This scrapbook within our museum's collection celebrates the golden jubilee of the Women’s Institute (WI) in the UK. It is an intimate and vivid portrait of the year 1965 and unfolds from the perspective of a community undergoing huge change.
Leverstock Green, once a quiet rural village surrounded by country lanes and open fields, found itself amid an inexorable transformation. The M1 had recently circled its boundary, disturbing the village’s relationship with the surrounding countryside. New housing estates had taken root and further development was initiated during the book’s twelve-month span.
The book contains a diverse and eclectic set of materials, including newspaper cuttings, personal observations, photographs, postcards, leaflets, programmes and even textile samples, assembled by the jubilee committee of the local WI. Change is the recurring theme and is documented microscopically. In addition, seasonal and permanent changes are recorded through monthly diaries of life in different village locations (such as Pancake Lane, Greenacres, Westwick Row and The Horseshoe), providing the varied content with a continuous thread, giving structure and much added interest.
Familiar buildings, hedgerows, trees and fields are documented for the last time but not all changes are regretted. While the book offers many poignant moments, the women of the WI are hopeful for the future and the book celebrates growing families, improvements around the village, and social activities revolving around the church. One such example being the clock face re-gilding to celebrate their jubilee year.
We learn that the year began with snow on the ground, but that didn’t stop the ‘youngsters’ gathering at Westwick Farm for their riding lessons. The farmer’s daughter complains, ‘it has been increasingly difficult to find places to ride with them, with the new building going on and M1 cutting off access to open country’. Later that night, the first new Leverstock Green resident of the year arrives – Jonathan David Short on 2 January 1965, who misses being a New Year’s baby by just one hour.
Minor domestic dramas are recorded. In January, in Pancake Lane, Mrs Hildersley’s cat, the aptly named Snowy, goes missing during the bitterly cold spell. Mrs Fry of the Swedish Cottages on Westwick Row is distraught – also missing is her dog, Suzy. There is speculation that she could have been run over by a car, taken by a fox or even by the rumoured puma that has reportedly been seen in the area.
The ending of another era was marked by the death of Winston Churchill on 24 January, which was duly commemorated with prayers in the church, the funeral watched by most of the village on television. Happily, after ten days, Snowy returns, ‘much thinner but otherwise alright’. There is no further word on Suzy’s fate.
The book’s pages continue to unfold through 1965, offering a vivid picture of a community in transition but one in which social bonds are strong. The book contains many wry observations of local events and people. That summer, rumours of a visit by the Russian Ambassador to Leverstock Green prove to be just that. Disappointed residents are instead entertained by watching Lord Arran eat an ice cream ‘in his shirtsleeves’ at the cricket match. Perhaps, a sign of the slow relaxation of social standards.
An unexploded anti-aircraft rocket is found by the Farrow brothers in the old orchard opposite Malmes Croft. Upon inspection, the Bomb Disposal Squad confirm it is live but by then the village policeman had already removed the device to his own garden. There it is made safe, leaving a crater three and a half feet deep and six feet wide.
The book closes with a valedictory. It notes that Leverstock Green is no longer a village and that it has lost its feeling of intimacy; the nightingales have gone and there is tipping of rubbish in nearby lanes. However, ‘newcomers are friendly and co-operative and join in with Church affairs and other social activities’. It had already been noted that the newcomers had bolstered membership of the WI and Scouts, and, it adds, ‘we look forward to the new village hall being eventually completed to accommodate all the social activities’. The final line is a plea that, ‘good youth-leaders will arise and install into the young, a sense of pride and responsibility, so necessary for the well-being of a community and that the older inhabitants will be understanding, co-operative and charitable’.
The book contains many references to, and photos of, individuals, families and homes which will be of interest to anyone with a connection to Leverstock Green, but the collection also has a much wider appeal as a record of the expansion of Hemel Hempstead and of twentieth-century English social history. It is a unique and valuable time capsule of which Dacorum Heritage is proud custodian.