Watford High Street changes since 1947.
As recalled by Alan Orchard, with the aid of a Kelly’s directory.
“Watford Town Centre” is again in a state of flux. Attempts at a more accurate description would not be appropriate! The latest considerable changes have led me to provide exercise for my own mind and attempt a little of the history of some of the changes within my life time. The time I have chosen is 1947, this is the year I left school and started working, and the other more valid reason is that I have a Kelly’s street Directory of that date to act as a datum and reference. The actual area will be bounded by the “Technical College” in “Hempstead Road” and “Bushey Arches”, and which I shall call “Watford High Street”. Some of the observation will be from a little earlier time, and I will attempt to make this point as I go along
In days of yore the “High Street” was a small section of an early Trunk Road system, generally considered to start at Chester and finishing in the centre of London. More locally, it was the main link between Aylesbury and London, via Berkhamstead, Kings Langley and Bushey.
The town had grown from a collection of poorly built and inadequately serviced habitations; with numerous Courts or Alleys, at right angles to the single main street.. Some of these Courts still exist, in name if not in substance. But for a Charter in the 12th. Century, when Henry 1st. granted the embryo town the right to hold a weekly market, it is possible that the subsequent growth would have not occurred at all, or would have taken a different direction entirely. (Consider “Charter Place” and the assault currently being carried out on it.)
In the ‘forties, this section of the then A411 had two way traffic, was reasonably straight; and quite narrow in parts. In its centre was the Market square; by now devoid of its Market Hall, burnt down in 1853; which stood outside where the shell of the “One Bell public house” is now. This same wider area had once been the site of an open area cattle, sheep and General market. The lower end of the street, beyond ” Benskins Brewery” passed over the “River Colne” and was frequently flooded in the winter. It was also the site of the gas works supplying both Watford and St Albans. Once a ford, it is believed this river site may have given the town its name. There are several other claimants to this function, but they don’t fit into this scenario.
Before the 1947 datum; the town was not a sleepy idyllic little village. In the previous century it had suffered from insufficient clean water and virtually no organised sewage disposal. Quite frequently these two services appeared to interact with disastrous health consequences. As an indicative state of the infrastructure in the mid eighties, when the Market Hall caught fire, a call was made by telegraph to London Euston, who dispatched two fire appliances by train to Watford Junction. When they arrived the following morning the locals had managed to keep things going. With a lot of grains of various types stored and built of wood it was possibly not too difficult a task. It was also the case, as was this instance, that when the fire-fighters arrived there was insufficient water quantity or pressure to actually extinguish it
We will begin this trip a little way along Hempstead Road.
The “West Herts. Technical College”; which stands back a little from the road on the “Cassiobury Estate” side was in the process of being built just before the war and served as an American Army base during the hostilities. When released back to the public after the hostilities it was still without much of its wiring and other basic services. When I attended in 1948 it still was only partially plastered and had cables running in cleats all over the place. It was also extremely draughty and cold.
On the same side of the road towards the town was the first of many public houses. “The Dog”, was a “Benskin’s” house and I recall a pint of Mild and Bitter could be obtained for one shilling and seven pence. It was naturally quite popular with the students. The pint was always in a mug, straight glasses were not part of the social scene in the forties. The Pub no longer exists
A little nearer the town was a gap with a sweet shop on one corner and “The Horns” pub on the other. This was the entrance to the Municipal swimming pool. During the day most schools in the area would visit for a “swimming session”. They would be marched in a caterpillar formation with towels and cossies under their arm, to queue in a reasonably orderly manner up the steps in front for their allotted period in the water. After the session there was a rush for the hole in the wall that dispensed cups of hot Bovril for a penny a time. They went back to school in the same caterpillar manner, but a bit damper. I should mention that between their arriving and departing, one could not hear oneself think around the pool; for the noise. The Pub, “The Horns”, still exists, but not as a public House. The old pool, built in 1933; was, together; with what had been a car main dealer and garage and a few houses, demolished more recently to make way for a new “Sports Centre” that contains a swimming pool and all the fitness facilities that the younger people find essential to survive today. I doubt the availability of a penny cup of hot Bovril is one of them!
Across the road from the “Centre” is a “Municipal Car Park” within the confines of a one way system, which was constructed around the time of the Town Hall underpass.
Back across the road from “The Horns” is the “Watford Public Library”, built in 1928, it was extended by the addition of two second story wings since 1947,and there is information in the local press of a recent £400,000 makeover, which almost certainly changes the ambience that I knew. Shush! Was the order of the day as we chose our books and had them date stamped and our ticket placed in a little folder by a real human being. At this time, (1947) the library had a large concrete camouflaged “Woodlouse” shaped structure at its right hand side. (Where the park bandstand temporarily resided). This was a wartime construction for use as a decontamination centre should the Germans decide to resort to chemical warfare. Fortunately it was not used for this purpose. It did however get used for a decontamination of a less deadly nature. Having contacted Scabies from our East End of London evacuees; who had spent several months sleeping in London Underground stations; where lots of things were “caught”, I was stood in an enamel bowl of paste, and via a white wash brush, was liberally coated with the stinging gunge from head to foot. It only required a “hose down” with cold water and I was FFI.
Back to the “Sports Centre” side of the road, on the corner of Rickmansworth Road was the new, and not quite completed Town Hall, started in 1938. This impressive building, together with its two assembly Halls; one of which was endowed with excellent acoustics, that in addition to housing symphony orchestra concerts was utilised for the recording of incidental music for some well known films of the day. Boxing and wrestling also took place in the impressive hall and social “black tie” functions; like the prestigious “Printers Ball”; where attendance was also much sought after. In the fifties this hall also had installed an ex-cinema organ, with all its attendant reeds and tubes, together with cymbals, drums, whistles and a xylophone, all housed in the two curved structures either side of the stage. I worked on the installation but never was privileged to hear the end result. This hall currently goes under the name of “The Coliseum” and all sorts of entertainments are presented. “The Town Hall” replaced a house called “The Elms”, and I recall its high wooden fence as I was transported past in my pushchair on my way to see my Grandmother up Langley Road before the war.
In 1947 “The Town Hall’s” concave front entrance was situated directly onto the large roundabout that served the crossing of the A411 by the “St Albans”/” Rickmansworth” roads, it had an expanse of lawn on the “Ricky Road” side. This was used during the war to stage exhibitions for ” Air Force week” and “Army week”. A Lancaster bomber for one, and a battle tank for the other.
It is perhaps of interest to recall that on the evening of May 8th 1945; two years before our datum of 1947, the whole area outside the Town Hall and roundabout was full of thousands of cheering, dancing residents celebrating the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces. After five years of bloody conflict we were at peace, and it was; I recall, a great feeling for a twelve year old. The “High Street”, the subject of this article; like all the other streets in the country, had been in virtual darkness during the previous five years of hostilities, with white bands painted round the lampposts and a very minimum of street lighting, and no shop window illumination at all with sticky tape still criss-crossing them. When the first 100w lamps lit the rather meager early window displays it was like fairy land to us. “World War 11” was over.
The part of “Hempstead Road” from the “Horns” towards and beyond the underpass is now pedestrianised. This happened as part of the extensive road works associated with the provision of the dual carriage way underpass, and resulted in an alternative roundabout 100 yards or so nearer to St Albans, and the repositioning of the road closer to the “Town Hall”. Keeping off the grass was no longer an option. This new roundabout was to be the access to the new ring road which virtually wiped out Beechen Grove which until then was almost like a little community on its own at the end of “Meeting Alley”.
The road widening associated with the underpass project and provision of a relief road to the lower end of the High street along the original “Weymouth Street”, also took the space where the “Peace Memorial” stood outside the Hospital further down “Ricky Road”. It was re positioned outside the “One stop shop” entrance on the end of the Town Hall by the “Horns” garden. At least it did not suffer the same fate as the old “Park Gates” further down “Ricky Road” which only remain in memories, or as the subject of many pictures and etchings..
Somewhat earlier postcards show quite a small roundabout in the old position; before the Town Hall, with a signpost of the four options painted on it: London, Aylesbury, St Albans and Rickmansworth. There was also a little open fronted box where an AA man would throw up a salute to passing motorists displaying the AA chrome logo on yellow car badge, or leap on his motor cycle and side car to repair a broken down vehicle.
Earlier still there was a small triangle at the St Albans exit, with its sign post, and the AA man would stand in the middle of the junction actually directing traffic, which in those far off days was not too onerous a task.
We can now walk through the underpass to what was the end of the “High Street” known as “The Parade”. This end area was once two other corners of the roundabout layout and the structures are rounded to fit this earlier configuration. On the right is “Faircross House”. In those days a desirable and expensive set of apartments, and beneath these were some better class shops, including “The Victoria Wine Co”. On the left was “The Westminster Bank Chambers” and some more shops and offices. These stood either side of “The Pond”. This is a natural water feature and has figured in the town as a watering hole for horses and the livestock driven into the town for sale at the Tuesday market for many years. In days of yore, the town end was sloped to allow access for livestock and carts; where the wheels were soaked to expand them in their steel rims. It was in ’47 protected with railings and had a illuminated fountain in the middle, and some quite large fish. A local angler is rumoured to have introduced a large Pike, which changed the natural balance quite quickly. During the war there was a mocked up cruiser installed for “Navy Week”, and many pennies were thrown into the water. The latest incarnation has removed the old fashion aspects and even placed a bridge across the water, and the railings have gone again. It is noted that several schemes have been introduced to “brighten up” the pond itself. Most were a disaster! Earlier days saw the whole perimeter of the pond used as a car park during the day. Not a pleasant sight.
The paved section between the pond and “Rickmansworth Road” is now the site of Council organised entertainment from “The Big Beach” in the summer, to “The Big Skate” in the winter and a Big Screen” picture show.
Some of the shops and offices on the North Eastern side in this area were: “The West Minster Bank Chambers” on the corner, “The Westminster Bank”, “The Watford and St. Albans Gas Co. showrooms”, “The West Herts. Post and Watford Newsletter” and “Watford Corporation Electricity Supply Office”.(It is worth commenting that the electricity supply, distribution and generation, was a Council owned concern. They even sold power, at a profit, to the grid for use in other parts of the country. The power station was in Cardiff Road and was noted as the home for “Moaning Minny”, the steam operated siren that warned a large part of Watford of the impending enemy bombers approach during WW11. A little known, and perhaps best forgotten fact; is that Watford distributed their power at 200 volts domestic. Against nearly every other part of the country who adopted 240 volts.) A number of professional services were provided along this stretch of the street and a cafe advertising homemade cakes filled the space before “The Odeon Cinema” on the corner of the footpath leading to Weymouth Street. This later was one of six cinemas in the town in 1947 and was usually well patronized. A main big film, a “B” film, Pathe News and a cartoon was the fare on offer, not to forget the trailers for next week’s presentation. With little or no TV, and; “and can you believe it”, no internet or Social Networking, a trip to the “flicks” was very popular. Saturday evening was the most popular, and queues down the footpath could be expected.The building has been a “supermarket” and is now a “Nightclub”. Very handy for the pond!
The passage now leads to a large “Sainsbury’s situated behind the next set of shops.
The buildings offered on the South West side were again a mixture of professional services together with Builders, Advertising, Building Societies, Hair Dressers, a Chemist and Fruiterers. The place of interest to me abuts Faircross house and was “Cakebread Robey and Co”; a builders merchants that looked and smelled inside like I suspect the “fork handles” establishment of “Two Ronnie’s” fame. The facade was also interesting. Although not really old the upper floor gives the impression of being half timbered and matches several other buildings along the road. It had very large shop windows. It has been a pub; “The Oliver”, and is now “Chocolate”, a party venue of some kind. “Faircross House has also gone a little down market and contains an Estate agent, Tailor, Cafe, Sun Bed parlour, Asian Products; from noodles to skin care, Japanese restaurant, another cafe; with pavement seating, Employment agency and a Massage parlour. I will avoid full listing of further current occupancies, except where used for demonstrating locality. A walk along the route should provide all the up to date occupancies required..
Back to the other side of the pond beyond the “Sainsbury’s” footpath is an interesting looking building providing flats above and a restaurant or Wine Bar at pavement level. This establishment was very popular in 1947 and one of very few where you could drink outside and “pose” in your glad rags. It is rumoured that the bricks used for its construction came from the old Cassiobury House in the Park. This fact is vigorously denied in other opposing rumours. In the same block was a Dolls hospital and a sweet shop.
A block of flats “Platts”, with retail outlets below make up the next section. Some of the services on offer or for sale were Opticians, Chemist, a Restaurant, Confectioners, Ladies hairdressers, Scholes foot care clinic, a Toy shop, Auctioneers, The Cookery Nook tea shop on first floor level; which was all doily’s and little fingers I recall, the Christian Science reading room, a Dog shop, Dry cleaners, House furnishers a Butchers, Bucks garage and a Needle work shop. The last two outlets here now, before the overpass, are a “Gibsons” butchers shop and a “Subway” stuffed roll emporium. Then came the second Cinema, The Gaumont.
This second cinema was a bit newer that the Odeon and equally popular. In addition to the others offerings I recall Tommy Dando would rise out of the stage aboard his gleaming console and dressed in his DJ would play flamboyantly on his “Mighty Wurlitzer” all the popular songs of the day. His audience would sing loudly and applaud enthusiastically as he turned, bowed, and sank back into the stage as the lights dimmed for the main feature.
The queues were equally long here on Saturday evening, and if we were really lucky we would see the Fire engine with its brass helmeted firemen turn out from the Station nearly opposite, ringing their bell like mad as they bullied their way along the High Street.
The outlets remain varied along this stretch, although many of the buildings have been replaced. The Gaumont has gone and been replaced with a three storey building with Leeds Bank and Holland and Barrett sharing the outlets with a Linen shop. Ten or so varied outlets share the space between these buildings and the overpass carrying the “Ring Road” across the “High Street”. This point is also the entrance to the particularly uninspiring “New Watford Market”.
Back now to Cakebread Robey’s, opposite the old Odeon site. In 1947 there was again a plethora of outlets various after “Halsey House”. The “Conservative Club”, “A Ministry of Labour Office”, ” Watford Baby World”, “Fine Fare”, “Radio Rentals” and “The Three Kayes coffee shop” were some of them. “The Prudential Building on the corner of the entrance to what we currently would know of as the “Shrubbery Car Park” contained a dozen or so flats and some of the outlets.
This area is now home to many eateries, mostly having an outside service area on the pedestrianised thoroughfare.
Across the car park entrance was the “Fire Station”, with the “St John Ambulance Brigade” behind it. As mentioned earlier the “Fire Station”; that looked more like a church with two big red doors, was home for a pair of “state of the art” red fire engines. Everybody sat on the outside; even the driver, and they all wore a big brass helmet and a shiny chopper in their belts. With the extension ladder sticking out over the front and the big wheels hanging over the back, and everything gleaming, it was very impressive, and great entertainment for the spectators when they were called out. Another irrelevance was the use of “Bells” as a warning of approach by the emergency services. The Ambulance had a chromium plated, electrically rung device, and the fire engine had a large brass one with a rope attached to the clapper which was waggled enthusiastically by the drivers mate.
Next came the WVS office, with a glass covered stairway down to the pavement, followed by the old Rural District Council offices. No longer used as such in 1947 since the new “Town Hall” was built. The “Citizens Advice Bureau” was also housed here. (My personal recall of the glass stairway is of being run over by a bike outside it, on my way to a Scouts meeting in Clarendon Road. This earned me a lot of abrasions and bruises and a ride in the bell clanging ambulance).
Most of this strip; like its counterpart across the road, still has various outlets in new taller buildings. The Fire Station and the council offices were raised to the ground and it their place is “Gade House”, originally built for the Co-Op. I believe a Gym occupies some of the space upstairs and the requisite food outlets line the building at pavement level and contain “Nandos”, among others, the “Pound World” is on the corner. Stop Press. Pound World is holding a closing down sale. July 18.
Here is Upton Road and the Overpass.
The first shop on the corner was “Elliot’s”. They sold all things musical; from pianos; which they also tuned, to gramophones, records and needles. There were few featherweight stylus’s in those days! These records were of the 10″ and 12″ inch varieties and were very breakable. Revolving at 78 rpm, the larger ones played for around five minutes. You could go into a little booth and don a pair of very heavy headphones to have a sample of your choice record played. (Not Disc. Record). You can now purchase your “quarter pounder” in McDonalds on this site. Next comes the “Santander” bank. Both these sites have had seen other tenants during the period concerned. A discount store and “The Abbey National Bank” latter morphed into Santander. This outlet mix continued and included “HM Inspector of Taxes for Watford 1st District”, Ellams Duplicators, two Chiropodists, a hair stylist, tobacconist, and a confectioner.
One of the shops that everyone knew was next to a gown shop, now housing “Superdrug”. “Jacksons the Jewellers” has been in existence for some time and has not followed the trend of trying to look new. A rather pleasant low rise, semi half timbered building has been the source of many local engagement, wedding rings and 25 year awards for many years.
Then came “Wells Yard”; the first of the courts mentioned earlier. This led to the back of the shops, and now, joining “Stones Alley”, forms the current, “Wellstones”, exiting in “Market Street” and the Ring Road. On the other side of the alley was the first of many Public houses. “The Coachmakers Arms”. Now the site at no. 30 is a another nondescript block.
After a ladies and gents tailors was “Author East’s”. This outlet sold corn and coal, and dog food, and particularly seeds. Not in packets in those days, but in small racked trays with a little scoop and scales and lots of brown paper packets for you to write on the name of your purchase, Another shop with a lovely smell. The corn merchants is now the site of “Starbucks” and dispenses the essential beverage for anyone working in an office. The good side is that the site still smells very pleasant.
Being virtually opposite the “Clarendon Road” turning, we will pause here and go back across the road and start again from the current overpass.
The first six addresses, numbers “23 to 33 High Street”, held one of Watford’s largest stores, “Clements”. Described as “general drapers and house burnishers”, their wares were to be found in most of the local homes. There only remains one small “Clements” furniture outlet here now, the rest is a general store under the name of B&M. The building is one of the more pleasing with four floors and a three pitched roof facade which still commands this area.
Next door at 19 & 21 was “John Sainsbury’s”. Part of another pleasant three storey four shop complex. A grocers in the old fashioned manner with a shop keeper serving behind the counter obtaining items as requested. He would slice bacon in the thickness you specified, cut cheese with a wire from a large muslin covered round, cut fresh butter from a block and pat it into shape, impress a logo on it from one of the ‘pats and wrap it neatly in grease proof paper. On totaling the bill he would accept your money and place them both in a container for pneumatic transportation to the cashier. The returned change and receipt would then be presented with a “Thank you for your custom”. Just like today?
The last section of this building was “Barclays Bank”, but not anymore.
The last few establishment in this part of the “High Street”; including the bakers, have all been replaced by one of those nondescript structures that are no doubt ecologically efficient but look like barrack blocks. They service a Bookmakers, small Grocers and “Shoe Zone” along with others. The last of these, on the corner of “Clarendon Road”, was “Garners” the bakers. The shop window cakes and tarts shared their space with lots of 1947 wasps, in the season. This was the place to go if you had a sweet tooth. The site is now taken by “Pret a’ manger” where sandwiches and snacks can be taken away or eaten on the premises, sans wasps.
I will now deviate from the “High Street” just to mention “Clarendon Road”. I believe this road has seen one of the biggest changes in use in the town. In my early days I recall the Palace Theatre where we would see the annual Pantomime, and the Carlton Cinema next to it on the right-hand side, and just beyond this was the “Drill Hall” before Beechen Grove Church and the alley to the Beechen Grove area and the back of the open air; but covered, municipal market. The theatre had been there for a long time and the cinema replaced a “Roller skating” rink, and therefore had a circular auditorium; which made picture viewing from the side a very strange experience. These two were opposite the “Dolls Hospital” where the better off would go to have their china dolls heads made better; or their Stieff bears ears sewn back on, and “Trewin Barr & Gale”, veterinary surgeons, who provided the same service for pets. From there on were just big houses. Presumably built when the railway brought better off commuters to Watford Junction, they shared the whole road with three churches, only one of which; “Beechen Grove Baptist” remains, a block of very expensive flats “Granchester Court” are also now gone, together with “The Gas offices and headquarters” and “Post Office Sorting Office”, and “The Registry Office” on the corner of Gartlet Road saw the marriages of many of the locals and recorded the births and deaths of even more. The Police Station and Court House, is soon to go. Now we have one purpose built Hotel, “Jury’s Inn”, and all the rest is large office blocks. Another hotel “Travelodge” was built as an office block and converted. There is a new private school in the process of completion, but the only building in the area that remains, although not actually in the road concerned is “The Flag” nee “The Hertfordshire Arms”, next to the office block otherwise known as “Watford Junction”. A whole lot of Watford’s heritage has disappeared with these works. I did not mention “The West Herts. School of Dancing” in upper Clarendon Road; where many of us two left footed youngsters did our first hesitant Waltz. Or so we thought! That’s gone too.
Of course the road is now severed by the Beechen Grove portion of the “Ring Road”. and at this time, a “no go area” for road traffic in the “Palace” section is in operation due to the road and building works associated with the towns massive building program.
So back to the “High Street”.
Across Clarendon Road, on what was known as “Dudley’s Corner” on the way to the Market Place was “The Fifty-Shilling Tailors”. (This is now “The Halifax Building Society”), and the first of a number of outlets, the more memorable being “William Perring”, house furnishers, Saxone shoes, “W, H, Smith and Son” booksellers, Jas. Walker Ltd, jewellers, “later to become H. Samuel”; with the large clock attached to the wall above it, and “Allen Anker” fishmonger. At 45 was “Finlay and Co” Ltd. Tobacconist. “Butchers Yard” was here, then “Last” the chemist, and “Hemmings” the bakers. “Polyfoto”, photographers; where a session would provide a sheet of 2×2 inch portraits, all different. But only if the subject moved during the timed period. They were popular to send pictures of mother and child, and later just child, if it could be persuaded to sit still long enough and jerk into a new pose every second or so.. “Luca’s” fried fish shop and” Freeman Hardy and Willis”, boot manufacturers came before “Salmon and Son. Ltd”, grocers and general store. This shop ran down the side of another old Court named “Meeting Alley”, where a number of old and not well serviced cottages led to “Beechen Grove”.
This last group is now; as mentioned, behind the barriers, and with the exception of “Wikinsons”, a quite nice general store, barely worth the mention. Like a butterfly the area may emerge as a thing of beauty in due course, but is currently covered in plastic sheeting on tons of scaffolding. It certainly will not bear much resemblance to a 1947 Watford High street.
The other side of Meeting Alley was a landmark building which figured in most of the old photographs. A large painted sign on the brickwork declared “Findlater” wine and spirit merchants. Later to become a “Burger King” and to disappear completely in the new works.
The next building was” Lloyds Bank”. The facade of this pleasant building has been encased in plastic and scaffold to be presumably incorporated in the new major works to INTU in process behind it. It is this major upheaval that prompted my memory to recall what had been there all those years back. I will attempt to list the facilities to be provided by the new works later. This bank site; I remember being told by a lady police sergeant, was a favourite place to stand and observe the public on a cold winters day, as the sun would shine up Market Street at a certain time and warm the cockles.
“Timothy Whites and Taylors Ltd. was one of the main chemists in the area and was one side of “The “Market Arcade” and this was next to “James Cawdell and Co. Ltd., the other major departmental store to be closed during the earlier “Charter Place” shopping re-organisation. To the right of Cawdell’s was an arcade that led into, and around the top of the “Watford covered Market”, which had replaced the open air” market square” in the road outside. This frontage became the entrance to “Charter Place” with a plaque and clock on a metal arch guarding an entrance plaza. . The “Charter “name” commemorated is the 1922 “Incorporation” that made Watford a Borough.
The next building is still there! It was the “Midland Bank”, stone built with a copper copula, It marked the other side of the “Charter Place” entrance, and is now the HSBC bank.
Next door to this rather tidy building was “The Black and White Milk Bar”. “Provincial Milk Bars Ltd” in 1947. A metal jug was filled with milk, a concentrate of your choice was squirted in and then it was noisily whizzed into a rather pleasant, and very popular beverage, with a straw. This was in the days before Coffee had been invented as the “must have” drink. There is no sign of the shop now.
The site is now an annexe to the bank and “The Pearl Assurance Chambers” next door houses the other pound shop under the title of “Poundland”. These chambers housed “Walton Isacc & Co, Ltd” Outfitters in 1947.
After the “Red Lion Passage” came the “Market Chambers” with 30 or so offices containing many professionals and government officials. These offices continued through “83 & 85 High Street” where “Henry Kingham and Sons” had their old established grocery and provisions shop. This establishment extended out the back to “Beechen Grove” from where their provisions were delivered. In my very early days I recall they used steam driven vehicles for some of their transport needs.
A passage at the side of the shop also led to the Covered Market and then Beechen Grove and the rear entrance to the grocers, where several sheds held small engineering businesses, including a “blacksmithy”. Another memory of this yard was “The Watford School of Music” on the left; by another Pub, which emitted some strange sounds to my young ears. The school, that is, not the Pub. This latter was virtually in the Beechen Grove area. Now gone forever.
“91 and 93 High Street”. housed “Marks and Spencer”, designated a bazaar, with “John Lovibond and Sons” Wine merchants next door. With a mixture of outlets from “Freeman Hardy and Willis”, Boot makers, to “Cecil Fane” Dental Surgeon, we are at 99a. a chiropodist and toy maker, or so my “Kelly’s” would lead me to believe! This amalgam was followed by “Loates Lane”.
The changes in this last section since 1947 are to the extent that actually placing them against the original is a little hit and miss.
“83 to 87 High Street” Kingham’s”, what was, housed BHS, which is currently closed and boarded up, having in its turn run its allotted span.
“89” was a tailors, morphing; in a new building into “Nathaniels” jewellers, and at this time a Bakery. “Marks and Spencer’s”, fills the spot from (91 to 95), and like several other shops in the line has a rear entrance onto the mall that crosses the pedestrianised Queens Road just before the “ring Road” underpass. M & S had only two shops at 91 and 92 in 1947, has engulfed a wine merchants, two tailors, and two Dental surgeons.
Loates Lane served as a tradesmen’s entrance to several shops in Queens Road, and was once the lane to Aldenham.
The building on the other side of the ‘ Lane was “The West Herts. & Watford Observer” in 1947. It produced one of the two current weekly local newspapers. Out on a Friday costing 2d. The other one was “The West Herts. Post”.
Of no real consequence, and meaning nothing whatsoever to anyone under 50, the Peacock family owned the paper, and Kim Peacock; a silent film star, played Paul Temple in the radio series of the same name. In those days it was the Coronation Street of the radio waves.
The section of the High Street between Loates Lane and what was then Queens Road was occupied in 1947 by a builders, a Hosier, a Jeweller, Tru-Form boot manufacturers, a house furnishers and a tobacconist. Next came the “Eight Bells Public House”, and finally the “Westminster Bank” with a selection of solicitors in the chambers above.
Several drastic changes have occurred up to the present in this section. First and foremost, the Pub has disappeared. For some time cut price stores, “The Bristol and West Bank”, and “Littlewoods Store” traded. But now a hairdressers, card shop and yet another eatery; of which there seems to be a plethora, plus a “one armed bandit” shop and with “Primark” abutting “Gap”, which fills the spot on which the Eight Bells and the bank on the corner stood. Queens Road no longer exists for vehicle access but is a pedestrian walkway to the back of the “Harlequin Centre”. The whole street seems to change by the day, and “Gap” has gone over the last few days and been replaced by “The Metro Bank”.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that Queens Road was once one of the alternative two way public transport routes to Watford Junction, with the double Decker 324 buses passing; with some care, along the narrower parts. It also contained “Watford Technical College” and “The Public Library”.
We will pause here and make our way back to the other side of the street and opposite the bottom of Clarendon Road, which we left earlier.
Across the alley from Arthur East’s was the “International Tea Company Ltd”. Known to the locals as “The International”. It vied with Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and several other outlets as a major general grocery stores. A discount was provided in the shape of little pressed tin discs that could be used against next week’s purchases. Like other stores of the day, the customer queued at the counter and asked the assistant for what they wanted. Self service was not an option in those ‘just post war years. The site is now another uninteresting three storey block, with two different Piri Piri takeaways at street level. Nowhere else did I find two outlets offering exactly the same wares so adjacently.
The next block of outlets are directly opposite the fenced off road works that are part of the new INTU development. The one store of my note in this section was “Dixons”. Here we saw for the first time a computer in the window displaying Micro-soft Windows, we were suitably impressed; and baffled. Things have moved on a bit since then, as indeed did Dixons. We will come back to the actual intended content of this massive steel build later when it is on display and we have a better idea what it holds.
It is exactly this stretch of the High Street that is seen in this old black and white photograph of a lady and young girl walking under a spreading Lime tree. They are dressed in turn of the century (the one before last that is!) dresses, and large hats. On their left is the site of the previously mentioned Wilkinson’s, at that time it would have been “The Lime Tree Temperance Hotel”. Directly in front of them is the tall building by Meeting Alley that marked the beginning of the wider cattle market area. On their right hand side is the ex “National Provincial Bank”, now “Five Guys”; yet another eatery. This picture is iconic to me; and perhaps demonstrates much better than words the massive changes that have taken place in everything in the area over the years, and are at this moment changing momentously yet again.
This picture and others is reproduced with the permission of Watford Museum. And is mainly from their “Bob Nunn” collection.
Many of the outlets on the next section are boarded up, presumably during the period of work across the road. They had recently been charity shops and Mobile phone exchange outlets. The TSB Bank is still open for business, as indeed is “The Moon Under water “, a more recent licensed premises. Some of the outlets in 1947 were, Stratton’s the stationers, Wrens and Co. leather goods, Bucks restaurant, and Riley’s billiard hall.
At the end of this block is “Five Guys”. This building was “The National Provincial Bank” and is now a fast food dispenser and restaurant. See note above reference the old picture that figures in most of the history of Watford books.
Here the pavement is set back to provide; in days of yore, for the cattle and open markets. Some years back the livestock was driven along the High Street to be penned in string tied wattle barriers and sold. It was not unusual for the shopper to be met by a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle, whilst minding their own business. The smell was allegedly memorable, and underfoot it was unpleasant. Following their sale, some of the animals were driven directly into the abattoir behind Fishers shop. (See later). More recently the cattle market was relocated beyond the new Post Office, (now an Italian Restaurant) in Market Street. This market has now also been closed. (This old picture shows an area of the High Street exactly where INTU now fills the skyline. A steam lorry is standing by the National Provincial Bank, now Five Guys. It is a long way before the 1947 datum, but surely of interest on a “never to be seen again” basis.
At the time objections had been made locally to the recently butchered carcasses being hung outside the butchers shops where they could share the flies, smells and other contaminants that had been making hay on the effluent slurry spread all over the adjacent road and pavements. Our recent laws and “Sell by dates” had not even entered the heads of a population that suffered badly from “every day” pollution. I recall being told that these were “natural, healthy smells” when I visited the Market Street market.
The first shop on the bulge was “The Electricity showrooms” which was next to “The Green Man”; a Taylor Walkers pub. It catered for the traveler, but was not a coaching Inn as many thought. “The District Bank” and “Peter Lord” footwear specialists, with “The “Star School of Stage & Ballroom Dancing” filled the next spaces; before on the corner, was “The Compasses” pub. The Green Man has long since gone and the rest of the building; up to and around the corner of Market Street, is one of the few in the area that has any visual merit. Although not particularly old, it is has a pseudo half timbered fascia, and is possibly the nicest corner; with the sun on it, in the High Street. At street level we now have “Barclay’s Bank”, and an alleyway that used to emit “Telegram boys”; like Bees buzzing from a hive in pillbox hats, riding BSA Bantam motor cycles and delivering Telegrams at a rate of knots. But not anymore! Next to a mobile phone shop, and on and around the corner, “Moss Bros” is gents outfitters, replacing the Compasses. This is one of my favourite remaining buildings, together with the One Bell, just along the road..
Beyond Moss Bros. and further around the corner is what was the new “Post Office”. Now an Italian restaurant.
Here we have “Market Street”.
Directly opposite the top of Market Street stood the earlier mentioned “Lloyd’s Bank”, whose facade will be incorporated into the new INTU building. I wonder what it will think of its new partner?
On the other corner of Market Street was the “The Rose and Crown” hotel, and next door, “Fishers” the butchers. Their abattoir was up “New Street”, next to the shop, and the destination of many of the markets temporary inhabitants on livestock market day. Following a Stationers, we had “The Spread Eagle” public house, followed by “Pearks Dairies Ltd”. and another hotel, “The Kings Head”, and yet another pub “The One Bell”, and a butchers, then the “Shirt Manufacturing Co” which stepped out to end the market bulge.
The Rose and Crown corner is now “The Nat West Bank” following a period of being “Boots” the chemist. Another office block and outlets; which seem to change quite regularly, take us up to “New Street”; the alley that led to Fishers abattoir and “Ballards Buildings”. These were one of the few remaining overcrowded slum areas; and together with the abattoir were demolished to provide space for the multi-storey car park that fronts onto Exchange Road.
An earlier report on this area opposite the “Parish Church” shows that the Pope and Dyson families had brewing facilities in the New Street area in 1693. “Sheltons Yard” was first renamed “Popes Yard” and then “Dysons Yard”, before it was demolished to build the aforementioned, and much later condemned, Ballards Buildings. These were the brewing families that set the stone for the eventual “Benskins” in the lower High Street. See later detail.
On the other side of New Street was “Bewlay” the tobacconist. This establishment sold loose tobacco in various forms and was the source of “the makings” that many of us youngsters could fabricate into “ciggies” with the aid of “Rizla Reds” and little cotton wool filters; if you did not fancy chewing on the ends of the tobacco. They also sold expensive looking pipes and all the tools required to keep them in good order, including wiry cleaners and polished wood racks.
This shop was also the purveyor of “Snuff”. It was stored loose in big porcelain jars, and the printers of the town were good customers. I recall the Compositors were most likely to be seen at the ready with their little wooden or metal boxes in their overall or waistcoat pockets. A folk tale of this era suggested that when likely to be offered a “pinch of snuff”, it was considered prudent to squeeze a coin between the thumb and first finger in your pocket. This produced a dimple and thus more room for the aromatic ground tobacco. Those caught so doing were called, “Penny Pinchers”. This small shop has been several outlets and is currently “Boots” opticians.
“The Spread Eagle” and “Kings Head” pubs were interspersed with a grocers, stationers, dairy shop, and yet another grocers, with the “One Bell” at the end of the block; next to the then restricted view of the front of the Parish church. Only the One Bell remains, and that is currently boarded up pending a decision on its fate. The shops leading up to the One Bell have suffered various fates and been replaced with more modern building and outlets which seem to change use; not infrequently,.
“The Shirt Manufacturing Co”. building was replaced in the interim with a another rather horrible “modern” building, with a cut out for access into the church yard; (Church Street.) without actually showing the church at all. For a time the jewelers “Ratners” occupied the new corner site. On their failure around 1999 the site was leveled, creating a pleasant area as mentioned above. “The Cafe Nero” now occupies the end of the block with its pavement tables and a nice view of the Parish Church yard and “One Bell”. The old pub is a pleasant looking building, with some history. It is to be hoped it does not suffer the fate of most of the other “older” sites in the High Street. With the SMC. building went Kendall & Son , the umbrella manufacturers.
The next section down to “Kings Street” has contained a number of premises that stick in my memory. “Morley” the jeweler is one. It was one of the two or three respected and trusted jewelers in the High Street and shared the Watford engagement and wedding ring trade with the others. The “Coffee Shop” was another. This latter establishment; (actually called Adams Tea Planters Ltd), roasted and ground the beans of your choice; and in the process flooded the High Street with an intense aroma of the finished product. The smoke issued from a fan vent in the window, together with the occasional glowing ember. It started me on a coffee appreciation kick that I could not afford in those far off days. Other less notable establishments in this section were a Dry cleaners; with its own less pleasant aroma, a Bakers, a Boot Makers, a Hatters, and Sketchly Dye Works and several other sundry outlets, together with the Vicarage next to the entrance to St Mary’s church yard. This last section along the High Street had been the wall and Vicarage grounds before building began and before retail premises were built. The area is currently shared between a Ladies hairdresser, a foreign exchange, a mobile phone repair shop and a pawn brokers.
Here is St Mary’s church yard with “The Citizens Advice Bureau” on its left hand side and the old Alms Houses at the back of the church.
The final trading outlets up to “Kings Street” from the church yard entrance began with “Dolcis” shoe shop, then “Style & Mantle”, followed by “Lyons Tea Shop”. In 1947 you could sit at a table and be served tea in a china pot, and cakes on a two tiered stand, by a Lyon’s “Nippy”; a young lady in starched apron and little white hat. I must say this was not one of my personal experiences! I am told that the “Nippy” would count the cakes left on the stand and deduct their value from your bill written out on a little pad attached to her belt on a cord. Both the tea room and the “Nippy’s are long since gone. Next door was a leather goods shop and “Bottom Bros” butchers.
“Burton Montague” the tailors came next, then followed “Woolworths – The 3d. & 6d. shop”. This shop; as I recall, gave an aura of solidity, from its dark hardwood flooring to the heavy wooden “island” counters with a vertical glass retainers in chrome brackets around the edges. Even the lighting fittings seemed to hover ominously from the ceiling. This was the Pound shop of the day, but with a little more class. They sold everything for the home, table and kitchen, I would hazard a guess that there is cutlery still in use today that came from “Woolies”. Toys were also featured, and together with the sweet counter, made the shop a magnet for the kids.
After Burton Montague; and right on the corner of Kings Street, was “The Kings Arms” public house.
The establishments now filling this area are a little less charismatic. “Bright House” selling sofas and washing machines has replaced Dolcis; with a change or two in-between. Followed by two small “One Stop” type grocers shops. Next comes “The Vape Store”. Goodness knows what the locals would have thought of this in ’47. It was generally thought that smoking was not at all harmful in those days. “Players are good for you”. read the adverts. Ladies of course did not smoke in the streets! Two travel agents and a bookshop lead us up to “Mc Donald’s” on the corner of Kings Street with the large metal “Hornet” on a pole outside.
The impression I have is that this last section is a development in the waiting. None of the buildings have much merit in my opinion and many of the outlets look somewhat temporary. I don’t suppose the developments will have any great architectural value, or the outlets rival Woolworths.
We will stay on this side of the ‘street and cross “Kings Street” to yet another eatery with pavement service. It was “Barclays Bank”, but is now a popular “Costa Coffee” outlet. Next comes “Jimmy’s Kitchen”, advertising a “Meat Shake”, followed by “Bella Italia” and “Nando’s, both with tables outside. In this area in the interim was a Co-Op grocery store with a strange first floor facia and canopy. That did not last too long. “Maplins” follows; although all their electronics outlets are now closed, and yet three more mobile phone repairers in a row. Another eatery with pavement service before two hairdressers and another grill before the “The One Crown” public house. Attached is a small nail emporium, next to “Crown Passage”.
What occupied this stretch in 1947? “Barclays Bank” served no coffee then, and the next house; number 132, housed a whole nest of solicitors, amongst them were the “Godmans”, two of whom were coroners for Watford. Just along Kings Street was one of Watford’s evolutionary Police Stations. They seem to have popped up all over the show and equally disappeared over night. This last one evolved into “The Robert Peel”, public house. Just along from here was the “Aerated Bread Company” or ABC, who catered and provided takeaway cakes and sandwiches to many of the staff of local stores and offices. I don’t think china cups and cakes on two tiered stands were to be found here. “B.S. Morse” were jewellers and “Andrew Forbes” could supply your military costumes and a fur for the ladies. “Curries” provided bicycles and “Lipton’s” has a provisions store. Add a tobacconist, butchers, clothes outfitters and an ironmongers and we were ready to pop into the “One Crown” for a quick one.
Continuing down the High Street, on the same side were a number of small businesses and private houses. To compare them with the present we will end at number 162.
“Head Hunters” is next to “Crown Passage”, followed by a restaurant and then a Polish food shop, close on the heels of “Runners World”. Trainers and other associated items I suspect. A little further along is an Indian Restaurant, a Mobility shop and “The Peace Hospice Charity shop”. The Mobility shop was the site of “The Three Crowns”, public house.
The “Gash” here is “The Ring Road”. The next surviving building is the “High Street Station” forecourt.
Between the charity shop and the station, all the outlets; and of course the buildings, have gone forever. In their place is the Ring Road; or “Exchange Road” to give it its full title, sweeping round from Beecham Grove, which has wiped out this part of the old High Street and its old businesses. I will list just a very few of the more memorable ones. The charity shop, (162), was home to a wool shop, a wallpaper shop and “The “Refuge Insurance Co”, plus a number of private residences. Several other small businesses came before “The White Hart” public house and then “Norman Reeves”. They were Ford main dealers and here you bought your “Popular”, or “Prefect” for around £400.
There is a rumour that the tiles from the roof of the old “White Hart” were considered of to have some resale value and were removed and stacked for collection, when an unauthorized person came along at night and saved them the trouble of loading them and finding a buyer!
We will go back to the other side of the road and start working our way down again from Queens Road.
On the corner of Queens Road in 1947 was “Boots the Chemist” with its dome and clock, and next door “Campbells Furnishing”. The dome and clock are still there but Boots became “Ketts”, the electrical appliance dealers and then “Waterstones” bookseller. It is now the “Gourmet Burger Kitchen”. “Albert Street” was between 127 and 129; but not anymore! The entrance to the INTU Mall is under the dome and clock. 123/5/7 were” Pearks”, a large drapers and furnishing store. There followed some small shops, with a little more interesting facade than many, and then “Carey Place”. It is worth looking above the outlets in this area as some of the upper floor windows and roof lines are almost pleasant. The same story pervades beyond Carey place up to “Water Lane”.
Several shops are worthy of special mention in this last strip, one being “Gibson & Sons”, the pork butcher’s. It was one of the few shops that those who did not live in the area thought worth the trip down the High Street for. They were famous for not only the various cuts of pork, but specially for their sausages. Their output was huge and the animals were all processed in their own abattoir, off the road towards the Water Lane Bridge. They now have a much smaller retail outlet on “The Parade” by the overpass.
There was also a saddlers by the name of “Wllson & Sons”. I recall the display of stitched leather items was fascinating.
“Chater” the chemist was an old and trusted dispenser of “the lotion, the powder, or the mixture”, or whatever your doctor had prescribed.
Two shops (143/145) provide the alternative to pork for your dinner, supplied by “Anker Allen”, the wet fishmonger, or next door, “Meyers” the fruiterers.
This last stretch of shops currently forms the back of “The INTU” Centre as mentioned earlier, and in one case; “Boots”, where it provides a rear entrance to their outlet. The last building on the block is “The Money Shop” which has the massive shopping centre multi storey car park behind it stretching back towards Beechen Grove.
Here is “Water Lane”.
Water Lane at this point is now a short relief road from the ring road, that allows some traffic to turn right onto the High Street opposite “Crown Passage”, in the direction of Kings Street and Market Street.. On the other side of the “Lane” is the quite weird; and frequently changing ownership, blue glass mini pyramid complex on a traffic island, with the “Beechen Grove” section of the “Ring Road” carving a great gash behind it..
I will list some of the establishments from Water Lane to the next “gash” where the M1 relief road intersects the old High Street. They were numerous and varied and there is no longer any indication whatsoever as to where they were situated, but they did provide a living for many trades persons in days of yore.
One of the first shops, which came later than 1947 was “Hammonds”. They sold all things musical, particularly electric organs. “Percy J Wilson” had a large drapers establishment here prior to this. The site is approximately now occupied by the above mentioned blue blot.
Next, in street number order there followed…..a draper, an ironmonger ,a pawnbroker, Ladies hairdresser, “Rosamund Gowns”, “Victor Value”” grocers, Hosiery shop, an insurance broker, a furrier, a costumier, a tailor,” Brightons Bakery”, chiropodist, another hairdresser, a paper bag wholesaler, “Watford and District tomato distribution centre”, next to “Watford and District fruit and vegetable distribution committee”. Next came a photographers, a refreshment bar, a boot repairers, “Hertfordshire Typewriter Service” and “The County Window Cleaning & Steam Carpet Beating Co”.
Here was New Road.
The above list is only of significance in showing that the “Lower High Street” as we knew it in 1947 was well supplied with both services and commodity outlets, so therefore presumably customers. The further section across “Woodman’s Yard”, and another lost public house, “The Three Tuns” and “Lambs Yard”, was much the same down to “Ausden’s”, the scrap metal dealer. “Weston’s” fish and chip shop is worth a mention, as is “Stapleton’s” tyre service and “Bramwell’s” cycle & motor cycle Co. Yet another lost public house , “The Leather Sellers Arms” was next to a public footpath to Water Lane and just above a petrol filling station.
Two sites stick in my mind in these last two sections. Somewhere, nearly opposite the High Street station I worked as an electrician in a small shop being converted to a TV sales or rental establishment. On gaining access to the cellar to route cables I found a Cock fighting pit. It was in good condition and by the worn timbers, had seen a lot of use. My boss of the day was not interested! This site, like the rest of the adjacent area is now under the ring road so will not yield any more information. I wonder what happened when the site was demolished? “Don’t hold up the works” was the response I suspect. There was a Pub named “The Fighting Cocks” in the Water Lane area many years ago.
The other site of interest; to me that is. Was the “Co-Op” funeral establishment further down the road at 25, next to George Ausden’s. Superbly polished hearses and stacks of “made on the site” coffins intrigued me. The silk linings looked too good for the purpose. A public preview is not available in this day and age.
This section of the High Street flooded quite frequently in the winter. This picture has George Ausden’s in middle left.
The above mentioned George Ausden’s metal dealer; or scrap merchant as we called him, took all our scrap cable from rewires and gave us the copper value for beer money! One of the son’s; Pete I think, was known for his familiarity with the then current Hollywood stars. He made the columns of the “West Herts. Post” on several occasions.
Here another gash. This time the relief road carrying traffic from the Berry Grove M1 junction serving via a short section of the old street B&Q and Century Park shopping malls via a new section of throughway before sweeping back to the M1. This section of new road also feeds the recent vehicle emergency entrance to Watford General Hospital.
Across the relief road is Frogmore House. A not unpleasant, if a little boxy, red brick three storey house. That is when the refurbishment is completed. It is a grade 11 listed and built in 1716. Beyond this building a short row of terraced houses named “Frogmore Cottages” stand at right angles to the road. This frontage is followed by a furniture shop and car main dealers. These last three building front the site that housed the “Watford and St Albans Gas Company” works. Complete with two gas holders and all the paraphernalia required to produce “Town gas”, this plant at one time was the only source of piped energy to street and home lighting and cooking. Although by 1947 electricity had taken over much of these functions there was still many homes with only gas mantle lighting and very basic cookers; called Ovens in those days! There were even gas irons.
The site was very smelly, and I would imagine quite dangerous, but mothers would take their children in push chairs round the plant to inhale; what was possibly poisonous, and probably carcinogenic fumes; if bronchitis was a problem. I don’t recall if it was “Doctors orders” or “old wives tales”, but it did not kill me! And I got over quite bad bronchial problems as a child. Coke was also purchased from the site. This fuel burned in a hot clean manner and sometimes destroyed the cast iron fire bed. Very few domestic central heating installations existed then. The whole site; including the old gas works area, is to provide 92 new flats and a Lidle store.
The “River Colne” flows under the road at this point and in addition to providing the towns water via adjacent springs, was the source of much flooding in years past. It is barely noticed now and a not a very nice colour. The other natural phenomenon in this area was the fog. Aided by the smoke and particulates emanating from the Gas Works, it was not unusual around November for buses to be led up the High Street by the conductor, carrying a lit flare and walking along the pavement edge. Smoke laden Fog; or Smog as it was called, was a feature of just post war UK with its mainly coal burning residences and industries. The Gas Works was just a bonus! Not to forget the contribution of the steam trains of the day.
A large New Car showroom stands a little bit back from the road, and with a plant hire shop filling the last spot before “Bushey Arches”, on the site that held “The King William IV” public house back in 1947, we have reached the end of the road on this side.
This lower part of the street had housed the large building right on the road; with a rope hoist to take the raw materials to the top floor. “Watford Town Flour Mill”, with its power derived from a mill race from the adjacent River Colne. Also in the same area had been “Sedgewicks Brewery”; where beer had been produced since 1655 and was later to be taken over by “Benskins” with the business moved to the other side of the street. The mill succumbed to a fire before the war and was demolished and was not necessarily concurrent with the brewery.
“Bushey Arches” was the approximate site of a “Turnpike Barrier” where all traffic; other than pedestrians, were forced to pay to pass in either direction, on their way to and from Bushey and then on to London. It also marks the start of first “Chalk Hill” then “Clay Hill” and where warnings were posted as to how horses reins and harnesses should be adjusted to cope with the not inconsiderable hills. On Clay Hill assistance was provided at the “16th Century “Horse and Chains pub to get the laden carts up that section. Directly under the railway bridge; on the corner of “Eastbury Road”, is the site of the “Railway Tavern”. Here was the second pub where we could purchase “Taylor Walkers” beers. A dark mild named “Main Line” was a particular favourite.
Back now towards the Town Centre; and we pick up our road again at “Watford High Street Station”. This electric train line runs from Watford Junction to meet up again with the main line at Bushey. It once also carried trains via West Watford, (Scammels), to Croxley Green. It was much more recently to be part of the connecting link between the “Met” on the “Park Estate” and the main line at Watford Junction, but the Mayor of London has thought otherwise. It now provides the traveller with the obligatory cup of coffee and somewhere to sit and drink it, but has lost its adjacent pub “The Railway Tavern”.
Here was “Benskin’s Watford Brewery Ltd”. The site had taken over the business of several other local breweries and had previously in its turn been the subject of sale and inheritance. It was the largest producer for the majority of the beer outlets in Watford and the surrounding areas in 1947. The site had several springs and reportedly the best quality water in the UK. It certainly had some splendid aromas. When the malting beds were turned over the smell was almost drinkable.
From 1708 Messrs. Pope had a maltings opposite the current house and a Pub named “The Three Tuns” on or near to the same site. In 1790 John Dyson 11. inherited the business and bought more lands adjacent to the existing maltings. This same gentleman noted the house and gardens opposite, (current museum) was up for sale and purchased it in 1812 and built a new brewery which he called “Cannon brewery”.
The house had been built in 1777 by a Mr Dawson of Southwark and was described as “a substantial red-brick double fronted house, with gardens. It remained in his family until 1792.
In 1867 Joseph Benskin and partner W.G. Bradley bought the Cannon Brewery and changed its name to “Benskins Brewery”.
The inclusion in the sale of all the tied houses and pubs ensured an almost total monopoly of the local beer outlets. Other assets obtained in the purchase included “West Herts. Sports Ground”, in Cassio Road, and the gravel pit that was to become the home of; in the early days, “The Brewers”, now better known as “Vicarage Road, and the “Hornets”.
Over the intervening years the company also gathered in several other local breweries eg. Healey’s, Sedgwicks and Wells, and from a total of 48 tied houses in 1867, held a virtual monopoly on the brewing and dispensing of beer in Hertfordshire; and had many outlets in the Southern Counties and London. My memories of the Benskin’s horse drawn drays; with large men in leather aprons, who would manhandle; what appeared to me to be massive wooden barrels, down ramps into the cellar of “The Nascot Arms” is as fresh as though it were yesterday.
A takeover bid for the company was accepted from Ind Coope in 1957. At this time Benskins had control of 636 Pubs and hotels and 16 off licences. Ind Coope joined “Ansells” and Taylor Walkers” to form “Allied Breweries” in 1959. The Benskin’s name was retained on some products and brewing continued on the “Cannon” site until 1972, but soon after this the old brewery buildings were demolished. “Benskins Best Bitter” was still marketed under the same name but was brewed first in Romford, then Burton on Trent, until 2002.
A long history, and one of the industries that Watford was famous for. Benskin’s still exists as a trademark, but “Colne Springs” water will not be included in its list of constituents.
The original “Mr Dawsons” house at 194 High Street was acquired by Watford Council in 1976 and opened as “The Watford Museum” in 1981. Another Grade 11 listed building and described now as “a Georgian neoclassical style town house”. It was the home of the Dyson family before the Benskins purchase in 1867, and now houses displays of local interest reference manufacturing, heritage, fine art and in particular the history and fate of “Cassiobury House”, the home of the Earls of Essex.
The business premises on this side of the road were similar in occupation to the opposite side, both varied and not terribly interesting. The message is that there were a lot of places to shop in the lower high street in 1947, and although most of the outlets were small scale; they provided the necessities for the purchaser, and also a living for the vendors.
“Tuckers Transport” was next to the Brewery and had later been the entrance to the ill fated “Watford Springs”, a borough water leisure park. Opened in November 1990 it closed and was demolished in 2000. I believe it leaked!. A tailor and tobacconist followed, then here is “Fox Alley”. Another one of the ex pubs was sited next to the Alley. “The Fox” was a little like drinking in someone’s front room.Tiny. “Tividale Tool Company” came next and was a popular spot for the local tradesmen. Their stock of tools, including good class engineers items was legendary. It was like Aladdin’s cave. Two chemists and an upholsterer came before the next pub. “The Swan Inn”.
Another very small enterprise and here was “Swan Alley” and a few private residences came before “Watford Town Mission” on the corner of “Watford Fields Road” and “Court 18”. This corrugated iron meeting room held services on a Sunday evening, and had done so since 1856, and my best mates father would stand outside playing his trumpet to attract worshippers. It was our belief that he would have got a far bigger congregation if he had not played his trumpet. Full marks for effort though. Ironically the site now houses one of the few new pubs in the High Street; mysteriously named “The Wag & Bone”. Almost as unbelievable as the trumpet.
This area of the High Street has in addition to a “Youthpoint”, mostly offices and apartments, and of little if any character.
Here is “Local Board Road”. In addition to its connotations surrounding the local authority before Watford received its Charter and became a local borough, (The Local Board of Health). it also housed the pump that provided the town with Water. “The Pump House” still exists as a theatre. Car showrooms and office blocks fill the rest of the spaces up this short road where a 2 bed-room maisonette is currently offered for £300,000. A sum that would have purchased most of “Lower High Street” at the turn of the century. (The one before last, that is.)
The next section of the old High Street contained hairdressers; male and female, a tobacconist and “LLoyd Henry William”, who advertised the provision of corn, coal, cake, manure and salt. There were also two pubs, “The Anchor” and “The Hit or Miss”, and the entrance to the enigmatically named “Gazelda Villas” and small factory that produced leather goods, and umbrellas, I believe.
The “Monaco Motor & Engineering Co” was followed by “The L.P.T.B.” bus garage. (London Passenger Transport Board), another pub and “Bridge Place”. Half a dozen private houses and an “Ever Ready” battery factory filled the last space, together with some more of those myriad small businesses, before the much larger “Watford Engineering Works”. Lastly came “The Wheatsheaf”, a relatively new, and much larger pub but superseded by a large luxury new car outlet.
Here was the entrance to “Oxhey Park” and the riverside walk to Wiggenhall Road that still exists.
The current occupancy of this last stretch is really of little interest to anyone, unless you are on your way to one of the large retail outlets, mentioned earlier. Roughly in the area between the old Hit and Miss pub and The Gazelda estate, the final” gash” carries Waterfields Way from the M1 that services both these sites. This road circles the outlets and in another “gash” by George Ausden’s, further up the high street; and already mentioned, works its way back to the M1 at “Berry Grove” via the Water Lane roundabout. Its loop by Century Park also provides the new main vehicular entrance to “Watford General Hospital” with a slip road called ” Thomas Sawyer Way”. The traffic in “West Watford” , particularly when the “Hornets” are at home, makes the original emergency access via “Vicarage Road” virtually impossible. It may be pertinent to mention that some of the houses and pubs in the lower street had a flight of several brick steps up to the front door as flooding was something “that always happened”.
Here we are at the bottom of the High Street on the Oxhey side. Eastbury Road runs along the top of the parkland rolling back down to the River Colne, that possibly determined that a town to be known as Watford should be established here. There is some considerable debate as to this fact; which is not likely to be settled here and now.
Addendum 1. The Ring Road.
In around 1962 the works began that would change the face of the centre of Watford. The start was made on a long project; to take several years, to relieve the High Street of its burden of two way traffic. Unfortunately it was not possible to circumnavigate a lengthy section of the existing road without losing a lot of established, and in some cases quite old buildings. The character of the town would be changed forever and much of its history lost. The scheme was divided into five quite painful phases, and must have caused both shopper and retailer a deal of heartache and not some little trauma. I will describe the end result and not the individual; by necessity, intermediate phases.
The first phase included the opening up of the area known as Beecham Grove from Clarendon Road, with the loss of the old Drill Hall and Carlton Cinema; which had been the skating rink. This operation allowed traffic to enter the High Street via Derby Road, in the area of Water Lane, and together with various traffic blocks and diverts began the ring road.
The next phase included the provision of an underpass for pedestrians in line with Hempstead Road and the Parade in the High Street A little further up St Albans Road; where the “Odd Fellows Hall” stood on the corner of “The Avenue”, a large surface roundabout replaced the one outside the Town hall. Under this configuration was a dual carriage way underpass connecting the St Albans / Rickmansworth roads. The two way new entry to the ring road started here as “Weymouth Street”; complete with “The Old Berkley Hunt” pub disappearing, together with the old “Labour Club”. This road swung around and above the Parade and carved its way, behind “Sainsbury’s”, and across “Clarendon Road” into the earlier provided gap below Beecham Grove church. This completed the destruction of “Beecham Grove”; which I had considered a little village on its own; and the Ice Cream capitol of Watford. No more “Grillo’s” or “Ceresales” The ring road eventually passed between several multi storey car parks and the rear of some of the INTU Mall shops. It certainly does not look like a village anymore.
Continuing past the back of the Mall, the road crossed over Queens Road; or crossed over what was left of it in its pedestrian tunnel. The Methodist church on the left corner, together with some shops on the right side of Queens Road disappeared.
“Derby Road” then donated its identity and much of its properties to progress as we now reach the area where a slip road intersection leading to a large roundabout would be formed. Keeping to the right, the Ring Road crossed the High Street. This section of the old town eventually lost all the largish houses on the town side of Derby Road and a complete 1880 development behind them in an area contained within Derby Road, The High Street, and the back of Queens Road, which included Clifford Street, Charles Street, Herbert Street, Albert Street and Carey Place. The station side of Derby Road still exists, with the Charity shop on the corner which was “Standard Range” ironmongers, and the “Baptist Church and Central School with some large houses standing at a lower level than the Ring Road. The whole area on the right side ; with the exception of some of its High Street fascias, was to become “The Harlequin Centre”. (Now taken over by INTU.) The section of the High Street demolished to accommodate the ring road crossing had several quite old buildings; including a Pub, all of which have disappeared as the road; now named “Exchange Road”, crosses by the High Street Station on its way back to town. At the end of the project, the large roundabout; mentioned earlier, was made into the new relief road to the M1 at “Berry Grove Junction via the equally new Stevenson Way, and gave the option to travel along “Waterfields Way” to the Lower High Street shopping centres and Bushey, and also is now the preferred route to “Watford General Hospital” via “Thomas Sawyer Way”. The ring road circles a Mosque and St Mary’s Parish Church then crosses “Market Street” by the Catholic Church; with more multi storey car parks on the way, then passes over the pedestianised High Street at the end of a ramp constructed over the end of Upton Road , where it rejoins the ring road by the Sainsbury’s intersection. The ring was thus completed.
The completed ring road surrounds “INTU” and “The Harlequin Centres”, a number of large multi storey car parks and a section of the High Street from the Station to the Upton Road overpass with a section of Clarendon Road and the upper part of “Market Street” thrown in. Most of the later is either pedestrianised, or has restricted access for utility vehicles only.
As mentioned earlier, although traffic density problems have demanded a drastic solution, it is with considerable regret I record the loss of not only specific buildings, but whole areas of my experiences from 1947. It would be nice to say that the replacement new buildings are pleasant on the eye, but in the main this is far from the truth. Whilst some efforts; in my opinion, are a disaster, others are just buildings with little or no character. It will be interesting to discover what the new INTU facade has to add to the High Street ambiance. How will it stand up to the old Bank facade; opposite the top of Market Street, which it will incorporate.
Please note that this addendum covers a period in excess of 20 years and has not been written as a guide to the project phase timing. As a guide only, the new section of the ring from Queens road to Market Street which ” closed the loop”, took place towards the end of the project and is dated 1981.
Addendum 2. What now?
I have done my best to describe some of Watford’s High Street changes since 1947. And where I had the information; and considered it relevant, a bit before. I now pose the question. WHAT COMES NEXT?
We are seeing at the moment, in the area from Clarendon Road to the HSBC Bank, a gigantic pile of steel supported plastic sheeting, shielding whatever activities are going on behind it. The bottom part of Clarendon Road is closed to traffic and the High Street between Clarendon Road and the old market area is being laid with large stone blocks, so is also traffic less. The majority of the shop fascias on the Mall side are also enshrouded in plastic,
We are told that behind this screen is a £180M development which includes 1.4m square feet of retail space and houses “an all new sensory experience to customers visiting INTU Watford”.
11 new restaurants will service the customers attending the 9 screen Cineworld complex, one of which screen is I-Max compliant. A lot of retail concerns are said to be locked into providing outlets for fashion, beauty, food and leisure. Debenhams is included. Providing they survive their current trading problems. A “Hollywood Bowl” is included on the site that from what is so far visible, bears little resemblance to anything else in the High Street. In weeks to come we will learn more and can all make our personal assessments.
Quite how the provision of all these new outlets equates with the current rash of large store High Street closures is yet to be determined. With “On-line” shopping expanding fast it might appear we have already a built in obsolescence in the new structure.
Dateline, 25th July 2018.
These are my personal observations and memories, and do not reflect the positions held by the Kingswood Residents Association or its officers.
Please do not copy or transmit any or all of this article without permission.
The pictures are printed with kind permission from Watford Museum. They are mostly contained in their J.B. Nunn collection Their use in other publication will require further permission from the Museum curator.. As photographs of 1947 vintage are rare, some pictures were indeed taken slightly earlier, or later. They still indicate fairly the buildings of 1947, although the vehicles and dress may appear inappropriately dated. As stated above these graphics will require separate permission for their reproduction.
I record my thanks to both David and Christine Orchard for their help in both recall and picture location.