This essay could be classified under two headings: (i) “Tales My Father Told Me” or (ii) “Social History”. The events described here belong to the late thirties, that is, Before the War, a period which my father was wont to suggest was a golden age from which humanity had deteriorated in all sorts of ways. Whether the reader will agree with him is doubtful. We have been told that the thirties were a period of unemployment, starvation, Fascism, incompetent politicians, and general misery. Much of this view was encouraged by left wing politicians after the War. And it is true that Attlee's government did set out to use the power of the state to remedy those grievances that seemed all too prominent in earlier years. They were not altogether wrong, either. Large sections of the United Kingdom suffered from chronic unemployment, declining industries, ill health, and squalor. However, any observer who travels round the south of England will perhaps see a different picture: John Betjeman's Metroland with massive investment in housing; new roads; luxurious picture palaces; gin palaces for thirsty motorists. My own house in Oxford, dated 1936, was one of a large estate built speculatively to house the very first manual workers who could afford a mortgage. The reason was that Lord Nuffield had adopted one of the principles of the American New Deal, namely that paying the workers more would increase the size of market for goods and thus reduce the unit costs of manufactured commodities. What applied to the car industry, however, could not apply to the coal industry. Paying the miners more would make British coal uncompetitive in foreign markets. Here is the fundamental reason for the disparity between southern England and the rest of the United Kingdom.
A result of this disparity was that workers migrated from the unemployment black spots in search of work. In Watford, the unemployment rate during the hungry thirties was something like 0.5%! New industries were springing up, taking advantage of the town's proximity to London. By the early sixties it was estimated that Watford, with a population of around 80,000, and perhaps twice that if surrounding smaller towns and villages were included, created more value added than the whole of Lancashire. Unsurprisingly, a large number of Welshmen travelled to Watford in search of work. Most of these would be single men, men without family ties that would keep them in the valleys. Naturally, being immigrants, they came into conflict with the established population. The main cause of friction was not jobs, for there was plenty of work. It was Women. Competition for women was the cause of the ill-feeling that developed, which led to the most spectacular outbreak of rioting that Watford has ever seen.
What happened was that groups of young natives toured the town looking for Welshmen. When they found a Welshman they took him to The Pond and threw him in. Watford Pond was a substantial landmark. Its name does not do it justice. It is a small artificial lake that occupied the space between the upper High Street and a row of shops that included the Gaumont Cinema. It was the official name of an important central bus stop. It was carefully planted with waterlilies and surrounded by a substantial fence made of tubular steel. When the police objected, the rioters threw them in the Pond as well. They also threw a police car into the Pond out of exuberance. The opportunity was taken to kick shop windows in, just for fun. These events were, and are, known as The Welsh Riots. The fact is, the Welsh were totally innocent parties, victims of what we would call racially-aggravated assault.
Watford was and is a cosmopolitan town. The Rose and Crown, just a little way East of the Pond and on the other side of the road, is where I used to do my illegal (underage) drinking. The main reason was that they sold Draught Bass, which was probably the best beer that was brewed in Burton-on-Trent. The beer has long since vanished after all the mergers and buyouts and asset stripping that almost ruined the brewing industry during the nineteen-sixties. English was not the main language in use in the Rose and Crown. Polish and Lithuanian were perhaps dominant, and there were more genuine Irish speakers among the customers than in large parts of Ireland. Some of the Irish were economic migrants, like the victims of the Welsh Riots; others were political refugees. As Irish folk do everywhere, they congregated in groups of their own nationality and set up their own social facilities. And, of course, they were single men!
Coming nearer to home, to Abbots Langley, let us set the scene of the immediately pre-War period. The village at the time was dominated by just a few grand houses, one of which was owned by Lord Kindersley who went on to become Chairman of Rolls-Royce. Now Lord Kindersley had three sons. One killed himself by seeing how fast he could ride a motorcycle round the garden of the big house, and colliding with the house itself. Another son died as a result of walking along the top of a railway train and not being quick enough to avoid a bridge. Lord Kindersley was heartbroken, and sold up his property. It was to be even worse for him: the third son went into bomb disposal during the War and was killed trying to defuse a bomb. The point is that the property was bought by the Roman Catholic Church with a view to using it as a seminary for training priests. Now the villagers were not conspicuously keen on religion. In so far as there was a religious consensus, it was that Catholics were aliens and a Bad Lot. Even in my childhood, religious segregation of schools created a them and us mentality that sometimes led to open warfare. During a stone fight with the local Catholic kids, I had the bright idea of throwing my stones high in the air so that they would descend on the Enemy from a great height. A fortunate stone cast in this way hit the leader of the Catholic gang, one Michael Pocklington, on the crown of his head, and he staggered off crying to his mother. I was briefly the hero of the hour. The Good Lord did not see it that way. Soon afterwards I fell off a chair while playing Pirates in the Wolf Cubs and broke my right radius. It did not heal properly for at least fifty years, and I was physically prevented from taking part in stone fights ever again.
The Church authorities wished to open up their new facilities to the general public, and no doubt they had ambitions to overcome the villagers' one sincerely held dogma. So they organised a series of dances in the big house. The men who went to the dances were of course Irishmen, mostly from Watford, but the women were local girls who just wanted a bit of fun. The situation was explosive. I have suggested earlier that there was an element of thuggish brutality in the Abbots mentality; it can be traced way back to the Middle Ages, when Abbots people burned down St Albans Abbey in a dispute over agricultural wages. Around the time I am describing, the local policeman went on holiday and was replaced by a temporary from Watford. The usual policeman used to be rewarded for being unobservant with a brace of pheasants every now and again. But the temporary caught the poachers. He was found in a ditch with his skull broken.
The upshot was that the Abbots boys raided one of the dances, took all the Irishmen out, beat them up, then held their heads in the lavatory bowls and kept flushing them. Once they tired of that, they went down the village High Street kicking in all the shop windows. This event, you will not be surprised to learn, was and is referred to as “The Irish Riots”.
There are a couple of postscripts from my own era. An Irishman in the Rose and Crown, having bought a couple of packets of peanuts in order to reveal the naked woman pictured beneath, was incensed to find that she was his girl-friend. Or so he imagined. He insisted that the barman took it down at once. The barman refused, a fight broke out, more Irishmen came pouring in to enjoy the Donnybrook, and the pub was utterly wrecked. The Victorian mahogany bar counter was shattered like matchwood, and the front door was ripped off its substantial brass hinges and broken to pieces. I was not present, I must add. But the damage took weeks to fix, and my illegal drinking activities were substantially curtailed.
Another time, more recently, a riot broke out in a pub further down the High Street. This pub had a corridor accessible from the street, with a separate bar each side of it. One bar was ornamented with shamrocks and Cead mile fáilte slogans, and was usually packed with Irishmen supping Guinness and playing button accordions and bodhrans. The other bar was ornamented with skinheads: that dates the event. On a Saturday afternoon a perfectly ordinary Watford citizen, carrying a full shopping bag on his way to the bus stop, just happened to stick his head into the Irishmen's bar and announced:
“There's a skinhead in here who says that all Irishmen are wankers.”
He then proceeded on his way, smiling beneficently. The pub was so completely wrecked that it never reopened.
I hope you have enjoyed my reminiscences of my home town.