The Good Old Days by David Walker

She looked every inch an excited bride-to-be as she collected a wedding form. A couple of days later, the completed form was returned.
What a wedding it would be. The groom was the son of the commanding officer at RAF Bassingbourn, his bride the Letchworth girl who had filled in the form. Innumerable bigwigs were coming: bishops, an air vice-marshal or two, and so on. The camp chaplain was to officiate, and there was to be a very exotic honeymoon.
As a reporter on the Letchworth edition of the Herts Pictorial, I wrote it up and the report was duly published with some prominence.
It was mostly true. The bridegroom was the son of the commanding officer, there were indeed many VIPs present, and the honeymoon was at an exotic destination. There was just one problem. He was marrying someone else. As the girl handing in the form well knew.
Such were the perils of working on one of Letchworth’s three local papers in the 1960s, especially one whose billboards frequently proclaimed it “best for weddings”.
We did not go to the weddings, of course, though our photographer would sometimes attend. We relied on local clergymen to tell us about forthcoming ceremonies, posted wedding forms to the brides-to-be, and eventually had them returned with all the details completed to enable a report to be created. And if the wedding was a little further away but had a Letchworth connection it was common for a family member to call into the office in the Arcade to collect a form. Local papers sure were local in those days.
It could have been worse. At least we did not attend funerals, asking mourners their names, as happened elsewhere. We did not even have funeral forms to send out to obtain that information, unlike the neighbouring paper covering villages such as Stotfold and Arlesey that also fell within our news ambit.
There were just two reporters, plus the Pictorial group sports editor, in our office, complementing the much larger team at the Hitchin main office and at Stevenage. We were upstairs; below us was a receptionist looking after members of the public who came into our front office.
Not far away, upstairs in Station Place, was the Letchworth and Baldock Gazette, local edition of the Hitchin-based Hertfordshire Express (which miraculously changed its name to Bedfordshire Express across the county boundary).
And in Norton Way North was the Citizen, by far the biggest of our newspapers, with a staff of maybe half a dozen or so, its own printing press, and its associated monthly Herts Countryside magazine. The Pictorial was edited in Hitchin and printed in Luton with a regular van service taking our copy from Letchworth to Hitchin; the Gazette was both edited and printed in Hitchin with the Letchworth journalists sending their copy by bus parcel to be collected from the bus at Hitchin.
What a different world from today. The Pictorial turned itself into the Sun and became a free newspaper in 1970 and then rapidly, after the national Sun complained, became the Comet. The Citizen and Herts Express have long since vanished.
Weddings are unlikely ever to figure large in today’s Comet. And the big changes in local paper profitability in the last few decades with the advent of online publishing mean resources, and news space, are much less than once they were.
Even in the 1960s, there were signs of local papers not quite living up to their ambitions.
Take the Crow, which competed with us around Ashwell and had just two journalists. Its front page proudly proclaimed it to be the Royston Crow, Herts and Cambs Reporter, and General Advertiser for Herts, Cambs, Beds, Hunts and Essex.
That was maybe a little exaggerated.
I started in Letchworth in 1967, knowing little about the town or surrounding district. I had been here before: as young teenagers a friend and I would take advantage of London Transport’s green bus Rover tickets, with a half a crown (12½p) child fare allowing you to travel where you liked on the green country buses for a day. And Letchworth, some 50 miles from my home, was the furthest north you could get.
I still remember walking round the town centre and having a drink at the milk bar on the corner of Arena Parade and Broadway that later became a Chinese restaurant and eventually the very excellent Sagar Indian restaurant before being abandoned into dilapidation as it is, sadly, now.
My interview for the job of trainee reporter told me one of the most important things about the town. The general manager of Home Counties Newspapers, parent company for the Pictorial, warned me it was dry, with no pubs, and could I survive that? Quick as a flash, the Editor broke in to say there were lots of nice village pubs only a 2d (just under 1p) bus ride away. So that would be all right.
I later learnt that the Editor was a recovering alcoholic and assiduously staying off the drink. He once took a fellow reporter and me to lunch at a Hitchin Indian restaurant. It was not licensed, and the proprietor came over to ask us to sign his petition to be allowed to sell alcoholic drinks.
He was visibly crestfallen when the Editor said he could not sign as he was strictly teetotal. But as the chap walked off, the Editor called him back.
“I didn’t say anything about these two,” he said, gesturing at my colleague and me. “I’m sure they’ll sign.” And, of course, we did.
Much of the way local papers operated then would be impossible today, even if the staff and editorial space were available.
Every morning you called at the fire station in Eastcheap to chat to the fire chief and
find out what alarms there had been. Then it was the police station, back when we had a proper functioning police station, and a look at the incident book handed across by a friendly officer.
There was the regular check with the ambulance service, the weekly call to clergymen of every denomination – and Letchworth had a lot – in the town and surrounding villages to pick up any parish news as well as details of forthcoming weddings etc.
Local undertakers received a weekly call, and every death was the subject of an obituary with a reporter visiting the family to learn about the life of the deceased. We always teamed up with a reporter from the Citizen to save the family being bothered twice.
Nowadays, data protection laws would put a stop to most of that.
Likewise, hospital checks. Should someone have been seriously injured in, for example, a road accident, calling the Lister in Hitchin (as it was then) or hospital further afield to see how the victim was doing was routine, and the information freely given.
Most reporting involved going to see people. Letchworth almost exactly matched the country at large with only around 50 per cent of households being on the phone. So you had to get out and about. You talked to lots of people. And you used your eyes to see what was going on that might be interesting.
The local magistrates courts were covered religiously. Both Letchworth and Baldock courts sat in what is now the Morrison’s café, handily next to the Broadway Hotel which belied my interview warning that it was a completely dry town. If a court hearing was especially tedious, a quick visit to the Broadway was not unknown.
Not just full council meetings but council committees were covered – which meant being there – to report what the then Letchworth Urban District Council was up to, often helped by the very co-operative town clerk Michael Kelly. Council agendas and meeting minutes were scoured in advance, with anything that looked interesting chased up for a possible news item.
We also covered Baldock Urban District Council, whose committees did not admit the press and whose full council meeting was ruled with a rod of iron by the town clerk, normally ending after a mere half hour or less having agreed on whatever the town clerk had decided it should.
Parish councils in villages such as Weston and Ashwell were also assiduously attended and reported on.
Saturday mornings were spent in the office, writing up wedding reports, frantically trying to find something original to say – an unusual style wedding dress, an unlikely honeymoon spot, a bride’s mother who had made all the bridesmaids’ dresses. And in the afternoons there might be a village fête to attend.
Amateur dramatics or musical events always received reviews.
The town had its big personalities. Charles Sax, leader of the Labour group on Letchworth council – which changed hands regularly between Labour and Tory – was a larger than life character straight out of a novel. His Conservative counterpart, local businessman Rupert Gurney, was also a northerner, somewhat quieter. I well remember his revealing, as he sought to preserve the bandstand on Norton Common, that as a lad he had found his local band concerts the ideal place to chat up the girls.
What was clear was that our local councillors had the wellbeing of the town at their heart, not their party affiliation. So people would agree or disagree with each other regardless of party.
Running the Garden City Corporation, forerunner of today’s Heritage Foundation, was the scary Horace Plinston, former council town clerk, who had played a huge role in saving Letchworth from commercial property developers. The now sadly abandoned Plinston Hall is named for him (and, whatever its fate, should retain that name). Presiding over the whole show for most of my time was the rarely seen Colonel Robert Humbert, government-appointed chairman.
Among other characters I recall is Sid Stapleton, founder of the tyre business that bore his names (now STS Tyre Pros), arch enemy of the Corporation. His home, the Old Vicarage in Norton, was one of Letchworth’s few freehold houses, having been church property and therefore out of the Corporation’s grip. Sid had a new Rolls-Royce every year or so, ordering the next one as he took delivery of his latest, was barred from most local pubs, and lost his driving licence after a police chase that culminated in his barricading himself in the tyre company office in Hitchin.
I interviewed him once at his house. He talked about his early days as a ship’s boy, landing in New York and asking someone the time. “Time’s money,” was the curt reply.
That was when he decided he had to make himself a millionaire so he would not be treated like that. And he did.
He showed me a priceless rug in front of his hearth as we drank ‘cowboys’ – milk and whisky. And then he thrust a rolled-up newspaper into the fire, lit a cigar, and stubbed the burning newspaper out on the rug.
Were things better then? They were certainly very different.

David Walker’s journalistic career took him from the Pictorial to the Financial Times where he became Executive Editor. He was for many years also a director of David’s Bookshops, and plans to create what became LALG were sketched out at a directors’ meeting in his living room.

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