How Watford has changed throughout the years

PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 March 2020

Cassiobury Park gates

Cassiobury Park gates

Amberly Publishing

A new book of historic images of Watford charts the changing town through more than a century. Its author, John Cooper, tells us more.

The Pond The Pond

Standing on the steps of the dominant Watford Town Hall building today, the centre of local civic administration, watching the rush-hour traffic streaming relentlessly down the underpass or heading towards the roundabout, it is difficult to imagine that over a hundred years ago this was a peaceful area known as the Four Crossroads. In those days, all that existed was a signpost indicating the directions to the High Street, St Albans Road, Hempstead Road and Rickmansworth Road, the only traffic being the horse-drawn haywains going to market. A short distance from the crossroads was – and still is, although much changed – the pond, a picturesque oasis where in the early days of the 20th century, carters used to water their horses in the heat of a summer’s afternoon, or where excited youngsters would sail a toy yacht. Today, with the area pedestrianised and a footbridge traversing the water, it now provides a quiet haven to sit and while away a few leisurely moments. 
 One of the more unpopular losses to the town was that of the historic, castellated, Tudor-style Cassiobury Park gates in Rickmansworth Road, which were the entrance to the long driveway leading to Cassiobury House. It was on Friday 24 July 1970 when the demolition men started to reduce part of Watford’s heritage to rubble in order to facilitate a road widening scheme – an act that was deeply felt by Watfordians. 
 Cassiobury House itself, once the seat of the Earls of Essex, had suffered a similar fate 43 years earlier when following the death of the 7th Earl in 1916, his wife Adele, the countess dowager, who had sold the estate in 1922 for building development, was unable to find a purchaser for the house which was then left empty and derelict for a further five years until the magnificent building was razed to the ground. The lasting legacy is the beautiful award-winning Cassiobury Park, once part of the Essex estate and now the jewel in Watford’s crown. 
 Many readers will fondly remember Watford’s two premier department stores: Clements on The Parade and Cawdell’s further down the High Street. These emporiums, both well established in the town, sold all types of goods for every occasion and were indeed a shopper’s paradise where, on entering, one was greeted by an immaculately dressed and debonair floor walker complete with a red carnation buttonhole – a sign of the good old-fashioned service, courtesy and personal attention that have now passed into the mists of time. 
 Cawdell’s was the first to go when a decision to build Charter Place was made, while Clements eventually closed its doors in 2004 after trading for 106 years. Today the old Victorian building is occupied by a B&M retail outlet. Gone too is the old Watford open-air market, where on a Tuesday the weekly livestock sales were held, attracting farmers and traders from miles around – a smelly and noisy place in which to venture. 
 With the gradual decline of brewing in the town, the end finally came when Allied Breweries, previously Benskins, ceased production in the early 1970s – the end of an era and a great loss to Watford. Although the site in Lower High Street was gradually demolished and redeveloped in 1979, the fine Georgian house that had once belonged to John Dyson, the owner of the Cannon Brewery later purchased by Joseph Benskin, remains today as Watford’s prestigious museum. Another good example of a loss turning into a gain would be at Leavesden, where during the Second World War, as an aerodrome and aircraft factory, a large number of Mosquito and Halifax aeroplanes were produced. The site eventually became a subsidiary of Rolls-Royce, building helicopter engines until closure in 1992. During the new millennium, just like the proverbial ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’, Leavesden took on a new lease of life when Warner Bros acquired the site to become one of the largest film-making studios in the world. 
 Possibly the favourite form of entertainment during the interwar years of the 1920s and ’30s and the Second World War was the cinema, in what was generally considered it’s ‘golden age’ and, in this sphere, Watford was well catered for. Cinemas such as the Odeon and Gaumont on The Parade, the Carlton in Clarendon Road, the Essoldo in King Street and the Odeon in St Albans Road to name but a few, where for a couple of hours, patrons could forget the realities of everyday life and enjoy the latest feature films in the smoky atmosphere of the auditorium. Sadly, though, these movie theatres with their Art Deco façades and garish neon lighting are now but a memory, as one by one the final curtain came down and the doors closed for the last time.

Despite the many losses, changes and modernisation that have taken place in and around the town as part of continuing progress, Watford can be justifiably proud of its history and can continue to treasure all that it still has for the benefit of future generations. 

Lost Watford by John Cooper is published by Amberley, priced £14.95.

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