Welcome to the Elstree & Borehamwood Museum blog.
This blog is about all those happenings inside and outside the Museum that have caught our attention.
From events and exhibitions, to new discoveries in the collections, to news and views.
Any comments and items to go here please contact Simon on email@example.com
Whilst the Museum is closed and our collections unable to be seen by visitors, we have created a weekly virtual museum with an Object of the Week feature from our collections.
Object of the Week : S for Speedway
On the site of Saffron Green School at Stirling Way, once stood the Barnet Speedway circuit. This was a grass and cinders track for training for speedway from 1929 to 1936, and the local heroes were Cyril Brine and Dick Geary.
It was the North London Motor Club that negotiated to run speedway on a twenty acre grass track that was adjacent to the Barnet by-pass. It was thus so convenient to travel to with plenty of room for spectators and their transport. The track was originally grass-covered rather than the more usual cinder or shale. The track was opened for the first meeting on the 27 July 1929.
Grass Track for speedway in Borehamwood in the 1930s
The site remained the venue for open meeting through to 1936 although by 1934 the grass was all but worn away and cinders were added to the bends. The name for its final year was changed to simply ’Barnet Speedway’.
Speedway track (photo c. Derek Allen)
Closing in 1937 when the North London Motor Club failed to achieve an extension on the licence after having successfully completed eighty seven meetings, meaning that speedway was lost to the area. However the NLMC moved their speedway operation to High Beech leaving the owners of the land free to sell it on for building.
Once the circuit had been sold off, Saffron Green Junior School was built directly over the site in the 1950s.
Cyril Brine was born in Borehamwood in 1918 and was an international speedway rider who qualified for the Speedway World Championship finals twice. He began speedway riding in 1938 and spent his entire career with one club, The Wimbledon Dons. He made his debut for England in 1949 before retiring in 1963. Brine died in 1988.
Although the Museum doesn’t hold any objects relating to the sport, we do have some photos in our archive.
The track in action
Whilst the Museum is closed and our collections unable to be seen by visitors, we have created a weekly virtual museum with an
Object of the Week feature from our collections.
Object of the Week : R is for Research – specifically Fire Research
Occupying an 11 acre site between Station road and Melrose Avenue from the late 1940s up until the mid-1990s, the Fire Research Station, and later Loss Prevention Council, carried out extensive testing of products for fire resistance and research into new ways of fire suppression. At its height it had a staff of 550 people, working in offices and nine purpose built laboratories. Eventually the Borehamwood site was incorporated onto Building Research at Garston and the vacated area sold for housing. The buildings were demolished in 2001.
Fire Research Handbook 1956 Fire Research Yearbook 1966
The Museum holds many objects connected to the Fire Research Station, including: photos of Directors, Visitor Books from 1945 to 1970, Yearbooks, Handbooks, Files and Documents relating to the investigation into the fire in the Jute Factory in Calcutta in 1947, Staff lists and a Book of Limericks about staff members. We also have various newspaper cuttings and a photographic archive.
Annual Report 1995 Fire Investigation report Jute Factories India
Whilst the Museum is closed and our collections unable to be seen by visitors, we have created a weekly virtual museum with an Object of the Week feature from our collections.
Object of the Week : Q is for Queen of the May
The Crowning of the May Queen
In the 1920s and 30s, the Village May Queen Parade was a huge event in Elstree and Borehamwood, with hundreds of people lining the route through Elstree Hill, Barnet Lane, Deacon’s Hill and Shenley Road to watch the carnival pass by. In the procession there were men, women and children in colourful costumes, the Village May Queen and her attendants and the Elstree and British International Pictures Fire Brigade.
Our very own Ann Lawrence, Trustee and one of the instigators of the first Elstree and Borehamwood Museum in Drayton Rd, carried out extensive research into the crowning of the May Queen and the local annual Parade. When the Museum first opened, one of the volunteers brought in photographs of the May Day celebrations and they were put on display. Over time many people came forward with photographs and stories of their time as the May Queen, as well as describing their memories of the event, resulting in a large collection of accounts.
Although there is photographic evidence from the Twenties, the first recorded May Queen was Nita Willets in 1936. However, Ann Lawrence's research shows it was originally thought Kath Gates was the first May Queen in 1932.
The May Queen was chosen from the All Saints Church bible class, run by Mrs Bristol from her home in Mildred Avenue. The chosen Queen was around 14 years old and was selected by her peers. Ann Lawrence explains that it was seen as desirable for the chosen girl to be a teacher to younger children within the religious community.
Ann tells us: On May Day, a parade of decorated cars and floats followed a route from Chestnut Tree Drive, Aldenham, to Meadow Road Recreation Ground. It was customary for the vicar to present the newly-crowned May Queen with a Bible. In the Thirties, it was proposed there should be a special dress for the May Queen. It was made and embroidered with a cross, crown, and ribbon motif. Having last been worn in 1977, the whereabouts of the dress is now unknown.
In 1936, the May Queen was crowned by film star Diane Napier, who lived at a house called Villa Capri in Allum Lane, and had made several movies at Elstree Studios, including Heart's Desire in 1935 with her fiancé, the opera singer Richard Tauber, and Mimi with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The event attracted hundreds of villagers along with people from Barnet and St Albans.
The May Day celebrations raised money for projects within the local community. In 1936, the amount raised contributed to the building of All Saints school hall. In 1958 the funds contributed to a new tower for the church.
The last May Queen is thought to have been Jaqui Rowson in 1977. Elstree and Borehamwood Museum has collected details of all the May Queens from 1932 to 1977 and Ann’s volume and photograph collection can be viewed at the Museum once we re-open again.
However, details of the 1972 May Queen has continued to elude Ann Lawrence, so if anyone has any information, do get in touch with us.
The Procession passing the Borehamwood Day Nursery
Object of the Week : P is for Prince Philip
On 17th May 1963, the Duke of Edinburgh came to Boreham Wood to visit Elliott Automation. Sadly we don’t appear to have any photos of this event, but we do have the special press pass issued to local journalist Rod Brewster, by Buckingham Palace, in the collection. The Duke is believed to have arrived by helicopter, landing on what is now to be the Sky Studios site.
Elliott Automation was an early computer company of the 1950s–60s. Its roots can be traced back to the 18th Century from a firm of instrument makers founded by William Elliott in London. The research laboratories were set up in Boreham Wood in 1946 and the first Elliott 152 computer appeared in 1950.
The company was influential and employed a great deal of local people and some prominent computer scientists.
In 1967, Elliott Automation was merged into the English Electric company and in 1968 the computer part of the company was taken over by International Computers and Tabulators (ICT). This company was renamed Marconi Elliott Computer Systems Limited in 1969 and GEC Computers Limited in 1972. The remainder of Elliott Automation which produced aircraft instruments and control systems, was retained by English Electric. Almost 50 years after Prince Phillip’s visit, the building was demolished in 2012.
Keeping with the Prince Philip theme, the Museum has this Royal Wedding souvenir programme from 1947. This is of course the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, which took place on 20th November 1947 at Westminster Abbey.
Object of the Week : O is for Opperman
At the turn of the 20th Century, Stirling Corner was just farm fields and tracks. Barnet Lane, which ran between Elstree and Barnet Gate, existed prior to 1777. Then in 1926 the Barnet Bypass was built in response to the growth of car use, and a Mr Stirling opened a garage where the Shell petrol station now stands – hence Stirling Corner and Stirling Way.
It was on the corner where Morrisons now stands that at the beginning of WW2, S E Opperman Ltd built their factory and it was the only second factory along this stretch of the A1. The roots of the company go back to 1862, with the founding of a watch making and engineering business in Clerkenwell, by Carl Oppermann, a native of Hamburg. Between 1898 and 1907, the firm appears to have produced and sold electric cars, and then reverted to more general engineering, focussing, in particular, on weapons and aeroplane components during the Second World War. They were known for making gears, and so they undertook making gearboxes for tanks. Two products which came later were the Motocart truck 1947–53, and the Unicar from 1956-59. It was the cheapest car at the 1956 London Motor Show, but only about 200 were sold, and their next model, the Stirling, was only a prototype. Their motor manufacturing business ended in 1959, eclipsed by the production of the Mini.
In the late 60s the company was sold to Stratford Safe Co, and later became John Tan who continued the business, and then the site became a retail park. Who remembers World of Leather, CarpetRight, Currys, Smyth’s Toys and Homebase being here?
Object of the Week : N is for Napoleon Death Mask
This extraordinary object is part of the Museum’s collection and was, until recently, on display, intriguing visitors.
After his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the British controlled island of St Helena, a remote windswept rock in the South Atlantic. He died there, probably of stomach cancer, in 1821 at the age of just 51. He was attended in his final days by both French and British physicians. During the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, it was customary to cast a death mask of a great leader who had recently died. Although there is some debate as to who took the original death mask, it was very probably Dr Francis Burton of Britain's 66th Regiment who also presided at the Emperor's autopsy.
A mixture of wax or plaster was carefully placed over Napoleon's face and removed after the form had hardened. From this impression, subsequent copies were cast. Much mystery and controversy surrounds the origins and whereabouts of the original cast moulds. There are only four genuine death masks known to exist. The death mask is important because it is a direct mould of his face and is more representative of what he looked like than a painting.
All very interesting you may say, but where is the connection to our area? For the answer to this question we must look at Barham House (later Hillside) in Allum Lane, Elstree, where in the early 1800s lived a wealthy merchant, Richard Baker and his daughter Martha. Martha married Lt Colonel Joseph Burton, brother of the aforementioned Dr Francis Burton, physician to Napoleon on St Helena and probable originator of his death mask.
Martha and Joseph Burton had a son, Richard Burton, who became a famous explorer and whose remarkable journeys to the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina, astounded Victorian society and made him famous. He spent many months trying to find the source of the Nile (the Holy Grail for explorers of the time) but despite braving hostile tribes and tropical diseases, was unsuccessful. In his later years he translated the Indian Kama Sutra into English (anonymously) and then produced a 16 volume, no holds barred, translation of the Arabian Nights (somewhat more adult than Sinbad the Sailor would suggest) which he published under his own name. When he died in Trieste in 1890 his wife burned all his diaries and manuscripts and 40 years of work, written by this extraordinary man, went up in smoke. Sir Richard Burton (he was knighted in 1886) must surely be the most interesting and colourful of the prominent people we can associate with our area.
Object of the Week M is for Museum
In 1999, a group of volunteers began archiving photographs and documents relating to the history of Elstree and Borehamwood, because there was no dedicated museum for the area. This group, calling themselves the Community History Project, was given premises alongside the local newspaper in Drayton Road, which comprised of one room, an office and a kitchen area. As local people became more aware of the group, more objects and artefacts began to be donated to the Community History Project. Hertsmere Borough Council supported the Project in 2000 with a small grant and provision of a Museums Officer to give advice and guidance to the volunteers.
The Original Museum - outside and inside
The Editor of the newspaper would provide his neighbours with photographs which contributed to the now large image archive held by the Museum. The volunteers began producing themed displays of local historical topics and the programme also included talks to local groups and schools and the provision of a valuable enquiry service to the local community. The Museum opened Thursday – Saturday 11am – 3pm and admission was free.
When plans to create a new multi-use community facility on the site of the Village Hall were announced in 2011, the Museum was allocated a dedicated space on the second floor. With funding from the Heritage Lottery and Hertsmere Borough Council, the Museum as we know it today, was opened in November 2013. More volunteers were recruited and the Museum embarked on a wider programme of talks, walks and a monthly reminiscence group meeting. A dedicated team was set up to catalogue every item in the collection and this work is ongoing, only halted in the past year because of the pandemic.
The Museum holds around 6,000 objects and over 7,000 photographs. These objects range from items from the area’s film and television heritage, social and industrial history, archaeology, photographic collections, paper ephemera, costume and textiles, clocks and scientific instruments, maps and plans, fine art and ceramic collections.
In addition to actual collections, the Museum holds a large resource of reference material such as scrapbooks, news cuttings and other information relating to objects within the collection and people and places associated with those objects.
Come and visit when we are allowed to re-open. Announcements will be made on social media and our website.
The Museum today - The desk and displays
At long last Spring is here! This is our entry for the Borehamwood Spring Photos you will see around town. Nice!
Object of the Week : L is for Lilley’s
The Museum’s photo archive contains many images of Shenley Road over the years. Here, the white shop on the corner of Shenley and Furzehill Roads was bought by Geoffrey Lilley in 1943. His wife was made manager while he worked in an aero factory on Spitfires. When the war ended he returned and built up a business that by 1951 was one of the most extensive radio & electrical shops in South Hertfordshire.
In the 1950s and 60s Lilley’s became the place to buy your LPs.
The adverts amd more can be found in From Ladbroke Grove To Boreham Wood by Vic Rowntree - online sales from this website.
Object of the Week : K is for Kinks and Kings
In the summer of 1968, Ray Davies, from 60s group The Kinks, moved with his wife Rasa to a large house in Red Road. At the time it was called the Kings House, with its connected and adjacent smaller property called Kings Cottage. But when it was built around the turn of the century it was called The Gables. Bought by the actor Martin Benson in the 1950s after his huge success in The King And I in which he played the character Kralahome, he renamed it Kings House. Ray bought it from Martin, and here he wrote some of his best songs.
Only a nod to The Gables exists in the naming of the nearby estate. Its location was close by the Sion Convent and the nuns often complained about the noise of music coming from it. You can see from this photograph of Sion Convent Pavilion, the building in the background would have been The Gables. We only have maps now to show the location of this large house. The building had been much modified since the 1950s.
Early map showing The Gables and its tennis court in Red Road Close up on map of The Gables and the Sion Convent Pavilion
Meanwhile, during his time in Borehamwood, locals would see Ray Davies visiting the Wellington or buying his evening paper from Coles Arcade. He played football against Elliotts for a celebrity team, but mostly wrote his songs. The band would rehearse them in the Cottage and it was a creative period for Ray. He wrote the title track of We Are The Village Green Preservation Society here – one line “God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards” probably inspired by his house - and he wrote the album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). It was released in 1969 to rave reviews, and gave the Kinks an entry back to the States. Ray perfectly summed up the feelings for a lost England ‘destroyed’ by the march of progress, and this would be especially poignant in Boreham Wood as it entered the 70s and a period of growth and change.
But Ray was missing his Muswell Hill roots and sold Kings House in 1969 to move back. It was knocked down, leaving the Cottage which still survives. It is reported that the wooden panels from the ballroom were liberated and went to the Cat & Fiddle in Radlett, though that is unconfirmed. Unfortunately we have no photos of the House or Ray in Boreham Wood, just some wonderful music inspired, possibly, by Red Road!