The Local History of Rickmansworth

Thoughts after reading again The Rickmansworth Historian from 1961 to 1980

Some time ago I set out to prepare a comprehensive index of The Rickmansworth Historian, the journal of the Rickmansworth Historical Society (RHS). Thirty-eight issues were produced half-yearly from 1961 to 1980 when, for reasons I’ll come to, it stopped: and further one-off issues were produced to mark the 40th and the 50th anniversaries of the founding of the Society in 1954. All of them are available to the public in bound volumes of both the Rickmansworth and Croxley Green libraries.

About ten years ago Geoff Saul, then Chairman of the Society, prepared, with typical great effort, an index, which appeared on the website. But the techniques available to him at the time restricted both its contents and its ‘searchability’, and I wanted to provide one which allowed people to find what they contain. So I began what I thought would be a reasonably quick job. It’s turned out to be far from that: not because it’s been especially arduous, but because of what I found as I began to read. I’ve presented the results in a spreadsheet, so that it can be searched easily: and I’ve added a short synopsis of what each article contains. To do that, of course, I’ve had to read every page – almost exactly 1000 of them.

It’s been a huge pleasure: not only is the quality of writing high, with each author’s love of the town and the area plain to see, but the content is  both informative and interesting. Remember that even the most recent article is now forty years old and the earliest was written almost sixty years ago. Some of the articles are by non-members (often speakers at RHS meetings), but most  are the result of research by members, with the founder Godfrey Cornwall joined by others including Wilf Broughton, William Branch Johnson, Eddy Parrott, Len Leach, Alan Faulkner and Elsie Toms, some later to acquire  prominence as more well-known historians. True, the text suffers from a lack of referencing, as tended to be the style of the time, so its academic use is nowadays perhaps limited, but nonetheless the articles provide real interest.

Of even greater interest and importance for me, however, are the personal memoirs. They range from beautifully crafted essays by Frank Paddick to a snippet in a letter from an elderly former resident now living abroad, and include interviews transcribed from tape recordings with people in their 80s talking about their childhood at the turn of the century and family doings earlier than that – what we would now term ‘oral history’. The recordings are now lost, but their stories remain in the pages of the Historian to form a unique and irreplaceable record of the town over a century ago.

One feature of the issues of the first ten years is that they were illustrated (often inside as well as the cover) by the artist and illustrator Jim Walsh. Robert James Walsh (1893–1991) worked for the Post Office from 1907, and using the pen-name ‘Stick’ Walsh drew cartoons for the ‘Organ of the Union of Post-Office Workers’ as well as political cartoons for newspapers of the day. His support for the Historical Society was much wider than that, however, and he did a number of the interviews referred to above. The Three Rivers Museum is considering an exhibition of his work, but a lot of it is in the pages of the Historian.   

The new index seeks to capture and signpost the contents of the Historian, but in no way to replicate it: you have to go to the library to read it. It ceased publication in 1980, and that seems to have been because the content simply dried up. In the last years there were several editors and fewer articles, with Godfrey Cornwall and Wilf Broughton featuring increasingly often. The Historian was followed by the Society’s Newsletter, but that wasn’t the same thing at all (a new index to it is in hand, nonetheless).

  But the point of this article is to reflect on what I’ve learned from reading all that work. The way people take interest in their local history has certainly changed in recent years: it’s often said that fewer younger people take any interest at all, and that everyone is now too busy to do anything anyway. The local Facebook group ‘ThisisWD3’ suggests a different picture, however: frequent postings of historic photographs and postcards are often well received and commented on with interest – and then slip quickly from view. The comments are very often in the form ‘Yes, I remember that – Mr Bloggs had the shop next door…’. What is (usually) lacking from the comments, and the subsequent discussion, is the context: what happened to Mr Bloggs, and where had he come from? What else was happening at the time?  And what was going on before there were any photos?

Why is the study, and indeed understanding, of local history important? It’s interesting, for sure, but why is it important? It only tells you what’s happened in the past – doesn’t it? Not quite. What you really find out from the past is why things are as they are now. So, for example:

  • What sort of place was Rickmansworth? Was it rich or poor, busy or peaceful?
  • Why are our roads laid out like this? Why do they follow the course that they do? What vehicles used them, and what did they carry? What caused the roads to change, and when?
  • What other forms of transport were there?
  • What sort of people lived here? Why did they come here? Did they stay? If they did, did they have any effect on how others lived?
  • How were people employed around here? Was that different from the rest of Hertfordshire, and from south Buckinghamshire? How did the people get to their work?   
  • How were poor people treated, and did that change? What can we learn from that about how things are done now?      
  • How did people buy things in the past? Did that change much over the centuries?
  • What did people believe in – what was their religion? Was there a problem with believing some things rather than others? How much did it matter? Did it change over time? What does it mean to us now? Why were there so many different places of worship?

You’ll notice that most of these questions (there are plenty of others) have to do with ‘people’. Buildings and ‘things’ are important, certainly, but usually only because of what they were used for (there are some exceptions, which architects and designers study carefully – but they’re exceptions). What we really want to know about is the people who have come before us – how they lived, what they did, what they aspired to do, how hard it was to move from one to another. Family history is about learning about our own past; local history allows us to go much further, for example to understand where our family fitted in to everyone else’s.  

 So to return to The Rickmansworth Historian. The efforts and interests of those who came before us (and those who were there at the time and are still with us) have left us with a huge pile of answers to those questions. It didn’t stop there: the Society still exists and is going strong, and since the Historian it’s produced 100 issues of its Newsletter and more recently already twenty one issues of the Rickmansworth Historical Review. All this work helps answer some of the questions we want – need – to ask. About people – the people of Rickmansworth and the area around us. About how it felt to be there at the time.

And about us – now, in the present. When in 1964 Jim Walsh and Wally King were conversing, on the record, about the area and its people in the 1920s, they were talking about people and places they knew: and now that record is priceless, because it tells us so much about our past which otherwise we wouldn’t know. Each of us knows something, and what we know fits into a much wider picture. By taking interest in the past of our community, we (and our children, and theirs) can understand much better our own role in the national scene to which our community belongs: and so we can play our part as citizens with an understanding of what that part is. We don’t have a duty to research anything: but we do have a duty to understand our own background.

And we can make a start in understanding that by reading the early issues of the Rickmansworth Historian.