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Transcript TitleAkers, Iris (O2001.14)
IntervieweeIris Akers (IA)
InterviewerMary Ollis (MO) and Eddie Roche (ER)
Transcriber byJean Riddell (Purkis)


Hertford Oral History Group

Recording no: O2001.14

Interviewee: Iris Akers (IA)

Date: 2001

Venue: 14 Highfield Road, Hertford (the home of Mary Ollis)

Interviewer: Mary Ollis (MO) and Eddie Roche (ER)

Transcriber: Jean Riddell (Purkis)

Typed by: Freda Joshua

************** unclear recording

[discussion] untranscribed material

italics editor’s notes

IA: Mother and grandfather’s name was Dearmer, not Dearman, Dearmer, an unusual name, and they came from another part of Hertfordshire, Willian, and always had to do with horses. His father was a farm bailiff at a house in Willian. It’s still there now, I think the Roman Catholics have taken it over as a house for a residential home, it’s lovely. I didn’t live there, I came here, but most of my holidays were spent in Norfolk at my grandparents’ farm. I used to go there, Hilgay in Norfolk, but my childhood was basically spent here in Hertford.

ER: So you went to school in Hertford?

IA: I went to school at All Saints.

MO: Who was the head at the time?

IA: Miss Davis, was our teacher, Kate Davis.

ER: And then you went on to secondary?

IA: No, I stayed there until I was 14 (overtalking). I won a scholarship to go to Christs Hospital as my father had died. I didn’t take it after all, I stayed, decided to go to work instead. Rather silly but there you are. My mother only had about £1 a week and 10/- for me, so we were very poor.

MO: Where did you live, actually?

IA: Well, I lived in Thornton Street. My grandmother used to be a cook, she used to go round to various houses and cooked, so my mother looked after the family (overtalking).

MO: What do you remember of Thornton Street and The Folly and Bircherley Green?

IA: I don’t remember a lot about that. I know the houses came down to the river, but we didn’t really see many people from there (Bircherly Green) it was, Folly as it was, was a very friendly community. If someone was ill there was always someone to come and look after you. If someone died they went to someone to lay them out (overtalking).

ER: You didn't know the Watkins at No.28?

IA: Yes, because she was a friend of my mother's see, Daphne now, she lives in Bengeo, she has a daughter.

MO: The Folly was a much more respectable area, wasn't it?

IA: Yes, but not as it is now. If you live there nowadays the houses are so ridiculously priced. It's funny, when I was young and someone asked where I lived I would never say (overtalking).

ER: My grandparents lived on the Folly. My father was born there, a lot of people in the trade - my grandfather came there, it was part of the offer of a job at Grattons Blue Boot Store.

IA: The Andrews family owned the estate. They had it built and I think there were 99 houses built. Thornton Street - they were 6-roomed houses, the rest of them were 4. But of course they've all added onto them all now. But why they are so costly these days is incredible.

ER: Particularly the ones by the riverside.

IA: Yes, because they are only two-up, two-down and a bit added on. There's nowhere to park a car, you can't get an ambulance near.

MO: Did you have a lavatory inside or outside?

IA: Outside.

MO: Quite a few of them still had outside loos?

IA: I think so. You see there was 3 rooms downstairs.

MO: So yours was one of the bigger ones?

IA: Yes, the toilet was outside, there was a door from the kitchen into it.

ER: When you left school you had to find a job?

IA: I used to go to Roses [stationer, corner of Bull Plain, now a cafe] on Saturday and help out and do jobs there. I was waiting to be a hairdresser, that's what I always wanted and I was going to the hairdressers opposite the Castle. Miss Baxter had a hairdressing shop above a greengrocers, I was supposed to be going there as soon as there was a place for me there again, I would have been for three years without earning anything. My mother had to put down £100 and we just didn't have it, so I would have liked to be a hairdresser but I'd just got to earn some money. So Mr Rose suggested I went there to work and I was there for 7 years. Then he said, 'I think you're too intelligent for that, you can do the books for me', so I did the books for him. Mr Sydney.

MO: So how much did you get paid?

IA: I think I started with 8 shillings.

MO: And what year was that, roughly? I started up at County Hall in 1940 - 25/- a week (pause).

IA: Would have been about '32. And then I think I got 10/- and in the office I got £1, and I would give my mother 15/- and keep 5/- for myself. That really did help her. Then I went to the Electricity Board in 1939.

MO: Can you remember the shop, did you ever go up into the printing room?

IA: Yes, we used to have to do the reading. I would go up and help if it wasn't busy, or they would bring it down on the counter so we used to check all the, check everything for them.

MO: So did they, everything in those days was selected from lead type and they had to compose it.

IA: Oh yes. There was a man called Giblen, he was there, then after that mostly boys they used to train so Mr Rose, Freddy Manson and Mr Giblen. We used to do a lot of work. I didn't know who for, it was Yiddish, a lot of leaflets and we used to do them regularly and they were always slightly altered. We had to go through them, check them. A solicitor from London used to come in quite a bit and he was a Jew and I think possibly it was to do with that. We used to fold them, print them flat and fold them over into about 8, piles of them. They used to go out about once a month.

ER: Were they handbills?

IA: No, no, no, they weren't bills.

ER: Were they what we would call leaflets now or were they - ?

IA: I didn't know, they were on cartridge sort of paper, it wasn't a thin paper. No-one ever -

MO: Could translate it?

IA: No, but we could tell the difference, notice when there was something wrong. Used to do a lot of printing for County Hall, there was a funny little man called Mahood, I used to look through them, they didn't mean a lot, all about tarmacadam (overtalking).

MO: And did you do bus timetables?

IA: I seem to remember train timetables, I don't think it was bus. I used to do those with your grandfather because he wouldn't let anybody else do them. So we had all the alterations, every time, had to do those.

ER: That was quite intricate and time-consuming work (inaudible overtalking).

IA: The whole thing wouldn't be altered each time, it would be one train.

MO: They'd sit in a sort of tray, didn't they, and then the sheet was fed out.

ER: Did you spend much time (there)?

MO: I remember going up the stairs which were very rickety and the first little long room we went to up the stairs, that's where the type machines were and Mr Giblen used to be working on those, then there were other slightly bigger machines.

IA: There was one that went round.

MO: And one that had a flat plate that came down on the print.

IA: It was quite big really.

ER: It was quite a busy business.

IA: Oh yes, of course there weren't the number of businesses that there are today, not the big commercials. Local people would all come there, headings for their bills, there was a lot, and a lot of debts. I think he would have been a millionaire fi he'd got all the debts paid in.

ER: When I cleared up my father's business affairs there were leaflets in there that, when he set up business on his own, he paid a boy 5/- to distribute them round Hertford and this was done on a regular basis. There was plenty of work in the printing business of that nature.

IA: We used to have the Saturday papers - there was one early in the afternoon and a final one later on. Used to sit in the office and get all the results from Reuter and they were printed in the stop press section. Then they were put outside and people had to come and pick them up (for the shops).

MO: I can remember my grandfather went down quite early in the morning because he'd got to get there before the paper boys in order to give them their bundles.

ER: Mark up.

IA: I used to do that, used to take turns to do that, go early in the morning.

ER: What sort of social life was there in Hertford at that time?

IA: Dancing! I used to dance nearly every night. Used to work to 8 o'clock on Saturdays, go home, get changed and go to a dance after that.

MO: Where were they held?

IA: St Nicholas Hall, Corn Exchange, Bengeo, out as far as Wadesmill, Ware Drill Hall, and we had live music, which is unheard of now (overtalking).

MO: Did you go to the cinema much?

IA: Oh yes.

MO: I remember the Castle Cinema, I remember seeing a Charlie Chaplin film at the Castle Cinema.

ER: The old Regent.

IA: Flea-pit we called it.

ER: That became an iron works, Walter Wilcox after the war.

MO: Oh yes, near Coppings, wasn't it.

IA: Even a theatre group at the back of Christ Church, now there's homes built along there, but when I was a child mother used to take me there on Saturdays, Scott Gordon and wonderful people used to come and give shows. They were there all through the summer. In fact, some of them stayed in Queens Road - can't remember the name now, London Road. There were quite a few families that used to be here for the summer months.

MO: Where the COPS (Company of Players) are now, in that hall?

IA: Well, yes.

ER: We had it for a scout hut for a while, now it is Company of Players.

IA: Well, it's Russell Street there, the other side I think they used to have a big marquee.

ER: In the '30s.

IA: Well, before that because I remember my mother taking me there.

[This ground was where the newer houses in Russell Street are now, traditionally fairs and fetes were there. Owned at that time, at least, by McMullens]

IA: That was Burgess and his wife, they used to take the leads. They both had good voices.

MO: In HDOS (Herts Dramatic and Operatic Society), yes, I remember her playing in the Geisha Girl, that was one of the first ones they put on at the County Cinema, amazing really, because they filled the whole of the County Cinema. They used to run for a whole week, they obviously gave up showing films for a whole week.

IA: They were never short of people in those days, they were always full, before TV days.

ER: I suppose entertainment had to be within the boundaries of the town because people didn't have cars, you would walk.

IA: We had bicycles.

ER: If you were going to a dance, the girl would walk because she wouldn't want to spoil her dress.

IA: I was with my grand-daughter last week, we were in Ware, and she said, 'I wish they had skating over here, they did when you were young, didn't they, Nana?' I said 'yes, used to come over here and go skating, roller skating'. Also came to dances and we had very high-heeled shoes so I probably had to walk all the way home without any shoes on. I was lucky because I had my brothers and sisters but I had older aunts and uncles, 12/15 years older, and whatever they went to I would go with them. My mother didn't have much money but if I wanted something, they'd all get together and buy me what I wanted.

MO: Did you buy your bathing suits at Gravesons or Bon Marche?

IA: Yes, it could have been Bon Marche, but there was another shop where Gravesons is, I can't think of the name but very nice.

MO: McFarlanes?

IA: Yes! [Market Place next to pargetted building] When you think of the number of shops we had here in those days. There was another one opposite [confusing as opposite is Shire Hall].

MO: Masons?

IA: Yes. We had plenty of choice, I wanted, my mother always took me to London for coats and clothes [But, mother was 'poor'!!]

MO: Did you go by train - East?

IA: Yes, we had relatives up there so it was always easy to go to them.

MO: You could go up to London for 1/6d, 11d on the workmen's train from Hertford East to Liverpool Street, and the theatre you could get in the Upper Circle for 1/6d.

IA: Have a meal as well for about 10/- altogether.

MO: Can you remember when you were working in the shop, any of the customers?

IA: All the farmers and, of course, the Countess of Strathmore brought the princesses in. We served them, they came in several times. They were quite young, about 9 and 6.

MO: And the Countess came in with them?

IA: Oh yes. Owen used to sit her on a chair. She was very sweet, very natural and friendly to us, Countess Strathmore from Woolmers Park. They used to go and stay with her. She had this big old car that used to be out in Bull Plain.

MO: I bet Owen fluttered around.

IA: Yes he did, because he used to do picture framing, he had all sorts of valuable pictures there that used to frighten me to death because he wasn't the most careful person.

MO: That would explain why he had his office in what used to be the kitchen and he had a perpetual saucepan of glue on the stove and it always smelled horrible. I never knew what he was doing. I remember him in a blue suit with fine pin-stripes and he had a moustache and he took snuff and he wore a boater.

ER: Expensive stuff to buy, wasn't it?

IA: All the printers took snuff in those days, not as much as he did, it was something to do with the print, to counteract something.

ER: You'd see Tommy Ellis with these tiny wafers on the scales [tobacconist in Bull Plain] and one of those funnels - like an ice-cream cornet piece of paper. Then the scales would come up. There was never any 'overs'

MO: I'm interested in the Countess and the princesses, did they buy anything?

IA: Yes, they always went straight into the children's books. They weren't allowed to have money but she always gave them some to spend. And they didn't have expensive tastes, any book was exciting to them and they were paying for them themselves … (overtalking at this passage).

MO: Can you remember what books they bought?

IA: Children's books, simple books. They were always dressed alike and I remember that Frances Johns and I kept the money that they gave us. In fact, I think she framed hers for many years. She may even still have it - we did keep the money and put the other in the till.

ER: The girl you worked with, she's still alive?

IA: She's moved away, not many of the Johns family left now.

MO: There was some connection between the Johns and Biggles?

IA: It was her uncle, her father's brother I presume.

MO: Who wrote the books? [W E Johns].

IA: Yes, they lived at the bottom of Port Hill.

MO: Yes, because there's a little sign up there [a Blue Plaque] that was his home, he came from there.

IA: Before I left (Roses), I was about 19 I think, I had an invitation from Woolmers Park for a Servants Ball, to take somebody, and they came and collected me. It was a wonderful evening.

MO: Describe it for us.

IA: Well, I've always wanted to come down a staircase.

MO: How did you get there? Did you cycle?

IA: No, no, they came and collected us.

MO: In a car.

ER: A limousine?

IA: Yes, and I had my boyfriend at the time, I'd just met him and he came as well.

MO: You didn't wear a long evening dress?

IA: Yes, I had one specially made for it. It was red velvet.

MO: Made specially for you, who made it?

IA: No, we made it. We made all our own clothes. And we were piped in, the pipers all came down the stairs and the Queen, I suppose she wasn't the Queen then -

End of Side A

MO: Carry on, do tell us more.

IA: We went upstairs - the cloakrooms were, it seems rather strange because I thought the toilet and bathroom were, but it was all the same sort of china, you know, the china pot, very attractive, lots of mirrors and I remember coming down those stairs, you know I've always wanted to do, grand stairs, then we had food for several rounds, as much food as we wanted and then the dancing was in the main room under the eaves, it was really beautiful. We had to do Scottish dancing as well. I did know quite a bit of Scottish dancing so that was all right. It was a wonderful evening and we went home about 1 o'clock (overtalking).

IA: I've been looking for it, I know I've got it somewhere - it had a little pencil with a tassel, but I can't find it. And I was a good dancer so I didn't have any problems.

MO: Waltzing and foxtrots?

IA: Yes, well every dance you can think of.

ER: Did your feet ache?

IA: I was used to dancing, I loved dancing. I wish I could dance now.

MO: A band or an orchestra?

IA: An orchestra, quite a good orchestra and then the various pipers at the top of the stairs, then Princess Elizabeth as she was then came down the stairs and stayed for quite a while. I was lucky really, I thought it was very sweet of her, and Frances moved away so she didn't get one…

ER: By Royal command.

IA: Oh yes, it was lovely.

MO: What time of year was it?

IA: I think it was autumn. They called it the Servants' Ball but there were all sorts of people there.

ER: Probably people who supplied the estate. The Abel Smiths used to have something like that.

IA: A lovely old house, I don't know who's living there now.

ER: Woolmers Park, is that where Lucases -

IA: Yes, Prince Philip used to come down there.

ER: The daughter of Lucas, they had the farm adjacent to Prince Charles because the girl Lucas was rated the best woman polo player in the world, so she married an army man.

IA: I'm not surprised because they had lots of… (?) (overtalking)

ER: Captain Tomlinson she married, her name was Clare Lucas and she was quite a smart lady, well they still farm.

MO: Queen Mary used to go up to Balls Park a lot but I don't think she was connected with any of the town's activities.

ER: Is that when Faudel Phillips - ? [were at Balls Park] Yes, that's a wonderful mansion. I suppose when you were getting near the end of your career at Roses we were getting near the time of the war.

IA: I knew Claude Marshall and he used to come into the shop quite a bit, and he said he'd got a position for me there, and I said, 'you only take grammar school girls and I didn't go to grammar school', but he said, 'well, you've served me here and I'd like you to come for interview'. So I went and had an interview and got it, and I started off in '39, just before the war.

MO: What is that building now, it's a night club, isn't it? What is the electricity building now?

ER: I think it is.

IA: It looks dreadful, doesn't it, an awful colour. I think it's awful that they allowed something like that. So I was there until my daughter was nearly born in '55.

ER: 15 to 16 years.

IA: I know I didn't do hairdressing but I was very happy with what I did.

MO: Do you remember what Hertford was like during the war. I seem to remember the tanks going round the war memorial.

IA: Well, we had a lot of army here, Scotties here.

MO: Camerons.

ER: They were in North Road just past the garage.

MO: Sessions Garage.

ER: Yes, they requisitioned some houses along there. But they billeted them anywhere.

IA: They billeted 2 with my grandmother, not that we had a lot of room, that didn't seem to matter.

MO: Either army or evacuees were billeted on families. My grandfather had a Battersea boy, went to the grammar school.

ER: They had lessons with the Battersea boys in one part and the rest of the Grammar School boys in another part

IA: I understand quite a few of them still come down to Hertford, still interested in Hertford/

MO: It is amazing when you think of Battersea coming to Hertford because it's not so far away.

IA: And we had a lot of bombs dropped around Hertford, didn't we?

ER: Do you remember the one that dropped on Mill Bridge?

IA: Yes because I was in charge of the showroom then. It was early Sunday morning and I had to go in and help clear it all up, glass and stuff everywhere.

ER: Made quite a mess of a lot of Hertford. It was the big event of the war really, wasn't it?

IA: I remember a land mine in Ware Park, in the trees. We went and looked at it.

MO: It was a flying bomb or doodle-bug on Mill Bridge I do remember that, it was early morning and all the glass in front of my bedroom. We were at Evan Marks then.

ER:: You were opposite [the electricity].

MO: My father was away at the war and my first reaction was to rush in and see that my mother was all right and it wasn't until after that I realised that there was glass all over the bed and the floor and I didn't get a scratch. So you were clearing up?

IA: Yes, well everybody rushed there to see what they could do.

ER: Did you open up for business the next morning?

IA: Yes I think we did. You just carried on, didn't you. I remember in the Battle of Britain, when the sky was thick with planes, and we weren't sure what it was about, so everyone who was around came down into our cellar, just in case. At the electricity there was a big cellar. They were our planes but it had been kept so very secret we didn’t know what they were.

MO: Presumably a lot of them came from Hunsdon, where Peter Townsend was?

ER: Didn't he meet his first wife - she was a Hanbury wasn't she?

MO: Hanbury Pawle I think.

ER: When you think of the families that lived on the outskirts (of Hertford), Faudel Phillips, Cowpers, all those people, all disappeared now.

MO: And they used to come in and chat because I remember Rosemary's mother, Mrs Hanbury Pawle, coming in and chatting to my mother quite openly about the situation with Princess Margaret.

ER: And, of course, you had people living in Ware Park before the war (name is obscured by overtalking).

MO: It was also an isolation (hospital).

IA: I remember going to see someone who was brought back with TB and they were all outside with no cover over them and it'd been snowing. Apparently, that was a good thing for the TB but it seemed to me crazy that they were in the cold, in beds. There was a cover over the top but it was open.

ER: There was a lot of TB in Hertford. I remember my mother saying there was some up at Gallows Hill and even had beds at Hertford County Hospital, and you'd see the beds outside, they'd be pushed out the doors.

IA: But also fever, it was a fever hospital up Gallows Hill. Diptheria was the worst, wasn't it. They'd stamped all that out and now it's coming back again, well, TB is anyway.

MO: Of course, the other institution we had was Kingsmead.

IA: Yes, where the Police Station is now.

MO: There were a lot of children there.

ER: I suppose you two ladies, you saw Hertford at a totally different time as to how it is now. Lots of little bits and pieces. In the fifties Hertford was quite a busy place wasn't it, you shopped in Hertford?

IA: Now you don't want to shop in Hertford because there's nowhere to shop.

ER: I remember people saying for a special treat they'd go to St Albans on the bus, 341 bus. That was about it really, we lived in a self-supporting community.

IA: Should never have got to the state it is now.

ER: Well, there's no demand for small businesses. Would there have been a place in the scheme of things for Roses, would they have been bought up by something like W H Smith?

IA: Yes, but they wouldn't have had the printing and the book binding. Well they used to take it in and someone else would do it. He lived along Railway Place.

MO: Oh really, as close as that?

IA: Yes, we did a lot of book binding, again for people like Countess Strathmore, would want something re-bound in a beautiful leather with gold leaf lettering.

ER: You don't have these craftsmen. We used to go to a man in Townshend Street, a basket maker, used to make baskets to transport work in. You had cycle repairers, printers, shoe repairers and they were all private concerns.

MO: Who did the cycles?

IA: Mr Halls.

MO; Oh, Mr Halls in -

IA: Castle Street.

ER: Fred Wackett in St Andrew Street, Quelch and Brown.

MO: I was thinking of Mr Greaves, they had the shop which is now, no, it was a jewellers.

IA: Salisbury Square. In those days you didn't have to trundle a trolley around, in and out and back to the car. You used to sit in a chair in Mr Greaves and he'd say, 'try one of these new biscuits' and he'd give her a new biscuit to try and he'd say, 'what would you like to take home?' and she'd take her butter and the rest would be home by a couple of hours, delivered. So we didn't have to carry anything.

ER: Every shop had a trade bike.

IA: Yes and a basket in front. It wasn't the hassle that it is now. People say they enjoy shopping but I don't think it's any enjoyment, not grocery shopping, do you?

MO: No I don't. We used to enjoy it in the old days.

ER: You ladies would remember rationing?

IA: Oh yes. My grand-daughter's just done about the last war and she came to me so I found ration cards (books) for her and identity cards and she got some very good marks. You keep these for posterity and it's really a lovely book that she made. It's lovely now that they're teaching the youngsters all about the wars. All those years and at last they're doing it.

My grandson's been to France, been to see where the Somme - he's been all round, when he came back he said, 'Nan, some of those boys were no older than me and we went into these little trenches, awful dug-outs, where they had to live' and he absolutely realised then what it was all about. He goes to the old grammar school, Richard Hale. When Stuart went there, he went to all the schools, he came back and said, 'That's the one I want to go to, Mum. I don't want to go to Simon Balle, I want to go there'. When he got there they put him into a house and they said, 'have you anybody who's been to the school?' He said 'yes, my grandad', 'which house was he in?' So they put him in that house.

ER: His grandad would have been an Akers?

IA: Yes, my husband's Akers.

ER: What was his first name?

IA: Bert, Albert Akers.

ER: When was he at the Grammar School?

IA: When?

ER: Before the war … (overtalking by ER)

IA: Oh yes, he was there until he was 18. His death was in there (the magazine). I always had it until then, had the magazine sent.

ER: It's a wonderful book, the magazine.

MO: Who was the Headmaster then? Marsh or Bunt?

IA: I think it was Bunt.

MO: I remember when the Grammar School was built, the new Grammar School - '31, '32.

IA: You could look out onto the grounds from here. I walked round there with your grandfather. He came up here and he walked me round and round, and he gave me a talking to. He didn't like the boyfriend I was going with, he didn't think he was good enough for me. I said it's nothing serious, it was only a friend. He said ' I'm just warning you, just wanted to tell you'.

ER: He was being protective. I think men still are protective of young girls. My wife always says to me 'you're protective of our daughter', whereas my wife is more protective of our two boys.

MO: I remember my mother saying she and her brother were brought up very firmly and in Roses there was a cellar I think and my mother as a child brought up in Roses Corner, they had to jump from the top of the cellar, down the cellar stairs into my grandfather's arms, to show that they were not afraid. And they had to have a cold bath every morning.

ER: Ebenezer Strict Baptist, was he?

MO: Congregationalist.

ER: Prince Charles had cold baths at Gordonstoun.

MO: They had to be tough.

IA: Do you remember, you know the road round the Memorial, the traffic used to come both ways when we were there, and there were never any hold-ups in the traffic.

MO: They used the War Memorial as a roundabout, really.

IA: There were never any accidents - why they changed it I can't imagine, it's really hopeless.

ER: I remember coming round there one time and Wickhams were moving a rail car and everybody came and watched. They said if they're not careful it will fall into the Electricity Showroom the road, the camber went, and these 2 blokes, one in the back lorry and one in the front lorry and they manoeuvred this so slowly.

IA: It's really dangerous, coming round with buses, hopeless trying to get into Fore Street and things coming round, then traffic parked as well. I'm sure it was much better in those days when the traffic went both ways.

MO: There wasn't so much traffic of course.

IA: There wasn't so much but there's so much now, all to go into the one road, which makes it so much worse.

(More of the same discussion)

MO: And of course, there are so many night clubs in that part of the town and you can't get by the Green Dragon and so on.

[ER says something about the town at night, which is not fully clear, then overtalking]

A decision to end the session, thanks given, etc.