Moving to Stevenage in the 1960s
A new town and a new life
I was married in Bristol February 1960. My new husband had been working on the Bristol Bloodhound missile at Bristol Aeroplane Company, but moved to a new job working on the Blue Streak at Hawker Siddeley in Stevenage. He came to live here in June 1959. We were granted a new house by Miss Mary Tabor, who was the housing officer for Stevenage Development Corporation. At first we were to have one of the houses built in Silam Road, but a building strike which I believe lasted six months, caused a problem. It was arranged we could have a re-let house near the telephone exchange. Travelling here by train I arrived at the railway station that was at the top of Julians Road, it was old and quaint, quite rural in appearance. The High Street had a lot of small shops and was typical of a small town.
A sea of mud
I had seen in a magazine a picture of Queen Elizabeth visiting Stevenage, it was taken whilst she was in the Pied Piper Public House, so I asked my husband to take me there. However, after stepping inside I soon made a hasty exit as the language was a bit too ripe for my ears. The houses at Chells were under construction, but it seemed a sea of mud as the roads were not made and heavy lorries must have churned it up.
In contrast Bedwell seemed very tranquil. St Andrews Church with its huge wooden cross was a focal point in Bedwell Crescent, just over the road from the shops. At that time the telephone exchange was a small wooden building set in a good sized grassed area on the corner of Bedwell Crescent and Exchange Road. On the opposite corner a pleasant grassy plot had a diagonal path running through it leading to the shops and seats to rest and chat with friends or for some to sit and enjoy a cigarette. All the houses had an open frontage which was regularly maintained by grass cutting contractors. If any householder should infringe on this frontage beyond the small measure allowed to grow a row of flowering plants he would receive a reprimand from SDC
First sight of our new home
I stayed in an hotel overnight on Hitchin Road. The main purpose of the visit was to get a general view of the town and to see the house we were to live in. Although we were given paperwork giving the sizes of rooms and windows it was difficult to imagine. We made a quick visit to the house but it was occupied by the present tenants, who were moving out, so although they were very friendly we did not really get a good idea of the layout. At the end of my visit I caught the train back to Bristol to await the time we could move in.
Arranging the furniture
We took possession June 1960. I arrived by car with all of my personal belongings and household linens on Sunday. The house was completely bare, so Monday morning my husband set off for work whilst I awaited delivery of the furniture he had ordered from Davants, a furniture shop that used to be in the town square where McDonalds now trades. I met one of my neighbours who lent me some curtains until we got sorted, and a radio for company. I still remember and appreciate this kind gesture. On Monday we had visitors from Bristol who “just happened to be this way”. I was very glad to see them and they lent a hand arranging the furniture. I rushed out to get food to offer my visitors and thought they would stop the night. However, they planned to return to Bristol that day, so I was disappointed and left on my own again.
Work at George Kings
Everyone seemed to go to work and there was just a few people about during the day. Even my neighbours soon got a job and I missed my family, friends and work companions. We bought new curtains and other items to complete our home, including a small black and white television. Just about the time Coronation Street first appeared on our screens. As everything was so new in the house I saw my husband off to work and then did all the cleaning and housework by 10 a.m.. I was so lonely. The only solution was to go out to work myself, so I went to an agency in the town and was offered a job in the buying office at George Kings, a well established local company that made hoists and cranes. This worked well as I could walk round to Hawker Siddeley to meet my husband for lunch in the canteen. I soon made friends with my fellow workers and steeled into a new routine.
British Visqueen and pickled carrots
This state of affairs did not last, as Dr. Lyness advised me that ‘us two’ were to become ‘us three’. In December I left George Kings and took my ‘cards’ to the Labour Exchange in London road, as I did not know what to do with them. I was told they did not want them unless I wanted another job. “What in my condition” I exclaimed, pointing to my large bump. They said they were desperate for people as a lot were ill with flu, and if I would agree to go to British Visqueen to help out on a temporary basis they would let me rest and lay down whenever I needed to. Well, I went there and met another group of friendly people and stayed there about three weeks until Christmas. Luckily I never needed to rest or lay down. Not being used to the local accent, I recollect believing my boss talked of ‘pickled carrots’ but it was the ‘Pick of the Crop carrots’, presumably to print on some of the plastic bags they made.
By now I had made friends with the shop assistants at our neighbourhood shops. The Co-op Grocery, The Co-op Butcher, an electrical/hardware shop, the chemist, a launderette and Frank the Butcher. It seems Mr Rowe always had the fish and chip shop, I cannot remember anyone before him. I remember when his son William was born, who now runs the shop. I remember Pam in the Post Office, Marge in the Greengrocers, and a very nice man and wife who ran the shoe shop and shoe repair facility. In those days the pub was called The Gamekeeper, and I believe many building workers went there. Following the path into the park was a row of small shops and offices, including a wool shop. Behind the shops was a yard where they kept scaffolding, and I have a vague memory of a shooting to do with the owner. A nursery school was held at the Bedwell Community Centre every morning, but this was eventually transferred to Bedwell Infants School.
Town centre shops
Sainsburys had a big store in the town square with Woolworth one side and Boots the other. On the corner was the Maypole, and down towards the church was a Tesco minimarket. Fine Fare (later Somerfields) was on the corner where QD now trades. At one time there was a café upstairs and you could sit and have tea looking out over the fountain in the Town Square. The Gas Company had a show room along from Fine Fare, and an Eastern Electricity showroom was where Savers shop now stands. Along Queensway the way was blocked by a big blue barrier as more shops were being built, including Littlewoods. At the other end of Queensway Thurlows was the place to shop for baby clothes.
Crisp linen from the launderette
Near the Tesco minimarket was a launderette which had an ironing machine and my husband took our bed linen there and returned it all clean and crisp. I think I must have washed most things by hand as we certainly didn’t have a washing machine until the time my daughter was born.
Cottages near George V playing field
Early on a row of cottages ran along the bottom of the King George V playing field. They were eventually demolished but the trees and plants from their gardens flourished for some time after that. They were probably ‘tidied up’ by removal, I was sad to see them missing.
The town without grannies
When my daughter was born in 1961 I believe the population of Stevenage was about thirty five thousand, but the average age was thirty seven. The London papers referred to us as the ‘Town without Grannies’. They said the young housewives had no older generation to advise and babysit. I remember going to buy eggs at the farm at the top of Fairlands Valley and taking my daughter and some of her friends for picnics across Fairlands Way on the land that became Pin Green. My father was a house builder and he was very surprised they were allowed to build concrete houses using shuttering with no sign of bricks in that development.
Bands and dances
Everything was so new and with so many exciting developments it sees we were living in a frontier town. The Locarno Ballroom opened in 1961. It was very glamorous and hosted many famous people including Victors Sylvester’s band. Tom Jones and Frankie Vaughan. We also saw Peggy Spencer and her partner there. She was well known for her formation team dancers on TV. I remember attending the annual Police Ball a few times as well as other dances with ballroom dancing and suitable music. By the 1970’s Mecca catered for the younger generation, different music and different dancing, we felt ancient although only in our 40’s.
The new swimming pool was opened in 1962. I cannot quite recall when the Ten Pin Bowling Alley was opened in Danestrete. When the barrier came down on Queensway we had a lot more shops to choose from. MacFisheries opened about where W.H. Smith now stands. A leaflet was distributed every week showing the prices of everyday foods in the various shops, so we always knew who was the cheapest. The open market was on the car park on which now stands the multi-storey car park. Later the market moved to opposite King George V playing field, until finally moving indoors under the multi storey car park. Later a new indoor market opened near the leisure centre and flourished but for some reason most of it closed down. I was told at one time stalls were put up in Cutty’s Lane on the wide pavement outside the school where Fred Millard Court now stands.
St George’s church completed
Another event took place the year I arrived. St George’s Church was finished, and I crept in to listen to the music rehearsal for the opening. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother attended the opening. It was beautifully decorated in green and gold. The Lady Chapel was in the under croft, together with a reception area. The congregation met there after a service to socialise and have tea etc. During the week a communion service was held in the Lady Chapel and quite a few ladies attended with their children. St Georges was built with a campanile and a keyboard in the undercroft controlled ringing the bells electronically, just like I saw in the film Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe. St Georges was level with the road originally, and we used a crossing to get to the shops. Later on the road was built up and an underpass led to the shops. Then the trunks of the trees at the side of the church were below the level of the road, which looked rather odd.
Cinema and TV
When I first came to Stevenage I went to the cinema on the Bowling Green, but that soon closed and became a residence. We then paid regular visits to the Astonia at the bottom of the High Street. In time a cinema was built in the New Town, but I do not remember going there, and fancy about that time people just got colour television and so were not inclined to go to the cinema. At first when colour television became affordable, we rented a colour TV from Rumbelows, but soon decided it was bettet to buy one rather than having to pay rental every month.
Green or yellow buses?
At one time in the early days we were invited to vote on which colour we preferred for our local buses, green or yellow. They were on display in the Town Centre so we could make a decision.
New teaching methods
My daughter’s little friend attended Fairlands School and they were experimenting with a new teaching method. The children were taught to write and spell words phonetically, (similarly to the way I was taught to write shorthand) and then I suppose when they had mastered reading and writing they had to learn correct spelling. We felt it a long way round but it worked in the end though I am not clear if it was of any benefit to the children. Anyway, it has been discontinued!
Kites or cakes?
In the early days shop assistants in the old town were not very well disposed to the new towners and very reluctant to serve them. As old towners came to work in the new town they mixed more with the newcomers, and gradually got used to them. One Sunday we wanted to buy a kite, but in those days most shops closed Sunday. We went into a big sweet shop in the old town and asked if perchance they sold kites. We were directed to another shop just along the road, which proved to be a cake shop. It took a few minutes for the penny to drop
The Lister hospital
Originally we had to go to hospital in Hitchin, but in 1972 the Lister Hospital was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Another big day in the history of Stevenage.
Unsightly TV aerials
Television aerials were considered unsightly, and so it was decreed we had to take down our aerials and subscribe to Cab Tel, who put underground cables to every house. Some decided to put their aerial in the loft rather than accept this dictate.
When the new Leisure Centre (which included a theatre) was built the old museum and other buildings had to be destroyed. Building the new roads also caused disruption and debate. The new station and excellent train service has added to the town’s amenities. When it was decided to line part of Fairlands Valley to create a lake people were pleased, and were impatient to see water from natural sources fill the lake. A band stand was added and for some years during the summer a band concert took place on Sundays. It has been, of course, an ideal place for the annual firework display.
I should also mention the Michelmas Fair held in the High Street in those early days. It was not just a funfair as it seems to be now. A variety of small stalls took park. One man guaranteed to guess your weight, or give you a prize. I am not sure how it worked, but he got the best of the deal each time. The crockery stall was very popular and the man a real showman, sliding the plates quickly from one hand to the other in a slithering cascade. Many a good bargain was obtained.
Stevenage College was a very popular place of learning for people of all ages, and the main hall used for concerts. Fees were not too expensive and I took several courses there in the 1960’s.
A frontier town
Many more housing estates have been built over the years, and continue to be built. Earlier amenities have disappeared and others added. The town centre looks rather dilapidated and shabby. Remembering those early years, when everything was new, up and coming and the sense of achievement as each new amenity was added, it is sad to see so many of them gone and forgotten. It really was like a frontier town, and it was a great time to be here.