Memories of Welwyn Garden City
1930s and 1940s
By Michael Angwin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.