9 – Valentine Fane

This article is written about and dedicated to Miss Fane, a grand and eccentric lady. Many older people in East Hertfordshire still remember her. For that very reason it has been very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Sadly I have been unable to talk to some primary sources. If as a result, inaccuracies have crept in to what is written below, I apologise beforehand.

Valentine Cecil Fane was born on the 30th January 1893 in Nazeing Essex, the daughter of Cecil Fane and Alice Goddard. Related to the Earl of Westmoreland, she came from a privileged and wealthy background. Her grandfather, John William Fane was an MP, a Justice of the Peace and a deputy lieutenant of Oxfordshire who married four times. The ancestral home of the Fanes was Wormsley Park in Oxfordshire, later the home of John Paul Getty, now the home of his son Mark Getty. Valentine’s father Cecil Fane was an Eton-educated civil engineer. In 1899, when Valentine was only six, her mother died. Father and daughter settled at Malting Farm, Little Hallingbury.

1901 census valentine fane reduced

The 1901 census: father Cecil and daughter Valentine at Malting Farm Little Hallingbury

Most probably young Valentine was educated at home although I have been unable to find proof, i.e. mention of a live-in governess. Then, at some point towards 1910, Cecil, Valentine’s father took a job as land agent in Bingley, Yorkshire, and Valentine moved in with her maternal grandparents. The 1911 census lists Valentine residing with them at the Nazeing vicarage. It must have been around that time that she started to write poetry and, during a visit to the Opera, met the love of her life: John Barnard.

Born in 1869, John Barnard was 24 years older than Valentine. He hailed from the Barnard brewing and malting dynasty. John’s nephew was the one time Kidderminster MP and chair of Hertfordshire County Council Edmund Broughton Barnard. Thje Kelly directories listed both uncle and nephew as important local land owners. In 1901 John himself was elected to the Rural District Council representing High Wych. At that time he lived at the Curatage on High Wych Road. John also was a Justice of the Peace. By the time of the 1911 census, he and his mother had moved to Alston Oak on the corner of Redricks Lane and Harlow Road.

Val Ghigha small1912: Cecil and Valentine on holiday at Val Ghigha

What the families on either side thought of Valentine’s and John’s relationship we simply do not know. Traditionally, established aristocracy such as the Fanes would have regarded “trade people” such as the Barnards with some suspicion. Then, in October 1912 Mrs. Barnard, John’s mother, died. John’s dad had already died in 1881. Mother and son had been sharing a house ever since, first in High Wych, later at Alston Oak Sawbridgeworth. Whether John and Valentine’s meeting at the Opera took place before or after Mrs. Barnard’s death we do not know. Still, the loss of a parent is a landmark event in anybody’s life and Valentine Fane must have understood what John B. was going through. She herself had lost her mother when she was only 6. Valentine had also spent quite some time away from her father. They were in some respects kindred souls, thrown together by fate if you want to put it dramatically. 1912 was an eventful year for Valentine. Not only did she meet the love of her life, she also became a published poet and met her dad’s second wife. Looking at the above photograph taken at the island of Ghigha I would say the woman in the background in Marjorie Ferrand, whom Cecil was later to marry. Marjorie was the daughter of Mr. W. Ferrand of St. Ives, Cecil’s Yorkshire employer. Perhaps Cecil had taken his daughter on a trip to Scotland with the express purpose to introduce her to her future stepmother.

Cecil Fane and Florence Marjorie Ferrand married in October 1913, Valentine was a bridesmaid and John Barnard a guest. Whether the two attended the wedding as a couple I did not find out. If they did, it is somehow unlikely there was any ill feeling. It was clear though that John and Valentine were desperately and deeply in love. They may even have been living under the same roof at that time. Why the two of them never married remains a mystery. John Barnard’s will however clearly mentions Valentine as his sole heir. Valentine continued to live at Alston Oak. From the mid-twenties, the Kelly directories list Miss Fane and Edmund Barnard amongst the principal land owners in the area.

Valentine’s poetry shows her to be a sensitive soul with a love of nature and a sense of fun. Her writing was published in Punch, The Windsor Magazine, Grand Magazine and Top Notch, an American magazine. Most of these early poems date from between 1912 and 1915. Her family was certainly proud of her as was shown by the fact that her stepmother carefully cut out her published poems and pasted them in an album.

However, it is the mystery concerning a poem called “the Wind” which really got me interested in Valentine. “The Wind”” was long supposed to have been a late poem written by Ivor Gurney, a poet and composer, who sadly ended his days in a psychiatric institution. “The Wind” was written on the back of some Oxford University Press letterhead. Gurney initialled it “IG” and also wrote “Valentine Fane: on the paper, the implication being that he liked the poem, related to it and wanted to remember who wrote it so he wrote Valentine’s name by his own.  This led to some literary critics suggesting Valentine Fane was the product of Ivor Gurney’s imagination. This assumption was however contradicted by Pam Blevins, Gurney’s biographer who took a lot of trouble to find out about Valentine Fane. Pam got in touch with Sheila Johnson, a niece of Valentine. Both Pam and Sheila have been very helpful in my research.

Below you will find two poems written (or most probably written) by Valentine Fane. One “On the back of a Bike” shows her humorous side and her love of motor vehicles. “The Wind”, if indeed written by her, shows her as the restless, pained soul she must have been.  

The Back of a Bike


If you’re feeling “fed up” and in need of a thrill,

   There’s a topping sensation you’re certain to like;

Let your latest young man take you out, if he can,

   On the back of his new motor-bike.

It is perfectly safe, there’d no chance of a spill,

There is nothing on earth to alarm you, but still

You’ll be planning your will as you rush down the hill

   When you ride on the back of a bike!


 It’s not very easy to do it with grace,

   And people regard you with fear and dislike-

But a motor’s no go and a side-car’s too “slow”

   So nothing remains but the bike.

The corners are really far worse than the pace,

And you clutch your companion with frenzied embrace,

While an anxious expression is fixed on your face

(Just in case) as you race well-all over the place,

   When you ride on the back of a bike.

                              Valentine Fane.


The Wind



All night the fierce wind blew –


All night I knew


Time, like a dark wind, blowing


All days, all lives, all memories


Down empty endless skies –


A blind wind, strowing


Bright leaves of life’s torn tree


through blank eternity:


Dreadfully swift, Time blew.


All night I knew


the outrush of its going.


At dawn a thin rain wept.


Worn out, I slept


And woke to a fair morning.


My days were amply long, and I




In their accomplishment –


Lost the wind’s warning.


                             Most probably written by Valentine Fane


After John Barnard’s death Valentine continued to live at Alston Oak where she was often visited by her father, his second wife and the children from their marriage. Judging from the reports in the family album she was a popular older sister. That same family album also records a memorable occasion in February 1926 when both father Cecil and daughter Valentine starred in “Eliza comes to stay” a play staged in the Jubilee Hall in Malpas where Cecil Fane then lived. In 1927 another memorable event, Valentine was presented at court. It was rather upsetting though that on the day before that presentation, she had frocks and jewellery stolen from her car while she was with her dressmaker.  VF eliza comes to stay pic2

The cast of Eliza comes to stay – VF in the middle at the front

Returning to the subject of poetry, there are the “garage poems”. Amongst material shown to me by Sheila Johnson was a brochure from a garage in Tenby South Wales. The brochure advertises day trips organised by that garage or coach company, illustrated with scenic photographs and accompanied by a series of poems that describe various places on the tours. The poems very much reflect Miss Fane’s style, her sense of humour and her keen descriptive powers. As Miss Fane owned or part-owned a garage in Wales it is seems obvious that she produced these poems to enhance their promotional literature.  Pam Blevins is in no doubt they were in fact written by Valentine Fane.

Fane Alston Oak 21 3  Fane Alston Oak 21 3

A family visit at Alston Oak

At some point in the thirties Valentine then moved out of Alston Oak and into Carters, another property bequeathed to her by John Barnard. There she spent the rest of her lonely life, occasionally visited by family and friends. Sheila Johnson, her niece, who came to Carters together with her father, VF’s half-brother, remembers her as a heavy smoker with skirts down to her ankles. She was a very gentle soul. Slim, not tall and fair in appearance her family members considered her quite clever. Despite her wealth Miss Fane did not live in great comfort. Modern amenities such as gas, electricity and running water were absent at Carters. Water was drawn from a well. Chickens ran about, not just in the garden but even in the kitchen. The absence of electricity meant that the house was in darkness. Once, so the story goes, a visiting doctor was mistaken for a burglar and nearly attacked by a frightened Valentine. 

Greys Garage 7 excerpt

Two pages from “the Garage Poems”

There was however a collection of vintage cars. Some villagers remember her driving about in one of those; the back of her vehicle filled up with boxes. Eric Willison who worked at the post office in the sixties remembers Miss Fane “turning up with parcels from which a gamey smell emanated”. Though Valentine was an animal lover, hunts were held on her land; the “gamey parcels” must have resulted from those occasions.

Lily Mynott, who came to High Wych, in 1943 had a milk round and Valentine Fane was one of her customers. She remembers Miss Fane as a kind and friendly lady. “How elegant she looked as she attended village fetes at the Grange”. Nigel Rivers tells of her love of animals. “She was even reluctant to kill rats. She told me they were her friends” It did not stop her having pheasants shot on her grounds however. Despite her wealth it should be said Valentine Fane was letting herself go. Her finances were not handled in the best of manners. She also became more and more dependent on the people who worked for her. As a result Miss Fane took to living and sleeping in the downstairs kitchen. After a while though, that arrangement too became impractical and the Warwicks the family who lived in Carters Cottage took her in, prepared her meals and generally looked after her. Every now and then she went for dinner at the Wentworth Stanley house. Oliver Stanley later bought one of her properties.

valentine fane

Miss Fane in later life  

vf grave picture from sheila johnson2

The grave stone at Little Hallingbury

Miss Fane was a very generous person. Already in 1926 she financed the restoration of stained glass windows designed by Archibald Nicholson at St. Mary’s Church, Lindsell.  In later life at Christmas time it was her custom to send cakes to the local police constable, the doctor, the vicar, the postman and key staff.

The sad reality was however that Valentine Fane spent all that time, from 1918 until 1977 mourning for John Barnard the love of her life. Not much of consequence happened in all those years. In January 1959 Miss Fane was in court for driving a car without due care and attention. In the late sixties – early seventies there was a fire and there was also at least one burglary. On one of these occasions, it is said, she was attacked. It made her even more dependent on the people that worked for her.

Valentine Fane died in Herts and Essex Hospital Bishops Stortford on the 11th January 1977. Her cousin and god daughter Valentine Sillery was at her bedside and co-signed the death certificate which mentioned bronchopneumonia as cause of death. Miss Fane was buried in Little Hallingbury Church Yard.

The last will and testament of Miss Fane makes for an interesting read. There is the strange stipulation that “before my burial the doctor attending …… shall first sever the artery in my wrist in order to make certain that I am dead”. Valentine’s half brothers and sisters each receive the sum of £500. Five named people receive £100 each and a further twelve receive £50. Some of her staff were given a year’s salary and the right to remain at their cottage free of rent and charges for two years.  Clause 11 states that VF’s animals should be taken care of “until such time as they will have made arrangements for their future” and sets aside £ 1000 to pay for this. Clause 15 than states that “the reason that I have not made more specific bequests even though I have verbally promised to leave certain articles to friends or members of my family is that the majority of the articles have either been stolen or lost in the fire”

A sad and lonely life had come to an end

Sources for this article were Pam Blevins, Sheila Johnson, the Fane family album, Lily Mynott, Nigel Rivers, Janet van de Bilt, the H&E Observer and the staff at HALS.


Book Review

MI 106

If your name is Blackaby, Brace, Camp,   Fish, Holden, Springham, Kempthorne, Macscall, Ward or Wybrew and your family has but the slightest connection to High Wych, Eastwick or Gilston you will find this little book interesting.  The Hertfordshire Family History has produced a handsome booklet listing monumental inscriptions of graves in the three churchyards of our local parishes. The authors, a team lead by Janet and John Pearson, carried on work done by   W.B. Gerish in 1909. All legible inscriptions are listed and an index provided shows which grave is where.My own work as High Wych historian is greatly helped by all this information!

Of course, both Eastwick and Gilston churches are much older than St.James’s High Wych. They both date from the 13th century. St. Botolphs Eastwick must even have been preceded by an earlier church. In 1138 Baldwin de Clare gave Eastwick Church to Bourne Abbey in Lincolnshire. Consequently there is some intriguing stuff to be found on the relevant pages.

Priced at £8.00 inclusive of postage and packing the little tome is more than worth the money.  Order it from the  HFHS’s website: http://www.hertsfhs.org.uk/  or by e-mail from their booksales officer at postsales@hertsfhs.org.uk

8 – The Half Moon – Chandini

On the twentieth of January 1702, in the fifth year of the reign of Queen Anne, Lawrence Michael Martin of Roydon sold the Half Moon Inn to William Russell of “High Whites”. See reproduced indenture below. Three hundred and eleven years and three weeks later, on Wednesday the thirteenth of February, some of us were invited to the opening of the Chandini Restaurant, now standing at the same place on our Village Green. Fine Indian Cuisine is now served there. Forgive me if I get a little bit nostalgic.

43129 r contrast small

Whether Martin and Russell served ales themselves I have been unable to ascertain. What I did find is that in 1765 Daniel Haddon and Mary Lawrence sold the Moon on to Andrew Sharpe. Interestingly Andrew’s daughter Elisabeth then married Thomas Rivers the second, yes the one from the Nursery of that name. Another indenture, this one dated 16th April 1805 shows how Rivers together with his brother in law sold the Moon on to a William Beldam. Beldam must have acted on behalf of Hawkes and Hawkes brewers from Bishops Stortford. This is in fact confirmed in W. Branch Johnson’s book on Hertfordshire Inns. Other signees of the 1805 document were William Woodham and Thomas Bird. In 1898 Hawkes sold out to Benskins who in turn sold out to Ind Coope in 1957. 

However, owning a pub did not mean actually serving the pints. The earliest actual Half Moon licensee on the annual “”Victuallers Recognizances” and one who served from 1806 to 1826 was William Prior. Upon Prior’s death in 1828 the Hertfordshire Mercury wrote that “aged upwards of 70, he left a numerous family to deplore his loss”. Prior was followed by Thomas Dalton and James Glyn, The Glyns and the Daltons intermarried. Ann Dalton was James Glyn’s sister in law. John Dalton, whilst living at the Half Moon, also worked as a cobbler.

hw undated The Half Moon ew manip

The Half Moon in the early 20th century

Other licensees were William Wybrew from 1861 to 1871, Alfred Gatwood around 1886,  George Powe in 1891, Henry Miles in 1894, George Holden in 1901 and  Thomas Pither in 1908. Archibald Blair stood at the taps from 1911 until 1929. He was followed by Herbert Nelson Smith who was there from the early thirties until at least the end of the second world war.

After the second world war the Helmer family (Bert and Joan) took over. Herbert Smith was in fact Joan Helmer’s stepfather. Bert’s tenure did not last long and he was followed by William and Kathy Bury and their son, young Bill, one of the sources for this article.

55 bill bury sr and his daughter in law daisy at the half moon in the fifitiesBill Bury Sr. and his daughter in law Daisy at the Half Moon in the 1950s

One local many still remember from that time is Buke (real name Arthur Mascall) who lived along High Wych Lane in a house that only got electricity and plumbing in 1973. Usually dressed in a rather “informal way”, he was often seen wandering about with a three wheeled cart in which he kept the vegetables he sold.  I have it confirmed from two independent  sources that  Buke used to put a gold  sovereign on the counter announcing this should cover his drinks until further notice.  Another regular, Ernie Springham, often played the  concertina, a primitive squeeze box type accordion, or as he called it, his “Tina”. This was not always appreciated by all. I am told that at one point the instrument was sawn in half by irate fellow drinkers!    

55 buke001  hw 52 or so ltr Buke, Frank Prentiss, Len kempthorne001

Buke.                              Buke again plus Frank Prentiss and Len Kempthorne

It was strange that in those days even a small pub such as the Half Moon was divided into a public bar and a saloon. These divisions were very real with people in working clothes not welcome in the saloon.  As it was so small, the Moon was sometimes called “the doll’s house”. There was even talk of a ghost.

The Burys were followed by Dick Askins, who was followed by Peter Walker.  He was in turn followed by Dave and Janet Herring. The Herrings, who did away with the division between public and saloon bars, were in charge from 1982 until 1998.

Rumour has it that during their tenure thieves broke into the cellar through the metal grill and got away with some beer. Access to the cellar was restricted afterwards. What is true is that at some point thieves stole a barrel of “ullage” (beer that had gone bad) from the yard at the back. They probably suffered from stomach pains afterwards!

Jason and Katie Noel managed the Half Moon in the first few years of the 21st century. Jason was a dab at hand interior decorating whilst Katie’s work as a cook is still praised.

According to the CAMRA database the Half Moon Inn closed on 1st March 2009. It did carry on as a restaurant but regrettably stopped serving beer on draught. For most of the time though it stood empty. Until that is, the Mojid family, owners of the Shadona restaurant in Bishops Stortford took over.  The grade II listed building has been restored and refurbished with great respect for its heritage. Entry is once again through the front. At the back an extension dining room has been built which fits in beautifully with the rest of the building. The food is fine; the chef de cuisine was voted chef of the year 2013 in a recent survey of curry houses. High Wych can well do with such a good a restaurant. Still there is that name. Yes, I have been told Chandini or Chand means moon in Hindi, but who speaks Hindi here in High Wych?. Far more importantly however we have a major enterprise at the centre of our community.  That is important. It would be churlish not to wish Jay Mojid, his family and his colleagues all the success in the world.

2013 March chandini smalI     chandini back room small

Fine Indian Dining in High Wych: The Chandini

Thanks this time go to Roger Beeching, Bill Bury, Richard Dixon, Nina Elsdon, Janet and Dave Herring, Lily Mynott, Christopher Mynott  and as always the people at HALS, aka County Archives.  These articles would be impossible without your contributions, your memories, stories and photographs.

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.

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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. 

4 – The High Wych village shops

As I write these words, in February 2014, High Wych has only one shop and no post office. This was not always so. At the time of the 1841 census George Patmore of High Wych described himself as a grocer and beer retailer. Patmore was based at what is now the Rising Sun pub. By the 1851 census Jane Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, the blacksmith was also registered as a grocer. Another name that I found mentioned is that of William Ward who in 1891 and 1901 was referred to as a hawker and a shopkeeper.

The Wards and the Smiths coexisted for a while. Father And son, “Daddy” and “Duchy”, ran a horse drawn delivery service for groceries and other goods to outlining villages over a wide radius. The story goes that having been refreshed at several hostelries en route, the driver would fall asleep after his last call and leave the horse to find his own way home. Duchy, William Jr that is, married Emily Smith one of the ten children of Charles Smith the last High Wych Blacksmith. It was said to be a marriage of mutual convenience. “He wanted a house keeper, she wanted a shop”.

There was also a dairy which was based at Bakers Farm and of course a bakery headed by Baker White who some may still remember. Groceries were also sold by the Tyser sisters, who had followed Patmore in the Rising Sun, in the last quarter of the 19th century. Steve Prior thinks the shop was a single story extension on the left hand side of the building accessed by the left hand door. The business probably stopped trading by 1929. Fishmongers also called round.

. hw 00 Daddy and Duchy Ward small