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Some Reminiscences of Harpenden in the 1920's

People, places and schools

Tollgate House in High Street Aug 1920. Credit: LHS archives – Slide B2.66

Harpenden was a pleasant place in which to grow up in the 20’s and early 30’s – still a village in many ways; we always talked about going “down to the Village” when we meant that part of the High Street where the shops mostly are and where a little stream ran along under picturesque little foot-bridges. The population was about 10,000 and there was plenty of unsophisticated social life. London was only forty minutes away on the LMS [London, Midland & Scottish] and it was only 3s.2d. day return.  At one end of the High Street were the George and the Railway Hotel and at the other a large pond. The first shop you came to was “Kingston House“, the hardware store, and half way along there was Spilman’s [Skillman] where we used to buy our cap-pistols, and Valentine’s, the booksellers and stationers. In the street behind there was a large drapery store, Anscombe’s. Their beautifully kept Ford van won a prize from the Ford company.

Getting around

The bus service from St Albans to Luton was originally run by the National Omnibus Co.(red) but two rivals came on the scene in the mid-20’s – the Comfy Cars (grey) and the Express (brown). (I remember one elderly pedant who travelled by the “Comfortable Bus”). After some heated rivalry these companies came to an agreement until taken over in the 30’s by the London General, superseded in time by London Transport.  Long distance coaches – Luton to London – appeared in the late 20’s with “The Strawhatter”, much to the railways’ concern. These were bad years for the latter, both for passenger and goods transport, and it almost looked as if they might go out of business. In due course, the Green Line took over the coaches.

Silver Cup pub and pool – 1920’s. Credit: LHS archives – B1.67

Then, of course, there was the wonderful common. How many hours must we have spent on it as children, and how many parents must have been happy in the knowledge that their offspring were safe there among the gorse bushes or in “the dell” (some overgrown gravel pits). It is sad to hear that the Silver Cup Pond has had to be filled in and no more model yachts can be sailed there or children slide on it in the winter.

I lived for five years at St John’s House (vicarage) on East Common. We were the first occupants of the house which we watched being built. St John’s Church was then only about fifteen years old, having replaced the previous church at the foot of Crabtree Lane which was burnt down one Sunday morning. Close to us lived Mr Jarvis [in Gorselands], the builder of much of new Harpenden, while another big house [Limbrick Hall or Greygates] on the Common beside the golf course belonged to a Mr Salisbury, brother [cousin] of Frank O Salisbury, the painter. I fancy he was an archaeologist [architect? It depends which generation of James Wright Salisbury’s family he is referring to].

On the other side of the Common stood, as now, Rothamsted Experimental Station directed by Sir John Russell. I remember he tragically lost his eldest son. Behind the main building were the Park and Manor House, still in the private hands of the Hon Mrs Sidebotham. Gymkhanas, horse and dog shows were held in the Park, and once, on the beautiful lawn before the House, I saw “Twelfth Night” performed. That was on the occasion of a mammoth fete in the summer of 1927 or ’28. Everyone was supposed to be in Early Victorian costume and it was opened by Lady Jellicoe in the absence of the Admiral. What it was in aid of, I have no recollection – perhaps the Cottage Hospital [Memorial Nurses’ Centre, 40 Luton Road] along at the other end of the Village. The organiser, I believe was a prominent local resident, Mr Sutherland Graeme. A retired clown who lived locally enlivened the proceedings by capering alone in front of the marching band dressed in country smock and a topper.

Distinguished people

A number of distinguished persons were connected with Harpenden in those days. I was stopped by a young man on a motorcycle one day and asked where Mr Halley Stewart lived. He lived, of course, at the Red House in Carlton Road and had just been knighted for his social reform work. One evening my mother and I nearly collided at a shop door with an old gentleman who, I was told, was Sir Richard Lodge, the historian and brother of Sir Oliver. At the bottom of Sun Lane, behind a magnificent brick wall, is Harpenden Lodge, the family home of the Lydekkers.  Captain Arthur Lydekker, brother of the distinguished zoologist Richard Lydekker, lived in the Cottage (Toll Gate) nearby.  Just beyond the Common on the St Albans Road J.B. Joel, the South African mining magnate, owned Childwickbury, with his stud farm across the way.

Near St George’s School, there was an old house [Pigeonwick] where we were told Ellen Terry once lived. Only much later did I learn of the irregular circumstances of her residence there.

The Rector of Harpenden was the Rev Legh A. Fisher, brother of Geoffrey, later Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Leonard, Bishop of Natal. He had about ten children, the youngest two but one being my friends and contemporaries. The old Rectory had a wonderful garden for playing hide-and-seek in. Later it became a hotel [no, it was pulled down when Old Rectory Close was built].


I had associations with both St George’s and Hardenwick Schools at the preparatory level. The former was still under its saintly first head, the Rev Dr Cecil Grant, familiarly known as “Keck”. He was almost too good a man to be a headmaster. Other characters were Dr Watts, who became head later, the scholarly Dr Clarke, Miss Williams of the Junior School and dear Mr Roberts (“Bobs”) the Scoutmaster. Hardenwick Preparatory School, a great rival in sport, was run by Mr H.E. Evington, an extremely able, if ruthless teacher in Latin and Maths. His son, Jack, my contemporary took over from him in due course.

I hope that old Harpenden residents will pardon these random memories – some of which may be inaccurate after the passing of the years. Six thousand miles away I have no sources to check my statements other than Who’s Who and Crockford. Nevertheless I hope I may have started a few hares.

Newlands, Cape Town, 12 April 1975

Dr A M Lewin Robinson, a son of the first Vicar of St John’s Church, was Director of the South African Library Cape Town         

Comments about this page

  • In an airletter dated 22 June 1975, recently discovered in a file of miscellaneous correpondence, Anthony Robinson pointed out that his father was not ‘vicar’, but ‘priest-in-charge’ of the recently built St John’s Church, which was a ‘parochial district’. But he was delighted that his memories had been published in the Newsletter, and hoped they would produce reactions. Now they have another airing!

    By Rosemary Ross (24/01/2024)

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