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.

Recording our Experiences at a Historic Moment

We live in truly historic times. When COVID-19 has faded, as eventually it will, its legacy will be with us for some time, perhaps permanently. We who have lived through it have a chance now to capture what’s happening, so that those who come after us will know how it all felt at the time. There are many schemes for doing this nationally, but it’s for individuals to record our personal experiences and observations, and those we see around us, before coming together later to present how our neighbourhoods, areas and communities have been affected.

 Rickmansworth Historical Society has joined the Abbots Langley Local History Society to support an initiative by Three Rivers Museum Trust, in conjunction with, we hope, other community groups. You will, I hope, have read about it in various local ‘news’ magazines, and each TRDC Councillor has been informed. Together, we’re asking local people, if they wish, to join us in recording their experiences – what’s happened to them, what they’ve seen and heard, at a time of remarkable changes and uncertainty. The more people, the wider the age range and the more diverse the backgrounds of the ‘diarists’ the better the contribution will be to those who will want to know, in fifty or a hundred years time, what it felt like to be involved – the lows, the highs, the anxieties, the realisms of it all.

The Museum will, later on, collect in whatever people want to submit – they have the space and the local ‘reach’ to do this, at least locally, here around Rickmansworth and Three Rivers. Everything will be logged and kept safe, and sorted: some may be passed (with the originator’s permission) to the Hertfordshire Archives, some even to the British Library. Some will used (again with permission) for a display or exhibition. And much will just be kept safely for use later by people researching this remarkable time.

So – right now, everyone is invited to take part, if they wish, in this local initiative, by keeping a diary which they might later want to pass in to provide a historic record. Much of what historians value highest is the recorded personal recollection – ‘memories matter’, and we can contribute ours to this unique situation. Nothing is too trivial to be worth recording, especially while it’s fresh in our minds – a personal story will be really important. And it includes ‘things’ – COVID-related leaflets and letters we receive, photographs, artefacts, even newspapers (although these collect themselves anyway). If they have significance for you, they’re part of the story.   

Some of what’s recorded will be deeply personal and, especially where people we love have been lost, very painful; but these memories will be the more important for that, even if not for public sharing. So just how we bring all this together later needs more work, which we’re now doing, and that will cover how it’s published at some later date. But the first thing to do is capture what’s happening locally around us, and how we feel about it. All who wish can get on with that, while keeping it private and safe until later.

How best to do it? It really doesn’t matter – whatever’s convenient to you. It’s much more important to have the record than to make it ‘pretty’. So you might use a diary, or a notebook, or sheets of loose paper; or a computer file, or an audio recording on your smart phone, iPad or whatever. We’ll post more guidance on the websites as we think of it – the important thing is not to forget it by delaying! Photos are important too, of familiar scenes now changed, or even those which haven’t changed as they might have done.

If you’re willing to do this, it would be helpful (not essential) to let us know, so that we have some idea of what we’re lining up for. E-mail, if you can, chairman@trmt.org.uk, rick.hist.soc@btinternet.com, or leave a message (by text, preferably) on 07767 831924.

But don’t, please, send anything in yet – that comes later. For now, just record what you feel like recording. It really matters, not just to us, but to those who come after us.

Mrs Barbara Owen MBE – ‘Mrs Rickmansworth’

By Alison Wall, on behalf of all who knew and loved Barbara.

Barbara Owen (nee Gravestock) was a Rickmansworth girl from the day she was born.  She lived in the centre of Rickmansworth, with her parents and elder sister Marion.  She excelled in school and gained a scholarship to Watford Grammar School for Girls at the age of ten.  She continued to shine and became Head Girl there.  After her schooling she pursued a teaching career. She moved to Bournemouth during the war years to finish her training and when the war ended, moved to London for her first teaching post. It was at this time she was introduced to her future husband Jack Owen. He had just retired from the Merchant Navy after 14 years’ service as a Lieutenant. The following year in 1947 they were married in St Mary’s, Rickmansworth.

Her early married life was very happy and four daughters arrived in fairly quick succession.  However Barbara had many challenges in her life and Jack suffered an eighteen month period of tuberculosis whilst the girls were young in the 1950’s.  Barbara managed to survive and care for the whole family, with her skill in needlework and cooking.  She ensured the family enjoyed healthy, nutritious meals.  Jack recovered, but in 1963 suffered a fatal cardiac arrest – I remember Mr Owen, who taught me at Shepherd’s junior school in Mill End shortly before his unexpected death. 

So Barbara was left a widow with four girls to bring up and facing considerable death duties.

Barbara returned to teaching, and was helped by the fact that she had been a Head Examiner for school exam papers.  She was interviewed at Watford Grammar School for Girls, where she had been Head Girl, and a post was created for her there, which enabled her to gain her way back to the world of teaching.

Barbara taught in various schools, including Joan of Arc and Clement Danes.  She did not actually finally stop teaching until she reached her eighties. 

Alongside her teaching work Barbara has given her all to her community in the various voluntary roles she took on in Rickmansworth. She headed up the catering committee at St. Mary’s and was Chair of Three Rivers Museum Trust for many years until her death.  She was Secretary of the Ricky Society and loved her involvement with the costume department of the Museum of London.

She was awarded the MBE for services to the Community in 2012 at the remarkable age of ninety, and had her award presented by Prince Charles. 

Another family tragedy happened suddenly in 2016, when her eldest daughter Margaret died unexpectedly from intestinal complications.  It is heart breaking to lose a child and so suddenly. Barbara gradually became frailer over the following years, and spent her last few weeks cared for in Watford General Hospital, still mentally alert but with physical frailties.

She has given so much to her community, but her focus was always others and not herself.  Barbara often said how grateful she was to everyone, but we are grateful to her for all she has done for us and for her example – impossible to follow. You could speak to Barbara about anything, and she had no airs or graces.  She made you laugh with her humour and expressions. She remained positive to the end and grateful for all that life had given her. 

There will only ever be one Barbara, a person we are all privileged to have known and loved.  She will always be remembered, and, like her, we are grateful.

Hertfordshire Year of Culture 2020

Look out for the Historical Society’s contribution to the YoC2020. All our talks and other events will be listed on the YoC Events and What’s On pages on the Creative Hertfordshire website https://www.creativehertfordshire.com/resources/year-of-culture-2020/, and we expect the network will grow quickly across the county. There’s going to be a lot going on – and not just in Rickmansworth!

The Lock-ups of Rickmansworth

The Open University has a project to locate historic ‘cages’, lock-ups, prisons, police stations and the like across the country. We have contributed the information about the original ‘cage’ for Rickmansworth, which was at the rear of the now-demolished Beresford Almshouses in the High Street, adjacent to what is now the Fox and Hounds. It was replaced by the new police station cells in Talbot Road in 1864.

The research was done by our founder Godfrey Cornwall and first published in the third edition of The Rickmansworth Historian in early 1962.

The BALH website is at https//www.prisonhistory.org/local-lock-up/lockup-search. Search for Hertfordshire, 1700-1799, and go to the map to find Rickmansworth: but there are another 718 lock-ups listed!

The Rivers of Three Rivers

There has always been an interest in the original courses of the three rivers Chess, Gade and Colne as they met at Rickmansworth before the Grand Junction Canal was cut and changed the courses of all three. At least two local residents are working, independently, to follow in the footsteps of Geoff Saul and resolve the matter for once and for all.

One problem, of course, is that the rivers did not stick rigidly to their bed – so when do we define ‘original’? A major flood, such as that of February 1795, may well have made significant changes as the rivers flowed though farmland. Few of the old maps, which seem to offer vital clues, were surveyed suficiently accurately to be reliable. And there are very few primary sources which describe the rivers clearly enough to help.

So work continues on this long-standing conundrum, helped (or perhaps not) by a constant commentary, with maps etc, on local Facebook pages. This Society may take this as a proper research project in the near future!