Memories of Welwyn Garden City

1930s and 1940s

By Michael Angwin

Guessens Rd 1920s looking east from Handside Lane Junction
Herts Archives & Local Studies
Guessens Hotel
Herts Archives & Local Studies
Sherrards Wood 1937
Herts Archives & Local Studies
Welwyn Garden City Station, Goods Depot, c1938
Herts Archives & Local Studies
Roche Products Factory
Herts Archives & Local Studies
Welwyn Film Studios exterior set
Herts Archives & Local Studies

My name is Michael Angwin and I was born in WGC in 1929, the youngest of a family of four.

I believe my two brothers were born in the hospital, now two houses, on the corner of Youngs Rise and Elm Gardens.  My mother and father (Col Sir Stanley and Lady Angwin) came to the Garden City in the very early days and lived in one of the first houses halfway up Brockswood Lane, later occupied by my aunt and uncle, when my parents moved to 32 Guessens Rd, a somewhat conspicuous house facing down Church Rd and called by the first owner “Puffers View” because there was no obstruction to the view of the railway.

The house was my home for over 20 years before I left to get married after my national service, and starting my engineering degree at London University.  The house like quite a few others of similar style (The Quadrangle, corner of Guessens Rd and Handside Lane, etc) were built by the local builder, Palmer.  The house has a very prominent front porch with three outside walls above, plastered white.  A nice feature but as a bathroom with 3 outside walls and an exposed floor not the warmest of rooms for a bathroom!

During most of my life I have had close connections with WGC through relatives etc and last year my wife and I moved back to live in a flat in Rosanne House in Bridge Road.  My grandparents first lived in Barleycroft Rd and later in Farm Close and my daughter and family live in Parkway across the road from St Francis church.

School

I have early recollections of my first school, Mrs Wright’s “dames” school in Longcroft Lane for about twelve children in her front room.  My brothers went to the junior school, Frethern School, in Church Rd (now Doctors Tonic) but this closed down before my schooling started, when Mrs Wright one of the teachers set up her own school, where I stayed until I joined my brothers at boarding school in Ely at the beginning of the war.

From our Longcroft school we used to go to the very large rough playing fields, now the rugby club but far more extensive and stretching up Handside lane, where we played cricket, rounders and football.  I remember several of us being chased off the adjacent field by the farmer on his horse when we were picking mushrooms.  We swam in the pool at Stanborough Park.  The sides of the pool, covered in moss etc also home to frogs and spawn, was maybe slightly treated or just filtered water after it had flowed through the water-cress beds in Lemsford.

Early Memories

As a very small boy I can remember going to the tennis club (where Parkfields now is) where my mother played tennis, and also as a very young lad going down to the old railway station as it was to “help” the porters who had their office next to the booking hall.  I had a toy porter’s trolley which I used to wheel down to the station and was allowed to “help” the porters.  My younger brother and I were known occasionally to walk across the field from the free church in Church Rd where we went to Sunday School, to spend some of our collection money on sweets at the small stationers shop on the crescent leading to the station.  

Later Cresta, the designer clothes shop had, I believe, their first shop on the other side of the crescent which was the only shop there.  The end of Stonehills, near where the bus station is now, was the site of the police station, with the Cherry Tree public house with its large bowls green (now Waitrose car park), the fire station and the much smaller Council offices on Bridge Rd.

We knew Louis DeSoissons and his family quite well as they lived just a few houses away in Guessens Rd.  My eldest brother was good friends with Philip their eldest son who was later killed on active service.

Occasionally for a Sunday treat we would go round the corner to the Guessens Court Hotel for lunch.  The hotel later became a hostel and flats as the main building in Guessens Court.  

An exciting diversion for a friend and myself whilst walking in Sherrardswood would be to make dams in the stream that led to the swallow hole at the end of Brockswood Lane and then hope the water works south of Digswell Place would discharge water to challenge our dam and eventually overtop it.

Television

Our parents, because of my father’s involvement in the Post Office engineering and early development of television communications, had one of the first televisions in WGC (a very tiny screen) and at the coronation of King George VI, as the rest of the family went up to London, my elder brother and I acted as hosts at our house to quite a crowd of family friends to see the television broadcast, and we know from friends that several people, knowing we had a set, watched from outside as they could see into our sitting room from the road.

My father, at that time deputy chief engineer of the Post Office and in charge of radio communications, was one of the three people, including Lord Reith, who were on the screen to officially open the BBC television service from Alexandra Palace before the coronation.  One of several TV sets we had to try out (with their tiny screens) was supplied by the makers, Murphy Radio, whose factory was in WGC.

Stooking

Also on holidays from school my elder brother and I would go to Whitehill Farm in Whitehill Lane, south of Welwyn, to help on the farm.  Our jobs included “stooking” the wheat bundles and feeding the chaff from the threshing machine to the bulls in the adjacent fields.  I used to drive the large horse drawn carts with loads of hay to the haystacks and help to build the stacks.

On two occasions as a family we went to evening performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the local thespians.  The lighting effects in the trees were extremely good around the dell in Sherrardswood Park and we all sat on the sides of the dell with the action in the centre depression.

Our doctor was Dr Murray who practiced from a house in Bridge Rd.

Outbreak of War

During the war there was bomb that destroyed one of the council houses in Guessens Rd about where Lanefield Walk is now.  Another bomb exploded very close to the old North Rd and the River Mimram where it flows into Stanborough Park.  Because it fractured several main telephone cables we were allowed inside the cordon.  We were with my father who was responsible for the country’s telecommunication.

Industry in Welwyn Garden City

With regard to industries in WGC, some may recall the old Welgar Shredded Wheat cartons used to have a picture of a small boy in Household Cavalry regalia holding a further box of Shredded Wheat (this picture was repeated to infinity).  The boy in the photograph was my cousin, the photograph was taken by the Sheridans in their Studio Lisa studios in Parkway.  The building at the rear of their house is still there.  They became famous for their studio photographs of the royal family.  We had several family group photographs taken in their studios.  Their daughter Dinah Sheridan was a famous film star.

As boys we would cycle to Broadwater Rd to watch films being made at the local film studios.  We used to be amused with the outdoor stage sets of high buildings in the street scenes where the extras would be hanging out of the upstairs windows cheering etc but we could see the other side of the sets and they would be standing precariously on the very meagre wooden shelves and scaffolding.  At one time we used to go into Sherrardswood Park near what is now the entrance from Sherrard Park Rd, to see the film studio’s sets for a Tarzan type film they were making.  Lots of artificial vines and creepers hanging from the branches of the trees to make it look like a forest.  

At the very beginning of the Second World War on the day war was declared (3 Sept 1939) one of my brothers and I had been taking our dog for a walk in Sherrardswood Park and were on the way home when the air raid siren sounded.  A warden told us we must take shelter although we were nearly home in Guessens Rd so we went to a friend’s house in Homerfields where we stayed until the all clear sounded.

Childhood Games

We used to enjoy damming the stream which ran through Sherrardswood Park from the waterworks just south of Digswell Place to the sink hole in the dip at the bottom end of Brockwood Lane.  It flowed infrequently in a torrent as they released water from the works when to our excitement it would overspill our dam and destroy it.  We would occasionally put pennies on the railway line on the steep incline up beside the wood and let the engines squash them flat.  The goods trains underpowered by small tank engines were quite a feature as they laboured up the hill with a load of London rubbish on its way to the Blackridge dump near Luton.  This was always accompanied by clouds of smoke and steam and the noise could be heard from a long way away.  

During the war there was a day nursery prefab built in the large field between the rear of the shops in Howardsgate and Church Rd.  On fine days all the cots would be lined up in the field to let the babies enjoy the fresh air.

Besides the public library at one time in Guessens Rd (now Rowan Tree Nursery and originally the home of Sir Theodore Chambers) the Boots shop in Howards Gate (now Superdrug) had a very large lending library which was magnificently furnished like a stately home library.

A British Restaurant was built in a Nissan hut in Peartree where, in the school holidays, I would be sent to buy a really good, nourishing meal (3 courses) for 1 shilling which I am sure my mother found a great relief on the rations!

During the war “Mackey (Mr McKensie) ran a youth club in St Francis Church Hall (now where Church House is).  In the summer school holidays I several times went to the camps he ran near Roydon Mill.

A Walls Ice Cream man used to travel along Guessens Rd once a week on his “Stop Me And Buy One” ice cream tricycle and I was allowed to have one of his W cards to put up in the window to tell him if he stopped by the letter box on the corner and rang his bell I would be out to buy a 1d triangular lolly!

During the war my sister and eldest brother with the Priestmans and other friends ran several war charity dances (to records) in the Guide hut in Guessens Rd.

Surveying

When I was a civil engineering student after the war and knew something about surveying I had a temporary holiday job with Welwyn Builders in Peartree as a builder’s labourer.  The Agent got to know I could survey and thereafter left all the setting out to me; much better than hauling brick hods up wooden scaffolding.

When the Welwyn Stores building (now John Lewis) was opened the previous Welwyn Stores, an arched roof single storey building on the corner of Guessens Rd and Bridge Rd, become the council’s municipal garage.  After the war the WVS Meals on Wheels van was housed there: occasionally I drove it in service.

Early in the war I helped collect and sort the aluminium pots and pans people donated to be melted down for building Spitfires.  These were bundled up in this garage ready for collection.  I also assisted at the Welwyn Stores under the direction of the WVS in the collection and weighing of rose hips which were used to make a nutritious jelly for babies and small children.

Roche Products

Whilst waiting to be called up to do my national service in the army I found a job at Roche Products in Broadwater Rd as an assistance maintenance engineer which meant I got to know all the departments and what were very modern and very expensively Swiss designed buildings.

Two departments that were interesting were the autoclave room where large vats were mechanically shaken under pressure for various processes.  Some of the large vats were silver lined and at intervals a silversmith would come down from London and starting with a large silver ingot he would slowly hammer it into shape forming a thin lining for the four or five foot diameter vessel and similarly for the pressure lid.  I found the copywriters’ office and their stories absorbing.

Roche at that time were making morphine capsules which were especially for issue to air crews on long distance missions so that if injured they could inject themselves in the hand or wrist to ease the pain.  There was a Customs and Excise officer permanently on site to control the issue of the drugs.

Roche had their own electricity generating station but in spite of this because their big compressors took up so much power to start up, I was told they had to inform the Grid when this was to happen.

Wartime

During the war we used to buy Bikki Pegs in Broadwater Rd, the remains of meat after they had extracted all the goodness for their babies rusks.  This was fed to our dogs who appeared to get some meat flavour it.

Also during the war in the school holidays at Christmas I used to be a temporary postman delivering mail from the sorting office which was behind the Post office in Howardsgate.  I got to know the roads in WGC quite well whilst cycling with deliveries.  Knella Rd used to seem a long way away and almost in the country.

As boys we used to enjoy watching the “dugger trains” as we called them, narrow gauge petrol engines that were used by Welwyn Builders to haul the small tipper wagons full of sand from the quarry at Gosling Stadium to the developments in the Southwest of the town.  They used to follow the little lane alongside Stanborough Lane before crossing the road.  At that time the main road into WGC used to be Valley Rd.  Welwyn Builders yard was situated where Campus West car park is.  Our car was serviced by Mr Toplis who had a garage almost in the country on the West side of Lemsford Lane on the steep hill near the A1M.

My Parents

My parents lived at 32 Guessens Rd from about 1926 until my father died in 1959, and my mother continued to live there for well over a further ten years before moving to Gloucestershire.

My father was awarded three knighthoods.  A Knight Bachelor in 1941, a KBE in 1945 and a KCMG in 1957, and has been awarded a DSO and MC in Gallipoli serving in the Royal Engineers.  He was a Colonel and formed one of the first Royal Signal units.

He was Engineer in Chief for the Post Office throughout the war and was responsible for all telecommunications.  In 1947 he became Chairman of Cable and Wireless and in 1951 Chairman of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board.  He was responsible for the building of Rugby Wireless Station and several other radio stations at home and abroad.  He was a Doctor of Engineering.

My mother, Lady Angwin, was the District organiser of the WVS during and after the war, and later as a local councillor was very instrumental with the De Soisson’s architects and the council in the building of Woodside House in Bridge Rd.  She launched two cable ships, one of which was name The Stanley Angwin.

This page was added on 23/01/2013.

Comments about this page

  • I was born in 1957. We lived at 33 Bridge Road. My father was Mr Jenkins the dentist. We shared a double driveway with Dr Murray. I can confirm with a previous comment that he was quite a character. Our shared driveway was always a point of conflict. He believed that as the “Doctor”, he had priority. My father treated many of the pupils I went to school with. I have great memories of living there. There might possibly be some that would remember our border collie dog Dai, who used to sneak out of the side gate and lie with his nose in the gutter, terrifying passing drivers who thought he might run out.

    By Mary (26/08/2018)
  • I am very proud to have been born in WGC new town…and can actually say I was ‘To the Manor born’ ….as I was born in Brocket Hall, the home of Prime ministers, only at that time (1946 ) it belonged to Lord Brocket, the father of Lord Charles Brocket of insurance fraud fame who had officially been interred during the war when the house had become a temporary hospital serving north London etc…….Lord Brocket was a Nazi sympathiser but it would appear that he was not interred at all but was in Knoydart in Scotland where he owned some land…but all that is another story…..I remember the town’s first police station on the pavement edge of the piece of land that goes from the old co-op (now Debenhams) over to the old Welwyn Department Store.  I also vaguely remember being with my older sister in a meadow next to the bowling green at the cherry Tree. On the other side of the road about halfway up the hill there were a lot of steps going down to the railway lines where there was a house at the bottom..I believe the signal man or station master lived there…once when my sister and I and a friend had an adventure and walked to Sherrardswood from our home in Ludwick way near Woodhall and had played there most of the day we were walking home tired, hungry, thirsty and dirty …and knocked on the door of that house like little begger children.asking for a drink of water ….and bless her a young girl who opened the door must have thought we were little waifs and brought us biscuits as well !  There was a large café on the corner of bridge Road opposite Norton’s and Barclay corsets where I had one of my first jobs was a bit further down the road…I remember when the King Goerge V playing fields had tunnels with tiny little streams running through them..and a little concrete paddling pool about 20ft or so square where mums would take us kids to play in when it was warm enough…and when I was about 6 we used to go up beyond K.G V playing field and it was a lane with trees and hedges either side of a narrow road…….My mother worked in Scotties café..a white hut which occupied the ground on which was later built the Wimpy Bar (my first job on leaving school)….. you could walk up the side of it and along the top of the railway bank where there were allotments and come out at the top next to the 20 mile bridge ….I had two aunts who lived in Longcroft Lane and we used to walk to visit them and go in that entry and pinch a couple of carrots from the allotments we went past to get to the end of their back gardens…and arrive at their back doors…we always got scolded for pinching the carrots but they always peeled them for us to crunch on !  I also remember the farm on Ridgeway where we used to walk past the pigsties there to Tewin daffodil wood where we’d pick daffodils and sell some to passers by and take some to the Cottage hospital (which is now the Doctors Tonic)and give them for ‘patients who didn’t have any flowers’. I have so many more memories of my beloved WGC…but run out of time….I don’t think I could ever live anywhere else….

    By Christine Winnan (10/02/2016)
  • In 1967 when I married we were allotted a house in Guessens Road. We moved into no:72 in the November that year, (on the corner of Lanefield Walk, opposite the Guide Hut) to find a 3 bedroom Semi-detached house with 2 doubles and a small box room upstairs, then downstairs a living room and kitchen with a bath, and the only toilet just outside the back door. Originally there had been a brick built boiler for washing in the corner but that was replaced by a gas cooker. Obviously no heating, a coal fire, and a cupboard under the stairs in the living room which was originally meant for coal !! there was a large garden back and front, and at the back behind the house was a playing field.We lived there and had 3 children there, until 1971, when the road was being demolished and the residents were all re-housed by the council to various parts of WGC. It was pretty cold at times, and having no hot water on tap and no washing machine it was quite hard going, but everyone knew someone and it was a shame when we were all split up. It was convenient for the shops, the original Sainsburys was where Pound Stretcher is now, and in those days we left our babies in their prams all lined up outside the shop……imagine doing that nowadays !

    By Christina Baker (26/07/2015)
  • My grandparents lived in the terraced houses about halfway down from St Francis Church & the old tin hall that had been the original church.. When i was small I spent many happy weeks staying with them especially during the school holidays. Their house had a toilet just outside the back door & the bath was in the kitchen in front of the copper used for washing clothes. There were 3 bedrooms 2 doubles & a tiny narrow single. Downstairs was a lounge that ran the width of the house, the kitchen & across the small front hall a very cold dining room/parlour which I cannot ever remember them using except to set jelly.

    My Grandfather was a keen gardener & built a  sunken rockery in the front garden. At the back the part under the dining room & kitchen windows was grassed with a hydranger hedge. A path that ran from one end of that part of the terrace to the other seperated the lawn from the rest of the garden which was given over to fruit & vegetables except for a very small area for flowers. The garden backed onto the recreation ground & grandad made a way through the fence as a shortcut for me. As a treat of a fine evening we would go to see the fountain all lit up before bedtime my favourite colour was green.

    In the late 1960’s it was decided to demolish these houses rather than modernise them, & build more modern ones with smaller gardens & my grandparent reluctantly left their beloved garden & neighbours for a bungalow in Heather road with all mod cons.

    By Jyll Marsh (24/05/2014)
  • What a great account of life then! I was born in WGC in 1953 and we lived in one of the flats in Guessens Court. We used to go over to the hotel and I was best friends with Janet, the daughter of the manager, Mr Levermore. One day I was playing in the grassy area and I saw something sticking up from the ground which looked like a bomb and I remember running up to my mother and saying I had found a bomb. She told me not to be silly, but in fact it was true and the bomb squad had to come. We also were patients of Dr Murray, quite a character. I remember going to the library on Guessens Road. Later on in my life I worked at Shredded Wheat and you could just walk up to the line and pick hot Ritz crackers off the conveyor belt!

    By mackenzie sorensen (06/01/2014)
  • Michael Angwin, what a splendid story. So well told. I wonder if you might have known my father.Gustafa Andres Scott. He was born in 1932, attended Peartree school (when not in the air raid shelters!) lived at 196 Knella Road. He was also the Welgar Shredded Wheat Drummer boy on the Welgar Shredded Wheat boxes. Of which he was very proud. There was a competition at the factory for the children of employees. A fancy dress. Gus came along with a tin drum and broke into tears when the photos were being taken as staff took the drum away and replaced it with a box of Welgar Shredded Wheat. He ate Shredded Wheat all of his life often with hot milk. He lived a long , happy and healthy life. He passed away in his sleep peacefully on 17th April 2013. Can anyone share any memories of Gus in the days of Welgar Shredded Wheat? Thank you. His daughter Helen

    By Mrs Helen Scott-Williams (04/10/2013)
  • What a great story. I love the history of this town and I found this very interesting. My grandparents also lived in Guessens road. they moved from Longcroft lane but I can’t remember what year they were there, also can’t remember the number.

    By Sally (11/04/2013)

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