Category Archives: Collections

Stevenage Charter Fair

Did you know the history of the town’s Charter Fair dates back to 1281, when Edward I issued a royal charter granting the town the right to hold a fair and market?

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Visitors to the fair in the early 1900s

On the outskirts were to be seen the caravans where the showmen and their families lived … Then there were the shooting galleries, where young women pressed you to try your luck, the swings, in which many too old to be called children enjoyed themselves. Passing there in safety, which required care, you were asked to have a throw at a cocoa-nut. The steam round-a-bouts with their music were much patronised; then there was a booth with a performing pony, a young girl on a tight-rope; in the next booth animals and birds went through various tricks; in another large tent there was a very good ghost illusion, also many other attractions. But alas, this year there was no wild beast show …

From the local newspaper, 1886

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The merry-go-round in 1907

Owing to the lateness of the harvest and the fine weather, the fair this year was a greater success than ever and the travellers all seemed to be doing a roaring trade. Special trains were run from Hitchin and other places, while brakes etc. brought people in from all the surrounding villages, so that at one time on Monday evening when the High Street got simply impassable it was computed that upwards of 9,000 persons were present. The old shows of the fat women, wild man of the woods etc., seemed much out of date, and were not nearly so well patronised as were the more modern cinematograph shows, of which there were three, with their newest attraction of singing living pictures . . .

From the local newspaper, 1907

Flood Recovery

In the next weeks we will try to keep you updated on the process of recovering a flooded collection (part of the collection). On Friday we were pouring water out of bags meant to protect a range of items from bowling shoes, stuffed birds, old trophies, boxes full of photos and post cards, whilst keeping hold of the paper labels tied to the objects.

On the photo you can see one of the surreal mini scenarios we found – a collection of rare birds eggs floating in their drawer.

The Diary of Fredrick Rowe

My name is Marianne and I am on work experience from the Barclay School in Stevenage, I decided to choose the museum because I am very interested in history and particularly love learning about historical events but mainly historical people i.e Queen Victoria, the Tudors, Marie Antoinette etc.
Today Mrs Maine came in and shared some of her Grandfather’s memorabilia from WW1, his old passport and a photograph of him and his comrades in East Suffolk hospital Christmas 1915.
Fredrick Rowe joined the army during WW1 on Sunday May 30th 1915. He was 34 years old.
Fredrick Rowe passport photo 1922
Fredrick Rowe passport photo 1922

“Sunday May 30th 1915

Left Aldershot at 6:15pm for Folkstone. Shipped from Folkstone 10:30pm, all in darkness for Boulongue 12 Midnight. Camped at S……… on that night.”

This is the first entry of Fredrick’s diary; this entry is about his journey to his first day in the diary. Fredrick became a runner for the army, this meant he was delivering from trench to trench; this could be a quite dangerous job for Fredrick as he found out. It was 6 months into him being in the army, until he was wounded on Sunday 17th November 1915

“November 7th Sunday

Fine day, got ready to be relieved, had dinner, sat talking with my legs out of the dug out, when all of a sudden a shell burst close against me and a piece blew my clasp knife all to pieces and that is what saved my life and I had a nasty wound to he abdomen, but did not penetrate. “Praise God, it is his will and I know he has a purpose in it”. I was in awful pain, I was dressed by a doctor and sent down t a dressing station, from there on to hospital where they are doing all they can(at Chocques)”

Passport pages
Passport pages

It wasn’t until December 1915 that a month after the injury, Fredrick decided he will not return to they army, possibly because of his age and his injury.

“December 21st Wednesday

Went and had x-rays but nothing found in the wound. I am glad for it has saved me from having another operation. In hospital at Ipswich until 10th January 1916, was then sent to Shrubland Convalescent home, had a nice time boating and some lovely walks through the woods.”

This was Fredrick’s last diary entrance for his time in the war. He was awarded four regular WW1 medals. For a while Fredrick became a bank messenger before going to France to join the Imperial War Graves Commission in France. Although Fredrick was not an actual soldier during WW1 he saw plenty of bombing, enemy planes, fighting, death etc.

“October 21st Thursday

“I in them and they in me, that they made perfect in one”. When the enemy found that we were so quiet they came up and threw a bomb in our trench, found no reply so they started to attack but only when the 9th Essex and 9th Fusiliers were in the alert and drove them back so all was quiet again, only a few high explosives have been fired and a sniper keeps on firing a shot now and again if he sees anything. Was relieved by a Scots Division at 5:00pm. I went down transport lines about 11:15am and stayed there until they went to Bethune; I arrived there at 4:30pm where I was billeted in the Tabacco factory.”

The Astonia cinema

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Astonia in 1969 from Stevenage Museum photo collection
The museum regularly gets new donations to add to the store of knowledge about the town. These can be photographs and objects, but sometimes they are memories. We recently received this from Margaret, who wanted to share her memories of the cinema of her youth, the Astonia.

How sad to see another landmark in the Stevenage of my youth now gone, I’m referring to the Astonia cinema in Pound Avenue, which eventually was turned into a snooker club.

The Home Guard in 1944 on the steps of the Astonia
The Home Guard in 1944 on the steps of the Astonia from Stevenage Museum photo collection

The Astonia Cinema was a beacon of excitement in the 1950s and 1960s. We couldn’t wait to go to “the flicks”, usually Friday or Saturday night, except for the Saturday morning kids’ cinema. The favourite latest films or epics of the day would be a “must-see” and I can remember waiting in queues which stretched might round the corner of Pound Avenue into Sish Lane, and even across the road outside the Stevenage Knitting Company, which is also now gone and the space built on.

The cinema lady usher would let a group of people in gradually, shuffling up the steps until the seats were filled. It was almost like a military procedure, all very calm and with little bad behaviour from the “younger set” anxious to get in. I also remember “big George”, who I understood was an ex-boxer who was always on hand to deal with any unruly lads who would cat-call and whistle at any unplanned breakdown in the film or hurl things across the rows of seats. Any unruly lads were soon deposited outside on the pavement!

If there was a lovey-dovey romantic film on, there was a natural clamour for the back row, a bit more expenixsive then the fronts stalls. Any impropriety was usually spotted and the couple were warned by a flash from the cinema usher’s torch. Acceptable behaviour was a clinch and kissing in the back row with an arm around your shoulders, sometimes there was more action there than on the screen!

The journey to the Astonia was usually Shanks’s pony as the finance was kept for the cinema ticket and food. You could buy sweets , popcorn and soft drinks from a kiosk in the foyer. As we were not old enough to frequent the old town pubs, places to buy food at that time were limited. There was a window of opportunity at the White Lion in the High Street where, from a small window near the saloon bar, you could get a hot steak and kidney pie or a bag of chips and a soft drink. Otherwise it was fish and chips from Fishy Furr’s, the open-plan style fish shop where the delicious aroma meandered almost the length of the High Street. This topped off a night out at the flicks except for getting home by bus which meant a long wait in an even longer queue. Many of us gave up and it was Shanks’s pony home too.

An alternative cinema called Publix on the Bowling Green end of the High Street was not so popular as it was much smaller and had a high staircase to get to the seats. Also there were residents scampering inside which could be heard, but that’s another story!

Typed by Jamie, Museum Volunteer

The Story of Shephalbury Manor 

Before the new town of Stevenage, Shephall was its own village with an ancient history; even appearing in the Domesday Book. In 1542 George Nodes, Sergeant of the Buckhounds to Henry VIII, was granted the manor and his family held it for the next 250 years.

Samuel Unwin-Heathcote was the first of the Heathcote family to become lord of Shephalbury Manor. He was known to oppose the coming of the railway and chased rail workers off his land and broke their instruments. After Samuel’s death, his son Unwin knocked the manor down and built a new one, completed 1865. Unwin died in 1893 and left the estate to Colonel Alfred Unwin-Heathcote, who lived there until his death in 1912. He was the last of his family to live in the house, after that it was rented out until it was eventually sold in 1939.

During the Second World War the house was used to house evacuees, then as a convalescent home for Polish officers. Afterwards, from 1950-1957, it became a Polish boarding school, then in 1959 an institution for children with behavioural problems.

The Coptic Church bought it in 1991, they built a cathedral in the grounds and are still there today.

8 miles per hour

It was proposed by Mr. Ellis, seconded by Mr. Day.

That this Urban District Council petition the Hertfordshire County Council to make application to the Local Government Board under Section 9 of the Motor Cars Act 1903 that no person shall drive a motor car at a speed exceeding eight miles an hour within the whole of the Urban District of Stevenage.

Carried unanimously.

Urban District of Stevenage
Urban District of Stevenage motor cars 8mph

The Woodcarver’s Cottage

The woodcarver's cottage in Woolmer Green
The woodcarver’s cottage in Woolmer Green

People get in touch every week with enquiries about all sorts of things. One gentleman recently wrote asking for photographs of the Woodcarver’s cottage he had seen as a boy, to illustrate an article he was writing to share with his family and his cycling club. He kindly agreed to share what he had written with us. We really enjoyed reading it and hope you do to.

“The date 5th June 1942 represents the start of a whole new life for me. This was the date on which I received my first bicycle. Of course, it was not new – there was a world war raging, and all means of production were under government control with a view to winning the war. I had to make do with a collection of refurbished bits and pieces on a frame with no name, steel rims and wartime tyres of poor quality. Nonetheless it was mine – I no longer had to borrow other people’s bikes, and I could go outside the town without the guardianship of my elder sister, always going only where she wanted to go.

One of the favourite destinations of my school friends was the Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield at Hunsdon, where we could see the aircraft returning from daylight raids over France, and dream of the day when could join them beating up the Huns. Not the finest ambition for 14 year olds, but that was life then. Another destination was Hatfield, where we could see the streamlined A4 pacific locomotion at the speed on the East Coast main line. This was another new experience for me. Although, as we lived near Kings Cross station I had seen many of those locomotives, I had only seen them gently backing into the platforms to join their trains and then starting up with clouds of steam and smoke and plenty of noise. At speed they were even more magnificent. But I was not interested in cycling merely as means of transport – I enjoyed exploring the countryside, and this was particularly interesting in wartime. With the very real threat of invasion in 1940 all signposts, milestones and other means of indicating where one was and how to get anywhere were removed to Council yards. Maps could not be bought and none were printed (shortage of paper) and all public maps were hidden so that any parachutists would not know where they were – and neither could schoolboy cyclists! Finding one’s way there was one thing. Finding the way home another. An inhabitant of Newgatestreet refused to tell me where various roads out of the village led to. When I said Hertford he pointed to the road and said “that’s the way back to Hertford” and so I deliberately took the road I thought led to Cheshunt – and I was right.

And so in 1943 – aged 14 – I set about finding my way around east Hertfordshire. I knew which road led from Hertford westwards to Hatfield and I knew which road led northwards to Stevenage and Hitchin. And so I worked out that the road out of Hertford to Bramfield should lead to the Great North Road somewhere between Hatfield and Stevenage. I was correct, of course and emerged at Woolmer Green – not that I knew it – but the road looked like the Great North Road and I duly turned left and so to Hatfield – eventually. But this was not before I stood absolutely astonished at a sight I had never seen before and the like of which I have not really seen since. This was a cottage, and the thing I recall most clearly was that the garden gates were carved of wood and painted like a peacocks displaying their marvellous feathers. The building was covered with carved and painted animals and birds, and we had the faces of Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt the U.S. President, looking down on us. Inside the garden were carvings of all sorts of animals – too many to count and remember. The whole thing was an absolute riot of fantasy and colour, and I had to stand and stare for some minutes at the whole colourful display – a complete contrast to the rainy afternoon around me. I could hardly believe my eyes , and I still find it difficult to find describe my feelings. It was like something out of Walt Disney except that I doubt he ever had anything like this.

A carving by Mr MacDonald held at Stevenage Museum
A carving by Mr MacDonald held at Stevenage Museum

I had no idea what the place was and when I spoke to people in Ware, where I was l was living and Hertford where I was at school, nobody had any idea of what I was talking about. Remember, if a bus did not go from your town or village to a particular place then you simply did not get there unless you walked or cycled, which few people did. Cars were an expensive luxury for the few in the 1930s and during the war petrol was rationed, so if you did not qualify for a petrol ration you laid your car up for the duration – it was as simple as that. And so it was a good time for cycling – even better than before the war as regards traffic.

Mr MacDonald's cottage. How many different carvings can you see? Double click on the image for a bigger picture.
Mr MacDonald’s cottage. How many different carvings can you see? Double click on the image for a bigger picture.

I have never forgotten about the woodcarver’s cottage but by the time I got around owning a car and taking my children there in the late 1960s it was a shadow of what it had been. I think the woodcarver had retired or died and his son was running the garden as an attraction for visitors on payment of a few coppers – tourism had hardly been invented then. Although it was interesting (and the children enjoyed it) to have animals popping up when you trod on some sort of levered plate set in into the path, the general air was of neglect and I was disappointed. I recall that there was a local protest later when it was proposed to demolish the place and to build on the site, but this did not last. I imagine nobody wanted to smarten the whole lot up and run it, and so it all disappeared and new buildings were constructed.

However, my interest was rekindled when I bought a picture book of Stevenage some year ago, and to my intense pleasure this included a picture of the cottage and the woodcarver. Apparently the owner was a joiner who, when business was slack, spent his time designing and creating the carvings to advertise his business and displaying them for a few coppers to augment his earnings. From my point of view, this is the sort of item I look out for on a ride, especially if I am describing the ride for others. What could be a better incentive to get children out on their bikes, or to keep them going a bit further (without protest) than to have something like the Woodcarvers Cottage to entice them on?

Other places which come to mind and were featured in various editions of my book “Twenty Cycle Rides in Hertfordshire” (now out of print and out of date) are the canal side inns on the Grand Union Canal in and around Hemel Hempstead like the Fishery Inn at Boxmoor which displays canal mileages and the pub in Pimlico which used have a helicopter and A.A. gun in the garden, the farrier’s shop in Knebworth (now closed), the memorial to two Royal Flying Corps officers at Willian, the grave of Jack O`Legs in Weston churchyard, the sources of the of the rivers Rhee at Ashwell, Hiz at Preston and the Maran at Whitwell, the Myddleton memorial at Great Amwell and the balloon stones at North Mymms and Standon Green End. These are the sort of things waiting to be discovered by the intrepid cyclist with his or her map and open eyes, and I am still on the look-out for them – even after 72 years of cycling. Not sure the sat-nav will ever include them, though.”

by John Hession, transcribed by Jamie, Museum Volunteer

The Christmas Truce – a local story

I’ve heard a lot about the Christmas Truce but until last week I didn’t know that local Stevenage men were there.

Frank Dymoke shared his memories with The Comet newspaper in December 1971. Last week a member of his family kindly brought a copy in to the museum and told us a bit more about the man behind the story.

War 1

Frank enlisted in the Bedfordshire regiment in October 1911. He served for the whole war, finishing in January 1919 as a company sergeant major. Before he joined up he had been a groom for a family at Chesfield and when the war started his old employers sent him a pair of duelling pistols along with the request that he kill a few Germans for them! Unfortunately the pistols were stolen when he was injured. He suffered three injuries and had fever four times but survived the war and came home.

He played for Stevenage Town Football Club and in this team photograph you can see him in the back row, third from the right.

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You can read the whole article (just double click on the newspaper clipping to open a bigger version) but here is a slightly shortened version of his story:

Christmas morning was very cold with a hard frost and about three inches of snow. As it got light we saw two Germans standing up head and shoulders above their trench. On our right were the Gordon Highlanders, and all at once one of the jocks was through the wire and going towards the Germans. He got halfway and called out: “Come on, you buggers.” They met and shook hands, and after that we and the Germans were swarming out like a big football crowd.

We exchanged sweets and smokes and played football with a rag ball. It seemed as if the war was over.

One very large German got a lot of us round him and he said: “What are we fighting for? We should be on the same side, for we are of the same blood as you.” Another said we should get the heads of our nations round in a ring and let them fight it out, the best man to win and call it a day.

Not a shot was fired for two weeks. No Germans were allowed in our trenches but our officers used to go and have dinner in their dugout.

When they heard they were being relieved, they told our officers to let us know to keep our heads down in the trench. We knew it, too, for the newcomers started firing bullets and shells. we had the chance to see our late friends again, for in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle we took 52 of them prisoners. I helped to take them back of the line, and some of them said: “Hello, Bedfords. This is different from Christmas.”

Mr Fox

Enjoying the sun in the museum garden
Enjoying the sun in the museum garden

Visitors to Stevenage Museum may have noticed that we have a large stuffed animal (taxidermy) collection in our Natural History gallery. Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting animal skins and has been practised for many years by taxidermists, the earliest examples having been recorded in the Middle Ages. It is a method of preservation and has been used mostly by hunters to show off their most impressive kills and natural historians so that they can study increasingly rare species. It was also popular in the Victorian times, as people thought they were a stylish decoration in their homes. Though it is less common to see taxidermy on a household level now, some pet owners will have their beloved cats and dogs treated in this way as an homage to their existence!

Mr Fox is a figure I remember from when I was a child, visiting Stevenage Museum with my mother and sister in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though my sister and I found the gallery a little scary at first, we were delighted by the small furry animals and loved the fact that we could stroke the top of Mr Fox’s head. We weren’t the only ones either, poor Mr Fox has had a number of operations over the years to patch up small injuries after visitors played a little too roughly with him!

Mr Fox was donated to the Museum by a Mr Colin Bladon in October 1968 and understandably, after over forty years of service, has gone into retirement, so you can’t see him in the galleries any more. However, if you ask the staff at the museum shop whether you can meet him, they will happily oblige. I think he must get a bit lonely in the store room now after all of the attention he used to get…

Richard Carpenter’s Dolls’ House (1928-1937)

Richard Carpenter’s dolls’ house is one of our star items; its delightfully miniature nature draws a great deal of attention as it slowly revolves, allowing you to see it from all angles.

Richard Carpenter was born in Stevenage in 1890 and in 1903 he began work at the Educational Supply Association (ESA) as an apprentice joiner, cabinet maker and polisher. Trading began here in 1883 on Fishers Green Road and was the first factory in the town, offering an alternative to the otherwise largely agricultural work available. The ESA was known for providing low cost but good quality furniture and was the leading supplier for folding classroom partitions.

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The dolls’ house itself is based on a housing design by Mr. Leonard who worked in the drawing office at the ESA with Mr. Carpenter. His design for a school table and chair became a symbol of the post-war classroom. His innovative designs spread wider to homes and housing projects, but can be seen very clearly in the image of this modern and practical furniture design.

It was Mr. Carpenter’s daughter, Yvonne, who inspired the building of this delightful house; its execution was so perfect however that it never became a plaything. The dolls house took nine years to complete, including building and furnishings, by which time his daughter had grown to be thirteen years old.

The dolls’ house illustrates the design principles that inspired Mr Leonard throughout his career. You can see the simple shapes, clean lines and minimal surface decoration in both the house and its furnishings.