Colin Wyborn 1899-1962

His skills as a designer flourished in 'Colin's Advertising'

Colin Wyborn, Bugle Sergeant, London Scottish Regiment

Colin was born on 4 May 1899. He was one of the generation that, along with many others of his time, found their entire life story damaged by World War I from which they never fully recovered.

Educated at Alleyne’s School, Dulwich, he and his brothers became ardent supporters of their local Scout Troop. As everyone knows, a Scout remains cheerful under all difficulties and I can never remember my father being depressed or downhearted. If things went wrong he would smile and say ‘a bit of bad luck!’ before calmly lighting his pipe and considering what was to be done about it.

Like many teenagers he joined a Cadet Corps knowing he would need to prepare for Call Up at eighteen. He joined the London Scottish Regiment on his eighteenth birthday in May 1917 and was sent for some months of intensive training on Salisbury Plain.

Call-up in 1917

Much to everyone’s dismay he was posted to France very early in 1918 and was in the trenches near Arras well before his nineteenth birthday, reaching the rank of Bugle Sergeant. After several weeks of heavy bombardment he was wounded in the leg. He reckoned this was lucky because, anticipating the German Spring Offensive, they were clearing the wounded, and he got posted home.

Colin recalled how the folk at home had no idea at all what life in the trenches was like. Finally getting home, and half expecting a hero’s welcome, he entered the front door. His dad looked up from reading the morning newspaper, ‘Colin‘s back’ he called to his wife. Then he looked at his pocket watch. ‘Lunch in twenty seven minutes, Colin’. Then back to his paper! My father would laugh about it. But he never talked about army life except to others who had served. It was not until after his death that I learned he had earned the Military Medal for saving the life of an Officer. He never got it because the Officer got killed later in the day. Apparently this happened quite a lot.

People who knew him after the War said he seemed lost and took some years to get himself together. As a teenager he had taken a temporary job with the architects who were developing Hampstead Garden Suburb. He was always interested in architecture but it took years of training under Articles and there was no money for that. So he drifted into salesmanship, not a good place to be in the depression of the nineteen twenties and thirties. Your job was as secure as your next sales target. ‘Never go on the road!’ he would advise me. ‘It’s the very devil to get off it!’

When he met my mother in Birmingham there was little money. Much of their furniture he made himself, copying from Georgian Antique catalogues and faking age with chisel, soot, and elbow grease. People who didn’t know my parents thought they must be much richer than they were, with all this antique Georgian furniture, a little of it genuine, which at the time was very fashionable and expensive.

Move to Harpenden

Finally he got himself ‘off the road’. An application in 1938 to one of the Directors of Vauxhall Motors who lived in Harpenden got him an interview and a job in Luton in the Publicity Department. He could write good copy and he could design and draw. So we moved south to Roundwood Park, Harpenden. Jesse Catton had built Number Ten as an investment for his third wife Susan to rent out. Most other Roundwood occupiers bought outright or else later bought them as sitting tenants. Catton tenants mainly lived in Park Rise or Park Mount, Roundwood being a little further up market.

10 Roundwood Park in 1938

John with his parents, Winifred & Colin outside 10 Roundwood Park in 1938 – J Wyborn family archives

But life was not simple for Colin. The director who recruited him was too senior to be the direct boss for whom he was to work. He was assigned to a manager who already had an assistant and didn’t want another. His face didn’t fit. He could do nothing right and was constantly criticised. Once he caught the manager out. Borrowing a colleague’s typewriter with a distinctive type face he left lying around a piece of advertising copy that he had written. ‘Why can’t you write something decent like this?’ asked his sarcastic boss. He explained that indeed he had and a row ensued. But anyone with experience of office politics will know that there is no way out of such situations but to move.

In the short run he was possibly saved by the outbreak of war. The entire sales department of Vauxhall closed at once, as they stopped making cars and began making tanks. After an interval he managed to get recruited into Lord Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Aircraft Production – a temporary wartime job but he was happy, accepted, and spent hours on our dining room table writing and illustrating Manuals of Storage and suchlike, with Indian ink and tubes of seccotine, to my mother’s dismay. But she was relieved he had a Reserved Occupation and could not be called up. This lasted until 1945. He had an office in Millbank and did fire watching in London at night.

But he had one episode at Vauxhall which may have explained a lot. On Thursday afternoon 30 August 1940 it was the monthly pay day. He was planning to go down a staircase to the cashier’s office where executives were allowed to cash a cheque. Something made him pause and look out of the window. Approaching was a fleet of aircraft in close formation accompanied by a smaller craft performing all manner of aerobatics. Suddenly he realised: the aircraft in formation were German bombers approaching the factory. The smaller craft was a lone Spitfire trying to draw attention to the imminent danger. Instinctively he grabbed the nearest person, one of the office secretaries, and they dived under a nearby desk. At that moment the first bomb fell; only for him it was a shell. The staircase was no more and he was back in the trenches. Somehow he got to the shelters; he could never remember how.

The air raid was a disaster that put the factory out of action for several days. There were many deaths, now recorded on the Vauxhall war memorial records. The radar had failed. Colin got home very late that night with mud on his jacket. We had been taking tea with our friends at ‘Woodlands’, mainly in their air raid shelter as it happened, and mercifully my mother had not made the connection.

After this he collapsed. Dr Hester sent him to a special clinic at Watford. He was given Sodium Pentothal, the so called truth drug. He came round very slowly, recounting to the consultant all manner of forgotten events from the trenches of 1918. My mother perceived at once that he was better after this and he had no recurrence; but of course there was no making good the lost opportunities of his youth. The diagnosis was delayed action Shell Shock from World War I.

Colin’s Advertising

After the war it was back to finding jobs and keeping them, in a very depressed economy. Several years later my grandfather died leaving Colin just enough money to start his own business. So he floated ‘Colin Advertising’, initially in Southampton Row in Holborn, but after a few years moving down to Harpenden where he had purposely sought to develop clients and to avoid commuting. Renting a small office st the bottom of Kirkdale Road (which still exisits) from H E Webster, the builder, he renamed it Kirkdale House, painted a new name over the front panel, and my mother planted bright red carnations in two small brick plant pots in front.

The cabin in Kirkdale Road – R Ross 2013

He handled the advertising for a number of local firms including F Brauer in Southdown Road, and Fit Limited, at that time a large tyre retreading business in Coldharbour Lane. Advertising could be quite a treacherous business. You spent money buying advertising space before you could charge your clients for having used it. You earned commission on the space bought but not every publisher recognised you if you were a small agency. He became adept at finding technical journals that did not follow this restrictive practice, and printers who were high quality in the district. One of these was Jeffries in Vaughan Road. He had a high opinion of their quality, though their accounting records were chaotic. But you could pay late and they wouldn’t notice. He put a lot of business also with Campfield Press in St Albans. Owned by the Salvation Army, they provided an excellent technical service when not printing ‘The War Cry’ which was their main contract. He even got some business within Vauxhall Motors where he could outperform the in-house publicity department – until the management found out and stopped it.

Colin and Winifred on holiday in Frinton in 1957

But a lot of his business was in designing exhibition stands for clients who advertised in Earls Court and Olympia. Most of these he would construct as scale models for approval and I would see them lying around in his office. Like the true artist that he was, his work environment was chaotic like a studio, but he knew where to find things which was all that mattered. Nearly all his business was in England, but occasionally he would get a letter from the continent. He would then ask Ian Fulton to interpret.

With a business in the Town he became quite well-known locally, and I think these were his happiest years. He became a Rotarian, secretary of the Bowling Club, and a Sidesman at St Johns Church, where he produced a scale model of their proposed extension to help raise funds. In doing so he discovered that the church surveyors had miscalculated the levels, and the whole project had to be radically amended.

Lifelong dream fulfilled

Roundwood Park, looking northwards, c.1948

Then the question of housing had to be addressed. Under the Wartime Rent Restrictions Act my father, like many others at that time, had been sheltering under a controlled unfurnished tenancy in Roundwood Park. Rents were frozen at their pre-war levels, and you could not be evicted as long as you weren’t in arrears. This law was not fully repealed until the late 1950s when Mrs Catton understandably indicated she would like to sell. There was no prospect of Colin buying the house. Number Ten and the others of that type had been selling for around £800 in 1938. By 1960 they were trading at well above £5,000.

For some months he looked around the District and surrounding villages. But my mother could not drive and was afraid of being cut off where she knew no one. Finally he learnt that Harpenden Council were selling building plots in Common Lane, available only to local residents. There was one left, on the corner of Milford Hill, Number 41. He applied for it together with a mortgage from the Council under what was called ‘the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act.’ This got you a 25 year mortgage at age 60, though the early repayment instalments were stiff.

41 Common Lane, designed by Colin Wyborn – LHS-DS 338

This opened a possibility. He set about something he’d always fancied doing: designing and building his own place. Using his knowledge of architecture and researching the proportions that period houses enjoyed, he designed the house and got it approved, incorporating features some of which he copied from the buildings in Fishpool Street, St Albans. He designed down to a price. The house had two bedrooms, two reception rooms, ideally proportioned to set off the mock Georgian furniture and, at my mother’s insistence, an office with a separate entrance to keep the business away from the house.

Halfway through the project he was diagnosed with cancer. There was nothing to be done but carry on. He would drive himself to radiotherapy sessions at the Royal Marsden in South Kensington and come home and carry on working.

During this time a friend and a I took him to see ‘Tunes of Glory’, a dark psychological film involving a clash between two highland regimental colonels. Dad was proud of his temporary attachment to the Cameron Highlanders during the First War and was fascinated by the nuances of Highland Regimental attitudes which he remembered. The pipe band was that of the London Scottish. He knew all the bugle calls, and the barrack room words for them, and all his life would absent-mindedly tap out the roll of military drums on his key chain and his fingers.

The following year his cancer trouble recurred. More visits to London by car until finally he could take no more. In August 1962 he entered St Albans Hospital and died a month later, doing his best with advertising matters up to his last week. The Harpenden Free Press, whom he knew well, published a short piece about him entitled ‘Death of a Sidesman’ which might have amused him. There was a full congregation at his funeral in St Johns Church.

The Aftermath

Summarised from John’s full account in LHS archives – LAF People

The years after his father’s death were difficult. His mother had recently moved to Batford where she knew few people. Most of her friends were in the centre. Newly bereaved she was heartbroken and yet living in a house where there was a business to be wound up, debts to be collected, and creditors ringing up and demanding to know when they would be paid. John gave up independence in London and moved back to Harpenden to help sort out the family’s finances. He commuted to work in south London through the deep cold of the 1962-3 winter.

His mother’s new life in politics

Harry Walthew, who had been special chum of his father and also a prominent Conservative, urged Winifred (known as Freda) to stand as a candidate for East Ward in the local elections. ‘You won’t get elected; it’s a safe Labour seat, but you’ll have a bit of fun, all expenses paid, and it’ll be an experience!’ he promised. But she got elected and thus began fourteen years of a very full life. In some ways it was the best time to be a Councillor. The Urban District Councils still had many of the powers now held by Boroughs and Districts. In Harpenden there was no Party Whip. You sat under your party label but voted as an independent. And each member counted. There was none of the ‘cabinet government’ that today confuses local representation. Freda would cheerfully mix with John and Judy Fryd, and the other Labour members; and she and John Fryd would wink at each other across the Council Chamber when no one was looking.

When John married in 1967 the house in Common Lane had to be sold. Winifred moved to a flat in Gilpin Green and John and his wife moved to Berkhamsted in 1968.

Two houses now stand on the site of 41 Common Lane – R Ross 2016

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