7 – High Wych Memorial Hall

Our Village Hall dates from 1923 but the idea of building came about much earlier. Sometime after the death in 1908 of Bishop Johnson, first vicar of High Wych, it was suggested a village hall should be built dedicated to his memory. The first mention I found of those plans date from January 1912. See below. Five months later, on 22nd June, the Essex Newsman reported on another fundraiser: a garden fete and bazar held at the Manor of Groves. Under auspices of Mr. Frederick Silva, then resident there, the event was opened by Johnson;s successor as bishop of Colchester, the right rev. R.H. Whitcombe. The band of the Essex Yeomanry lent jollification and “a considerable sum was raised”

H and E Observer 1912 0120 hwmh masthead

Fundraising continued but the Great War intervened. In November 1922 however, local landowner Arthur Salvin Bowlby donated a plot of land adjacent to the Churchyard with a view of erecting a village hall. Henry Fowell Buxton, a brewer who then lived at the Manor of Groves, Horace Fuller Rackham, the vicar and Bowlby himself signed the deed of gift. They also became the first trustees. The Hall was to be dedicated to the memory of Bishop Johnson of Colchester, first High Wych vicar and to those who lost their lives in the Great War. The deed stipulated the Hall was to be used “for the purposes of physical and mental recreations and for holding meetings in connection with religious and philanthropic objects”. How to interpret this was left to the trustees but it was also said that “the premises shall at no time be used for revolutionary propaganda.”  

H and E Observer 1912 0120 hwmhWork started quickly and after only four months the Hall was finished. An article in the Herts and Essex Observer at the time described it as “a handsome building of brick and red slates”. It becomes a meeting place for High Wych Village Club, the Parish Council, ,the Women’s Institute, the Men’s Club, the Scouts and Cubs, the Hockey Club, the Girl Guides and the Brownies. Naturally villagers are as proud as punch of their new hall and the local paper mentions many occasions of its use. In 1923 only the Herts and Essex Observer of 1923 mentions our new hall several times.   A whist drive in April of that year is the first example I found. Some seventy people took part and raised funds so that a piano could be bought. On 17th November it is reported that that H.F.  Buxton (another new resident at the Manor of Groves) donated a billiard table to the newly formed men’s club.

H and E Observer 1923 0324 HWMH     HWMH Herts and Essex Observer 1923 (Small)

As the twenties roll into the thirties, forties, fifties and onwards, the Hall continues to be a focal point of village life. The Hockey Club and Cricket Club organize dances. The WI organizes its monthly meetings. The Hall was also used as a canteen for the children of High Wych School. Until the early seventies school dinners were prepared in the kitchen and served in the Hall itself. Those who were there remember hard folding chairs and splinters in backsides!

During the Second World War, High Wych Memorial Hall provided services for the women working in the Land Army. Dinners were often prepared and served for them there. Whist drives were organized as well as dances when locals and visiting members of the armed services jitterbugged to the music of Jay Dimmock and his band, a 5 piece combo from Hoddesdon. Some twenty years later that same Jay Dimmock gave a teenage Cliff Richard his first chance to sing. That happened in Cheshunt though, not High Wych! 

The post war years are mainly remembered for two people : Arthur Clow and Michael Elsdon. Arthur Clow who served from 1939 until 1969, was caretaker, treasurer, booking secretary and secretary rolled into one. Those who wanted to hire the hall went to see him, paid the money, got the keys and got on with it. Mike Elsdon, a young mechanical engineer who worked at Holbrooks came to High Wych in  1940. Immediately he became involved in local affairs including the Village Hall. In 69 Len Helmer (yes him again) proposed Mike Elsdon become chairman and the Hall Committee was put on a more formal footing. Most importantly preparations were started for an extension of the Hall. Mr Bob Springham, a young local architect, offered his services and produced the necessary drawings and a model. All that was needed now was the money!!!

hw 65 scrapbook page 006 village hall             springham 70 07 hwvh extension proposal a

High Wych Memorial Hall in 1965        One of Bob Springham’s sketches for the new Hall

Over the next months and years Mike Elsdon leads his committee in a frenzy of fundraising and discussions on planning and finance. Some of you may recall an embroidered picture in the Hall (made by committee member Grace Dunn) showing the signatures of people who donated money to the project. Our one hundred club was also started around that time. In the end total costs of the project came close to £ 20.000, a big sum for those days. Luckily some financial assistance was provided by the local council. By the summer of 1973 a formal dedication ceremony was held. See copied article from the Herts & Essex Observer on the facing page.

hw 65 grace dunn hw village hall006 part

1970: Grace Dunn does her embroidery                  1973 – The New Hall is revealed   

In 1972 Jack Balaam joined the Hall Committee. Whilst he was not in the same vein as Arthur Clow, he did for many years serve as the first point of call for those wanting to hire the Hall. Jack, who served as both treasurer and booking secretary was on the committee for many years until his untimely death in 1991. Many still remember him with admiration and affection. Mike Elsdon stayed on as chairman until 1976 when he was succeeded by L.J. Hibbs who was followed by Charles Wentworth Stanley who served until the early nineties when the author of this article (who he?) took over. Through all those years, in fact until 1995, Mike Elsdon stayed on the committee giving us the benefit of his experience.

It was during my own term of office, which lasted until the late nineties, that Pam and Bob Giles joined the Hall Committee. It is surely safe to say that Pam and Bob are now as closely associated with High Wych Memorial Hall as Arthur Clow and Jack Balaam once were. Meanwhile, Mandy Reynolds took over from yours truly as Committee Chair. She was followed by Paul Stephenson who has now been at the reins for some six years.

HWMH Muslim Wedding3The 21st Century – A Muslim Wedding at High Wych Memorial Hall

1402 2401 david saunders buys stamps in hwmh post office

Monday 24th February 2014 Councillor David Saunders buys stamps at the newly opened HWMH post offfice

Through all those years the Hall has continued to play an important role in HW village life. Activities include Karate, Scottish Dancing and Tai Chi. The Women’s Institute and the Ladies group continue to use the Hall whilst recently a weekly  Internet Café was started. Finally, from Monday 24th February the Hall will host an outreach post office.

Yes, times have moved on. High Wych has changed from little more than a hamlet to something approaching suburbia, regrettable that may be but that is life! And what do I personally recall most from my time on the Hall Committee? It was an occasion when we were trying to stamp out commercial hirings, that is to say prevent the Hall being hired for “private parties”, which were but a cover for profit making ventures. When questioned, a culprit claimed their party was held “to celebrate our aunt’s successful hysterectomy operation”

Those who want to know more, or even book the Hall can visit   highwychmemorialhall.com

Information for this article mainly comes from my own “short and incomplete history of High Wych Memorial Hall” Two pictures were lifted from the Hall website.

1203 2106 memorial hall lscp

The Hall as it is today         

6 – Helmer and Dyer

We stay in the centre of High Wych for this article and look at Helmer’s yard and the white cottages. Helmer’s Yard is of course so named after Len Helmer, a builder, local politician and entrepreneur.

IMG_5991Leonard Alfred Helmer, was born in 1912 in High Wych, the son of Charles and Alice Helmer. Len’s father and grandfather were both gardeners and born in our village. The family, Charles, Alice, Len and his brother Bert, lived in Woodside Cottages along High Wych Lane. Len went to the village school and trained as a carpenter with Nelson Lawrence. He became a Clerk of Works there and in 1935 joined forces with William (Bill) Dyer, a bricklayer from Sawbridgeworth. Initially their workshop was at the back of Dixon’s garage. In 1938 he married Elsie Hills, at that time a nurse maid with the Wentworth-Stanley family.

hw 65 scrapbook page 095 H&D headed paperHelmer & Dyer soon becomes the local builder of choice. The first houses they built were both on High Wych Road: Millfields for “Baker White” and Broad Oak for James Dixon. There are many H&D built houses around these parts. I myself live in one as does my neighbour Den Lomax. The second half of the thirties was indeed a very good time for house building. It is remarkable how many houses Bill and Len, who were only in their twenties then, built in those early days. One of the secrets of H&D’s success was perhaps that, contrary to current practice, many trade tasks were performed “in house”. So H&D employees came in all sorts: carpenters, joiners, painters, plasterers, bricklayers, a sign writer even: Frank Fish. I talked to two former employees who spent their entire working lives at H&D. Percy Peacock was a painter and decorator who joined in 1943 following his dad who also worked there. Alec Rainbird, a plumber, joined a year later. H&D and its customers could depend on a loyal and capable workforce.

hw 65 or so len helmer 1912 - 1976   hw 59 Eric Willison

Len Helmer              Eric Willson Bill White, Ray Collins and Paul Mercer in H&D’s Joinery workshop

During the 2nd world war H&D became involved with repairing bomb damage. Sometimes two trucks with twenty men each on them went to London in order to clear rubble from East End Bomb sites and do quick makeshift repairs to make the houses more or less habitable again. Improvisational skills were needed: “we learnt a lot in those days” Percy told me. 

After 1945 the company bit by bit moved its operations from the original site to what is now Helmers Yard. Meanwhile more and more building work was undertaken. Mansfield, East Park, Brook Road and Falconers are some of the estates that were built. An award was won for an estate in Dunmow. Another important project was the breaking up of the runways at the USAF base at Matching, where Len had been clerk of works during the war. This took several years. Hard core extracted from Matching could then be used for building purposes in Harlow New Town: another happy coincidence.

Over the years Bill Dyer took more of a background role whilst Len Helmer became a local VIP. According to all I spoke to,  Leonard Helmer was a charming, persuasive and very successful man, larger than life some would say. His contacts as a local councillor must have stood him in good stead. Between 1949 and 1974 Len Helmer served on Braughing Rural Council; for seven years he was its chairman. Between 1970 and 1974 he represented Sawbridgeworth, the Hadhams and High Wych on Hertfordshire County Council. He was chairman of High Wych Parish Council and a magistrate.

hw 51 h&D fire001a    hw 51 h&D fire002a

Saturday 28th April 1951 Fire at Helmer & Dyer

H and E Observer 1951 0504 H&D fire

On 28th April 1951 fire breaks out in the white cottages, used upstairs  to store plumbing supplies whilst downstairs cement etc. was kept. Due to lack of water pressure the Fire Brigade has great trouble coping. Water has to be brought in from ponds at the Manor of Groves. Subsequently the roof is re-thatched with reed and the building refurbished as offices. The Parish Council starts a campaign for a better water main. Helmer’s Yard meanwhile also plays host to other small businesses Andrews Heating bases itself there as does Engineering Prototype Ltd., a company manufacturing plastic mouldings started by my late father in law Mike Elsdon.

In 1963 Len Helmer married for the second time: to Hilda Sutton. By 1965 H&D employs about 100 people. In December of that year a party is held to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary and also to mark Bill Dyer’s retirement. In 1967 Jon Smylie joins the company Jon, quickly rises through the ranks and soon becomes Len Helmer’s second in command.  

hw 63 helmer wedding 002a

Len & Hilda’s marriage in 1963 – note LH’s mother and best man Alfred Mabey

Len Helmer passed away in 1976. By that time Jon Smylie had already acquired a minority share in the business. The company then carries on under his management and with Len Helmer’s widow Hilda in the background. After Hilda dies in 1997 John Smylie then takes on full ownership. This situation continues until 2006 when H&D is sold and moved to Ware. But the new owners do not make a success of it. In January 2008 the London Gazette publishes an insolvency notice: H&D is bankrupt. Jon Smylie meanwhile continues as owner of the Yard and landlord of companies such as P&R Travel and Willis Architectural Ironmongery.  

  1206 2826 hw gravestone Charles, ALice Len and Hilda  Helmer b&w smaller       percy & alf002a

percy & alf001a

Thanks this time go to Jill Clark, Roger Kempthorne, Percy Peacock, Alec Rainbird, Bob Springham, Jon Smylie and Eric Willison.

5- The Blacksmiths and the Garage

blkacksmith cottages as they are now

Right in the centre of our village opposite the Curatage (formerly Wych Croft) and the Pink Cottages now stands the small housing development of Blacksmiths Way. No prizes to be won for guessing why it is thus named!

Indeed from the early eighteen hundreds until about 1920 a Blacksmith’s Forge stood on that site. When exactly Joseph Smith, born in 1802 in Sawbridgeworth, started his business in High Wych is not certain. The 1839 Tithe map, however, shows Joseph as occupying plot 484 (next door to 485 – the Half Moon Public House). The plot was owned at the time by the trustees of Thomas Nathaniel Williams who also owned the Manor of Groves. Two years later, at the 1841 census, Joseph is registered as a Blacksmith and living with his wife Jane, sons Charles, Joseph and Samuel plus daughters Jane and Julia.

Ten years later Joseph Smith Sr. is still there whilst his wife is registered as a grocer. Sons Charles and Samuel are also registered as Blacksmith. Joseph Jr., born in 1830, lives next door with his wife, confusingly also called Jane who is   15 years his senior. Joseph and Jane have a 9 months old daughter: Emily. Also living with them are 4 “sons in law” and 2 “daughters in law”, all with the surname Brace. I believe this to be a mistake. The Brace children must have been Joseph’s step children and Jane’s children from an earlier marriage,

By 1861 Joseph Jr. and his wife have 4 more children, one of which, another Charles, born in 1860 grows up to join the family business, which he will then carry on for many years. Charles marries  Annie Wilson and they have  ten children. One of the girls, Elsie, later marries Arthur Sapsford, the manager of Rivers Nurseries. Another, Emily, marries Arthur (Duchy) Ward with whom she manages the village shop and post office. After Duchy’s death Emily marries Arthur Lindsell and as Mrs. Lindsell she continued at that shop until the early nineteen sixties. Some of you may well remember her. 

hw 00 or so Charles Smith in front of the blacksmiths cottage small  hw undated The High Wych Green ew

 1900: Charles Smith in front of his cottage                                1910: HW Green with blacksmiths forge

Kelly’s directory of 1914 still lists Charles Smith as HW blacksmith. What happens after is unclear. Census results after 1911 are not publicly accessible and the Kelly directories do not mention Charles Smith any more.

Now fast forward eleven years to 1925 when retired Stortford Grocer James Dixon buys the Blacksmith’s forge and cottage. James, nicknamed ”spouf” due to his habit of puffing out his cheeks as he spoke, starts a one man taxi company, bicycle and farm equipment repair business which develops into a garage. The taxi became a familiar sight around the area evidenced by the fact that even now people remember its license number : AKX 100. In 1931 James’s son Richard, better known as Roy enters the business and it is under his stewardship that Dixon’s Garage became the commercial hub of the village.

Around 1931 the Dixons also started selling petrol. The brand was called Cleveland; it was initially delivered in cans and sold for one shilling one pence a gallon (just over 5 p). Roy recalled how, as a boy, he cycled to school and delivered cans of petrol to Mr. Mabey the headmaster. Another early customer was local builder Len Helmer. Proper petrol pumps soon arrived. Roy’s sister Alice was also active in the company. See below for a nice picture of her “at the pumps”.

dixons garage 02  hw 65 dixons garage asmall

From the thirties to the eighties: Dixon’s Garage.               

Roy spent the war years repairing bombers at Marshalls of Cambridge. It was there that he met his wife Sybil. He was also in the Home Guard. In February 1947 Roy and Sybil were married. In December of that same year their son Richard was born. In 1950 father James died. The garage meanwhile expanded with a Ford franchise added in 1953 and a showroom built. In 1957 a second son was born: David.

hw 65 dixons garage alice dixon at pump a    dixons roy and sybil

Roy and Sybil Dixon – Alice Dixon at the pumps

The company grew further still: a Reliant franchise was acquired; the Scimitar being a popular model. Filmstar Rita Tushingham bought a honey coloured one in 1969 and was pictured with it in front of the show room. A Wartburg franchise was added in 1968 and one for Mazda in 1970. Personal care was what Roy and his staff prided themselves on. Dixons had its own paint shop, bodywork shop and even its own carpentry unit, initially shared with Helmer & Dyer Thus it was that they even manufactured a bespoke milk float; Priscilla the model was called and it was based on a Ford chassis. Roy Dixon acquired another dealership in Sudbury (Suffolk) and started a Reliant wholesale parts operation in Harlow from a 1 acre site with a purpose built warehousing operation. A new showroom was added to this site in 1979 selling Citroen and Fiat. At the height of success around this time they employed around 50 staff across those 3 locations.

68 dixons gets wartburg agency Harlow citizen 1-11-68 -8

1968: Roy Dixon wins a Wartburg franchise

hw 69 rita tushingham and her reliant scimitar at dixons garage hw 65 or so dixons letterhead001

1969: Rita Tushingham at Dixon’s        –       Dixon’s headed paper.

In the late seventies however the business started to struggle. Perhaps they had over reached themselves. Large increases in interest rates coupled with a slump in demand made things very difficult. Then in 1982 the business finally failed. The site was then sold to a developer who in deed did build the present Blacksmiths Way houses. 

Thanks this time go to David and Richard Dixon, Colin Jackson, Wendy Oxborough, the Herts and Essex Observer and as always those nice folk at Hertfordshire Archives and Library Services. And do not forget these articles would be impossible without your contributions, your memories, stories and photographs. Keep them coming; please get in touch!! Contact me at:  theo@vandebilt.co.uk or phone me at 01279 725468.