The Making of
Oxhey Park 1919 - 1934
While clearing litter from the river bank in 2003 with the Friends of Oxhey Park, we noticed a length of thin metal pipe fastened to the wall and tried to think what on earth it was for. It was old and fragile and did not hold a cable of any kind. Sections of that pipe are still in place even now.
It set us wondering about how old the park was and how it came to be as it is. What follows is a brief and patchy account of the origins and early history of Oxhey Park from 1919 to 1934. We put most of it together in a couple of months last year using the minutes of council meetings stored in Watford Town Hall. We are grateful for the help of Sandra Hancock, their custodian.
Council Minute books in Watford Town HallIt might sound dull work, ploughing through minutes, but in fact it was absolutely fascinating. The social history of the 1920s, live, as it was happening, rolled out in front of us as we turned the pages of the old leather bound volumes. It was difficult to concentrate on Oxhey Park and the Estates Committee (where most of the relevant discussions and decisions took place) and not get caught up in, say, Watford’s contribution to National Rat Week, or the Maternal and Child Welfare Committee’s payment towards a set of dentures, or the actual design of a ‘non-parlour type house’ considered suitable for the poorer classes.
The pictures come mainly from the Watford Museum, thanks to Mary Forsyth and Sarah Priestley. We only wish we had more, but at least they give glimpses of the park’s early years. Jill Bramley made possible this printed version of what began as an illustrated talk to the Friends of Oxhey Park.
Jean and Keith Alexander April 2010
Map showing Wiggenhall Estate land bought by Watford UDC April 1920
Oxhey Park did not exist in 1919. The land where it is now was part of the Wiggenhall Estate and a map drawn up for its sale in 1920 gives us some idea of how extensive the estate was. It spread on either side of Wiggenhall Road (now mainly renamed Blackwell Drive) and the bridge. Wiggenhall House itself occupied roughly the site of the present council tip and depot. It had a walled garden that went down to the river. Deacon’s Hill was just a track within the estate linking Wiggenhall to the Eastbury Road. The estate itself still looked quite rural.
Wiggenhall Bridge In 1919 the First World War had recently ended. The owners of the Wiggenhall estate were the two sons and the widow of Mr. John Gutteridge Smith who had died in 1914. But although the estate was still privately owned, most of it was actually controlled by the Government in the form of the Board of Agriculture and Food.
This came about because the 1916 Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act gave the Board power to take over private land for the production of food. The sinking of British ships by U boats was threatening food supplies, and encouraging allotments was seen as a way of making us less dependent on imports. Cassiobury Park had to have its share of allotments and by 1919 there were a good many in Wiggenhall. It is frustrating that we do not now have the maps showing where the allotments were, but Watford Urban District Council had a special allotments committee and the minutes frequently refer to allotments in Wiggenhall and near the Eastbury Road.
Although the war had ended, the Board used its power to keep possession of the Wiggenhall land for another two years. By the start of 1919 the heirs of Mr Gutteridge Smith had decided they were willing to sell the estate and Watford UDC was anxious to buy it.
In 1919 Watford was a thriving market town but it had serious problems of poverty and slum housing especially in the High Street and in the Rookery cottages down by the River Colne.
Ballards Buildings Ballards Buildings off the High Street was a particularly poor area and a source of urgent concern to Watford Urban District Council
The Council was an active and go ahead local authority. During the 1920s people came from other parts of the country and even from abroad to see what it was achieving. To clear the slums the Council needed land to build decent homes for the displaced residents. It also saw a continuing need for allotments and for green space for recreation. The Wiggenhall estate could provide land for all of these uses and it was close to the High Street and the Rookery.
Old Wiggenhall Bridge looking towards the town centre
One Saturday afternoon in January 1919 the Council’s Estates Committee met at 3pm on Wiggenhall bridge to view the estate. By May 1919 the price of £14000 had been provisionally agreed with the owners. Long drawn out negotiations followed because to buy it the Council had to have a loan sanctioned by the Ministry of Health. The actual conveyance document, with its map, is dated 26th April 1920.
Gradually over the next four years the necessary decisions were made on land allocation, the finance was sorted, and the groundwork put in hand. Once the areas set aside for housing and allotment had been agreed, the use of what remained for pleasure grounds and recreation could be planned. In January 1924 the Estates Committee of what was by now Watford Borough Council could recommend that the ‘newly allocated public park be named and known as Oxhey Park’.
In September 1924 major improvements to Wiggenhall Road and the bridge were approved and the construction of a new road incorporating Deacon’s Hill. The Deacon’s Hill road would take a portion of the park and destroy some trees. Replacements were to be planted ‘along the new border with the road’. These probably include the three lime trees still edging the park on that side.
Nowadays most of the park has no fencing or railings and we have just the one new gate off Lower High Street. But in the early years fences and gates were priorities. At first the idea was to have chestnut pale fencing along the Eastbury Road, but it was soon decided that iron railings would be better, though expensive. In July 1923 the Borough Surveyor submitted to the Estates Committee “an estimate for a 5’6” wrought iron fence with gates at £914 ” to be erected alongside the Eastbury Road frontage of the proposed public park.
We still have some stretches of the original railings left, along the Eastbury Road roughly between St Matthew’s Church and Bushey Arches, and on Deacon’s Hill, but most of them were removed during the Second World War to be recycled into armaments.
Railings along the Eastbury Road We are not sure where exactly the original gates were and have not found any photographs. There may have been one at the entrance to the riverside path at Wiggenhall because in July 1929 a Mrs Constable asked the Estates Committee to move the ‘post at the above entrance’ to allow a bath chair through’. The Borough Engineer was instructed to have the post removed. In April 1934 the Borough Engineer submitted sketches for ‘proposed entrance gates at Wiggenhall’ and the quotations for the work he had received. The Committee recommended that one for £25 17s 6d be accepted, but we could find no later mention of this gate.
A resident who grew up in Eastbury Road in the 1940s remembers three park gates at that time, one where Eastbury Road joins Deacon’s Hill, one almost opposite the end of Kingsfield Road, and a third at the Lower High Street entrance.
The clue to why fencings and railings were so important in the 1920s may be in the minutes of the Special Estates Committee 1st September 1925. The additional purchase of 200 sheep at 46s each is approved ‘to be put to graze in Cassiobury and Oxhey Parks, thereby saving considerable expense in mowing etc.’
The park was officially set up in January 1924 and in May an Estate Caretaker, later called the Park Keeper, was appointed at £2 4s a week plus a cottage. In September estimates for the supply of gas and electricity to the Caretaker’s cottage were obtained by the Borough Surveyor and presumably this work was carried out. The cottage was close to the playground which was built later, not far from the Eastbury Road entrance.
In October 1924 the Caretaker was refused permission to supply teas to the football ground and by September 1925 he is no longer in post as his wife is asking for more time to vacate the cottage which is ’ required for the new park keeper’. In November the Estates Committee recommend Mr A. Perry be appointed to the position at £2 4s a week plus cottage.
The Park Keeper’s cottage
Close up of Caretaker’s cottage, demolished in 1970 In 1927 it was decreed that park keepers in both Cassiobury and Oxhey park should wear uniform and that Oxhey Park was to be patrolled ‘on both sides’, presumably referring to the river. Whenever there were complaints from local residents, the Park
Keeper was instructed to keep an eye out and his authority was backed up by the Council and the police. The Town Clerk might be instructed to write to a troublesome boy’s parents and the police would take more serious offenders to court. Cycling in the park was forbidden. In 1928, for instance, two cyclists were fined 2s 6d each. In April 1934 the minutes refer to the Oxhey Park Attendant, Mr Perry. His pay is increased by 2s 6d.
In the 1920s, as now, a walk along the river was one of the main attractions of the park.
In the 1920s and 30s the river was considerably more robust than it is today. Until recent times it had had water-powered mills along its banks. The postcard views show none of the mud flats we have now. This is partly because of the extraction of water upstream since the 1930s. The situation has since been aggravated because the centre of the river was dredged in 1993 and the spoil just piled up along the sides, creating the mud banks.
When the Council bought the estate, there was already a public footpath along the river bank but in a post card photograph it looks narrow and rather overgrown.
In February 1924 the Council applied for £6,700 from the Watford & District Unemployed Grants Committee to pay for a new, wider ‘Footpath and River Wall from the High Street to Wiggenhall Bridge.’ At the same meeting the Borough Surveyor was asked to invite tenders for a second stage of the riverside walk from the railway arches within the park to the High Street. This proposed second phase was still being discussed in the 1930s but it seems the extended path never materialised.
At this time Wiggenhall House had been let by the Council with its grounds to a Miss Dommes, of whom more shortly. Miss Dommes objected vigorously to having part of what she regarded as .her garden adjoining the river taken away to allow the construction of the new path. In August, and again in September, the minutes report that the Borough Engineer has had to go and see her because the contractors were anxious to complete the work.
Eventually the new river wall and path were built. The wall has lasted pretty well up to now, though some of its black capping stones have been lost and the spaces filled with cement.
A postcard shows the trees in what was still the Wiggenhall House garden. It also shows that the ‘health and safety’ measures recommended by the Estates Committee in April 1925 i.e. ‘galvanised rail fitted just above water level and 6 lifebuoys supplied at intervals and suitable notices’ were put in place. Some of that grab rail (the metal tube we noticed while clearing litter) is still there.
This picture of the boathouse which stood roughly where the Irish Club is now comes from a snap sent into the Watford Observer in 1998.
Several readers wrote in with their memories of the boathouse and it is fascinating to fit these in with the account given by the council minutes of the negotiations with Mr Andrewartha, ‘an ex-naval man’. The surname is Cornish and caused confusion as to spelling and nationality later.
In January 1926 Mr Andrewartha was given permission to provide and hire out boats on the Corporation’s water at Wiggenhall, initially for 3 years. He will pay the Corporation £30 a year if Sunday boating is allowed, otherwise £20 a year. The number of boats is limited to 12 and the type and construction must be approved. He was also given permission to erect a boathouse ‘to the satisfaction of the corporation’. He had to insure against accidents and exercise proper supervision. In May 1929 he is sharing the boating licence with Mr Lock. Observer readers recalled a variety of boats hired out at 3d or 6d a session.
These pleasure boats began to stray beyond the stretch of water owned by the Corporation and on to the part of the river owned by the gas company. In June 1926 the Borough Engineer is instructed to put up notices warning where boats will be entering private waters, and inform the licensee. However in May 1927 there is another complaint of ’persons using boats on the river beyond the Corporation’s bounds’ and an instruction to post three warnings. It is perhaps surprising that the smells from the gasworks (and nearby brewery) were not sufficient deterrent to going any nearer.
A post card shows a family on the river, Dad rowing complete with waistcoat and cap. The little boat looks quite full with at least four passengers. The river water reaches right up to the wall just under the level of the grab rail. Young saplings have been planted along the base of the grassy slope down to the river and a path rather than steps leads up the hill.
We do not know the date of this photo but it probably comes from later in the 1930s. If it was taken before 1930 it is unlikely to have been on a Sunday. There was an ongoing battle within and beyond the Council during the period 1924 - 1930 between those who wanted strict Sunday observance (that is, as little activity as possible that might distract from church or chapel attendance) and those who did not.
The Estates committee did recommend that boating be allowed seven days a week but at a later meeting two aldermen proposed boating be allowed weekdays only and the amendment was carried. In May 1927 Mr Greenfield asked for Sunday boating to be allowed on the Colne but the matter was deferred ‘until the current licence expires’. A year later the Estates Committee turned down a request to sell minerals and confectionery on Sundays and a few weeks later the lessees of the boathouse had to write a letter of apology to the Town Clerk for selling minerals on a Sunday.
Observer readers, presumably recalling the later 1930s, remembered the boat house selling sweets, soft drinks and ice cream. There being no electricity or gas supply to the boat house, refrigeration was via a bucket of ice from an ice factory in Wiggenhall Road.
Readers said the clear, clean water made this a good place for a swim but keeping it that way was problem for the Council. There are several references in the minutes to work needed to keep the river clear and free from weeds, including a scheme for the unemployed. In July 1933 Mr Andrewartha wrote to the Council complaining of the state of the river and also submitted correspondence with the Thames Conservancy Board. The Estates Committee promptly recommended that ‘the matter be left in the hands of the TCB’. This convenient solution was used again in July 1934 when the Town Clerk was instructed to forward to the TCB a copy of a letter from a resident complaining of the state of the Colne in Oxhey Park.
Despite these problems, the river was a popular place for fishing and there were competitions for children in the 1930s organised by the LMS and Watford Piscators with prizes and silver cups.
In 1939 came the Second World War. The boating and refreshment business probably carried on for a while, minus a supply of ice cream, and a shadow of its former self. Mr Andrewartha died in 1943 and the boathouse was closed and demolished.
If we go back to October 1921 when the Wiggenhall estate was being divided up and the fields behind the Irish Club were simply water meadow rented to local farmers for grazing, we find this decision by the Wiggenhall Estate Allocation Sub Committee:
“The Sub Committee had viewed the Estate and recommended that the land now in the occupation of Mr Dumbleton lying between the river and the electric railway embankment be reserved for a recreation ground, the level of the ground to be raised above the river level whenever the material can be obtained by using the site as a tip.”
In fact it took years to level the whole site, a process that was not complete by 1930. But the earliest plans for the park also refer to a proposed football pitch ‘at the new recreation ground’ at Wiggenhall. It is interesting that the recreation ground is mentioned separately from the park at this point. In later minutes it sometimes seems to be viewed as part of the park and sometimes as a separate entity.
In February 1924 it was agreed ‘that a football pitch be provided and a close boarded fence be erected on one side and that such part of the park be set aside for football and the necessary notice be set up.’
In July it was agreed that a hut be transferred from Harebreaks to the Wiggenhall football field for a dressing room. By October teams must have been playing football because the Caretaker is told he is not allowed to supply teas. Oxhey Invicta FC is the first team name we came across, and soon cricket was being played on the pitch in summer. Watford Old Boys FC asked if they could put a notice board on the roof of the dressing room ‘to inform train passengers who their opponents were’. The request was refused.
In October 1927 the Estates Committee recommended that a bye-law be sought forbidding on Sundays’ the playing of football, quoits, bowls, hockey, cricket and tennis in parks and playgrounds throughout the Borough’. But the Minister of Health had to approve the bye-law and this he was most reluctant to do. The Sunday Observance battle was a long one and hard fought one and not over by 1930.
The same debate affected music in the park, because for a while at least we did have some band music, though nothing on the scale of Cassiobury Park with its summer season of top military bands and season tickets.
The bands who played in Oxhey Park in the 1920s were the Watford Prize Silver Band and the Bushey Association Brass Band. After a battle with the Parks Sub Committee they were eventually given permission to play in the park on alternate Sunday afternoons. It would be interesting to know whereabouts in the park these bands played. So far we have found no mention of a bandstand.
There was a plan as early as 1929 for a children’s paddling pool north of the river, i.e. on the playing field side, with a footbridge across the river, but this was abandoned because it was taking so long to raise the level on that side. In March 1930 the Estates Committee recommends that children’s swings be placed in the wood behind the Caretaker’s cottage and approves a detailed quotation for the playground equipment: “A quotation has been received for 1 non-bumper seesaw, 1 set of 10ft swings, 2 seats, 1 set of 15ft swings, 2 seats, 1 ocean wave, 11 horizontal ladder, 1 large plank swing 6-8ft seats, Cost £131 7s”.
The swings were in use by summer 1930 and soon residents of the Coppice and Deacon’s Hill were complaining about noise and asking that the playground be moved ‘where the noise cannot be heard’.
Throughout this period following the Council purchase of the estate in 1920, Wiggenhall House stood in its grounds roughly where the Council depot is now..
Once the Council had bought the estate, Mrs Gutteridge Smith became their tenant for a few weeks while repairs to her new home were completed. In January 1921 the house, stables, coach house etc. were advertised to let and by May Miss Dommes had moved in.
She caused the Council trouble almost from the start, particularly by her keenness to sublet and her lateness with her rent, two things which are probably linked. In May 1922 she was given permission to sublet the stables but in October she wanted to sublet the garden and the Council refused. In 1924, as we have seen, she held up work on the new riverside path because it meant taking part of the garden where a sluice let water in and out of the river to a pond.
The stables were let to boarding kennels for a while up to August 1925 and when the Medical Officer visited the stables in late 1926 he found two families each living in a single room over the stables. He says that ‘although the families are not large, the premises are unfit for human habitation’. The tenants are to be told that their occupation must cease. Yet they are still there in January 1927 and there are arrears of rent and water charges.
When the Council finally begin possession proceedings against Miss Dommes in 1928 she pays up in full. But now she would like to let the stables to a gentleman who wishes to keep four Galloway ponies there and he would like somewhere for the groom to live close by, - over the stables perhaps? The Council say the stabling can be accepted if the gentleman’s references are satisfactory but no, he cannot live over the stables. They are unfit for human habitation.
In 1929, after more rent arrears, the Council obtain a judgement for possession against Miss Dommes plus arrears and costs and she finally disappears from the scene. It is not surprising that, when a Miss Mordue enquires whether she might rent the house once it is vacant, the Council are not prepared to make any commitment.
In fact Wiggenhall was never actually developed as part of the park, although the Estates Committee record in December 1929 that ‘the land is at present appropriated as part of Oxhey Park’. There were suggestions at various times that the gardens at least be taken in to the park. In February 1930, for instance, Councillor Bickerton suggested the wooded portion be set aside as a bird sanctuary and was invited to put his idea to the Parks Sub Committee, but nothing further is heard of that. A plan of the area round the house dating from 1951 shows it still as a garden.
In December 1929 the Estates Committee had recommended that the House be demolished and the site used for housing. But the Borough Engineer reported that very little of the property could be used for development without excessive cost. In January the Council removed the reference in the minutes to demolition, so the house lingered on.
Demolition of Wiggenhall House 1955Its rooms were let out to various community groups. In September 1932 the local vicar asked if rooms could be used for morning and afternoon Sunday school. In November 1933 a deputation from the Ladies’ Sub Committee of the Mother and Child Welfare committee asked for the use of three rooms on Friday afternoons for an Infant Welfare Centre, which was agreed. In February 1934 the Estates Committee had to consider requests for use of rooms from the Scout Master of 42nd S.W. Herts. Scout Group and from the Rev. Parsons who asked for extended use of rooms for the Girls’ Fellowship.
Meanwhile the grounds were used as a Council depot. The house was apparently being used as a clinic for a while after the Second World War, and it was finally demolished in 1955. Sadly, the only photo we could find of the house was taken while that was happening.
Within the grounds of the Depot some of the original Wiggenhall outbuildings remain, with former pig sties now housing lorries, rings for tying up horses on the external wall of what were stables, and the old weather vane on top of what are now offices.
If we look back to the map of the Wiggenhall Estate when it was sold in 1920, we can see that one area of our present park was not part of that deal. Looking from the river bank, this is the area beyond the Dell, bounded by Eastbury Road, Lower High Street and, currently, the Mercedes showroom. A later map drawn up in connection with a proposed footpath change sometime between 1923 and 1930, shows the area clearly. Much of it belonged to the Watford Engineering Co, and there was also Salter’s Brewery and the Wheatsheaf public house. The proposed footpath extended from the Lower High St. Bridge, skirted the Engineering Works to link up with existing riverside walk. Traces of this path still exist but we do not know whether it was ever completed.
Map showing the High Street end of the park as it was before the purchase by the CouncilDuring the 1920s motor traffic began to increase in Watford. By 1930 Lower High St was too narrow to cope comfortably with these vehicles, especially the motor buses.
So the Council negotiated with several landowners to buy strips along the front of their properties so that the road could be widened. In 1930 the Watford Engineering Company sold some of their frontage, and a new Wheatsheaf pub was built further back from the road. A rather murky picture shows the new Wheatsheaf, with the old one in front of it in the process of demolition.
It may be that it was the road widening works that opened up the possibility of extending the park. We know that there was a proposal for the Council to buy ‘land adjacent to Oxhey Park, by the railway viaduct’ in October 1930.
On 27th January 1932 the Corporation bought from the Watford Engineering Works Ltd ‘all that piece of land situate in the Parish of Watford...fronting on the High Street and Eastbury Road and bounded on the north west and south west side respectively by a public footpath and by land the property of the Purchaser.’ The map accompanying the conveyance shows precisely that area of the park adjoining Lower High Street, so completing Oxhey Park as it is today.
We now think of the Dell as the wooded stretch connecting the lower park with the main park alongside the river. But entries in the Corporation minutes from 1932 onwards suggest that “The Dell” (that is how its name usually appears) was then considered to include all the newly purchased piece of land. At that stage it seems to have been a fairly rough and unattractive corner surrounded by advertising hoardings.
In February 1932 the Estates Committee recommends that the Parks Subcommittee inspect and report on the question of clearing up “The Dell” which ’has recently been purchased by the corporation’. The Sub Committee carry out the inspection and instruct the Borough Engineer to have the area cleared of all rubbish and made tidy. He is also to arrange for the planting of trees in the autumn along the northern side adjoining the public footpath.
Following the purchase, the question of footpaths through it provoked some debate. We have already mentioned the proposed path from the Lower High Street bridge to the riverside walk in the park. In addition, in December 1933 the Borough Engineer was instructed to prepare a layout diverting the existing public footpath taking it through ‘one of the other arches. We have not found any such layout. In February 1934 the Town Clerk reported further on the matter, but the Estates Committee recommended at the same time that the project should not proceed.’
When the Managing Director of the Watford & District Bill Posting Company enquired of the Estates Committee in March whether the Corporation might be prepared to allow the company to maintain the existing bill posting hoardings after the expiry of the company’s tenancy, he was told that that ’the Corporation regrets that it cannot grant a fresh lease nor can they recognise any occupation by the company after the expiration of the notice’. But at the Council meeting on May 3rd the resolution that the hoardings must be removed on or 17th May was withdrawn. Maybe then, as now, advertising revenues from posters in the Bushey Arches area were not lightly abandoned by the Council, though the ones round the park did eventually disappear.
The clearing and tidying of The Dell was presumably done fairly promptly, but the ‘laying out’ of the Dell as part of the park was achieved as one of the public measures to relieve unemployment, a serious problem in Watford as nationally at the time. In September 1932 the Estates Committee recommend that the Borough Engineer prepare an estimate of the cost of various works including laying out The Dell. In January 1933 the estimate of £1500 is approved. The scheme is to be proceeded with’ as and when convenient as a considerable amount of tipping to the site is required’.
We have some photos of work in progress. The first, looking up towards Eastbury Road from the park, shows newly planted saplings and a cleared but scruffy slope behind them. The second, a continuation of the first, shows the area close to Bushey Arches and the Lower High Street entrance.
The next two years saw a good deal of work done as can be seen in these photos from the Watford Observer with their original captions
‘This new entrance to Oxhey Park from the Lower High Street greatly improves the “Wheatsheaf” Corner. The money for the work came from the Mayor’s Unemployment Fund.’ (12.5.1934)
“Formerly a piece of waste ground, the Lower High Street entrance to Oxhey Park now has a gigantic rock garden” Watford Observer 17th August 1935 Of the rock garden, little trace remains now, but there is still evidence of terracing and shrub planting in the years that followed.
Sadly, since those days breaches in the railings and fence along Eastbury Road have made the slope a passageway into the park in several places, causing unsightly damage. Yet still a few ornamental shrubs and plants survive.
References to Oxhey Park in the Council minutes after 1933 are far fewer and briefer than in the years after 1919. This may be because the park was now ‘up and running’ and needed less detailed attention from the Council, whereas other issues such as unemployment and coping with increasing road traffic were demanding more.
So at this point we conclude this exploration of the early days of Oxhey Park. We would be happy to receive, perhaps through the Watford Museum, any further information, corrections, or photos that could be added to it.