Growing Up and Living in Letchworth
Reflections on Growing Up and Working in Letchworth Garden City
by John White
As a boy in the early 1950s I grew up with my brother Robert and our parents Bill and Nan White living above our shop ‘Orchard House’ in Commerce Avenue, Letchworth, a grocery shop which traded in groceries, cheeses, cooked and uncooked meats along with numerous household goods. Dad offered a home delivery service using his Morris Traveller car and I was encouraged in the school holidays to accompany him and deliver the boxed orders to our customers.
Orchard House was positioned opposite the entrance to Commerce Lane that ran through to join Leys Avenue in the space that’s between the current butchers and fish and chip shops. Commerce Lane had a number of small commercial businesses in what appeared to be garage style blocks one of which housed the newly formed business of Peter Gordon Lawrence, a canoe hire company which over the 60years has become the nationally established PGL Family Adventures company specialising in canoeing and adventure holidays. Mr Squires of Squires Dairy, Leys Avenue had a stable block for his horse and cart which he used for delivery of milk around the town.
Also opposite us in Commerce Avenue was Mr Green’s large furniture depository used to store stock for the furniture shop in Leys Avenue. Alongside the depository was Mrs Minnie Brown with her ladies hairdressers and Smiths the undertakers. On our side of the road and next door to Orchard House was’ Auto Supplies’ a shop owned by Mr Norris selling car parts and vehicle accessories. Further down towards Leys Avenue was Whiteheads petrol and service station and Notts Bakery making bread and cakes overnight for their shops in Eastcheap and Leys Avenue.
Commerce Avenue at this time was a two way road for vehicles that ran from Gernon Road (opposite Gernon Walk) through to Leys Avenue exiting alongside WH Smith newsagents who remain trading on the same site today. At the Gernon Road end was a row of terrace cottages for use by the local firemen and their families known as the ‘Firemen Cottages’. During the 1970s Commerce Avenue and Commerce Lane with premises were erased to be replaced with the privately owned pedestrian shopping development now called Commerce Approach and Commerce Way along with the multi storey car park.
Robert and I went to Westbury Junior School in West View and then onto Pixmore Secondary School in Ridge Avenue which on closure transferred all students to the newly built Willian School on the Jackmans Estate. All three schools sites have now been remodelled for housing. During the last two years of my schooling I was elected Head Boy and during this time became one of the first in the county to achieve the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award with the award being presented at Buckingham Palace by the Duke of Edinburgh. As one of the many assignments for the Award I built from plans a wooden framed, canvas covered canoe in the storeroom at the back of our shop. I can remember cycling up the A1 road to Tempsford and then onto St. Neots with the canoe towed behind my bike on old pram wheels, to paddle in The Ouse. I would certainly not do that journey today with the increase in traffic use.
Scouting was an important part of my life being a member of the 3rd Letchworth Troop who met weekly with our leader David Turner in the Scout Hut which is still in Icknield Way. Camping in the Lake District and taking part in the annual scout Gang Shows held in the theatre at St Francis College, Broadway was always great fun. During the summer months I spent much time at the Letchworth outdoor swimming pool having been taught to swim by Mr Scott the pool superintendent. For a number of years on the opening first day and much to my parents’ displeasure I would get up early, walk in the dark to the pool and queue outside to be first in the water to win a free season entry ticket issued by North Herts Council. Those were the good old days.
When I was seventeen the shop was sold and my parents moved to Sussex where I followed and started work in an architects practice, training as an architect’s assistant, something I always wanted to do in realising an interest in building design within the environment.
A year on I returned to Letchworth going into digs in Souberie Avenue with an elderly lady called Miss Marian Dobbie who had been a worker at the Spirella corset factory, the Spirella Building, Bridge Road. I joined the Hertfordshire Constabulary as a Police Cadet serving at Stevenage and then Hitchin and at 19years became a Police Constable in Letchworth for the next four years learning my trade that included walking the town centre foot beat and meeting with shop keepers for tea and chats. There were many policing benefits growing up locally within a town and people that I knew.
I transferred to Police Headquarters at Welwyn Garden City to become a police trainer and gained promotion to Sergeant before moving back to Hitchin and Letchworth and then to other county postings. I was encouraged to set up a consultancy within the Constabulary offering specialised crime prevention advice in designing out crime at the planning stage involving the ten District Councils in Hertfordshire and numerous architects/ builders along with their clients. My early boy interest in architecture and design had become a full circle linking crime and building design with prevention techniques early enough help to create a safer environment in which to safely live, work and play. It appeared to me that we had forgotten the early days of the 1900s when Ebenezer Howard along with his fellow trustees had the foresight to see into the future and produced an environmental design blueprint from which Letchworth Garden City and its residents now benefit.
After 43 years in the service both as a police officer and a civilian staff member, retirement beckoned. I continue to live in Letchworth Garden City with our daughters and their families close by and can now fully enjoy what the world’s First Garden City has to offer. It is often said, ‘Retirement - there is a life after work and I don’t know how I found time for work’. This is true.