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John Reeks' Memories of Southdown

My Life in Southdown in the 1930s and 1940s

John Reeks has added other pages to the website about his memories of specific areas of Southdown: Heath Road, Southdown shops. He grew up in 7 Grove Road.

11 – 5 Grove Road. No. 7 now has a red door. Credit: R. Ross, November 2015

My first memory is of Harpenden and the High Street with the International Stores, Freeman Hardy & Willis, and on the Lower High Street Woolworths & Sainsburys all marble it seemed, and I remember seeing the footings being put in for the Methodist Church also in the Lower High Street

There used to be a Walls Ice Cream man and his 3 wheel trike with his freezer box on the front parked on good days by the bus stop and fountain by the George Hotel where if I had been good I would be given a 1p/2p ice lolly in its 3 cornered cardboard wrapper, we would then take a seat under the old elm trees in front of what is now the British Legion to suck it to death and then walk home across the Common.

When I was about 5 years old my parents bought me a second hand two-wheeled bike.  My mother used to meet me at the St Johns school gates with it and we would walk up Walkers Road to the Common where the rides were (walks cut through the gorse), find a seat and my mother would get out her knitting while I practised falling off on the soft turf. I did learn to ride it eventually.

Harpenden Common, near Walkers Road & the Brickle dells, c.1900. Credit: LHS archives

My mother was working every morning doing housework for different people and then their washing and ironing later so I just do not know how she made time for this.

At school on May Day we danced around the Maypole and the Rev. Clare came and watched and then we had the rest of the day off. I seem to remember a bread shop being where Mr Halsey’s house was built ?


One Sunday morning I was in the garden with my father and remember hearing that war had been declared with Germany. I was also in the back garden when we saw German bombers going across from the London direction towards the Midlands. There was an unarmed English Lysander spotter plane beneath them which they shot down. I saw the pilot bale out and his chute open and he landed on the Cinder Track (rough track acrosss  fields between Ayers End Lane and Pipers Lane) I believe the RAF came and picked him up later.

My father did at one time keep a pig at the top of our garden in a sty; I do not remember the pig but do remember the sty being there. We had three sheds and a greenhouse in our garden but when they built the flats at the back some of the garden was lost for the building of them.

Mr Howe the builder had a large timber storage shed just on the right of our garden and we found 2 loose boards held by nails only at the top which allowed us to slide them across to give us access to this big gloomy shed where when it was wet we played. We never saw anyone while we played.

Howes’ yard was a big yard having at the entrance on one side a carpenter’s shop and on the other the paint shop with storage behind and joining onto the timber store.

We had a well in our back garden which when I was born my father filled in and had water laid on to our house. We also had a communal water tap for all four houses at the back much used by gypsies to fill their churns. I used to go wooding with my mother in the winter taking my old pram and collecting fallen dead branches from Ayres End wood for our fire. We also went gleaning in the summer collecting corn and oats which had fallen through the cart bottoms after they had cut the harvest fields.

Air raid shelter

In the very early days of the war the men who were left decided that since we had no air raid shelter they would build one. It was decided to dig into the earth bank at the bottom of Piggotshill Lane just about where Mr Gravestock kept his road sweeping cart. They had to dig down a fair way and then roof it over and if I remember correctly it had some wooden seats down the sides. It was a very well built shelter but they made a very basic mistake! The road there flooded every time we had heavy rain. In fact our house across the road was flooded twice, I remember furniture up on tables etc. I think that the shelter was only used two or three times due to this. The men used to make all cars trying to drive through go very slowly to minimise waves washing into the houses.

We used to go to London every 2/3 weeks to see my grandmother and we used to get the Green Line coach from St Albans to West Common Way and then walk down Cravells Road home, however one Sunday night we caught a single decker bus which turned down Cravells Road and under the low bridge stopping at the bottom to let us off before continuing its journey to the Luton Depot. Now was this a mistake by the driver or maybe the start of the 321 service? The bus changed to going down St Johns Road before changing to its present route down Walkers Road.

Washing and wash day

At the back of our house we had an outside toilet which we had to keep heated in winter with a paraffin lantern to stop it freezing up. In the scullery we has a brick built copper in the corner for washing and boiling our clothes with a fire underneath and a big stone sink with just one tap for cold water. On the back door my father had a big bolt sticking out where he used to hang any rabbits we had been given and skin them. We used to dry and stretch the skins and use them in our shoes in winter.

We had our tin bath hanging on the wall outside by the mangle and quite often dad would have to solder the joints up before we could use it. It was used in front of the fire in the kitchen and the water had to be carried in from the copper.

We had a stone floor in the kitchen and scullery and so we never seemed to throw away any old clothes which we could use by cutting into strips to make rugs for the winter by using a little tool with a long point and a handle putting one end of a strip into the jaws of the tool and pushing it through hessian backing (an old sack).

On club nights dad would take any savings around to the Carpenter’s Arms pub for our Xmas money, sometimes he would bring home a bottle which mother poured into a glass then got a hot poker and plunged it in, it was nice and when I had a taste I felt quite grown up. We had a big cupboard under the stairs also mice which used to pop out every now and again. We always had traps set. There were also black beetles. In this cupboard we kept food, medicines, bread in a bread bin, home made wines, pickled onions etc.

Our front room was only used on high days and holidays; it had a big old range in the fireplace with a fire in the middle and a small oven to one side and on the other  a boiler for hot water with a tap. There was also a pull out bit on which you could keep the tea pot warm.

We had a big full height cupboard by the side of the fireplace with glass doors at the top where the best china was kept. The gas meter was in the bottom with other bits and pieces. We also had a piano in the front room with two candle holders on the front. This was my mother’s pride and joy and she played it by ear.

Gas lamps and accumulators

One of my jobs before and during the war was to take our accumulators along to Oggelsby’s Garage to be charged up. We used them to power our radio as we had no electricity. They were like car batteries only smaller about 8x6x6 inches as I remember. My father had electricity put in after the war and our gas lights taken out.  A pity because they gave a lovely soft light but were a nuisance when you had to change the mantle which were very fragile being a round ring made of a clay type of material and then a little tent of silk which hung down. You had to hang this over the gas fitting on lugs then you could turn on the tap and light the gas. It lit with a soft pop.

My father took the wheels off our old pram and made it into a two wheeled wooden barrow with two long handles so we could push or pull it along. We used it for moving just about everything; my father used it to carry his tools to the allotments; I used it to collect bark from the basket factory for our fire in winter; fallen branches also for the fire and horse manure for the garden.

One evening walking along Grove Road I saw a big crowd gathered around the pond. A little girl had fallen in and the fire brigade and police were there trying to find her.  Although there were railing all around and a big wall at the front by the road they had still found a way in, then found that she had drowned. The family were devastated as was to be expected when given the terrible news. This was not the first accident to happen there.

On the railway embankment

We used to walk along the parapet of Walkers Road bridge and wave to the buses as they passed below; collect coal off the railway bank that had fallen off the trains to take home for the fire in the winter; go along to the fish shop to scrounge scrumpy (broken batter off the fish); we used to play knock down ginger along the front houses then run away. The Salvation Army played at the bottom of Pigottshill Lane on a Sunday morning; just a couple of hymns and then they would move on.

The Common from the cricket pitch to Walkers Road used to catch fire two or three times a year due to bottles being thrown away and catching the sun in the gorse. This same piece of ground was ploughed and sown during the war for food.

At the bottom of Cravells Road on the corner of Grove Road was all waste ground with a track leading up to the back of the four houses at the at the bottom of Cravells Road, just inside the entry, on the left, was a two storey wooden building which Mr Westwood, the grain store/chandler owned and worked from. He had an old fashioned sit up and beg bike which had an extra long spindle sticking out on the pavement side of the back wheel and it was always entertaining to watch him get on his machine, not from the kerb as most people would but by putting one foot on this axle and sort of hopping and skipping along the road before throwing himself onto the saddle and pedalling off. He had three sheds just inside the entrance to the allotments at the bottom of Piggottshill Lane and backing onto the entrance to the rear of the shops. The two on the outside were always kept closed but the centre one was open and contained a horse drawn farm cart. I never saw it used nor did I ever see a horse. On the left again up against the end wall of no.5 Grove Road was a wooden garden type shed where first Mr Dack, a saddler and leather worker, plied his trade and then later Mr Maddy another saddle maker. Both were Salvation Army members and lived in the same house (the second of the four houses there) one after the other. They both had trouble with their feet, one having a club foot. Mr Wardel and his family lived in the first house; his son Stan played football for Harpenden Town. At one time Mr Wardel developed the piece of waste ground into a beautiful garden with grass paths and roses on trellises. It was a credit to the whole area.

Very early in the war I started to go potato picking in the holidays on Dickinson’s farm; we were recruited from school to help with this and the harvests as well. From school we were picked up by an army lorry, driven by a Land Army lady, and taken to various farms in the area to work (time off school!).

One year, being a bit more experienced I was stacking the sheaves on the cart as it moved around the field, when an aeroplane being tested at de Havillands airfield just about two miles away flew over the field and started making loud bangs. This frightened the horse which promptly bolted turning the cart over in its panic, load and all and lay on the ground, panting, rolling its eyes and shaking with terror. The two farm workers soon calmed it down and got him back on his feet and back to work, no one was hurt during this little drama. We always took a ‘Tizer’ bottle with a press down stopper filled with cold tea, and a sandwich, with us on our work days for lunch .

Evacuees in school

During the we had quite a lot of evacuees at our school (Manland) and one particular teacher who came with them (Mr Woodbury) was a breath of fresh air to all us boys and girls as he started nature rambles from school, down to Batford, across the bridge and up over the fields following the hedge line to Sauncey Woods where we all had a great time. The estate there now was built after the war. He also started a youth club in the old Victoria Road school which was empty. We had table tennis etc and some one made us some trolleys. These were one long piece of wood to sit on and two shorter pieces for front and rear axles and for wheels they fitted old ball bearing races hammered onto the ends of the axles. We used them by running them down the slope from the railway line railing and down to the back of the old school; then into the school for spam sandwich and a drink.

We used to have our milk delivered by Mr Titmuss who, with his brother ran New Farm in Roundwood Lane. He used a small horse drawn cart (something like a Roman Chariot) with his churn mounted on the front from which he would serve you a measure into your own jug. I remember that he always wore gaiters and a cap.


We played cricket in the summer and football in the winter just for fun. Later I and three friends started ‘Harpenden Aces’ Cycle Speedway Club making a track on the Common just behind the houses in Ayres End Lane where the road goes across the Common. We cut down the ferns to make the track and the three dads helped by making our starting gates for us. Mr Noon at the ‘Engineer’ pub let us use his back room for our meetings, when we rode ‘at home’ cars parked all along the road and more or less blocked the road across the Common (we think someone complained because Harpenden Council offered to build us a new track in Rothamsted Park) which, of course, we accepted at once. When we rode away matches Mr Brett who, lived in Grove Road and owned a tipper lorry, used to take us and our bikes to where ever we had to go. We were not allowed to pay him but we must have found a way.

When I was about 16 years of age I climbed the gasometer in the Gas Works yard and hung a flag on the top rail. I remember looking down on to the tops of the elm trees that divided the allotments from the gasworks.

I think that it was in the 1950s that Mr Read the greengrocer and his son took over the field next door to the last house on the right in Grove Road (Courts/Kerrisons) and behind the basket factory and used it at a market garden.

At the end of the war we all seemed to go our own ways, most to apprenticeships for various jobs then along came National Service and we all grew up.

Comments about this page

  • I would refer to the penultimate paragraph. Yes, Mr Harry George Read, greengrocer in Southdown Road, did buy the land on Grove Road to the side of the Basket Factory for a market garden, smallholding, also he had a house built on it, Maytrees 101 Grove Road which is now 1 Hawthorne Close as the land was sold for the construction of bungalows and a new access road was created.

    By Diana Read (11/05/2020)

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