The historic town of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, South East England, is just 24 miles (34 kilometres) northwest of London. As a New Town, it has expanded beyond all recognition since 1947.
At the end of World War II, the Labour brought in the New Towns Act 1946. The socialist principle was to move poorer households out of damp, draughty and overcrowded Victorian properties. In addition, two million homes were destroyed by German bombing raids, sixty percent of which were in London. There was a desperate and chronic housing need, and Hemel Hempstead was to provide part of the solution.
Hemel Hempstead’s population grew from 20,000 people in 1947 to 97,500 in 2019. Much of this growth is due to families relocating from London, in search of a better quality of life.
With permission to greatly expand small communities into large New Towns, architects and planners thought about what constituted an ideal environment for people to live in, and what infrastructure would support the businesses and services. Some aspects they got right, building housing estates facing pedestrian walkways and providing larger retail units with decent car parking.
The ugly, severe office blocks and major presence of concrete were some of the major downsides. However, the town’s civic trust is to be congratulated for saving Hemel Hempstead’s historic homes from the bulldozers far more effectively than many other communities across Britain have done.
Hemel Hempstead In The 1940s
Here in this excerpt of ‘Hemel Hempstead On Film’, uploaded to YouTube by britainonfilm, we are reminded that “In the 1940s it was a bustling market town with a population of around 20,000”. The population estimate in 2019 was 97,500 people.
Hemel Hempstead In The 1950s
British Pathé captured boys at play in the heavy, settled snow of 1951.
Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Adeyfield Estate in Hemel Hempstead is captured in this British Pathé film. The crowds watch her talking to the Adams family and visiting their home, before she went to lay the foundation stone for St. Barnabas Church. Modern viewers will be struck by how the Queen spoke at the time.
These are additional British Pathé clips recording the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Hemel Hempstead in 1952. In the background you can hear some very, very boring speeches being delivered.
British Pathé visited The George pub, where the regulars were filmed painting with food and a number of household goods. Phyllis Hillman, Roy Barnes, Richard Duncan and Jean Tibbles are all shown taking part in the pub. At the end, toddler Elizabeth Baldwin and baby Lauren Tibbles are shown making a mess with food at a kitchen table.
Patrick Bradley uploaded a 1959 colour film to YouTube. It was made to show the New Town’s growth over the past 10 years. Scenes include new housing estates, factories and shopping facilities.
YouTube channel britainonfilm brings us this excerpt from Hemel On Film. It’s a reminder that the building plans and expansion of the town was not without its critics and problems. We are shown the only shop in Bennet’s End being run from the living room of Mr Smith, who had moved to Hemel Hempstead from Finchley.
The New Town In The 1960s
The Dacorum Heritage Trust uploaded film showing the opening of the tiered car park for Marlowes, Hemel Hempstead.
British Pathé made this film to show the bright new world of a New Town. The narrator notes how “many Londoners who, since 1947, have come here to begin a different life away from the congested capital” as we are shown people walking about in the sunshine next to shops, an artificial lake and a fountain. The banks are shown clustered together, and the new car park at The Marlows is free to use. Cartoonist Rowland Emett, “renowned inventor of crazy contraptions” who was to become an MBE in 1978, designed the car park’s mural.
This silent collection of out takes and cuts from British Pathé shows some old and picturesque images of Hemel Hempstead, before moving on to the new parts of town and the market.
Patrick Bradley uploaded this 1962 film showing the old town, Adeyfield, the Queen’s Square, Bennetts End, Chaulden, Warner’s End and Gadebridge. You’ll notice that along the back of the new terraces runs the road access to the garages, where the gates are carefully numbered for the “delivery men”.
These British Pathé out takes and cuts were part of the material recorded for “HEMEL HEMPSTEAD” & “GIRL GUIDES”.
This British Pathé film shows how the new shopping centre in town drained trade away from shops in the old town. At a time when many communities in the UK were busy knocking down ornate and historic buildings to erect concrete brutalist developments, in Hemel Hempstead the civic trust got to work to preserve and revitalise what was already there. The narrator tells us “Retaining and preserving the ancient while constructing the modern is a scheme never before attempted in a new town”, before ending with “Urban preservation has a place in the space age.”
Into The 1980s
YouTube channel DJ Superb! Uploaded this film with a dedication to the late Barry John Reynolds, known as BJ. In the 1980s magazine-style breakfast television programme TV AM had a segment called The Worst Landlord In Britain, visiting different pubs around the country. In this episode they visited The George in Nash Mills, capturing jollity amongst the pub’s regulars.
Thankfully, the George’s 1958 activity of painting with food and boot polish wasn’t in evidence on this occasion.
Although the quality of this film isn’t good, Tina Howard’s upload of a film made by the Hemel Hempstead Cine Society in 1984 deserved a mention.
Hemel Hempstead In The 20th Century
In February 2014 Channel 4 News visited Oatridge Gardens, Hemel Hempstead, where 17 homes were evacuated. A hole, measuring approximately 35ft wide and 20ft deep, suddenly appeared in the road.
It was later discovered that the houses were built over abandoned mine workings which had supplied local brick and tile manufacturers with chalk until 1898.
Ian Smiles recorded Hemel Hempstead Town Hall being demolished in May 2018.
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