As part of the preliminary consultation on Sports, Arts and Culture facilities in Harpenden, we were invited to make a presentation at the Workshop organised on behalf of St Albans City and District Council on 12 November 2016.
We were very pleased to have the opportunity to show a few illustrations from the archives of the Harpenden & District Local History Society, which remind us that every change or ‘improvement’ to Harpenden’s public spaces has been hard fought for and often strongly resisted.
Rothamsted Park was the private property of the Lord of the Manor, Sir John Bennet Lawes (founder of research at Rothamsted). Though a great benefactor to Harpenden, he only opened the park for very special occasions, such as the sports and feasting which marked Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, when an oak tree was planted.
Some footpaths crossed the fields of the estate farm, but the beautiful avenue of limes, planted in the 1870s, was for private use from the manor to St Nicholas’ church.
His son, Sir Charles Bennet-Lawes-Wittewronge, opened the park to the public on Sunday afternoons, after he inherited Rothamsted in 1901. When the estate came up for sale in the 1930s, Harpenden Urban District Council negotiated to purchase 56 acres nearest the village centre, under the provisions of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937 and obtained grants for providing sports facilities – though these were not fully laid out until after the war. The park provides for big events such as the Highland Games, a wide range of sports, a children’s playground – and for dog-walkers!
Open air heated Swimming Pool
Campaigning for a swimming pool started in the 1930s: Hitchin and Bletchley were cited as examples of communities with successful pools but Harpenden Urban District Council still considered the scheme unaffordable in 1953, and estimated costs continued to rise.
Batford pool, however, with a less costly scheme, using water from a spring in Marquis Lane playing fields did manage to open in 1953, but fears of pollution soon led to its closure.
In the Council’s view any scheme for a pool in Harpenden would have to be funded by voluntary effort. This is just what happened under the active leadership of Mr Ravasio, a teacher at Manland Secondary School and the Secretary of the Harpenden Swimming Pool Committee. The other committee members were Councillor Leslie Fowler as chairman, and the Harpenden Urban District Council Surveyor Mr Pettingale, as the Hon, Engineer.
Money was raised by dint of organizing dances, raffles, and weekly contributions by Harpenden’s school children.
In June 1959 children led a procession to the park where the Council had given land, and Joy Smith, aged 11, cut the first sod. She was watched by Councillors Fred Putterill and Leslie Fowler.
The pool opened for the summer season in May 1960, and was quickly a popular success. This was despite the draughty changing cubicles, whose blue plastic curtains deteriorated over the years.
As well as the Harpenden Swimming Club, local schools, Guides and many other groups used the pool and families enjoyed visits through the summer holidays.
Old Harpenden Years Gone By Facebook page records many pranks and enjoyable times spent at the pool.
Harpenden Sports Centre
Harpenden Sports Development Council was set up in 1964 to promote the sports opportunities provided by the Urban District Council on the Common and in Rothamsted Park, as well as the activities of the many sports clubs in the village. They identified the lack of facilities for indoor sports and worked with the Council to provide a Sports Hall. This was opened in 1975, with a full programme of events.
Covering the pool
By the 1990s – perhaps because Harpenden folk were becoming less hardy or the pressure for year-round swimming was growing, and probably with encouragement from the Harpenden Sports Development Council, plans were drawn up by the St Albans District Council for covering the pool.
This was once again controversial, with impassioned defence of the joys of outdoor swimming. The Harpenden Pool Campaign organized an exhibition in October 1995 to highlight the deficiencies of the plans. This led to the inclusion of a learner pool and a fitness centre in the new pool complex, which was opened on 2 January 1999. The Sports and Leisure Centre were advertised as one unit, with a programme of Aqua-fit classes in the pool, and a range of other classes within the Sports Centre.
Harpenden Public Halls
By 1932 the Urban District Council had bought Harpenden Hall for use as offices. These had been in what is now Park Hall – at that time the Public Hall, which, by the way, had a stage.
Plans for building the new Public Hall in the gardens were soon drawn up, including an architectural competition won by Yeats & Bull of Welwyn Garden City. There had been lively debate in the letters columns in 1937, querying the spending of money on a ‘new building, mainly for play-acting’, pointing out there was greater need for a swimming pool or for the Nursing Centre at 40 Luton Road, and deploring the loss of the gardens of Harpenden Hall.
When the Public Halls were ready for opening on 28 September 1938, the Harpenden Free Press reported that ‘the exterior of the building has not met with general approval … due to modernity of the design .. and the colour of the bricks’. The facilities for the stage and green rooms were said ‘to excel that of many theatres’, but neighbours overlooking the site from Arden Grove had objected to the roof being made high enough to fit flies for scene changing.
Again in the 1970s the Light Operatic Society appealed in vain to the Council for the raising of the roof for flies.
The opening coincided with the Munich Crisis and press announcements of the distribution of gas-masks – nevertheless the hall was soon filled with variety shows, dinners and a Venetian masked ball took advantage of the Burma teak dance floor.
At the outbreak of war it became a reception centre for evacuees, and the halls hosted dances for the Auxiliary Fire Brigade and entertainments for billeted troops.
Throughout the last 78 years it has hosted Auctions, Model Railway exhibitions, flower shows, school prize givings and music festivals, Harpenden Drama League, the Gang Shows, Light Operatic productions, film shows and a wide range of professional entertainments – all fondly remembered by many.
The value of local archives for protecting our heritage
We were very pleased to have been able to make this presentation today and share some of our passion for local history with a wider audience interested in Arts, Culture and Sports in the town. We were able to put together this historical background to the present well-worn facilities, because we have easy access to our huge collection of photos and information in our somewhat cramped Local History Centre at Park Hall.
The Society’s collection consists, at the last count, of over 10,000 documents, 100s of OS maps of different dates and scales, 1000s of artefacts, large and small, and over 16,000 photos. It is a living collection, reflecting much of Harpenden’s heritage. So, as well as showing some of it in displays and exhibitions, we want to be able to open our archives more easily to the public, and enable local people and visitors to study, research and help add to our knowledge about Harpenden. Having the collection within the new community spaces of the Arts & Culture Centre, we will be able to offer individuals and local societies a home for their stories and memorabilia and to become active in helping us run this new kind of ‘museum’.
History isn’t stuffy – it includes memories shared through Facebook and contributions to our website – but it also helps us to shape the future.
We hope to see Harpenden’s heritage celebrated in the new Arts and Culture hub – let’s not lose this opportunity to bring it to life for everyone in the town.