August 2008

The Changing Face of Royston

John Williamson

A newspaper columnist, in a article about the wooden legged sergeant major in the local Home Guard described Royston as “A sleepy market town”. In general that was a fairly apt description. In those days Farmer Haywood was able to walk his cows from their meadow at Coombs Hole (now Coomblands) to his farm in Haywoods Lane for milking twice daily, and Mr Hoy, the butcher in the High Street had a slaughter house next to the cemetery. Until the mid 1930’s, apart from a few private properties built by the local builders, Jacklin Hale and Mr. Upson, in Green Drift and Victoria Crescent there had been no major changes apart from the Council houses built in Green street and those in Stakepiece and Lankester Roads and Heath Avenue off Briary Lane. Then in 1935/37 there was a slum clearance project in the Market Hill and the Warren area that resulted in Coronation Avenue being built. Around the same time we had a new Cinema, the old one being destroyed by fire, with a Swimming Pool and Café adjoining. This was really something for a town of its size. Priory Lane was upgraded and became a through road to London avoiding the High Street, which still remained 2 way! There was also a new Post Office.

However the town still remained within its Parish boundaries which were basically an area bounded by Rock Road, Green Street, Eastfield Road, London Road up to the hospital and the 11 acres footpath that goes northwards from its entrance opposite the Heath. Tannery and Green Drifts were virtually only cart tracks as was Orchard Road and Garden Walk, and the Heathfields area remained in Cambridgeshire.

There was also little change to the shopping area with about 70 shops selling virtually all of ones needs, with the International Stores and the Co-op being the larger of the grocers. There were also showrooms for the Gas and Electricity companies. For refreshment there was the Colin Campbell Café by the church, Don Beales Corner Café at the Cross and the Cabin in the High Street. In addition there were 7 public houses in the area plus the Bull and Banyers hotels which were popular as a “Halfway House” for racegoers when there was racing at Newmarket. The Co-op was possibly the nearest we had at that time to the present supermarket. One could purchase most of their requirements under one roof, with, as well as groceries, there were drapery, clothing and footwear departments. You could also order Coal! It was a popular store especially with the working classes. The business was owned by its customers who collected a dividend on all purchases. Mum’s share number was 14515.

The whole of this part of the country was predominately agricultural, with Royston being in a central point for the immediate area, and this was reflected in the local industries with Corn and Seed merchants, Flour Millers, Malting and Brewing and a Fertilizer Factory. So you were somewhat restricted as to a choice of jobs and if anyone wanted to work in something different, engineering for instance, it was necessary to travel to Letchworth or Baldock.

The market, granted to the town by Royal Charter in the 12th. Century, and held on a Wednesday was well supported with a Cattle sale and a Corn Exchange where the local farmers could do their business. In addition there were 3 auction sites where one could sell their surplus produce and general bric-a-brac .

When it appeared likely that there would be a war, by 1940 Royston had become a mini garrison town with the Militia camp being build in Newmarket Road and the R.A.F. at Bassingbourn and later Steeple Morden. There was also a unit of the Hampshire Regiment on the Heath living in tents for a time. This was followed by the building of a emergency food storage depot being erected in Green Drift to be followed by a Army supply dump, in readiness for the 2nd. Front, being located at the top of Orchard Road. This resulted in Driftways and Orchard Road being properly surfaced to cope with the increased traffic. Later, a P.O.W. camp was built on the Heath to house Italian POW’s and later some German.

Like many other towns, we had our share of air raid warnings with enemy aircraft flying over on route to their blitzing of towns in the Midlands. There were also occasions when it was possible to follow the attacks on London from the fires that were started. It was sometimes necessary for the local fire service to go to the assistance of the city fire service. The town did have bombs on 2 occasions with a solitary bomb dropped in a garden wrecking a car and killing a few chickens early in 1940, and in September of that year a Dornier 215 dropped a stick of bombs narrowly missing the railway bridge but causing damage to the North Star beer cellar. It then flew over the town firing its guns but no one was injured. Later in the war we had our share of the V1’s “Doodle Bugs” coming over, their flight path being over the Melbourn Street. The A.T.C. were recruited as A.R.P. Messengers, fortunately not required. My post was at the garage that was at the cross. It was an eerie sight seeing them fly over and hoping they kept going!!

With the arrival of the Americans at Bassingbourn, Steeple Morden and Nuthampstead the town had to adapt to hearing a new dialect and seeing men in a much smarter uniform compared to our drab battle dress. Another unusual sight was seeing their police around carrying arms and riding on their huge motorcycles. We also witnessed the Flying Fortress aircraft on their way to and from their raids on Germany.

At wars end, it became obvious that more housing was needed for those who had married during the conflict. There were some who in desperation occupied the huts on the heath that were vacant after the closing of the P.O.W. camp. The outcome was the building of estates on either side of the Old North Road. There followed another development between Garden Walk and Newmarket Road after the Militia Camp was demolished. This was to cater mainly for employees of Johnson Mathey who were moving into the town. A new school (Greeneway) was built on the north side of Garden Walk which was by then properly surfaced. Eventually Queens Road school was closed and the Meridian school was built next to Greeneway.

In the town there was some more demolition in Barkway Street to make way for the bus station and the car park at the rear. There was also the same thing in Melbourn Street for a new block of shops next to the church and further down on the opposite side to accommodate the new Health Centre, Police Station and car park next to the Town Hall. At about the same time the previously private grounds of the Priory were given to the town for the construction of a memorial garden in memory of those who had been killed in the war. This included a fountain in memory of the American forces also, this later became a separate memorial garden.

The volume of traffic passing through the town was becoming a nightmare especially on summer week-ends and as a result the bypass was constructed and the County boundary was extended to its periphery, and with still more houses being required led to the Burns Road and Coombelands estates being built, followed much later by the estate on Melbourn Road. Royston was certainly growing because as well as the developments already mentioned there was the Ridings, Beldam and Shaftesbury estates in Newmarket and Barkway Roads.

By then Johnson Mathey had relocated from London to their new factory in Orchard Road and were to become the town’s biggest employer. The Corn and Seed merchants together with the Fertilizer factory and the Brewery had been taken over and closed down. The brewery was demolished, to become the site of Somerfields and the mill started to process Soya Beans. This led to more housing on part of these sites, but also several small industrial units covering a wide variety of activities.

Thanks to John Williamson for his memories of Royston in the 1940’s. His following list of Tradesmen operating in Royston Town Centre circa 1940 is positively mind blowing when compared with 2008. Isn’t it also astonishing how many of us can remember our Mum’s Co-op “divi” number? Ed.


Royston and District Family History Society