The Kiffs of Harpenden, now one of the biggest families, are well known as one of the established families of Harpenden village, living here from the 1940s. For nearly 80 years, generation after generation of new Kiff family members have been born and bred in Harpenden and have infiltrated the town, helping shape it into what is now.You can be sure that a Kiffy is not hard to find in Harpenden.
They say your never further than a meter away from a rat and that applies to the Kiffs too! In the nicest possible way! Whether it be the postman, fireman, policeman, nurse, carer, electrician, carpenter, plumber, grocer or scout leader, breakfast at your local cafe, a pint at the White Horse, a trip to the hairdresser, beautician or tanning salon, even doing a spot of decorating and purchasing supplies at District Modern Stores, getting in the builders or landscaping the garden, then a Kiff you will have likely met! At last count there were approx 110 people who are direct members of the Kiff family. (Not including spouses). Many still remain today in Harpenden and its surrounding areas.
Let me start at the beginning by providing you with the background information for the two people responsible for the Kiff legacy in Harpenden. My grandparents! Both sadly now deceased.
Cecil John Kiff and Gladys Jessie Kiff
Cecil John Kiff (known as Jack, pop and grandad) was born 24th March 1911 in Westdown, Devon, son to parents who owned a dairy farm and part of a large farming family spanning many generations. Sadly many members of this large family unit died young due to World War 1 and various maladies typical of that time.
Gladys Jessie Steers (known as Ben, mum and nan) was born 4th February 1916 in Markyate, one of six children to George Steers, a gamekeeper (who would turn poacher) and a well known character in Markyate known as “Hoppy”.
An old newspaper article (the Hare story) on 11th September 1886,states that George Steers, whose father kept the Plough public house, Leverstock Green, was fined 13/- plus costs of 17/- for his criminal act of poaching (poaching carried a very hefty penalty in those days). He was caught trying to sell a hare he poached to a farmer claiming it had been hurt. Unfortunately a witness came forward claiming to have seen a lurcher dog belonging to George run into the field and catch the hare and not for the first time!
My nan’s mother was the daughter of a very wealthy family from Hampstead, London. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a stock broker who lost everything in the 1890s. (Without any hard facts, I can only presume this was due to the 1890 “Barings Panic” when the insolvency of Barings Merchant Bank caused a panic resulting in the 1893 Global financial crisis and a decade of depression, unemployment and widespread poverty.) On his death, his widow and children relocated to Markyate.
While working in Jersey in the farming profession, my grandad met and became very good friends with a gentleman named Percy, also working in Jersey. Percy was my nan’s older brother. He accompanied Percy on a visit to Markyate in 1935 and on meeting my nan, they fell in love and were married at Hemel Hempstead registry office soon after and lived in Markyate. Their first child Ida was born 1st March 1936, followed a few years later by a son Robert born 9th January 1939.
At the outbreak of WW2, grandad joined the army but was declared unfit for active duty due to a heart murmur so was assigned to the Home Guards.
Move from Markyate to Harpenden 1940
With another child on the way very shortly, they left Markyate and moved to Harpenden, Roundwood Lane in 1940. While out shopping, nan went into labour and Norma was born at the old clinic at 40 Luton Road opposite where the cinema used to be on 31st March 1940.
Before you could say the word “contraception”, Jack was born 21st December 1941, closely followed by Janet born 24th February 1943. I believe this was my grandparents war effort! Well that’s what she told me when I asked why she and grandad had so many children! Their war effort was the gift that kept on giving it would seem!
Post war, the house was pretty crowded as it was, so when Susan was born 18th March 1948, it was time to move. (Sue is my godmother and a true inspiration in my life)
From Roundwood Lane to Meadway 1948
With 6 children in tow, the Kiff’s moved to Meadway (Southdown). All of their belongings were moved by horse and cart in one journey to keep costs down, leaving only enough room for just 4 of their children on the cart – literally on the cart, sat on top of the furniture! Ida, being the oldest, was tasked with pushing baby Susan in the pram all the way to Meadway.
Meadway in 1948 consisted of just three houses which sat on an uneven unpathed track with nothing but fields reaching to the Wheathampstead Road. On one side lived the Browning family and the other neighbours were the Gallows. All three families remained living in their houses until they died.
Now the Browning house belongs to Uncle Bob and Babs (Robert and Barbara Kiff) who have lived there over 40 years. Bob really did marry the girl next door, Barbara Browning. They have recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary!
Without the distraction of TV, couples tended to turn in early in those days, so no surprise that a further six children were born.
- Terry was born 13th January 1950.
- William (Bill) was born 30th March 1951.
- Lindi (my mother) was born 18th August 1952.
- Martin (Nod) was born 24th September 1954. He died in 2016 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. RIP Uncle Martin, you are very much still in our hearts!
- Wendy was born 24th November 1955. (Same day on which I was born in 1971).
- Sally was born 5th December 1958 but sadly died at 3 months old.
Living in Meadway (from the memories of the family)
Although the house in Meadway was fairly large, with the added luxury of two toilets, only one of which was outside, the only source of heating and hot water was an old coal boiler in the kitchen and an open fire in the front room. As soon as the coal boiler was stoked up, as many as they could would queue up outside the bathroom and one after the other, as quickly as possible, would wash before the hot water ran out. Needless to say, those at the back of the line knew there was little chance of them washing in hot, warm or even lukewarm water that time!
There was no heating upstairs and even with three to a double bed crammed into the bedrooms, it was still cold enough in the winter for icicles to form inside the windows. They had tin water bottles and although these did warm them, did also scorch their feet too. With a surplus of army blankets left over from the war and their coats over the top they endured the cold. Besides they knew they had to stay in bed after bedtime! To make sure of this my grandad, their dad, had a big pair of false teeth that he would leave at the top of the stairs which he implied would bite anyone who got out of bed!
Grandad loved gardening and always grew all the vegetables and fruit for the family to eat (and neighbours if crops were plentiful) which they usually were as his “vegetable patch” took up most of the huge garden at Meadway. In later years he also had an allotment in Oakley Road and would bring back a wheelbarrow of whatever was in season. Whether it be strawberries that needed washing and de-stalking or peas for shelling, it was quite the norm to see the family sat on the front step of an evening carrying out these tasks.
It was also quite the norm to see Grandad shovelling up the horse manure from the road, after Mr Watler’s milk delivery (or any delivery) that was made by horse and cart. All for the good of the garden! Fresh fertiliser! Grandad also kept chickens at Roundwood Lane and Meadway to feed his family. During the war years trading eggs with many local families for other rations or goods to make life easier.
Home cooked hearty stews, dripping on bread and home baked goodies (and the occasional sugar sandwich) kept the family fed and content!
Life was simple back then and the children would happily play outside in the street and surrounding fields until dark! Terry and Bill would take off on their bikes and camp out over night at Nomansland (or even further afield) from about 10 years old, without them or my grandparents ever having a thought or concern for their safety. People felt safe and being abducted or attacked just was not on anyone’s mind as this just did not happen, ever.
Walking or cycling were the usual mode of transport to get you where you needed to go as public transport was left wanting and cars were a luxury. My grandad in later years did get a car of sorts. A red three wheel convertible Berkeley, without a gear to reverse as standard. To turn round, it meant he needed to either drive to the village to do so or get out of the car and in the road, physically lift up the back of it and face it in the right direction.
Once a week, my nan with a pram and 3 or 4 of the younger children would walk to Watling Street, Markyate through the lanes to visit her mother who by was blind.
In the main, my grandparents cycled everywhere for all of their lives, even as pensioners, come rain or shine. Well into his 80s you would hear his bell and see Grandad ride by, usually in a suit, shirt and tie with his trousers held in from the knee by cycle clips.
The School Years
From the age of 5, each Kiff child attended The Church School as it was called then (St. Nicholas church) until age 11. The two youngest, Wendy and Martin, later transferred to the Grove when it was built in 1964. I also attended the Grove from 1977.
Most then attended Manland Seniors School (Sir John Lawes) until age 15 with the exception of my mum Lindi, Wendy and Martin who went to Roundwood (much to the relief of the Manland teachers who were “all Kiff’d out” by then.)
‘Kiffy’ the events organiser
My nan Gladys was not one who would kick back and relax if she had time on her hands. After all, “the devil finds work for idle hands” she would often say!
Now as being a wife, a mother of 12 and holding down a few part time cleaning jobs meant she was not doing enough, nan decided to arrange day trips to the seaside. A big deal in those days for most people who had barely ventured outside of the area, let alone go to the seaside. Her motive, as always, was her family at the heart of it all. By hiring a coach and selling tickets to neighbours and residents of Harpenden, it was possible (and affordable) to take the family to Clacton or Felixstowe for the day.
For years to follow, due to its popularity, the annual day trip to the seaside became a regular event that many looked forward to. As were the events that followed over the years and decades such as Christmas pantomimes, theatre trips and shopping excursions to the large outdoor markets. As a young child, I fondly remember a trip to see Disneys Holiday on Ice in London early 1980s.
As well as day trips, nan also arranged many discos and parties over the years at St. Johns Hall, now the Trust Hall which were also a huge hit. Any special occasion would always be a worthy cause to throw a party! The Silver Jubilee 1977 did not pass by without celebration! Meadway had a street party, a huge street party, with the help of Bob and Babs and just about anyone who Nan could rope in.
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Christmas time was always very special. As a child I remember Boxing Day as the best day because the majority of the family would all get together for a party, either at Meadway or in a local hall. There would always be a present from Nan and Grandad for every member of the family. As you can imagine, this meant Nan starting Christmas shopping from January!
In addition to this, every child had another present which we got to pick from a lucky dip. A huge bin covered in wrapping paper, full of wrapped novelty gifts hidden amongst sawdust. Also in the lucky dip bin would be the odd toy snake, or plastic spider, even a few lumps of coal thrown in for good measure (by Grandad I expect) to amuse the adults when every child would leap back in horror before realising the joke.
Meadway at Christmas was somehow transformed into the very essence of Christmas that as a child felt like you were stepping into a magical winter wonderland or grotto. Approaching the house you would feel Christmas pouring into your being with Christmas ornaments outside, a glow of candles in the windows, a holly wreath on the door and the doorbell chiming out a variety of Christmas carols and songs when pressed.
Inside it would smell of Christmas and on every surface there would be bowls of nuts, satsumas, mince pies, sugared almonds, dates, figs and chocolates. Strings of Christmas cards would fly overhead amongst the tinsel, paper-chains and an assortment of glittery red, gold, green and silver decorations. Candles would give movement to the angel and cherub mobiles making them chime and ding like bells.
The main Christmas tree was always in the front room and dressed to the max in twinkling fairy lights, tinsel, mini christmas crackers, baubles and chocolate santas as well as beautifully wrapped little presents (which one year after opening one I realised were only ornaments). The other rooms all had decorated mini Christmas trees and even the house plants were draped in tinsel.
There was always a nativity scene on display too. A stable lit up by candle, fully equipped with a wood carved Mary and Joseph, a baby Jesus in a manger, a donkey, sheep and three Kings bearing gifts were all strategically placed and not to be played with but always were (and not by us children). You could guarantee that one merry adult would take it upon themselves to give the display a makeover by hiding baby Jesus, or adding something comical to the scene.
Christmas carols being sung by crooners such as Bing Crosby and Eva Cassidy would be playing in the background followed later and louder by compilations of every Christmas song from the 50s, 60s, 70s including Slade, Elvis, Cliff Richards, Paul McCartney and even Pinky and Perky (cartoon pigs).
Sunday afternoon tea
Many Sundays were spent at Meadway too for Sunday tea. An open invitation to all family members which many accepted. I would go to Sunday school in the morning in my best clothes (our Sunday best) then we would walk to Meadway in the afternoon for a feast of homemade sandwiches, cold meats, sausage rolls, salads, fruit cocktails, cakes, trifles, a cheese board with every condiment and preservative imaginable (homemade) and of course pots of tea by the caddy load of every variety. My favourite being Earl Gray then and still is today.
After tea, grandad would always enjoy smoking his pipe with the other men of the family joining him to have a cigar and a small tipple of his finest selection of whiskey or brandy. The women usually cleared up before indulging in a gin and tonic or hot chocolate with a nip of brandy or whiskey. It was always just the one!
On the Sunday evening, as regular as clockwork (forgive the pun) Grandad would wind all the clocks in the house by key and ensure they were chiming in synergy. He had many clocks from tall freestanding grandfather clocks to cuckoo clocks which all chimed in unison on the hour every hour. The cuckoo clocks would open up to reveal a wooden bird who would cuckoo as many times as the hour it was before retreating back into the clock with the windows closing behind it. He even had one that, depending on the weather, would open to show a figure in a rainy, windy, cold or sunny scene appropriate to the weather at that time. It was amazingly accurate! I was baffled yet enchanted by this for years believing it to be magic (which my grandparents did not discourage me from thinking)!
Travelling the world
My grandparents were very fortunate to see much of the world after starting their international exploration in the early 1970s by going across the pond to America. Thereafter taking at least 3 foreign holidays a year to different destinations from which it was almost certain you would receive a “wish you was here” postcard (usually once they were already home)!
My grandparents were extremely social people and had many friends but it was the Crosbys (Marge and Vic) who were their closest friends and with whom they spent many a holiday and many an evening at the British Legion in Harpenden. I can only imagine that between my Nan and Mrs Crosby the cakes they baked over the years would probably cover Harpenden Common.
My last words
Sadly my Nan was taken by cancer on 19th November 1984, aged just 68. My Grandad went on to live another 18 years without her. He died 25th August 1997, at age 86. Then he was finally able to join her again. They now rest in peace together at Westfield Cemetery.
Both of my grandparents were remarkable in every way and yet so humble that to honour them by writing this would be something they would feel was not deserved.
Their legacy is however, a true honour that the Kiff Family will always treasure and show their upmost respect for by passing on their story (the amazing story of Cecil John and Gladys Jessie Kiff) to the future generations of Kiffs to follow. After all they are the reason we are all here now and will be in the future. Without them there would be no us!
The Kiff Family of Harpenden. A family I am extremely proud to be a part of and a family that will continue to be a big part of Harpenden’s history for many years to come.
Please feel free to view the Kiff Family blog site –
www.thekifffamily.blogspot.co.uk. We have made interesting discoveries about our ancestors