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18 October 2017: Chelmsford High StreetA High Street

There was just one spare seat for the talk given to our local National Trust Supporter Group on Chelmsford High Street today. That was next to me. Make of that what you will!

Alan Pamphilion.organises the Chelmsford History Walks. His talk was based on one of them and concentrated on the period from 1860 to 1960.

He illustrated it with many old photographs of the High Street and Tindal Street, starting with a photograph showing horses and carts in High Street with no car anywhere to be seen. At that stage the High Street had a rough surface made of crushed granite like that used in the construction of the railway. Since this produced a lot of dust in the summer, the Council bought tree bark chippings from the local tanners to lay on top. At this time the Conduit was in place at the junction of the High Street and Springfield Road, having been moved from its original spot where the statute of Judge Tindal now stands. (The Conduit was moved again in 1940 and is now in Admiral’s Park.)

The High Street had retail and residential premises but gradually the retail businesses took over. Some of the residential buildings still exist, albeit given over to retail use. One of them, originally the house of a Mr Pugh, still retains its original features in the upper storeys, including a magnificent staircase and ceilings. At one time one of its rooms was used as the judges’ robing room.

Alan talked about many of the businesses that had once been in the High Street and Tindal Street, including the shop Mr Bond opened in the High Street in 1902. He gradually bought up a number of adjoining properties to either side and combined them into what became Bond’s Department Store and is now Debenhams. It revealed its origins as separate shops in the different floor levels as you walked around. However Bolingbroke & Wenley, on the opposite side of the High Street, suffered even more from differing floor levels within the store.

There were a number of pubs and inns along the High Street, including the Cock Inn, the King’s Head, the Queen’s Head and the Saracen’s Head. The Saracen’s Head is the only one still running and is the oldest building in the High Street, having been built in 1539 as a coaching inn (which is reflected in the extant large archway through which horses and carriages used to pass). During World War II it was used as a hostel for American servicemen. Apparently the hostel advertised for local girls to work in the hostel and 300 applied!

The Shire Hall dates from the 18th century. The clock was added in the 19th century as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee; Sparrow’s Bank met the cost. Sparrow’s was later taken over by Barclays and its building now houses a Jamie Oliver restaurant.

The Corn Exchange stood at the top of Tindal Street. This was built when farmers complained that the light in the Shire Hall, where they had traded previously, was so bad that they could not judge the quality of what they were buying. Built on to the back of the Exchange was a large space with a glass roof, which allowed the farmers to see more clearly. After it ceased to function as a corn exchange the building was used as a centre for music, dancing and entertainment. Hoffman’s and Marconi’s held their staff Christmas parties there. Members of the audience could remember Jimi Hendrix performing there in the 1960s. Very sadly it was demolished at the end of that decade.

There were three pubs in Tindal Street: The White Hart, The Spotted Dog and The Dolphin. There were stories about the landlady of The Spotted Dog standing in the street outside, arms akimbo, encouraging passers-by to enter and sample the wares. The Dolphin was the least salubrious of the three, its public bar smelling of stale beer and cigarette smoke.

In the 1960s, a coffee bar and “the best fast-food shop in Chelmsford at the time”, frequented by both mods and rockers. They had no difficulty attracting “Saturday Girls” but they weren’t allowed to use the espresso machine.

The Half Moon pub was on the opposite corner. This is now long gone but the name of the square on which it stood, Half Moon Square, is now being revived.

After the interval, as well as asking questions members of the audience contributed their own memories of Chelmsford in the 1950s and 60s, including recollections of the Grippers hardware store, where the cash was sent to the cashier along vacuum tubes and the fact that the cashier was behind glass screens and was never known to smile.