“Many happy memories of Avenue St. Nicholas, growing up” says a child of the 1960’s – echoed by many today: in fact the Avenue is a microcosm of Harpenden’s post railway evolution. The pictured west side, L to R numbered 1, 3, 5, 7 before the 2019 insertion of 5a, encapsulates a street scene recognisable from the first decade of the 1900’s but reflects modern living standards absent in many of the decades in between. Live-in servants were common but supply dried up and large cold Edwardian houses went out of fashion. However with modern comforts such character houses resumed popularity and some previously divided (3, 5 & 7) returned to single family use. The east side has experienced more changes, especially with flats dividing or replacing earlier residences, but today’s owner occupiers continue the tradition of business or professional backgrounds with younger families again prevalent in the houses and retirees the apartments. Today the original houses sell above £2m and flats up to and above £1m.
Numbers 1, 3, 5 and 7 on the west and 8 and 10 on the east display a variety of Edwardian (1900-1914) features and are individually ‘locally listed’ within the Avenues Conservation Area. Look out for examples of different rooflines, angled and two storey bay windows, wooden white painted porches, gable timber patterning, featured chimneys with terra cotta adornment, pebbledashing and shallow angled buttresses. See Appendix for layout map from 1905.
Research has disclosed the importance of Methodist George Phillips (see below) and several links (1, 2, 3, 8) with the Anscombe family, Congregationalist leaders and founders of Harpenden’s department store of that name which operated from 1848 to 1982 and, number 10, with the previous Methodist (Wesleyan) Church in parallel Leyton Road. There is a further link with Methodism in the Amenbury Lane corner house. There were scientists, a JP and a CBE; the well-known Harpenden name of Mardall features. The connections with Luton are stronger than today including links (7 & 8) with the Gurney families who featured in Luton’s heritage industry of which a reminder can still be seen in Walter Gurney’s factory 64 Bute Street in the conserved ‘Hat District’.
George Phillips (Hertfordshire Archives – UDC/9/10/728.), master builder, acquired in stages most of the east side in the early 1900’s and lived in No. 5 for 41 years until his death in 1947 but also, in 1928, bought the back land behind and an access strip from Amenbury Lane, which much later was developed as The Drive. George was a District Councillor and chairman of the former Harpenden Urban District Council for 3 terms between 1905 and 1926, a JP from 1932 and later the town’s only County Councillor. A prominent Methodist trustee he was able to influence the purchase by the church of the prominent High Street site and then, as Secretary of the New Church Committee, oversaw the technical design and construction of the landmark building we know today. See Appendix for pictures of George on opening day and the design.
The story of Avenue St. Nicholas starts from the 1882 sale of 1100 acres of farmland to the west of the high street by the ‘Packe and Pym Estate’ which kick started the post railway residential development of Harpenden from a small village to the attractive high value town that it is today, without losing its nonconformist heritage. Following on from an earlier sale on the other side of the station, came the St. Nicholas Estate the subject of our story and in particular this short Avenue, bearing the name of the Parish Church, connecting the ‘village’ end of the already existing Amenbury Lane to Rothamsted Avenue, the first and lower section of which was developed at the same time.
Henry Steers, a builder from Bedford, in a convoluted arrangement involving a new company Harpenden Freehold Estates Limited, bought 96 acres of Church Farm close to the village at £57 per acre, put in the roads and in 1895 auctioned plots on the east and west sides of what became Avenue St. Nicholas, although originally listed in Kelly’s directory as St. Nicholas Avenue and described by Arthur Anscombe, May 1895, as “parallel with the back of our garden.” An auction plan for the St. Nicholas Estate in the Society’s archives also gives a date of 23 April 1897. The Anscombe family home ‘Hazelbank’, behind the store, is now the Waitrose car park. Plots had frontages of 50’-60’ and depths of 150’. Prices 35 – 45 shillings per foot frontage achieved. Covenants stipulated houses to be built on the plots were to be £400-£500 each and typically comprise 4 bedrooms and 3 reception rooms. Several double plots were purchased and larger houses built.
At auction, and subsequently, Allen Anscombe Snr is known to have bought the plots now the sites of Nos.1, 2, 3 and 8. It is known that after his death in 1903 sons Allen Jnr and Ernest sold 1 and 3 to builder George Phillips in 1906 who separately acquired the plots comprising No.5 whose Avenue facing side garden became 5A in 2019. The SAHAAS 2019 book on architect Percival Blow described George Phillips as the developer and initial owner of Blow designed 9 Rothamsted Avenue (his first in The Avenues 1899) cornering Avenue St. Nicholas and which later became the Rectory.
No. 1 Woodpark
Although still bearing the name which first appeared in 1911 – previously it was Alton House – the house was built in 1907. George Phillips who built it acquired the site on 6 January 1906 from Allen Jnr and Ernest Anscombe who had inherited it from Allen Snr who had bought it on 6 December 1897. The first occupant recorded is William Cecil Sneath, later Hon. Sec. of Harpenden Ratepayers’ Association. and one of the first residents of Park Avenue (‘Ragdale’) in 1922. At the 1921 Census No. 1 was occupied by Robert Christopher Sellar, a 75 year old retired merchant navy captain from Elgin, Morayshire and his 50 year old wife Decima originating from Foxdale Isle of Man: also from the IOM was Mona Glenny aged 55 and two servants lived in. On census day also 3 overseas visitors.
Arnold Simon, a chartered accountant and secretary of the Association of Investment is the head of household from 1930 with his wife Audrey née Phillips and in the 1939 Census joined by two domestic servants, aged 23 and 18. Along with No.3, the house was left by George Phillips on his death on 24 February1947 to Audrey Simon, one of his two daughters. The Simons remained at No.1 until their deaths after which, in 1980, it was sold to Bernard and Sheila Dennis who kept many of the internal Edwardian features, including the servant bell indicator board, but the present owners have modernized internally.
No.3 – formerly Brenade or Briarside
With acknowledgment to Richard and Christine Kennett, present owners and to Eric G Meadows ‘Harpenden a Garden Town’ 2000.
As above the site of No. 3, along with No.1, was acquired from the Anscombe brothers by George Phillips 6 January 1906. He built both houses in 1907 and No.5, bought directly from Steers, in which he is shown in Kelly’s as living from 1906. Kelly’s reveals Alfred Gardner as initial occupant and still there in 1911. The 1921 Census shows Emily Paget, an Irish widow (85) and daughter Sylvia (50) with a private maid, a cook and a parlour maid ranging in ages from 39 to 67.
Herbert Leslie Doble, down quilt manufacturer, and his wife, Joan, are the occupants of No. 3 from 1934 with sons Brian and Michael and a domestic servant. That continues despite Audrey Simon conveying the house to Brian on 17 August 1962 when it was separated into two flats with the Doble parents in 3 and A M Akeroyd in 3A. In 1972 Joan Doble becomes sole occupier of the No. 3 flat until the Kennetts, present owners, acquired the house 21-1-1976 and it was converted back to a single dwelling. The internal Edwardian features have been carefully retained whilst making it a home with present day living standards. It was photographed in 2000 by Eric Meadows with No.5 still in background.
No. 5 – formerly Sundal
Particularly distinguished by the replica Dutch Gable found on earlier Queen Anne revival style houses but still built in the Edwardian period and especially relevant to Harpenden because many are prevalent on the Jacobean Rothamsted Manor, reflecting the Wittewronge family’s Flanders heritage.
George Phillips, above, bought the two plots comprising No. 5 in 1906, probably directly from developer Henry Steers, for his own occupation. He lived there from 1906 to 1947 when he died, earlier with Ann and his two daughters plus, in the 1939 Census, a domestic servant, Margaret Baker, aged 27. A County and District Councillor and JP, as a Methodist trustee he had the vision and expertise for the church to purchase the large high street site we know today: see No. 10. Apart from houses in the Avenue, 9 Rothamsted Avenue, which corners the west side with extensive garden fencing, was built by him in 1899 to Percival Blow’s design and, to meet a covenant for corner houses on the St. Nicholas Estate, it had a front elevation to both, although no longer the case because of extensions.
By 1956 the property was split into two flats – No. 5 ground floor, where Edna Phillips, his unmarried daughter lived, with a private right of way across No. 3 to her sister at No. 1, and 5A upstairs occupied by a succession of residents accessing it by an external covered staircase.
When Miss Phillips died the property was restored to a single dwelling and updated including recovery and restoration of the property’s original internal staircase and the external one removed. An application at the time for another house on the side garden was refused and the property sold. In 2018 it was sold again this time without the side garden which was developed as 5A by its present owners but the distinctive south facing loggia on No. 5 remains.
No. 7 – formerly Kirkella
Likely to have been bought as a plot by George Phillips, who developed all neighbouring plots, the house was built in 1901. The first occupant recorded is Joseph Charles Robinson in 1903 followed in 1906 by Alexander and Ellen Thom with son Alexander. The 1921 census shows Mrs Caroline Hughes Gurney (81), widow of Aylesbury draper Henry as head of household and 3 other adult Gurneys plus a nurse companion and a servant: see No. 8 re the possible Luton connection. Chas Steward 1926 then Frederick Thomas until 1938 when David B Buick, business manager for a linen manufacturer, and wife Ellen move in and the 1939 Census shows two domestic servants. The family remain until the early 1950’s when David had No. 12 built on the vacant plot opposite and was in situ by 1956. No. 7 was divided into two flats, 7a later occupied by Amy Kay widow of Rev. Alan Kay, (see No.2) who became a first resident in 1969 of the new Amenbury Court flats built on that site, and she remained there until she died in 2003.
See above. David Buick remains at least until 1974 when Kelly’s directories ceased and this relatively modern, by The Avenues standards, house has been bought, sold and let. The present owners bought in 2020 and have opened up the frontage, restored the facade and made other changes making it again an asset to the street scene.
No. 10 – formerly Torre House
The first in the Avenue, built 1898, and therefore technically Victorian and distinctive. First recorded occupant was Alex Hunter in 1901 followed by Edgar Burr in 1906. In the run up to WW1 a Mrs Shaw was in residence but by the first post war Kelly’s the association of the house with the Wesleyan Methodist Church in parallel Leyton Road was evident. Methodist minister’s houses are known as the Manse which presumably was the status of Torre House when occupied by the Rev. John Crowle-Smith from 1920 followed in 1926 by the Rev. Leslie Keeble described in Theodora’s Journal as the “new young minister” although he entered the ministry in 1909, who was the ministerial inspiration for the new church in the High Street which was opened 17 Sept. 1930 (Keeble is pictured in the Appendix) when No.10’s connection ceased and ministers lived in Milton Road.
The Howards are recorded until 1938 and then a young couple John, a coal distributing agent, and Ann Cartwright followed until 1949 when the head of household is recorded as Herman J Braunholtz MA CBE until he died in 1963. From 1938 to 1953 he was Keeper of the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum and had been president of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He was followed at No. 10 by Geo. S Wall who was still resident when Kelly’s ceased publication in 1974. No further information until the purchase in 2002 by the current owners who have extended the property at the side and rear.
No. 8 Lynwood – formerly Aylwins
This double plot was one of several bought by Allen Anscombe Snr and inherited by sons Allen Jnr and Ernest. In 1912 plans by their architect brother Arthur Edward Anscombe ARIBA were approved (signed off by Council chairman Henry Mardall) and five bedroomed ‘Aylwins’ built. On the 1903 death of Allen Snr his widow Mary Dorothea had continued to live at ‘Hazelbank’ Leyton Green, behind the Anscombes store on what is now Waitrose car park. On completion of ‘Aylwins’ Mrs Anscombe Snr moved in and lived there until her death 10 December 1919. There is evidence of an extinguished private right of way which would have connected ‘Aylwins’ with ‘Hazelbank’ although the latter was occupied after Mrs Anscombe’s move by William Long Mardall, a son of the Harpenden brewer.
At auction 10 September 1920 ‘Aylwins’, re-named ‘Lynwood’, was sold to Edwin John Gurney, whose straw hat manufacturing business was at 41 Cheapside, Luton. Familial links with the Gurneys at No. 7, and with the conserved Walter Gurney & Sons hat factory at 64 Bute Street, have not been confirmed but are likely. Edwin remained at No. 8 with wife Edith and family until 8 May 1925 when sold to Charles M Down, later Captain, who stayed until 1953: the initials FA (Florence Alice) and CMD are prominent on an external beam. Their ‘Lynwood’ born son, Michael, lived for many years in 8 Rothamsted Avenue which he sold to local developers Jarvis who developed its side garden, along with the site of demolished 2 Salisbury Avenue, as ‘Corner Hall’ apartments in 2021.
In 1953 P D O’Brien, a director and later chairman of Laporte Industries of Luton, became the owner and the two storey rear extension took place as pictured in later auction particulars: Bernard Laporte, the global chemical company’s founder had commissioned in 1910 the distinctive ‘sunburst’ St. Andrew’s Lodge in Southdown Road facing the Common. The defining changes came with the purchase at auction 19 August 1965 by Wilfred Edleston, chief architect of Flowers (Whitbreads) Brewery Luton who converted the house into 3 flats and added a fourth unit above garaging at the rear. Flat 1 retains the original staircase and the Master Bedroom suite of 1912 is now its lounge, study and utility room.
A small plot was hived off by Mr Edleston to become 6A on which a low profile bungalow was built in 1973 for Harold Mower, popular in Luton’s hat industry, to be subsumed much later to become a small modern house for the present owners.
No. 6 now Park Lodge Flats
No. 6 (pictured right, now demolished) was built in 1958 for W B Mardall, likely of the brewery family. It was known for its beautiful trees including a much loved Magnolia.
Later owned by Stephen Woodham, it was sold at the turn of the century to Mr Plowright of Plowright Homes who got planning approval at the third attempt and onsold the house and its extensive side garden to the south to Oakbridge Homes which built, in 2003, Park Lodge comprising 8 large flats, complementing the street scene. The former No. 6 was to the left of a double plot facilitating the development.
No. 2 formerly Parkside, now Amenbury Court
At the May 1895 auction Allen Anscombe Jnr bought the ⅓ acre “corner plot next to ‘Chapel’ (Amenbury or Park) Lane for 41 shillings per foot frontage”, reported brother Arthur, and the substantial house built upon it, ‘Parkside’ was occupied 1900-1906 by brother William Henry Anscombe. The 1901 Census puts William at 40, his wife Ethel at 32 plus 5 children and two servants. James H Allport came next. At the 1921 Census in residence was 41 year old Augustus David Imms, an Entomologist at Rothamsted with domestic servant Matilda Woolhead, 17. Imms remained until Major (ret’d) Robert G Sprules and wife Edyth in 1932 who stayed for 30 years.
Parkside was demolished and in its stead Amenbury Court was built in 1968 by Tomblins of Markyate comprising 5 large flats first occupied, interestingly in two cases by widows with Methodist connections, moving from flats at No. 7 and 7A. The corner house opposite, Warwick House, 12 Amenbury Lane, rented by Patrick O’Brien for 3 years before he bought Lynwood, was owned by the Methodist Church for 15 years to 1971 housing national officers, firstly by Rev. Alan Kay and wife Amy (See No. 7) and lastly by the distinguished minister, academic and theologian Rev. Gordon Wakefield whose wife, Beryl Dimes, was inspired by ‘Parkside’ to write, in 1968, a still available childrens’ adventure story “The Hide-away House” describing it as “vacated and derelict” prior to its demolition.
Derek French, Flat 1 Lynwood 8 Avenue St. Nicholas
With special acknowledgment to Richard & Christine Kennett re west side houses, Dr. Geoffrey Jackson re No. 8 Lynwood and Pamela Atkins (née Wakefield) re No. 2 Parkside.
All photos by Derek French, except where otherwise indicated
Opening Day 17 September 1930. Procession from old church in Leyton Road. George Phillips (front row, left); Rev, Leslie Keeble (second row, left)
Acknowledgment to High Street Methodist Church Film Archive
Amenbury Lane estate layout proposals, 1905