Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wolverton Works

You would have to spend your life in a bubble not to be aware of the importance of railways growing up in Wolverton. In fact, for the first 110 years there was nothing else. It was a railway town. Railways were life and bread an play.  Oddly, as I see it now, the works had no direct impact on my life as a growing boy in the 40s and 50s. What went on behind the wall was, well, unknown, and I had no curiosity to learn. I might have learned my father's position and job title but I had no inkling about what he actually did between the daily signals of the works hooter. There was a time to learn what went on behind the wall and that would be when you undertook an apprenticeship. It was I suppose a rite of passage like a bar Mitzvah.
I have been thinking about this because of a request for photographs of the works and my subsequent discovery that the works was something I knew almost nothing about. It was not part of my world.
The wall which extended for about a mile was dominant and rightly criticized by Sir Frank Markham in his history. The aesthetic impression for any visitor to Wolverton was terrible.
The only visual relief was a gate at the bottom of Cambridge Street and a cluster of buildings beyond Radcliffe Street. These were the Public Baths, the Main Gate and Offices, the Fire Station and another set of offices at the Ledsam Street end.
The Public Baths building remains, as does the exterior of the Fire Station built in 1911. All other buildings have now been demolished to make way for the Tesco shopping complex.
There are surprisingly few available photographs but this one, taken before the building of the Fire Station, shows the big building which accommodated the Canteen and presumably offices above. The Canteen, apart from its lunchtime function, was used for all large functions like the Remembrance Day concert and the children's Christmas Party.

The second photo, taken fifty years later, show the buildings as I remember them. The Stratford Road was still relatively traffic free in those days, but at 7:30 am, 12:30 and 5:30 pm the road would have been heaving with men (mostly), buses and bicycles.

So the triple-gable building which became the main gate must have been built in or after 1911. The clockin the centre was the only public clock in Wolverton that I can recall, other than at the station. Watches were relatively expensive and often regarded as a luxury item. In fact the usual gift for a retiring employee, after 40+ years of service, was a timepiece. The irony that it would no longer be required was probably lost on the givers. "Knocker-uppers" were still employed in parts of the town in the 1940s to get people out of bed in time for work.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wolverton Park


In 1884 this patch of land between the two railway lines and the canal and the Old Wolverton Road became the town's first public recreation ground. Like so many amenities in Wolverton it was funded by the L&NWR. Previously Wolverton's first public house, "The Radcliffe Arms" and some cottages were located here. The carriage sheds were built on the approach road to the first station.
The Park, as it was known, could be reached by foot from the Stratford Road down steep steps to below canal level, or through the Park Gates on the Old Wolverton Road. There was a Park Keeper's cottage here, presumably built for 1884.
The ground level of the park area was flat but man-made embankments on three sides created the illusion of an ampitheatre and at times it could feel rather dank as it held the still damp air of winter. During football matches this phenomenon amplified the sound of the crowd into something like a roar. In the fifties Saturday afternoon attendance might have reached about 1,000, large by today's standards but quite typical for a small town in a minor league. turnstiles were in operation for football matches but otherwise the Park was open to the public.
The football ground was in the centre of an oval which was fenced on the outside. The oval, wich was banked at the north end, was a cycle racing track and out of the football season the ground was used for athletics. A bowling green and tennis courts were provided at the south end.

This photo of the Park taken before the ground was taken for housing development shows it in a state of some dereliction. The two stands had been there for many years.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Policing in the 1950s



50 years ago this house, at 97 Church Street, used to be Wolverton's Police Station. The front room was the reception/office, protected by a high counter. I am told that there was a lock-up cell in the back and a small court for inquests, although magistrate's hearings were always at Stony Stratford.
The ranking officer was one Sergeant Gee who I believe had been there since before the war. It was a small detachment of perhaps two or three young constables who would regularly walk their beat around town. What crime they uncovered I cannot imagine. Criminal activity in Wolverton in those days amounted to stealing a few shillings from the gas meter, drunk and disorderly behaviour at weekends and possibly some domestic eruptions. When there was a real crime it was almost comic, like the time some desperado robbed Sigwarts, the jewellers on Stratford Road, and then legged it to the station hoping, apparently, to catch the next train and evade capture.
I know I will not be believed today but the crime rate was very low in those days. Property was respected and because everyone in the town knew one another there was very little you could get away with. People did not lock their doors unless they went away on holiday and even if they did, they would leave the key under the doormat.
In 1960 or thereabouts a new Police Station was built on the Stratford Road at the western edge of the town. Sergeant Gee retired and was replaced by an Inspector Wanstell with a larger detachment. The police now had cars, bobbies no longer walked the beat, and the motorist became a target for police activity.
My father bemoaned the fact that the ordinary citizen was now criminalized and thought that no good would come of it. I suspect he was right.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Street Lighting

One of the pure joys of childhood was the discovery that street lighting could play wonderful tricks with your shadow - it could move ahead of you and lengthen as you walked ahead of one lamp, only to switch behind you as you came into the ambience of the next lamp. The experience used to be common but I expect non-existent with today's floodlit streets.
The lights in Wolverton were spaced at some distance apart, usually at street corners with another in the middle of the terrace. I think also that the back alleys were lit at the end. I do remember one lamp suspended over the back alley behind the West End Chapel on Anson Road.
In the 1940s and 50s they were incandescent lights and provided a pool of local light. There was enough illumination to see down the street but indeed there were very dark areas in between.
My memory of the lighting was that it was still possible to see the stars once out of the immediate lighted area. I don't think that this would be possible in any urban area today.
In the 1960s the Stratford Road lights were replaced with sodium lights which provided much greater illumination and eventually all of the old lights were replaced.
19th century Wolverton was lit by gas light, which had long gone by the 1940s, with one exception, and that light was bracketed to the corner of the Wesleyan Chapel on Church Street.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Temporary Buildings

Wolverton was a red brick town. The church of St George and the Vicarage were made of stone but with those exceptions brick was the universally favoured construction material. This, and the period of building, gave the town a uniformity which it retains today.
However, there were some other buildings in the town which offered some variety of appearance and these were all temporary buildings, no longer with us.
Wooden Buildings
There were four wooden buildings of any significance - the cricket pavilion, the Scout Hall Annexe, the Youth Club and the wooden classrooms at the Grammar School. The cricket pavilion was probably the best looking and best designed of the four with a viewing stand for the cricket on one side and for tennis on the other. It was strictly members only so I never went inside. Nearby, at the back of the Scout Hall, was a shed-like building used by the seniorscouts, then known as Rovers. I think they wore crimson beret's as a mark of their status - much more stylish than the boer war hats that boy scouts were expected to wear.
The Youth Club at the back of Anson Road was also a timber building of the period. It was quite large, probably about 20 feet wide and 40 to 50 feet in length. A old railway carriage was attached to the north side and used as an office for the youth club leader. As with all buildings of the type and period it was covered with black creosote. I am not sure when the Youth Club building was erected since it did not come into my consciousness until about 1956 when I was old enough to join, but i suspect that it was post war.
Finally the "huts" at the Grammar School. This was a longish barrack-like building with a low pitched roof of the kind seen in wartime films. It had two classrooms and a woodwork shop at the west end. We went into the huts as second-formers in 1954. They were already in pretty shabby condition then with worn floorboards and holes in the walls. We also had quite old furniture. From our point of view they were enormous fun; there was a sense of liberation at being housed apart from the main school, away perhaps from the watchful eye of school authorities.
In either 1958 or 1959 they were demolished and replaced by new "Terrapin" buildings. The "Terrapin" company had developed a new standard in the 1950s of prefabricated buildings that could be quickly erected on site. During the school expansion of the 1960s the Terrapin was ubiquitous. Their building design at the time was based on a steel frame with exterior wall panels of wood and glass. The roofs were flat.
Concrete Pre-fabs
Older fast construction techniques depended on cast concrete panels with steel window frames. Much of the emergency post-war housing was of this type and a lot were erected in the Bradville estate. In Wolverton, this type of construction was reserved for four school buildings - the school canteen serving the Aylesbury Street schools, the school canteen at the Grammar School at Moon Street, a two-classroom block at the Grammar School used for the fifth form and know as the "New Classrooms" and another two classroom unit at Aylesbury Street, which was the Nursery School.
The Aylesbury Street school was divided from the Church Street school by a wall. This has now been demolished. South of this wall, in the east playground was the Nursery School. This, as I said, was comprised on two classrooms with an office and cloakroom in the centre. The Canteen, of a similar size, was north of the wall on the western side.
The Grammar school buildings were identical and probably erected in the same post war year.
The Tin Hut
On final building which I can mention in this section is the tin hut at the Aylesbury Street end of Peel Road. This land has now been developed into housing but for many years it was an open patch of land. The L-shaped building that sat on this land for some years was covered in corrugated panels. During the war and until the end of rationing it was used as the Food Office - an institution used to issue ration books and ensure that food was fairly apportioned. When rationing ended in 1952(?) the office became redundant and part of the building was used as a classroom annexe. The back part was a billiards club administered by the Wesleyan Chapel.
Unless my memory is playing tricks, it was painted with camouflage paint, and remained a grey-green colour. It was also surrounded by steel posts and a high wire netting fence, no doubt a relic from its government use. Over the years it rusted and deteriorated and although the building was in use it maintained an air of neglect.