Bishop’s Stortford History Society branches out with book about Warwick Road, home of Herts and Essex High School
Bishop’s Stortford History Society has published a book exploring the intriguing past of Warwick Road.
It is written by John Rhodes, who has lived in its oldest property with wife Marie for almost 30 years.
During coronavirus lockdown, the retired civil servant, who has a first-class degree in modern history from Oxford University, pulled together years of detailed research about the private road – best known for Herts and Essex High School – and the informal maintenance association set up almost a century ago to look after it.
Just before the pandemic struck, he gave a talk to the society about his findings. It was so well received that he spent the worst of the pandemic compiling the 28-page volume.
The preface explains how his investigations began: “I first became interested in this subject many years ago when, coming home from work with my wife, Marie, we walked up Warwick Road with a fellow commuter.
“Marie, talking about our house, said that the previous owners had told us that our house dated from 1820 and that a public right of way had existed across our front garden. I then commented that we didn’t actually know this was the case.
“When we got home, after a short sharp discussion about the merits of not contradicting one’s spouse in front of a casual acquaintance, we concluded that we didn’t, in fact, know whether this was true or not so maybe we should try to find out.”
John was brought up in New Barnet and Marie was raised in Enfield. When they decided to relocate from West Yorkshire spa town Ilkley in 1992 when Marie got a job with the Department for Transport in London, their focus was Hertfordshire – and Bishop’s Stortford was one of the few towns in the county neither knew.
John said: “It was a sheer fluke we ended up here but we both regard Bishop’s Stortford as our home because we've lived here longer than we've lived anywhere else.”
Their probe into their own home’s 200-year history and its position, tucked away at the end of a lane, led to a wider exploration of the development of Warwick Road around it.
The book is split into two parts. The first 100 years details how Warwick Road and the rest of the Hockerill Park estate was assembled and developed, and the key role that gin magnate and philanthropist Sir Walter Gilbey played in creating high-quality homes on generous-sized plots before his death in 1914.
Mr Rhodes discovered how the properties were marketed in the 1890s: “Hockerill Park is remarkably eligible as a site for dwelling houses, the situation is high and dry being about 300ft above sea level, it occupies one of the highest positions between London and Cambridge.
“The salubrity of the district is proverbial. Conclusive evidence on this point is afforded by the fact that the average death rate during the last 10 years has been under 16 per 1,000.
“The estate affords special facilities for those having business in the City. There is a frequent service of express trains from Liverpool Street and St Pancras to Bishop’s Stortford, the time occupied in transit being about 45 minutes.”
Development of Warwick Road – named after campaigning socialist Frances Evelyn "Daisy" Greville, Countess of Warwick, the mistress of King Edward VII (1901-10) when he was Prince of Wales – was largely completed by 1939.
The second part of John’s book focuses on how its status as a private road has been preserved by the association. He served on the committee from 2003 to 2013 and Marie was its chairwoman from 2005 to 2013. His account chronicles the challenges residents have faced.
Next year, it will mark 100 years of existence despite repeated efforts to bring it under council control. Mr Rhodes said that residents have resisted those moves to stop the road from being used as a rat run or relief route for Hockerill traffic.
However, Warwick Road has had some interesting alternative uses.
Mr Rhodes’s favourite discovery in the association’s records relates to the Second World War. At the time, it was lined with elm trees and the War Department used the street to park Army and Red Cross vehicles because the branches provided camouflage from air attack.
As a result, the committee secured £340 from the Government as compensation for damage this vehicle park caused and was able to tar the entire length and suspend the maintenance levy householders pay in both 1946 and 1947.
More recently, its unadopted status was an issue when, in December 2010, a Herts and Essex High School student slipped on an icy footpath and sued the association for compensation. The ensuing legal action established that residents were not responsible for gritting.
After he completed the book, which also includes historic maps and photos, John turned to Rob Francis, chairman of Bishop’s Stortford History Society, who worked in publishing before his retirement. The pair are also members of Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation's committee; John is president and Rob serves as treasurer.
They worked with Bishop’s Stortford’s CZ Design and Print on production of the book. It is now on sale for £5 at the Tourist Information Centre in Market Square and from the society. Rob hopes the proceeds will help fund further publications backed by the history society.
The book is part of the group’s new direction. Before the Covid-19 pandemic stopped its monthly meetings, they were so popular that a larger venue was required and a move from the New Apton Centre to Windhill Churches Centre was under way.
The society has more than 50 members, who pay £15 a year to enjoy lectures on the third Thursday of each month from September to May. It also welcomes guests at its talks. Rob said: “We're very keen to have some new blood too.”
Formed in 1955, its focus was solely on the immediate area but it has now extended its remit.
During lockdowns, it has continued activities online, including collaborations with other local history groups, but Dr Margaret Hutt, director of studies at Anglia Ruskin University, who is responsible for picking speakers and programming their lectures is looking forward to organising an exciting new season. She will be sharing regular updates with the Indie.
For more details see www.bishopsstortfordhistorysociety.org.uk.