Memories of Letchworth Garden City
By Ally Walker
Tom Walker grew up in Letchworth Garden City and was a well known face in the town, not only for his work as a police officer but later working for the council at the Town Hall. Here, in his own words, is an account of his childhood and life in Letchworth, taken from many years of correspondence between his eldest daughter, Alison and himself:
I am told that I was born at the ‘Maples’, Maternity Home, Bedford Road, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, at 12 midday, on Sunday, 9th September, 1934, just in time for lunch. My dad was Angus George Forbes Walker of Willian, Hertfordshire and my Mum, was Annie, nee Beard of Lode, Cambridgeshire.
Our home was 1, Hitchin Road, Letchworth Garden City, known as Letchworth Corner. This was a semi-detached two bedroomed house, with a front-room, kitchen and Scullery. There was no bathroom and the toilet was across the yard from the back door. One washed and bathed in the kitchen. As a small boy this was in a tin bath in front of the living room fire as we didn’t have any central heating, just a solid fuel fireplace in the living room. The water for the bath was heated in the solid fuel wash boiler in the scullery. Later, the landlord, Letchworth First Garden City Company, later Heritage, installed a bath in the scullery, which was hidden by a door which folded back against the wall when one had a dip. The house was situated on the A505.
We had a decent rear garden, down to flowers and roses and a large vegetable patch. At the very bottom of the garden was an area for soft fruits and a large chicken house and run. There were also mallard ducks and grey lag geese. We lived off the land in many ways, as will be explained. Mum told me that my first cot was the household wicker clothes basket. On being brought home from the maternity hospital and being lovingly placed in the basket on the living room floor, after a few moments I started to make a noise. This alarmed our dog, a half-breed bull terrier called ‘Spot’, who came over looked in the basket, looking at Mum as if to say, “Is that the best you could do?” He immediately assumed the role of my guardian, sleeping beside the basket and would growl if anyone other than Mum or Dad came near. Our neighbour, Mrs South, had started to nip across the back yard and peep in on me in the pram, which often made me cry. Dad sorted that one by placing a old sack beside the pram and ordering the dog to stand guard which he did and which repelled poor old Mrs South.
My parents were lovely and although we were not well off, we lived well. Mum did housework for some of the large houses nearby, including the Morriss family who owned the Marmet pram works in Letchworth. She was a dab hand at sewing, knitting and embroidery and had been a professional cook in many large houses in Cambridgeshire, Berkshire, Willian and Letchworth, where lastly she worked for the Gaunt family, at ‘Ladybarn’, Barrington Road, Letchworth. It was said that Mum could make a dinner from a pint of boiling water and a dash of pepper. Mr Gaunt was the Managing director of ‘Lyons Corner Houses’ and his wife was a JP. It was whilst Mum was cook for the Rev. Montague Swatman, Vicar of Willian, that she met and was courted by Dad. It was said that Dad’s mates dared him for a bet that he would not ask Mum for a date, but he did, finally marrying on 20th November, 1933. at St. James Church, Lode, Cambridgeshire where my grandparents Beard then lived.
Dad was educated at Weston school until he was eleven and had to leave to work on the farm as the young men of the village had all gone to the war and there were only the young boys to fall back on for labour. Dad it would appear was a regular recipient of the cane. The headmaster at the time , a Mr Bradbeer had been moved to Weston from another school, where it was alleged he had beaten a boy to death. My family antecedents were well known by the older members of Weston and it caused some amusement that I was the village copper, bearing in mind the jaunts my granddad and Dad has got up to years before. Dad told me that he often as a lad had to take 25 plus lambs to Hitchin Market, from Weston, a good 6-7 miles, without a dog, just a pocketful of stones to throw at the sheep if they erred or at dogs who tried to be a pest. When I was a lad, Dad was a forester for the Letchworth First Garden City Company. Not only did he run a large garden and cropped vegetables for home, he also had a larger allotment in Willian, near the Letchworth Gate Creamery. Dad would also spend long evenings cutting the grass in orchards in the area to make a bit more cash. He also supplied my Nan Walker, his Mum, who lived at 2 Manor Cottages, Willian, with vegetables, and lots of wild rabbits. An adept poacher,rabbits, hares, pheasants, partridges, mallard, moor-hens, starlings, lapwings and anything else that couldn’t evade Dad, went into the pot. I remember the starlings as having very sweet flesh. Dad’s acquaintances used to remark that they could always smell burning feathers when they went past our house in the late evenings. No doubt it was Mum plucking the pheasants onto the fire to hide the evidence, should we have had a visit from the law! I learned from my cousin June, who also lived in Willian that they could monitor the fact as to whether Dad had been lucky with his poaching. If they heard Dad whistling as he rode past their house they knew he had been lucky. One night, Dad armed with his single-barrelled, 410, folding shot gun was out poaching at Willian and had espied a pheasant on the roost. Just as he had pulled the trigger a voice behind him said, ‘That’s mine’. Dad did not answer or stop, he vaulted the fence into the field, snatched up the bird and was gone. The voice was that of Bob Izzard, the village policeman, who was also out poaching. He was well known for this pastime too, also propping up the bar at The Fox pub in Willian. Indeed the Police Station would ring the pub if they couldn’t get him at home.
I was raised during WW2, with its food rationing, air raids, blackouts and general shortages on all fronts. In due time I became a five years old, six days after war broke out. Mum in her wisdom told me that I would not start school until after the war finished. I started school nevertheless about a fortnight later at Westbury School, Letchworth. Miss Wade was the headmistress. Here I quickly got to know and made friends with John Thompson, we have been brothers ever since. Even now, over 70 years on, we still meet weekly for a coffee and a chin-wag and are in constant touch. Wartime was upon us and Air raid drill was a regular feature of our early school-days. When the sirens sounded the classes would ‘en masse’, evacuate the class rooms and go into the underground shelters at the side of the playgrounds, good fun in summer but cold and dank in winter. School dinners were 1 shilling and eight pence per week = 4d per day, 2p in today’s currency. If we stayed for dinner we had to be marched to St. Francis College for the meal as there was no School Canteen at Westbury.
During wartime, we were continually woken up by the rumble of army convoys, lorries and tanks passing by, squadrons of British, American and German aircraft overhead both day and night, and the air-raid sirens. I can recollect seeing the German planes with their black crosses on their wings and swastika on the tail fins as they went over. Occasionally an enemy plane that had been shot down would be put on show in the town centre.
We had evacuees from London, in Letchworth who had been bombed out and hosts of Jewish children too. When I first started at Westbury School, Jewish children were taught at school in the mornings and Gentiles in the afternoons and we would change over each week. The Rabbi’s were very much in evidence about the town. One I remember was from the rich Jewish family the Sassoons. One other such gentleman rejoiced under the name of Rabbi Farhtwanger, a name which us children took great amusement in repeating.
Dad was exempt from Military service as he was too old at thirty-six and he was in a protected employment. As a forester he was classified as an agricultural worker. Dad had served in the Territorial Army at Bearton Road Camp, Hitchin as driver of a team of horses, pulling a gun and ammunition limber, in 344 Battery of the Royal Artillery, in the late 1920’s. Money was very tight too. I think Dad only had about £2 a week in wages. Dad was in the ARP Rescue Squad and he would be out many nights on stand-by, in case of air-raids and the need to rescue victims if the sirens sounded, Mum and I together with out dog Spot, would sleep on the living room floor under the table, we did not have an air raid shelter.
Dad used to recount how they were called out to the village of Pirton, where a V1 Rocket known as a ‘doodlebug’ had landed The blast from the following explosion had blown the boards off a toilet at the top of an old chap’s garden just as he was sitting in there, over the bucket, when the explosion occurred. Suddenly he was exposed to his neighbours. He was still swearing about Hitler, when Dad and the ARP Rescue Squad got out there!
There were a few bombs which landed on Letchworth, the main target being the Kryn and Lahy factory which manufactured tanks. Letchworth Golf Course also got a hit. A stick of bombs was also found, straddling the Cambridge Railway Line, by the bridge on the Stotfold Road near the back of Harkness rose fields. Letchworth Gate was closed to through traffic as it became a tank repair depot. Tanks recovered from battlefields could be seen there from the surrounding fields, awaiting repairs. Military units were billeted around where we lived, occupying lots of the large houses. There were also ack-ack units and searchlight batteries scattered over the fields around Letchworth.
Towards the end of the war we had an army officer, Captain Clarke and his wife billeted with us in our two bed house. I had to sleep in Mum and Dad’s room until I was eleven and combined with the fact that Mum didn’t enjoy the best of health, that could have been the reason I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I was the first child and the last!
A teacher from those Westbury days, is still alive at the time of writing this, she lives about 200 yards from our home in Valley Road, Letchworth. In 2008, Miss Howes, addressed me thus, ‘Thomas, I think you can now call me Phyllis and not Miss Howes!” We both had a good chuckle as she is now well over 90yrs old.
In those days, punishment at school was handed out by caning. Short, sharp and very painful, this was more effective than writing lines. Mind you, your fingers would tingle a while and writing lines would have been painful too. The pain was short lived but the memory lingers on, even after all those years. Caning was a universal school punishment in those days, up to and after I left in 1950.I was caned once only and that was at Westbury, for talking in the corridor. Punishment was at the hands of Mr Beckwith, who aimed for the tips of your fingers. As he swept down with the cane I pulled my hand away and he smashed the end of the cane on the desk; he was so mad, he made sure he hit me the next time, by holding my wrist as he whacked me again and the next time and the next and the next – 6 cuts of the cane in all. Charlie Beckwith in later life became a good friend when I moved to Baldock. He was then chairman of the North Hertfordshire Philatelic Society of which I was a member.
Some Saturday afternoons was spent with my Dad and ‘Dido’ Doughty, a pal of Dad’s, ferreting along the hedgerows and roadsides of the Great North Road, together with our dogs. We ate at least three wild rabbits each week to eke out the meat rations. Mum selling the rabbit skins to the rag and bone man and Dad selling the surplus rabbits. I still can’t face a plate of rabbit. One Saturday afternoon we were surprised when the ferret did not come back after being put down the hole. By chance we spotted him on the other side of the Great North Road, and discovered thereby, that the rabbits had burrowed right under the road into the ditch on the other side.
When I was 14yrs old, I joined the Letchworth St. Johns Ambulance Cadets, and under the care of our officer Bill Savage, a wonderful man, blind in one eye and totally deaf. Bill also had restricted use of his right wrist, having had his sinews cut in an accident. He coached us in 1949, to be the National Champions of England and Wales for individual first aid. The competition took place in the Central Halls in Westminister and we were presented with the trophy, ‘The Jarvis Cup’, by none other than Princess Margaret. When standing in the Guard of Honour to receive her, we were approached by Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife who chatted to us lads as if they had known us for years. Bill Savage, in spite of his disabilities would order his wife on the pillion seat of his motor scooter and breeze off to Clacton for the day – he had no fears – Mrs Savage was scared to death, poor lass. Many years later whilst in the police service at Baldock, I joined the Police County first-aid competition team. We had no instructor, so I coaxed Bill out of his retirement and he came up to Police HQ to train the team. Lo and behold, he hadn’t lost his touch and we won the first competition we entered under his instruction.
In 1945, I left Westbury School and moved up to Pixmore Secondary Modern School also in Letchworth. It was a sad day for John Thompson and I when on the 9th July, 2009, John initiated a visit for us two to go back down memory lane to visit Westbury School, and we met the current headmistress, Miss Marshall, who I later found to be the daughter of a police officer I had served with. We made a tour of the school, which is scheduled for redevelopment. I had passed the eleven plus exam to go to the Grammar School, but failed the interview. When asked what my Dad did for a living, I replied that he was a forester. Later Dad, who was part-time groundsman for Letchworth Cricket Club, brought the subject up with one of the members, a schools inspector, Mr Birkett who commented that it was due to the fact that the Grammar School Headmaster Mr Wilkinson being a snob, also that as I had told the truth about Dad’s employment, I was turned down. If I had lied and said he was a manager at the British Tabulating Company, which would not have been checked I would have got a place. I didn’t do badly at Secondary School anyway.
At Pixmore Secondary Modern School, the dark clouds of wartime life were still with us and it was common practice in the autumn time for army lorries to call at the school in the Autumn and take us kids out to the farms to pick up the potatoes – for which we were paid five shillings a day (25p) and took our own food for the day. Very cold and wet and muddy work it was too. One mean farmer paid us only 4 shillings (20p) for a days work! At Pixmore, our studies widened, and when approaching 14 years of age, the headmaster a six foot plus, ex-heavy weight boxer and an imposing figure singled me out to establish what I intended to do with my life when I left school. Jimmy Boorer was aware that Dad wanted me to be a electrician but I wanted to be a carpenter. This was becoming a sore point between Dad and me. In his wisdom Jimmy B., suggested that I might consider becoming a Police Cadet, as I was a big lad. This appealed to both Dad and me and also brought a tinge of respectability to the Walker family. I was at that time approaching my last year at school, so instead of joining John in the Technical Class, I joined the Commercial class to learn shorthand and typing which would be more useful as a policeman – and it was.
During the last eighteen months at Pixmore, I was made School Captain, Head Prefect and also house captain. At my last examinations in April, 1950, I had the highest marks in the whole school. I was proud.
About this time I joined the Boy Covenanter group, an evangelical young man’s’ bible study group, lead by an inspired Christian and great friend to us lads, Roy Goodall. We met in a hut in The Glade, Letchworth. Roy and several of us lads, would on a Sunday evening, after the meeting, cycle out to some of the villages and take the evening services at the little Baptist Chapels, cycling as far as Preston near Hitchin and Benington near Stevenage, plus other venues.
At 15 and a half, I was successful in gaining entry to the Hertfordshire Constabulary and on 22nd April, 1950, I commenced duty at Police Headquarters, St. Albans Road, Hatfield, in the Radio Control, or then known as the Information Room. My main daily tasks were to write down telephone messages and distribute them to the various other departments. Some messages were “All Stations” messages and every police station in the county would be linked; we could all hear each other from Rickmansworth to Royston. It was hell trying to get a message written down. I was taken to task one day by one of the typists who pointed out that there was not a ‘T’, in the middle of Constable Shipgood’s name – was I embarrassed! There were not any Teleprinters in those days. We cadets served six months in each department as a clerk, 9-5pm with 9-12md on Saturdays, initial wages £1.15s 8p, (£1.75p) each week and all travelling paid too. Mum had £1 from my pay towards housekeeping. I also served in the CID, General Office and Traffic Offices, gaining a good knowledge of the workings of the Police Force. I had been awarded a Chief Constables Commendation for detecting a crime that had evaded the CID and teased the uniform branch at Letchworth for sometime.
Friday afternoons was shopping time for many ladies, who would ride into town on their bikes, which they would load with groceries and leave the laden bikes outside the shops as they progressed round the town. The bikes and their loads started to disappear very regularly, not either the uniform branch or CID could get anywhere. One afternoon I was in the station when an old lady came in to report the theft of her bike and groceries. Sergeant Kiteley instructed me to go out with the Constable to see what we could find. We got parted. I had previously found one of the bikes abandoned in Norton Common, so I rode down to the area where I had found the bike, hid my cycle and climbed a tree. Lo and behold, I hadn’t been there long when a woman came along pushing a bike, which fitted the description of the stolen, grocery laden cycle. I watched as she dumped the bike and made off. She didn’t get far before I stopped her, she was apprehended. When the Officers went with her to her home, they even found groceries stacked on the steps of the stairway. The Detective Sergeant at Hitchin was so pleased that he wrote off to the Chief Constable, who responded with a commendation, which was published in the Force General Orders.
By now, I was fast approaching 17, with the prospect of going into the armed services for National Service at 18 . A vacancy for a cadet at Letchworth Police Station came up, I applied and served at Letchworth Police Station, until 18th November, 1952, when I was called up to report to the Royal Army Service Corps, Blenheim Barracks, Aldershot. This initial posting was to sort out how we would spend our two years, serving HM and after a fortnight I was posted to the Royal Military Police, Inkerman Barracks, Woking, 337 Squad.
A four week stint in the middle of this training took us to Warburg Barracks at Aldershot to learn to ride motorcycles, a truly great experience, a lot of the training took us across some of the war-fare training grounds and it wasn’t unusual that you could be faced with a centurion tank belting towards you round a corner at a good speed. Good fun for 18 year old lads. The move to Aldershot and back after a month was by marching each way, a good 15 miles each way, carrying some of our kit in battle order.
At the end of training, we passed out and became part of a draft to go to the war in Korea. We never got there as things were hotting up in Suez and we found ourselves in the Suez Canal Zone. I was posted to No 1 Military Police Dog Company and became a dog handler. I loved every minute of this duty. I still love our canine friends to bits, I cannot resist making friends with almost every dog I meet. I was posted to El Kirsh, Geneifa, Fayid, Tel El Kebir, El Kirsh again and back to Fayid. serving two spells in the company office for short periods, once as pay clerk and another as company clerk.
In the 1990’s I became the secretary of the Herts. and Essex Branch of the Royal Military Police Association, meeting at Bishops Stortford. I then became interested in campaigning for a General Service medal for the military service in Suez. After a lengthy stint, of letter writing and meetings, involving heated correspondence with Geoff Hoon the War Minister, who at a later stage refused to have correspondence with me, he delegated one of his secretaries to correspond. The official line had been that only 59 troops died in this theatre and 79 wounded. I consulted the War Graves Commission and established that there were 200 internments during the period of the troubles. The War Office secretary then told me that in fact 300 died as many came home to die, no doubt from their wounds, or illnesses contracted due to the poor conditions under which we lived. I must here acknowledge the support given by our local MP. Oliver Weald. This fact was communicated to the said Geoffrey Hoon and the government stand on this subject collapsed. Duly, the medal was awarded and thumped through the letter box one morning.
Demob came in November 1954, and I immediately made moves to return to the Hertfordshire Constabulary and was sworn in on 16th December, 1954 at Hitchin Magistrates Court before Colonel Harrison, Chairman of the bench. Then, to No 5 District Police Training school at Eynesham Hall, Witney, Oxfordshire, after 13 weeks, back to a posting at Welwyn Garden City.
I was transferred to Hitchin in 1958. Hitchin was a great place to work as a policeman, then, a typical country market town. Plus for me, my town of birth and the many associations I had developed over the years. However, we were plagued by a very keen local reporter, later a BBC newsreader, who would go to great lengths to get a scoop. this included visiting the Police Station each morning to glean details of crimes and road traffic accidents. His zeal included, dropping onto a bench in the entrance of the Police Station and ear-wigging the conversations within the charge room. So, one morning, whilst on station duty, I anticipated his visit and when he called I dealt with him and turned away. Hearing the door close I peeped over the counter and there were his feet sticking out from where he was concealing himself behind the chimney breast. I signalled to my colleague on the telephone switchboard and he rang my office phone to which I answered it thus. “County Police Station Hitchin. You have found the body of a female, you think she has been murdered and raped. Where is this sir?” I then checked out a remote spot on the map, on the Herts./Beds. border in a fairly inaccessible spot, gave the alleged caller instructions not to touch anything and an assurance that officers would be sent straight away. The front door of the station slammed and footsteps were heard running up the street. Some 2-3 hours later the phone went in the office and I announced “County Police Station Hitchin”, to which I received the curt reply “Bastard!”. The phone was then slammed onto its cradle. We didn’t get any more problems with that young man. We were present some many years later at a reception in Stevenage when this gentleman was present and he was reminded by another former colleague of the incident, which he laughed off. In later life he became a BBC news presenter, Richard Whitmore.
In 1961 we had our first move, this time to Weston, where I was to be the village bobby. It caused some amusement among the older villagers who remembered my granddad, George Walker as the shepherd to the Farr family, also as a crafty old poacher. In his time the infamous Fox twins, were rampantly active in the poaching field in that area. A few of the villagers had also been my schoolmates at Pixmore.
I enjoyed my time Policing Weston Beat. During my time as a rural copper, I made it my principal, that I was one of the villagers and endeavoured to identify myself with them.
Generally I patrolled Weston Beat on my motorcycle, but one day, I received a message over the radio for all available vehicles to attend the Maternity Unit in Hitchin. Smoke was coming out of the building and the Fire Brigade were in attendance. I duly attended and entered the building and recovered five new born babies and carried them from the smoke filled hospital into the Nurses home nearby. I returned into the building where the staircase was jammed with folk trying to get out. I went over the balustrades and climbed down to where a young lady who had just given birth was sitting on a chair on a landing and screaming with pain, the chair legs kept fouling the steps as they tried to carry her down. I straight way stood her up and dropped the chair over the side of the stairs, picked her up in my arms and took her out of the building. This allowed the stair to clear for other persons trying to vacate the premises, some of whom were starting to panic. The situation at the maternity unit was then under control so I slipped away, thinking my visit had not been recorded. Someone found out and I was surprised and humbled to find that the Chief Constable had granted me a good work minute.
Time moved on and on my 45th birthday I retired from the Police Service. I was greatly amused to receive a birthday card which said, “To Tom, a very non PC – PC” I must have made my mark. It had become known in the town that ‘Tom’ was going to retire. I hadn’t sorted out a job to follow the Police Service. Out of the blue, I received a telephone call from Duncan Fairchild, the NHDC Housing manager in Baldock, who had heard that I was retiring, Duncan offered me a newly created job, to take over and manage two Greater London Council Estates in Royston and assimilate them into the NHDC housing stock.
Crisis came in 1993, when the Council began to tighten up and my job became untenable when extra duties and more staff were on the way and the salary was not to be improved. Retirement was on offer and my council pensioned service was increased to 22 years. It was time to go. I did not follow any sort of job for the next year, and mainly occupied myself helping the Mission to Romania, which occupied a shop in Letchworth, later to become Letchworth Christian Book Shop.
Now into my second period of ‘retirement, I did not at once look for another job and I spent much time helping a neighbour with her Mum. That was until one day, as I emerged from the bank I was button-holed by Trevor Gilbert, the manager of Crouch the Undertakers, who asked me whether I would help out with a few funerals as they were short-handed. I agreed and then followed several years of undertaking including directing funerals, complete with top hat and tails. Not all doom and gloom, but a job with many amusing incidents.
During my days, I have with Alison, researched into the Walker family tree. Interestingly, we have parted the cobwebs and got back to 1620, in Baldock, via Willian. In my case via Letchworth, Egypt, Welwyn Garden City, Hitchin, Weston, Baldock and back to Letchworth.
I still enjoy walking round Baldock and Letchworth towns and many memories flood back there are still many old friends and acquaintances about from those days of long ago.
Dad wrote most of this biography between 2009-2011 as a response to my request to record as many of his “Tom’s Tales” in proper form, for the family archives. Additional text has been added from the hundreds of wonderful emails I received over the course of the years from him, whilst researching our family history. Sadly, Dad was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in August 2012 and was informed, after several months of tests, that he was in the terminal stages. The early signs were there; the inability to recall past or even present events accurately; driving through red traffic lights and on the wrong side of the road; forgetting important family events such as birthdays and anniversaries; frequent falls and wasting of the hand muscles and weight loss – they were an early indication that every day problems had become more than just “dementia” or “old age”. Dad had always prided himself on his ability of recall – learned from many years of writing up reports in his trusty black police notebook. Throughout his illness, Dad drew strength from his enduring love for his wife, Jan and from his solid faith in God. Neither were ever far from his thoughts. He died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of February 2014 between 0200- 0300hrs- just as he had always predicted he would.