Ten Years

I just realised last night that I started this blog 10 years ago! Where did the time go?

I first posted on September 23, 2008. Obviously not many people were paying attention at the time but traffic did grow and in the peak years between 2011 and 2014 the site was getting between 10,000 and 15,000 page views per month. In recent years I have posted less frequently and visits have fallen off. Nevertheless, the site has recorded over 600,000 visits since I started to keep records in June 2010. Over a quarter of a million come from the US and 222,000 from the UK. The rest are made up from Germany, Russia (surprisingly), France, Australia and Canada, and other countries.

I have been using Blogger to host the site for a decade now, but I plan to migrate it shortly to its own site which will carry other features about Wolverton’s history.

Bad blood between Wolverton and Bedford Rugby Teams

In the late 19th century the Wolverton Rugby Football Club (known then simply as the Wolverton Football Club, played several teams who would now be considered superior – Northampton Saints, Warwick, Coventry, St Thomas Hospital, London and one game only against Bedford.

Bedford’s football club in the 19th century played for some years under both codes. One week they played under Football Association rules and the next week using Rugby Union rules. This seems very quaint now and was recognised at the time as being unsustainable, so in 1882 the two codes parted company and set up separate teams. The rugby team named themselves Bedford Swifts and the club is still going today and plays in the East Midlands league.

On November 28th 1885 Wolverton travelled to Bedford to play against the Swifts and the game ended in a rancorous draw, with ill feeling on both sides. Letters were written to Croydon’s Weekly Standard (later known as the Bucks Standard) and I reproduce them here to perhaps tell the story.

First the Wolverton account:

Sir – Having been questioned by several persons as to the reason the Bedford Football Club refuse to play the return match with our club, I should be obliged if you would allow me to inform those of your readers who take an interest in our club, the grounds on which this refusal is based.We journeyed to Bedford on the 28th ult. (November) to play our first match of the season with this club. When the teams faced each other, it was evident that the Wolverton team was at a great disadvantage, their opponents being much more strongly represented, yet the game, which at first appeared an easy win for the home team, resulted in a draw. During the first half-time Bedford obtained a try, and, in the second half, both teams played a fast game, but, about one minute before time was called, the Wolverton team, contrary to the expectation of their opponents, succeeded in obtaining a try. It was then that the Bedford captain, finding that their chance of victory was over, time being called, appeared terribly agitated, and objected to the try being obtained by Wolverton.I wish to state the facts as they occurred. The ball was run in, and the umpires appealed to. Both decided that the try was fairly obtained, but the Bedford captain, contrary to the rules of football, disputed the decision of both umpires. Last week I received a letter stating that, after what occurred, the Bedford Club would not meet to play the return match. I can only say that if members of this club are so lost to fair play, their refysal to meet again reflects discredit upon themselves only.On behalf of the Club,I remain yours faithfully,Alf. E. AbbottHon. Sec. Wolverton FC.Wolverton, December 17, 1885.

This letter appeared on December 28th. On January 9th 1886, Croydon’s Weekly Standard was able to publish this reply.

Sir—I was surprised to see in your last issue a letter from the hoin. sec. of the Wolverton Football Club alleging reasons for our discontinuing the connection wish his club.  As perhaps he may not be satisfied with an unqualified denial of those reasons, I may as well state our objections to again meeting his club are their ungentlemanly conduct and language, which were such as are expected only from the roughest of roughs, and which ought to be altogether foreign to the game of football. I am sorry to say that such notice was taken of it by the lookers on, that those who had not already left the field in disgust greeted the retirement of the Wolverton team with a storm of hooting. As to the remarks on the terrible agitation and unfairness or our captain, 1 can only say Mr. Abbott’s power of perception must be wonderfully keen, for no one has ever observed those qualities before, although the gentleman in question has been paying football for years. I am, Sir, yours faithfully, A. F. DUDLEY. Hon. Sec. Bedford Swifts Football Club40, Adelaide Square, Bedford. 

133 years later it is difficult to say who was at fault. Words were obviously spoken and not forgiven and relations were poisoned forever. Bedford, as far as I know, never played against Wolverton, although there have been games played between Bedford and Milton Keynes – so to that extent, the hatchet has been buried. This can be contrasted with Northampton Saints, whom Wolverton played several times at the end of the 19th century.  In the early years of the re-formation of the Wolverton Rugby Club, Northampton Saints were kind enough to send a team to Wolverton to help to promote the game. By that time the Saints were among the top clubs in the country (as indeed they are today) and relations remained cordial, although they had been competitive in the 1880s and 1890s.

Foot races

An illustration of foot racing in Victorian times
Early sporting contests were either trials of strength or speed. Prize fighting and wrestling fell into the former category and running into the latter. Wolverton did not have a running track of any kind until the Park was opened in 1885 and races were largely improvised affairs. A sprint over a short distance, described in those days as a foot race, could be easily organised and a crowd could assemble to watch the outcome. 
One that was reported in 1858 took place outside the Locomotive Inn (now the Galleon) at Old Wolverton. It is likely that the field to the east of the Locomotive was used as it was available for other sporting activities. This contest was organised between James Martin, known as “the Wolverton hero” and James Stones, another very fast runner. A prize of £1, about a week’s wages, would go to the winner. Now James Martin was 45 years old and his challenger only 25, so Stones sportingly gave the older man five yards head start. Even so, he was unable to make up any distance on the older sprinter who crossed the finish line five yards ahead. The distance of the race was not specified, but one assumes 100 yards.

The Spanish Flu

As if the deadly consequences of the battlefield were not enough, a deadly virus appeared inthe closing months of the war in September 1918.  It died not originate in Spain, but since Spain was neutral its newspapers were not restricted and therefore the stories first surfaced in Spain. By the time it was reported in newspapers in the Uk and the US the name “Spanish Flu” had stuck.

It was a new and deadly strain that the immune system of most people could not fight and it is estimated that as many as 50 million died from this pandemic in 1918 and 1919. Among them was Herbert Lawson, the second son of W J Lawson, who had a news agency and stationery shop on Church Street. Mr Lawson had already lost his eldest son in battle in 1916 and Herbert had also joined up in 1914. His health had probably been weakened through years in the trenches and he had been discharged on medical grounds. He subsequently worked in the manufacture of munitions but the influenza got him and he died on November 23rd 1918.

Those of us of a certain age will remember Lawson’s shop next door to the Co-op at 58 Church Street. It traded as Lawson and Son, and the son was Stuart Lawson, the youngest son, who had been to young to fight in the war and therefore survived to help his father in the business.

Armistice Day

On the 11th day of the 11th month representatives of the opposing forces met to agree to an armistice, which was signed at the 11th hour. So the four year war which had cost millions of lives came to a stalemate. There were losers, of course. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, as did the Turkish Empire. The German economy was crippled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919.

It is difficult to believe now that young men in 1914 were only too keen to sign up as volunteers. In August 1914 the recruiting sergeant was overwhelmed by applications to join up and he ran out of forms. The would-be recruits had to come back the following day.

And they weren’t always young men either. Beard, pictured below, was 35 when he signed up and my grandfather’s older brother, born in 1876, was in his late 30s when he joined up in 1914. Fortunately, he survived the four years and died in 1966, one week short of his 90th birthday.

The armistice came just too late for some. On November 13th 1918, there was a memorial service at St George’s for three soldiers who had lost their lives in France on October 16th. they were private Alfred monk, Sergeant J. Forrester and Lance Corporal George Watts.

The MP’s Complaint

The first schoolmaster was Archibald Laing and after his early death in 1853, he was replaced by a 25 year- old George Russell.
Mr. Russell, from the accounts that we have, was successful in the post but his position was terminated in 1857 in circumstances which appear bizarre to us today. Apparently Mr Russell received a letter in the post addressed to F W Russell, MP. Without looking too closely at the name and address on the envelope George Russell opened it and discovered that it was not intended for him. Naturally he reported the matter, and returned the letter to the post office
Unfortunately, Francis William Russell, the MP, far from being grateful that the letter had been retrieved, was affronted that his correspondence had been opened by a lesser mortal and complained to the L&NWR board about his letter being unopened. The board felt that they had no choice but to dismiss their teacher. How the letter came into George Russell’s hands is not explained but it would seem to be the fault of the Post office. F W Russell was MP for Limerick, but he lived in London.
don’t think that this high-handedness had changed much 100 years later. While I was working as an Assistant Manager at the Forte Motorway Restaurant in the 1960s, I witnessed something very similar. An MP (I don’t know who) had experienced poor service one day and complained to Fortes head office, probably to the big cheese himself. Someone was despatched immediately to Newport Pagnell to find out who was on duty that day and the poor man was sacked on the spot. These days he would have been able to claim wrongful dismissal, but not at that time.

For George Russell the story ended happily enough. He was given good references and he quickly found a job in Poplar. However, in consequence of this episode, Wolverton lost two teachers. George Russell and Amelia Miss Prince, the infants teacher, had fallen in love, and the future Mrs. Russell, six years his senior in age, joined him a few months later. They married almost immediately. Later they had one son, and subsequently worked in village schools in Essex and Hampshire. 

The Payroll

Today, I can wave a plastic card at a machine and the money is immediately transferred from my bank account to the merchants. Yet in my early days almost all transactions were by cash. Money was handed over and change given and often those heavy pennies and half crowns would wear a hole in one’s trouser pocket. The Wolverton Work’s payroll, when you come to think of it, was an astonishing enterprise.

One of my great uncles was Chief Cashier in the works the 1930s and it was his job to supervise the payroll. There were almost 5,000 men and some women in the works in those days, and almost all of them received weekly pay packets. All calculations were made by hand and I am not sure that there were even any mechanical adding machines bak then. The amount was recorded in a ledger and finalised onThursday. Lloyds Bank were notified of the total amount required and that money was brought into the bank on Friday morning.

That morning (and this practice continued into the 1960s) two people would wheel a  hand cart from the Cambridge Street works entrance across the Stratford Road to the bank. The appropriate amount would be placed in the cart and wheeled back to the works. Not a Securicor van in sight!

Astonishingly, since this practice must have been very well known, no robbery was ever attempted.

The money was then counted out by clerks and placed in manilla pay packets with an explanatory slip. Wages would be paid out in pounds, shillings and pence – even a halfpenny was significant. Once done, the cart would be wheeled along the whole length of the works, stopping at each shop so that employees could collect and sign for their wages. All this was accomplished before 12:25, when the works whistle signalled the start of lunchtime.

In the 1950s, the Building Society offices opposite the Vic would be open to receive payments of deposits. Prior to the war that function was accomplished Friday evening in the Science and Art Institute. The average weekly payment on a mortgage might have been about 10 shillings – a figure that seems laughable today when the modern equivalent of 10 shillings is 50p!

Very few people had need of a bank account. Indeed, bank opening hours were Monday to Friday from 10 to 3 pm – times which were totally inconvenient for working men. All of life’s transactions, paying for food, housing, gas, electricity, entertainment were on a cash basis and a cheque would never be part of anyone’s life experience.

Was there an earlier Wolverton Express?

Some time back I wrote a piece about local newspapers and placed the first date of publication of the Wolverton Express in January 1901. The post is here.

However, I have discovered something today which may cause me to revise that view. The Oxfordshire Telegraph of 7 September 1887 features a brief column under the heading “The Wolverton Express.” Under that heading is written:

For Wolverton and District news, see the “Wolverton Express,” on sale every Wednesday, price 1 penny, at Tilley’s Newspaper office, Station Road, Wolverton.

Further research revels similar entries in earlier years in the 1880s and, as far back as 1862, the Oxfordshire Telegraph was promoting itself as the Oxfordshire, Brackley and Winslow Telegraph, Wolverton Express, Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell Advertiser.

The Oxfordshire Telegraph was a Bicester publication and in those relatively early days of local newspaper publishing probably wanted to cast its net as widely as possible. By 1880 it was known as the Oxfordhisre, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire Telegraph, Winslow Advertiser, Wolverton Express and Buckingham Liberal. The Wolverton Express part of the paper was usually a column.

The name Wolverton Express therefore pre-dates the independent newspaper by about 45 years.

Tilley’s Newspaper office on Station Road should probably be read as Stratford Road, and indeed appears as such in the trade directories of the period – Robert Tilley, Newsvendor. It is possible that he had one of the lock-up shops next to the Royal Engineer and that his business was taken over by Cornelius Muscutt, later known as Muscutt and Tompkins.

History and Fiction

Three years ago I wrote about the balloon ascent that started from Wolverton in 1861, featuring the intrepid balloonists of the day – Coxwell and Glashier You can read about it here.

I read in the newspaper the other day that someone is now making a film about these 19th century pioneers, called The Aeronauts. Fine, except that for the film to be commercially successful, two white Victorian Englishmen won’t do. So Henry Cowell has been written out of the script and replaced by a young lady, who presumably will be a young, feisty, take-no-prisoners type, capable of all sorts of derring-do.

I make no further comment.

The Refreshment Rooms

In the 1840s Wolverton was famous throughout the land for its railway refreshment rooms. Wolverton was originally designated a half way stope between London and Birmingham and passengers were allowed ten minutes while the engines were changed. What I did not realise, until I chanced upon a newspaper report in the Northampton Mercury for January 2nd 1847 was that the refreshment rooms were not planned and came about by accident.

The newspaper report tells us that the service was originated by a railway employee who took his entrepreneurial chance. The new station, on the north side of the canal, had no such facilities, and this man (who is unnamed) set up a stall with the permission of the company to sell drinks and buns to the thirsty and hungry travellers. It was a great success and apparently he cleared a profit of £50 a week. That’s an amazing amount of money, in fact, a year’s income for a skilled railway worker.

1840 was no different to our present day. One the money-making opportunities were evident, the big boys, with their financial muscle moved in. So when the railway company built the new station south of the canal, they provided for refreshment rooms and leased out the franchise, as it were. At the time that Sir Francis Bond Head visited in 1849, the refreshment rooms were in the charge of Mrs Leonora Hibbert, who was employing no fewer than 29 staff. But, as I learned from the Northampton Mercury report, she was paying £5000 a year for the privilege. Se still made money of course and when the refreshment rooms went into decline due to faster through trains, she opened up a hotel at Holyhead.

The enterprising chap who started the first refreshment room is unnamed and perhaps his name is lost to history. This is a pity, as he was probably the originator of all refreshment services on the railway.