Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Factory Playhouse, Hitchin: Les Misérables

I feel compelled to blog about this amazing venue, after seeing Les Mis last night.

I’d previously seen Les Mis in London, and the film, so I’m not going to lie, the students at the Emil Dale Academy had a tough act to follow, but boy did they step up last night and equal anything I’d seen before. In fact, I’d go as far as to say they superseded it. 

I adore The Factory Playhouse in Hitchin, previously seeing ‘Grease’ and ‘Night and the Musicals’, so I knew I was in for a treat with Les Mis.  

The scene was set almost immediately, with the smiling faces of students directing us to the car park – and a Prosecco marquee with a great atmosphere, playing just the right kind of music and serving cheeseboards and drinks.

Once we were settled in one of 184 seats in the once disused factory in Wilbury Way, we were spellbound from the off. Sam Hull’s performance as Jean Valjean was breathtaking. It was hard to believe he wasn’t performing on the West End stage. When he sang ‘Bring him home’ I’m not ashamed to say tears rolled down my face…as they did with several other songs too.

Other amazing performances were by Iverson Yabut, who was an incredible Javert, and Cameron Rhodes and Holly Masters gave hilarious performances as Madame Thenardier and Mr Thenardier. Lizzie Wood as Fantine,  Emily McCormick as Cosette, Joe Churms as Marius, Esme Allen-Quarmby as Eponine, Alfie French as Enjolras, Amelia Burrows as Young Eponine and Rosie Hostler as Young Cosette were all amazing.  And last but by no means least, Nicholas Witham-Mueller played Gavroche (the little cockney French boy) to perfection.  Add in the amazing performances by the rest of the cast, and what’s not to love? Oh, and if that wasn’t enough – Les Misérables – and all shows at The Factory Playhouse – are accompanied by an amazing live 12-piece West End orchestra. 

The next performance there is ‘Hairspray’ from 10th-21st  May 2017.
I’ve had my tickets for ages, and can’t wait! But I think they may still have some available.  So, if you love musicals, what are you waiting for? Go book.  I know you’ll love The Factory Playhouse.

Their website can be found HERE 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Nature Club - Wilshere-Dacre School, Hitchin

Does anyone recall The Nature Club, in the quad at Wilshere-Dacre School? I remember it with great fondness. Although I can't quite believe I craddled a Chinese rat on my small knees.   They'd arrived in the mid-sixties, and were a creamy yellow colour, with very long tails.
The story of the club can be traced back to around 1960, when Mr T. Morris, (staff 1948-1987) started the club at Mr Moles' request.  The club was especially for 3rd and 4th year pupils to get them used to handling and caring for animals.  Originally the pets resided in the east quadrangle, the senior end of the school at that time, but when Mr H. Edwards (staff 1952-1967/1972-1977) gave the school some budgies, which subsequently bred, it was time for an aviary to be built.  The aviary was built in 1965 by Mr Morris from the wire frames which had previously covered the school windows during the war.  It was housed in the east quad, while some of the animals were then transferred to the west quad.  The birds remained in the east quad, and, in 1974, a new aviary replaced the hand-built one.  Apart from budgies other birds were kept, including, in the mid 1970s, two zebra finches.  In 1979 the aviary was the residence of some baby chicks, which the club had bred.

During the nature club's run, children had a fair amount of responsibility caring for the pets.  Feeding (the school canteen supplied peelings), cleaning and generally looking after the animals was all part of being a club member.  A rota system was used for children to care for the animals at weekends and during the holidays.  Children often took sick animals to the Grove Road vet.  Lindsay Taylor (pupil 1961-1965) remembers:  'I fed baby guinea pigs with an eye dropper when their mother was dropped and died.  I kept them in my airing  cupboard at home.'  Miranda Summers (pupil 1974-1978) remembers regularly taking home a tortoise named Speedy which ended up becoming a permanent resident at her house.  Such responsibility, however, could be hazardous as the late Pat Hewett recalled:

'My son, who was a pupil at the school in the 1970s, brought home a hamster; the creature was very noisy during the night so I covered the cage with my son's anorak.  The next morning there was nothing left of the inside of the anorak, the hamster had completely devoured it.  I worried the animal had eaten it and feared for its life - but it was fine.'

The Nature Club had some unusual animals over the years.  One pupil recalls some ferrets being kept and, of course, there were the Chinese rats.

Mr Morris ran the nature club for many years, with the assistance of other teachers, including Mr Parker. He handed over the reins to Mrs Maggie Bell  (staff 1974-1983) in 1974, continuing as the club's treasurer until its closure.

 The Nature Club organised its own activities and annual outings to Whipsnade and London Zoo.  

Pet shows took place over the years.  In the sixties children would receive certificates for their pets from the R.S.P.C.A.  The 1975 show was particularly memorable, with over 100 children of the Nature Club taking part and animals great and small were entered for the events.
The Nature Club closed its doors in 1981.  In 1993 the quads were completely re-furbished.

By the late 1990s the quads are quiet areas, quite a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Nature Club. The west quad had a fountain, a pond with fish and tables and chairs.  And by then the east quad had a small fountain, a statue of  St Christopher and four benches. 

Hats off to the Past, Coats off to the Future by Amanda Brittany.          

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A. Nicholls. No. 22 High Street, Hitchin

Hitchin.Nicholls’ shop in the High Street Hitchin 1922

As you can see from the photograph,  A. Nicholls claimed to be a ‘High Class Fruiterer and Florist’.   The fact that each variety of fruit rested on a napkin in a separate basket, shows it probably was. The shop was lit by gas in the winter evenings.

The Nicholls’ family had several shops in the town, all greengrocers: James Jesse began in Queen Street in 1853, had a branch in Sun Street in 1890, while Charles began in Bucklersbury in 1867. By 1906, Albert was running the Bucklersbury, Churchyard and High Street shops.

T.W. Latchmore took this photograph, shortly before this shop closed down.   In 1933 the now grade II listed building became a dentist, and later, between 1959-1966 it was Wright & Mills optician, and later still Boots Opticians.

The Maypole Dairy Company, The Market Place, Hitchin

The Maypole Dairy Company shop was on the north side of The Market Place in Hitchin, in the 1920s.  This photograph shows Archie Barber, William White, George Stallabrass and Ernest Wright, the grocers there, at a time when butter and tea were still two shillings a pound.

Saturday, 20 August 2016


The original Hitchin Woolworth store was built in 1930 at No. 7 High Street (Now Boots).  It was built on land that originally formed part of The Cock public house, which had been there since 1563, and was demolished to make room for its arrival. The rest of The Cock still stands at No. 8 High Street and is a grade II listed building.

F. W. Woolworth's first building in Hitchin. Pat Gadd

F. W. Woolworth was moved to No. 9 High Street (originally No. 7 and 8 High Street – which is a bit confusing) in 1965.

F. W. Woolworth and Co Ltd 1978 Pat Gadd

The history of the later Woolworth site is an interesting one.   From 1823-1961 it was the site of PERKS & LLEWELLYN – the lavender growers (originally Perks.)  They took up the premises in 1823 when the road now known as High Street was known as Cock Street.

Perks and Llewellyn. Pat Gadd

Some original lavender labels.
In 1790 Harry Perks established a pharmacy in Hitchin, but it was his son Edward a chemist, who, in 1823, laid the foundations for the future industry of planting lavender.
Edward Perks with his wife, Sarah, started their small perfumery business.  The business passed to his son Samuel in the 1940s.  In 1876, Samuel Perks went into partnership with Charles Llewellyn.  The shop was acquired by Richard Lewis by 1907. Eventually he was followed in the business by his daughter Miss Violet Lewis, who was a rained pharmacist.  She ran the business from 1930 to its closure in 1961, and demolition in 1964.

The shop’s interior was saved by Violet Lewis and she housed it in an annex in her house in Lucas Lane – and schools and groups would visit.  By 1990 the chemist shop was moved to Hitchin Museum and was officially opened in May of that year.  Following the closure of Hitchin Museum the shop will be erected at North Hertfordshire Museum in Brand Street when it opens later this year (2016).   Remaining objects, not put on display at the museum, will find a home at  Hitchin Lavender.

In Victorian times Perks & Llewellyn lavender products were used for all manner of things: 2 drops of pure lavender oil would have been taken on a lump of sugar to relieve symptoms of wind. Lavender Water would be put into ladies’ baths and gentlemen would shave with Perks Lavender Bloom Shaving and Toilet Soaps.

Behind the High Street shop, women and children would remove the stalks so that the flowers were ready for the still.  The accumulated smell of lavender was sometimes unbearable.
Boys were employed to climb in a still of lavender and trample it down, as it was being loaded for distillation.  Bees, drunk on the smell, would make the lives of the boys miserable, and it was common for the lads to get numerous stings.

The final of Violet Lewis’s lavender fields at the top of Lucas Lane was dug over and replaced with a cabbage field.  But the Lavender Farm is a great reminder of how important lavender was and still is to Hitchin.

In 1964 the old shop was demolished, and the new Woolworth was built on the site.

When F. W. WOOLWORTH opened in 1965, ghost stories followed.  Many members of staff and the public reported a very strong smell of lavender in the store.  There were also reports of a women dressed in Victorian clothes mounting a non-existent staircase diagonally across the store.  It is believed that there had been a staircase in the same place in Perk's & Llewellyn store.   Some named the spirit ‘The Lavender Lady’.   It was also alleged that two ladies in old fashioned clothes were seen to walk around the shop while the public did their shopping.
A manager of the store had a strange experience.  She was the last to leave and locked up and empty store.  Later her phone rang. When she answered there was nobody on the line, but she discovered the call was from the Hitchin shop.  On returning there was nobody there.

I don’t recall ever seeing a ghost, but I remember the original store clearly.   There was a restaurant at the back on the far right with tall stools, where you could sit along the serving counter.  At the front you could buy sweets. It was easy for children to stick their hands in and pinch a few (not that I ever did).  The shop assistants would stand in the middle of the counters, surrounded from each side.   Later, Woolworths was the place to buy records. I recall the record counter being at the front and the back of the store, at different times. 

An old employee was telling me the other day, that she had to take a test to work there.  She worked on the make-up counter, and said you needed to be able to add up the items people bought in your head.

In December 2008 the Hitchin store closed along with all the Woolworth stores nationwide, and in May 2011 the former F. W Woolworth’s was split into two stores.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Hermitage Road, Hitchin

Frederic Seebohm, who owned ‘The Hermitage’, a Victorian house facing Bancroft, donated part of his garden for the construction of ‘New Road’, which opened in 1875. The road linked Bancroft to Walsworth Road, and improved travel from the town centre to the railway station. 
            Seebohm built an underpass from the Hermitage gardens to his private woodland in Rawling’s Dells (Rawlings Dell was named because Windmill Hill was once Rawling’s Hill).  Rawling’s Dell later became Woodside Open Air Theatre.

            The footpath now between Hermitage Road and Portmill Lane, by the River Hiz, was once part of Seebohm’s Garden.  
            Later, the road was renamed Hermitage Road, and it was in the mid-1920s, that John Ray Ltd of Letchworth built shops, flats and offices there, including The Hermitage Cinema in 1932, and The Hermitage Halls which opened in 1925.
Around this time, box trees that were planted in King Edward IV’s day, and once part of The Hermitage’s garden, were removed.
The Hermitage Ballroom was successful in the 1960s under the management of Toni Avern of The Barron Knights, and Eric Clapton, Acker Bilk, Bob Monkhouse, Des O’Conner, The Searchers and The Cream were just some of the acts who appeared there. In the 1970s a Saturday morning disco called The Outlook Club was held there, and in 2007 it became the nightclub Remix.  Since 2011, it has been the restaurant Hermitage Rd & Co.
Sadly, not all buildings survived. The Hermitage Cinema disappeared in 1963 – the last performance being ‘Heavens Above’ with Peter Sellers in 1962, and P.H. Barker and Son, a timber merchant whose Tudor-style frontage was once a feature of the road, met its fate in 1962. The Post Office and Savings Bank was built on part of the yard’s site and opened on 12th February 1962 (moving from Brand Street), but was recently demolished to make way for a Premier Inn. 
Many shops have come and gone through the years. Some may recall Hidgcock, Peter Jones’, The Red Shoppe, Allam’s, Rumbellows, Caves Cafe and Braham and Co, to name a few.

Today, Hermitage Road is a busy thoroughfare, and boasts an array of thriving shops, cafes and restaurants.
My two novels can be read online for free, or by making a very small donation to Cancer Research.
The Cold - a mystery thriller set partly in Letchworth and Hitchin HERE
Phototime - a magical, comedy, with mentions of Hitchin. HERE

Monday, 15 February 2016

No. 14 & 15 Market Place. George Spurr, Churchgate

In 1878 No. 14 Market Place was run by Joseph Perry a linen draper. 

George E Spurr went into partnership with Mr Perry between 1886 and 1890, and 14 Marketplace was known at this time as Perry & Spurr.  It was in 1899 it became known as George Spurr. 

In 1901 George E Spurr was 42 years of age and lived on the shop’s premises with his wife, Ethel, their 3 daughters and 5 sons. Three of their sons, Anthony George, Douglas Bateman and Walter Guiness, died in the WWI. Their names can be found on the Hitchin Grammar School WWI Memorial, which is a stained glass window in the Boys’ School Library, Grammar School Walk.

Next door to George Spurr, was No. 15 Market Place. It was a much larger shop and originally run by Campion Dawson, and known as Dawson.  From 1878 to 1899, the shop was run by his wife/widow. In 1899 the shop was described as ‘Market House’, and at this time Mrs Campion Dawson boasted that ‘their thoroughly practical assistants execute all orders’. Later the shop was run by Hannah Dawson, who I think must have been their daughter.  
Perry & Spurr next to Dawson.  (Pat Gadd-Thurstance)

In 1910 George Spurr bought Dawson, and his shop became a much larger department store that almost stretched the length of one side of The Market Place.

On 4th November 1960 George Spurrs reopened after extensive refurbishment.  

In 1965 it was taken over by a Welwyn Department Store (which I believe later became John Lewis). At some point in the history of the shop Spurr became Spurrs. I can't be sure when.

Although the front façade of George Spurrs was good on the eye, behind the shop frontage was a cluster of buildings that stretched almost to the river.  

George Spurrs closed just before its demolition. (Pat Gadd-Thurstance)
In 1972/3 the buildings were demolished to make way for Churchgate,  I don’t think anyone would disagree, that Churchgate was a huge disappointment when it was built. 

There has been talk for several years about transforming Churchgate. There has even been discussions on an independent cinema for Hitchin to be built on the site.