Harpenden Common

Childhood reminiscences by Colin Curl (1920s)

In the early days of the century the common was much loved by the natives of Harpenden. A vast area where games were played and used for taking ‘air and exercise’ to fill their lungs with pure air which was said blew directly from Brighton to the top of Harpenden common, there being no higher land in between.

When we were children there seemed to be only two seasons, hot sunny days, and icy snowy days. The Baa Lamb trees and the Triangle was the start of the common, although it really started very much further north. Any big event like Coronations, Thanksgiving services, Band concerts, Tea fights and most of all, the Stattie fair all took place here.

The Stattie Fair

Stattie Fair on Harpenden Common, 1936

That fair took place on the third Tuesday in September every year, what excitement for we children! On the Sunday before the third Tuesday in September the fair used to assemble in various parts of the common (they were not allowed on the Triangle before seven o’clock on Monday). We boys spent all day Sunday calculating what rides were coming and the side shows. All day Monday the fair was put up and eventually it stretched from Harpenden Hall up to the cricket pitch. Almost all the children and many grown ups walked round on Monday evening.

Then at two o’clock on Tuesday the fair opened. At the point of the triangle were small rides for children and stalls where they cooked sausages and the stalls where Stattie rock was made by swinging the mixture over a large hook. This was delicious although a bit sticky, it was a kind of humbug mixture with dark brown stripes. It was only to be eaten the same day as on the next day it reverted to a soft sugary mixture. Having purchased a one penny bar, the next attraction was to see the young men trying their strength by hitting a steel weight with what was called a Beadle, and this sent the weight up a slide to ring a bell at the top if you were strong enough. No prize was offered but if the bell was rung girls flocked round the victor to feel his muscles. Next came the ‘Chair-o-planes’ then the ‘Galloping Horses’ and the ‘Peacocks scenic railway’ owned by Charles Thurston. This had a large organ and a waterfall. This was a must at 2d a go. Then at the widest part of the Triangle were the side shows and Boxing booth, Flea Circus, Secrets of an Opium Den, snake charmer which used to horrify my mother especially when she realised that she had been standing on a box which contained a python. One year we had the Rector of Stiffkey who sat on the top of a pole. The Rector of Stiffkey was the rector of a small town in Norfolk. In the 1920’s he was taken before the elders of the church accused of associating with ladies of London Town ostensibly to save them from their wicked ways. While he was accused, he was never found guilty but was to spend many years on the fair grounds up and down the country and was finally to die being mauled by a lion.

As the evening wore on the children were sent home and the parents took over. The cost of the rides went up to 3d and confetti was ankle deep. It was now that the lads of the village joined in the fun and frolics.

Jack Short’s Easter fair

Next day, starting very early, the stalls and rides were dismantled and we children went early onto the common searching for lost coppers to try and recoup our pocket money. By evening everything was back to normal until the next Easter when Jack Short with his coconut shies and swings came from Round Green, Luton. Jack Short was really a tough man with a body as hard as a rock or so he seemed to us children. He wore a red spotted handkerchief round his neck and a cap on his head with a wide leather belt with a brass buckle round his huge waist. Jack was in charges of the swings. Mrs Short was in charge of the coconut shies and had a voice like a foghorn. She had a costermonger’s hat with feathers, a blouse and a knitted coat weighed down with pockets full, we thought, of money. There was a daughter, a slightly younger version of her mother, and she was in charge of the children’s roundabout and the organ.

On Bank Holidays hundreds of people from Luton descended on Harpenden to spend the day on the Common. Some would walk up to the top of the common while others would stay near the fair. Some would watch the cricket or just picnic. Many would sample the delight of the ‘Silver Cup’ or ‘The George’ and the ‘Railway Arms’. They travelled by train from Luton in the morning and returned tired but happy at dusk. The ride on the train was part of the fun in 1923. The buses started to run between Harpenden and Luton, then, when they became popular, queues developed almost the length of the village High Street.

Walking across the Common past the cricket pavilion the view broadens out to reveal the large patch of Yellow Broom and the large open area has many varieties of wild flowers including, Dog Daisies, Harebells, and Marsh Mallow, which reminds me that just south of the cricket pitch there used to be a spring which ran down to the Southdown ponds. As boys we used to search for newts and frogs.

Physic Row and Bowling Alley

Watler’s Farm, Queen’s Road

Looking to the East one sees the Skew Bridge and nearer to the Common is Queens Road with the white cottages of Physic Row. The area now called Southdown was formally known as Bowling Alley and was a compact little area with cottage properties and school, bake house and fried fish shop. On the corner of Queen’s Road was an opening into a farmyard which was called Heath Farm or better still Watler’s Farm. My main recollection was a sea of mud where cows returned from nearby meadows to be milked twice a day. Mr Watler lived in the half-timbered cottage on the corner of the yard. The Queen’s Head was a public house which had been in the hands of the family Shore for 200 years, famous for its meat pies particularly on race days. Just round the corner in Queen’s Road, (near the pillar box) was the cycle repair shop owned by Freddie Bandy. Mr Bandy was a great asset to the community as he was able to repair any kind of bicycle and what was more important was able to install a new spring in Gramophones!

Mr Bandy always came up to the village to buy his meat from Mr Steabben, (we lived next door to Steabben) so if our gramophone needed attention my mother would call Mr Bandy and repairs were quickly put in hand. The residents of Bowling Alley never wanted for bread as they had Mr Parcell who baked the best bread for miles around. Mr Parcell had a red, rosy, shining face always smiling in spite of working his difficult hours. Under the Skew Bridge was the Plough & Harrow where cousins lived and our families visited each other frequently when we had Burgesses Ginger Ale and Arrowroot Biscuits. Other shops around the green were Oggelsby’s the Blacksmiths and later garage proprietors. Then came Westons grocery store. I must relate an incident told against myself. Mr Weston’s daughter, Renee, set out with a whole crowd of we young people to join a Christmas party and Renee was told to be home by eleven o’clock. The party went on late and Renee said that her father would not hear her return and it would not matter if she was late, so we danced well into the night. I walked Renee home and imagine my horror when I saw her father standing on the door step waiting for her, he having set his alarm at eleven, it now being after twelve and me beating a hasty retreat to the village.

There were several other shops scattered around the area, Gray’s grocery, Gibbons boots & shoes, Ward’s grocery and a butchers but the odd thing was the Post Office and general store was near to the bridge in Cravells Road owned by Mr & Mrs Humphries. In Bowling Alley area there was at least six licenced premises and they are still existing today.??

The Brickle Dells

Physic Row (Queen’s Road) amd Wellington Laundry cottages seen from the path to the Brickle Dells

At the top of Heath Road, where it came out onto the Common, was the Wellington Laundry which used the common as drying ground. Pure white sheets fluttered in the wind. In the early part of the century laundry baskets were sent by train from St Pancras to Harpenden and after the washing had been done and the pure air of Harpenden common had blown through them, they returned back to London to the big houses of the West End.

Continuing across the Common, up the rides between the gorse which during the summer days glowed brilliant gold for acre after acre we came to the Brickle Dells. Our mothers often packed our tea for us, no Thermos for us. Tea was put in a beer bottle, not too hot, and the bottle was slipped in an old stocking, sandwiches consisting of bread and butter and jam were carefully kept away from the sun while we played in the dells. The hot sun heat on the turf and the perfume of wild thyme filled our nostrils. On rare occasions we went as far as the Paddock, which in those days was beautifully kept mown and hedges well-trimmed this is all that remained of the racecourse. Although the golf course was there it did not intrude on our enjoyment of the common.

West Common and Pimlico

At other times of the year different activities took place on the Common, raspberries had to be picked in June, that lovely scented wild raspberry, and at other times big juicy blackberries, this was from early September but never after Michaelmas Day as the Devil dragged his tail over them and they became bitter. At other times we would go on a family outing up the common to visit relations and friends. We would set out walking up the side of the common as it was known to most people at that time.

Our first stop was Agdell Cottage where my great Grandmother lived. The attractive thatched roofed cottage still stands at the corner of the garden fields with its pleasant cottage garden with Montbretia and Fuchsia, Asters and Michaelmas daisies in bloom (demolished a few years ago and another dwelling built on the plot). I can only just remember my great gran. She had heart trouble and it was said she never really got over the bomb which fell in the Rothamsted Park in 1917. It fell from a Zeppelin on to Broad Baulk. She loved children and used to enjoy walking and playing on the grass just outside her gate. She lived in the cottage looked after by Aunt Annie, the youngest of many Great Aunts & Uncles. Annie’s husband was named Frank Pearce; although a Pearce he was a second or third cousin from across the common at Cravells Road. He was an engineer and worked at Munitions in that red brick building behind The George during the ‘Great War’.

After this visit we went a few doors down in Pimlico where Aunt Emily lived. There were many intriguing things in her cottage. First of all, Aunt Emily was skilled at straw plait work and she had a large treadle machine and as she stitched hats, we children stood around her with fascination. The living room was very tiny with the little kitchen, known as the brick house, at the back. This room contained shelves with saucepans and plates and dishes and the mangle which nearly filled the small room. Washing was done in the wash house at the back. In the living room hanging from the ceiling over the fireplace was a glass ornament which uses to tinkle when a draught made the glass sound the tiny bells. On the hob with flames spluttering all around was a black iron boiler which contained a stew for Charlie’s supper. I never did see inside but the smell permeated the whole room. In those days “Pimlico Place” consisted of 22 cottages, now many of them have been thrown into one. Those small cottages were home for many large families. There were the Temples, Hucklebys, Paynes, Halseys, Aunt Emily with her two sons and the Arnolds. Mr Arnold is worthy of a special mention as he and my father were very keen members of the Horticultural Society and we often visited him at home, as well. He had a pretty little daughter named Lucy who had lovely golden curls tied with pale blue ribbons. She was in my class at St Nicholas’s and I think was my first love. Many of the children went to Church Green School from that side of the Common as there were no main roads to cross.

After our visit to Aunt Emily we set off down the hill to Aunt Ada Johnson, talking to many residents as we went. When it was a fine warm day many of the women would sit outside their cottages doing straw plait and chattering among themselves. Aunt Ada lived in one of a cluster of houses behind the mission room. As we went past this cottage we often looked to see if Mr Sygroves’s cycle was there with its hose on the back. This contained ferrets with wire netting forming the lid. Mr Sygrove was the rat catcher and we were very much afraid of his ferrets and of the fear of rats. He was a heavily built man with a swarthy complexion. He used to wear khaki shirts, twill trousers and these were tucked in leather leggings, altogether a somewhat terrifying figure. (We assumed the leggings were to stop the rats from nipping his legs.)

Henry Johnson was married to Ada, next youngest to Annie who lived with Gran Pearce. They had 2 children, a boy Harry and Mollie. They also went to St Nicholas School. Henry was a chauffeur at one of the large houses higher up the common and came from Rye in Sussex. Henry and also his son Harry both caught a fatal virus which left them both ill for a very long time. Henry died first leaving poor Aunt Ada a widow with two young children.

Our next port of call was to Aunt Sarah and Uncle Will. William was another brother of Annie, Emily, and Ada all of which lived up the common. In addition to these were my grandmother Eliza and brother Len who was in the early part of the century in Anacortes USA, but came back to England when the first world war was started. Eliza lived in Harpenden but was a widow and was left with 5 girls, the eldest being my mother Agnes (named after her Grandmother Pearce). But I must not transgress, back to Aunt Sarah and Uncle Will, who lived in one side of the two cottages overlooking the Garden Fields behind the main building of Rothamsted Experimental Station. Aunt Sarah was one of the large cleaning force and Uncle Will was in charge of maintenance. The cottage next door was occupied Edwin Gray who was the Field Superintendent and was the author of “COTTAGE LIFE IN A HERTFORDSHIRE VILLAGE”. Aunt Sarah was so house proud that the whole place gleamed and a strong smell of ‘Ronak’ permeated the house. The kitchen stove was black with the decorative edges polished with emery paper, on the mantle piece stood various ornaments and, on each end, stood a tin of biscuits. By now of course it was tea time and the contents of the biscuit tin were handed round all smelling and tasting if carbolic. One of the jokes in the family, usually told at Christmas, is of Aunt Sarah who always wore a mobcap, having returned from holiday ready to attack dust and germs put on her cap only to be surprised to find a nest of mice jumping across the floor.

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