there for interested parties in the future. With all the computers these days, and the American spellings on the word checker, this will look old fashioned, while Internet usage will make people forget to use Capital letters. © John of Croxley