By Janet Robinson
Newtown House There is a picture of Newtown House in the book of Hatfield and it’s People[i]– taken when it was the first home of the Development Corporation for the New Town. It was a gaunt building of three storeys plus a half-basement and had two rows of chimneys at either end. Its only distinguished feature was the white stone porch with steps up to the front door, flanked by wide stone balustrades. It stood in St Albans Road to the right of the White Lion pub and separated from it by a right-of-way. There was a gravel drive at the front and one side, with a large lawned area edged and studded by trees.
I cannot ascertain when it was built, but I have a theory. From 1861 to sometime in the 1880s it was inhabited by James Webb. Now Mr. Webb was a builder and he had risen in the world. In 1851, aged 39, he lived in Old Hatfield with his first wife Sarah and a brood of children but ten years later he is living in Newtown House and is employing two men. In 1871 he is employing 9 men and 3 boys and ten years later he is retired and described as a ‘Gentleman, formerly builder’. Newtown House, from its appearance, was probably built in the middle of the 19th century. No doubt as Newtown developed from 1841 there were building plots available and Mr. Webb probably carved one out of the Riddles fields. If all this is so then James Webb lived there for over 20 years, though his spouse did not last as long. In 1861 there was Sarah – who had been with him in Old Hatfield and produced his children; Mary from London is there in 1871 and ten years later he is married to Matilda, nearly 30 years younger than her husband. A warm man – perhaps in more than money.
In Hatfield and it’s People it is stated that a Mr Hempsall had a school there in 1900. According to the directories it is likely [since the numbers are not recorded one cannot be absolutely certain] a Mrs Crawley lived there in 1903 and in 1906 – when the House was listed. Between 1907 and 1911 the resident is given as Elmsall Mansfeldt du Cardonnel !! There is then nothing of interest until 1936 when a Mrs D.F. Findlay is recorded as having a Private Hotel there.
In 1940 Mary Thomas and Joan Burrows have a “prep school” Frank Cox’s book on Dagmar House and Alexandra House states that the latter school moved to Newtown House with Mary Thomas as Principal around 1934. I believe that Nina Barnes, a Hatfield pharmacist, who some people will remember, was a relation of Miss Thomas and lodged with her in Newtown House while working at MacSweeney’s the chemist.
In the autumn of 1941, wearing the brown blazer with a yellow badge that was part of the uniform, I walked with my mother up the steps to the front door – steep steps for short legs – and was put in the Transition class which was in a high-ceilinged room on the ground floor. The class teacher was Miss Burrows. That day I was given my first reading card. I believe that I could write my name and knew some number before I went to the school but I was not able to read. The card was on thick soft card, almost like blotting paper and it concerned Rover the dog and two boring children – were they called Dick and Dora?- and it had a small line drawing in yellow and brown (like my blazer!) at the top. ‘Give Rover the ball. Rover has the ball.’ It seemed very easy so I must have been close to reading and can remember nothing more about it.
A year later I moved upstairs to the next class. The classroom had probably been a main bedroom and had a window to the front of the house. There was a fireplace with an over mantel that was half hidden by a large blackboard on an easel, and a wardrobe which held books and stationery. The ledges of the doors and the tops of the cupboards either side of the fireplace were dusty with chalk. The iron framed desks with bench incorporated seated two and there was only a shelf below the desktop. Such desks were hard and unyielding. Our exercise books were thin and half sized. (Remember it was wartime.) This class was taught by a Miss Tarrant, a tall young woman with her hair in a bun and a cheerful manner. What did I learn? The only book in multiple copies was Kingsley’s The Water Babies. We read from it, copied passages for handwriting and used it for dictation. So I learned to hate The Water Babies. I was good at dictation because I could spell – no credit, just lucky. And I learned some poems.
I presume that I usually went home to lunch because I lived but five minutes away, but my cousins, Anne and Josie Tingey, who were also pupils, stayed to lunch. Goodness knows what they had to eat. I remember staying occasionally or perhaps I went back early. On wet days, apparently unsupervised, we would nip down to the damp, dark basement and took turns to haul each other up in the dumb waiter which went from the basement to the first floor. It was a dark, dusty cupboard and creaked dangerously as one slowly ascended. I am sure that Health and Safety would be horrified nowadays at such a dangerous pursuit.
I do not remember any of the other children in detail. Being an only child at the time I was shy and did not make friends easily. There was one lad in the class, though, with very dark hair and a tanned skin and some of the parents thought he was from a gypsy family. This prejudice flamed when my mother found I had head lice and she and other mothers thought their children had caught them from this boy. She told me after, however, that she found that one of our shop staff had them and it was probably I who had taken them into the school. I am not sure that she ever confessed. The school closed upon the death of Miss Thomas in 1944, but the house entered upon a brief new career.
Wendy Butler(née Jones), a Hatfield girl now living in Australia, told me that she and her family had lived in part of the house after the Second World War. The rest of this story is hers:
Some of my happiest childhood days were spent at Newtown House. We had been bombed out from our home in Selly Oak, Birmingham and came down to live with my grandmother. My father was transferred to the ICI at Welwyn. (He used to cycle there each day and in all weathers). My grandmother’s house had only three bedrooms and she already had two boarders who worked at de Havillands. Conditions were therefore cramped but we accepted such things because it was war time.
In late 1944 or early 1945 we were allocated accommodation at Newtown House. Alas, I have no photos, which is a pity. Entry to the house was gained by a half mooned driveway. There had been gates but these had been taken away to help the war effort. I believe they were melted down. The house itself was never an architectural masterpiece, but to us it was wonderful. The entrance was quite grand and the front door opened onto a large hallway with black and white tiles on the floor. This narrowed halfway down and there was a blocked off doorway to our left which was a passage way and stairs to the floor above. The passage way continued to the back door where there were steps that led out to the garden.
The ground floor had four rooms, all with fireplaces. Those at the front had large windows. We had the two large rooms on the right-hand side of the house, (looking from the house at the front), those on the other side being slightly smaller because of the staircase. The front room, which my brother and I had as a bedroom, had lilacs growing beside the bay window. The room behind was our lounge cum dining room and my parents also slept there. It was a lovely light airy room with French doors and steps down to the garden. I vividly remember winter days in this room – snuggled up in a big armchair by the fire, reading or listening to Children’s Hour. Mr. & Mrs. Rock and their son, Stan had the two rooms the other side of the hall. They were a nice family who had lived in Selwyn Drive or Crescent until their house was damaged. When they moved out to return to their repaired home, my aunt and uncle with their two children took up residence.
The basement was shared by the two families. It had a large kitchen which was in the front of the house on the left-hand side. It contained two large dressers, two gas stoves, dumb waiter and an old sink. There was a stove and it was my brother’s task to collect coke from the Gas Company in French Horn Lane – near the railway bridge, if I remember correctly. On the right-hand side of the basement was another large room which we did not use because from time to time it would flood. I assume there was a step down to it and someone suggested that there might have been a well in it. A passage way separated the front rooms from those at the back and all the floors had black and white tiles. I can remember my mother on her hands and knees scrubbing those tiles and she would keep to the lines and squares as she performed this chore. The one bathroom was on the left side of the house – a large room and very cold in winter. There was a small room beside it which might have been a meat store and another which was a pantry. The basement area always seemed to be cold, apart from the kitchen, and we children found it a bit spooky at night.
Mr. & Mrs. Taylor with a daughter called Shirley lived on the first floor. They had come from Leeds. Mr. Taylor’s first wife had died and Dorothy, the second wife, gave birth to a baby daughter whilst they lived in Newtown House. I believe they returned to Leeds c.1952. Mr. & Mrs. Deacon also had rooms on this floor. They moved to one of the prefabricated homes on the Birchwood estate. There was also a Mr. & Mrs. Baker. I suspect that Mr. Taylor may have been letting rooms without Council permission, but accommodation was so hard to find that he might have been doing a good deed.
The top floor was occupied by the Woodcocks. Mrs. Woodcock was a second wife and her husband worked in London. We did not see much of the eldest boy who was grown up. The second son, Peter, had been in the navy but a nasty accident involving being too near a gun without protection had left him very deaf. Mrs. Woodcock was very nice though at first I found her intimidating and perhaps I was a little overawed. She would sit and watch us from her front window smoking a pipe. We had never seen a woman smoke a pipe before so we were fascinated. I suspect she was a very lonely woman.
The garden was a children’s paradise, so many trees to climb and a wonderful place for hide and seek. There were high brick walls on both sides and a wooden fence at the back. Mrs. Woodcock had the garden on the right-hand side where she grew vegetables. There was a large lawn with fruit trees here and there, a fence and then a large area for cultivation. We shared this half with Mr. Taylor and his part tended to be a bit of a jungle. My father grew vegetables and I had a flower garden. At the back of the garden we had two hutches for our rabbits. I also managed to grow some tomatoes in this area.
All the families had found other accommodation by 1956 and Newtown House became The home of the Development Corporation. In 1961 it was demolished.
[i] Lionel Munby ed. Hatfield and its people WEA 1959 Thanks to Wendy Butler, Brian Lawrence and Frank Cox for their input on this article