The Wolverton Gas Works was nestled in between the two railway lines on the Old Wolverton Road. This photograph, taken before 1950 shows the gasometer and part of the plant on the right. On the left was a railway siding which took coal wagons down to the works.
Although gas works of this type were common enough in larger towns in the first part of the 20th century it says something for the self-contained economy of Wolverton that this Gas Works was owned and operated by the railway company. Gas originally supplied fuel for lighting and cooking, but electricity replaced gas for lighting as a cleaner and safer alternative. As a boy I can recall one surviving gas street light outside the Wesleyan Chapel on Church Street and several houses still had lighting spigots embedded in the walls.
One of my grandfathers entered the fledgling gas industry after leaving Technical School with Birmingham Corporation. Then he went to work for the GWR as a gas lighting engineer and was subsequently “poached” by the L&NWR to set up a testing laboratory at Euston. In 1930 he came to Wolverton as manager of this gas works, and stayed there until his retirement in 1952. He remained a railway employee through the LMS period and British Railways after 1948. At the same time Gas production and distribution was nationalized and the East Midlands Gas Board came into being and took over the distribution of gas – I assume through some arrangement with the railways.
Remembrance Sunday 2008 will be an incidental activity for most residents of this county; in 1958 it was central. Every adult remembered the war and those of us who were born during the war knew about the austerity that followed it. Our grandparents carried memories of the earlier Great War. Most men in their 30s had seen military service and the military way of doing things influenced many areas of life. Businesses would talk of “military efficiency” as an ideal to strive for. Men’s haircuts were still short and the long hair of the 1960s was a reaction against that. Organizations like TocH, founded during the first world war, still had a presence in the town. Ex-army officers tended to carry their rank into civilian life and were known as Captain or Major or Colonel so-and-so. Even Lord Hesketh, one of the local grandees, preferred to be known as Major Hesketh.
This is not to suggest that the miltary dominated people’s lives; obviously everyone got on with life. But it was there in the background. In the week before Remembrance Day past wars came into full focus.
The poppy appeal was very big. Every workplace, school and street corner was organized to raise money. In the week before Poppy Day we were expected to take our pennies for the collection. For sixpence or a shilling you could get to sport a larger poppy. I remember one incident from 1953 when one of my classmates was given a huge poppy with multiple petals and leaves for a penny! All morning he was hugely chuffed with his good fortune until it came to dinner time and all he could find in his pocket was a penny where there shold have been a half-crown.
As I was in the church choir in the early 50s I became an active participant in Remembrance Sunday. The church service began at 10:30 in a packed church, the we would process along Buckingham Street to the Cenotaph in the Square. The other churches also made similar processions. The Square would then be full of active soldiers in uniform, members of the British Legion wearing their medals, veterans of both wars, the town band, church congregations, leading citizens. At 11 am two minutes of silence would be observed, then possibly a hymn and a benediction before the crowd dispersed.
The day concluded with an evening concert in the works canteen. Music was provided by the town band and various musicians assembled into an orchestra. One lady would sing a solo of Abide with me! and others intoned recitations including Lawrence Binyon’s haunting poem:
The end house of the terrace was originally occupied by renters. The Mansfield family occupied 4 rooms in 1891 and two young single working men occupied another four rooms. I assume they shared the kitchen and any washing facilities. By the 1950s this had become a double-fronted shop as it is today. It was occupied by the Co-op and I think (although memory is a little vague) that half was taken up with fruit and vegetables and the other half with flowers. The shop now occupied by AMA was for many years a butchers shop, first Dewhurst and then taken over by Baxters. My mother used to shop here for meat. The butcher was a genial chap from Leamington by the name of Fred Cross. My friend David Snow, after working as a butchers delivery boy, started his apprenticeship here in 1957 before moving on to a successful business career.
The original occupant was Walter Scott, a coach painter, and his family. The present Lloyds pharmacy was established as a chemists by Douglas Roberts in the early 1950s. I remember him working for Ewart Dale on the Stratford Road prior to that, presumably learning the ropes. The added string to his bow was his extra training as an optician, so he was able to offer this service in a back room, even though there was an established optician, F. Blagrove, two doors down. Roberts had an engaging personality and this must have been a great asset to him in building his business. I note that his name survives with the optician’s business next door.
The house at the centre of the terrace, with the central doorway flanmed by an optician and a Lloyd’s pharmacy was originally a single residence and in 1891 was occupied by William purslow and his family. He was the works manager and one of the most important men in the town. His occupancy may have coincided with the period when two of the canal-side villas were demolished to make way for workshop expansion and the construction of The Gables.
The shop frontage at number 9 has preserved its Edwardian frontage. In the 1950s the occupants were paint and wallpaper dealers, Byrne and Kershaw. In those days wallpaper was popular and the wall-covering of choice. Paint was mainly reserved for wood. These were still pre vinyl and acrylic paint days. Paint was oil-based, required a lot of preparation and took a long time to dry. The primary component of white paint was still lead oxide.
the residential occupants in 1891 were James Carter and his family. He also had two young male boarders. James Carter was an “Iron trimmer” by trade, which sounds very much like a lost occupation. Morland terrace begins with the Newsagents at number 5. In 1891 the Biddis family lived here. Walter Biddis was a works foreman and was then 41 years old – well established with his family. In the 1950s Sid Davies ran this as a sweet shop. They sold Walls ice cream here and Woodwards across the Square sold Lyons.
Next door lived quite a small household – Henry Gamble, a coach painter, and his wife, and her younger brother, the 20 year old William Jones, a music teacher. This corner building was not identified with Morland Terrace in 1891 and looking at the variations in architectural styling I would guess that it was erected by a different builder, possibly a year or two after Morland Terrace. The occupant in 1891 was Richard Stapley, a 38 year-old Draper. He and his wife came from Brighton and presumably had sufficient capital to set up in business here. The older children were born in Brighton but the youngest, just 2 months old in 1891, was born in Wolverton, which would suggest that they had not been resident for very long and may well have been the first occupants of the building. This was a commercial establishemnt from the very first. Stapley also employed a 29 year old Draper’s Assistant and a 13 year-old domestic servant. As I mentioned earlier, the shop was a grocery – Dudeney and Johnston. To some degree the present occupiers have returned to Richard Stapley’s trade.
The Radcliffe Street side of the Square was originally called Morland Terrace, and there is still a plaque embedded in the wall to record it as such. the huses here were variously numbered as part of Radcliffe Street or The Square, eventually settling upon the latter.
In 1891 the Buckingham Street corner was occupied by a Mr Richard Stapley and his family. He was a draper and outfitter, so from the very first this building was a shop and has continued so to this day. In the 1950s it was occupied by Dudeney and Johnston, Bedford-based grocers with a lot of branches in the region. These were pre-supermarket days, but chain grocers like Dudeneys and Sainsburys were able to offer a better selection of product, often at a better price, than the local, corner-shop style grocer. I suppose there were quite a lot of Dudeney & Johnston-style grocery chains across the country in those days. J. Sainsbury’s was merely one of many, but they had a London base and were obviously able to parlay that advantage into today’s supermarket. Even so, that transition took 40 years.
The other residents of Morland terrace were (in order north to south) Walter J Biddis, a foreman coach builder, and family; Henry Gamble, a coach painter, with his wife and brother-in-law, a music teacher; James Carter, iron trimmer, and family; William Purslow, manager of the carriage works, and family; Allan Mills, coach trimmer; Robert Dakin, coach body maker, and wife; Edwin Wood, Foreman, Fitting dept. and family; Heber Williams, Secretary carriage dept. and captain 1st Bucks RVC, and family; Walter Scott, Coach Painter, and family; Frederick Mansfield, Railway carriage maker, and family; John Clewett, Coach Body Maker, and William Coop, Blacksmith.
The only break in the north-south/east-west grid system of streets in 20th century Wolverton was the so-called Market Square. If there was ever a market held here its existence must have been very brief. There was a covered market hall on Glyn Square, but that burned down and the old school on creed Street became the venue for the Friday market until the Agora complex was constructed from the razing of parts of Church Street and Buckingham Street.
The Market Square was (is) bounded by Buckingham and Aylesbury Streets and Radcliffe Street on the east side. The inner quadrangle was dressed up with shrubbery and trees and provided benches for seating. At the south end a cenotaph was installed after the 1914-1918 war and fenced off. The configuration is not much different today except that the orginal cenotaph has been replaced with a polished granite version. Missing also is the old Congregational Church which dominated one side of the square for about 80 years.
Addresses at the Square start to appear in the 1891 census. In 1881 there is only Buckingham Street and Aylesbury Street, and of course Radcliffe Street, so I am wondering whether some houses were demolished in Buckingham and Aylesbury Streets to create the Square? Perhaps it was the intention to host the weekly market there. All the streets to the north of the Stratford Road had been demolished. Oxford Street, Cambridge Street and Green lane were developing, so this new square, far from being on the edge of town, was becoming its centre. If it was ever used as a market, its prime was short-lived.