The Ancient House at Hoddesdon

By Steve Smith

Hoddesdon is not famous for much I guess. I think the predecessor of the Black and Dekker workmate was designed and built here in a tiny workshop; Hugh Paddick – should you know his name – was born here, and Lena Zavaroni’s tragic life ended here; oh, and I worked here for some eleven years but that was another life. In Toc H circles though it was famous for one particular thing.

The Hertfordshire town has long been bypassed by the A10 but it was once a major coaching route north from London. That is why it has an array of impressive inns and buildings along its High Street, now mostly covered with modern shop facades. Almost opposite the War Memorial, between the White Swan and the Star (formerly the Salisbury Arms), is a terrace of what is now three shops; a butcher, a beauty salon, and a newsagent. In 1929 two thirds of the row became a jewel in Toc H’s crown. This is the story of the ancient house at Hoddesdon.

The house in 1900

It was Tubby himself who rated the house so highly. He called it a “jewel of no mean order”. The terrace was in fact one old house which had stood on what used to be known as Hoddesdon Green since the 1500s. it is a timber-framed building with beams that were said to have come from a ship and had been transported up the nearby River Lea.

Small and rickety inside, there is a narrow staircase to reach the first floor and thick, wide, uneven oak floorboards. By 1925 the property had been split unequally into two with the left-hand third (Nos. 99 & 101 High Street) comprising two downstairs rooms and three upper rooms. The remaining third (No. 103) was now a separate property.

The staircase with a Toc H slogan above

A Broxbourne Grope, the earliest name for a new Toc H unit in those days, was formed November 1925. Broxbourne was Hoddesdon’s near neighbour to the south. The Grope sought a home and eyed up the ancient house on the High Street. No. 99 at the far left had long been converted to a Blacksmith’s shop downstairs; it was said that a Smithy had stood on the site since 1370. The current business at that time was George Porter, who offered Practical Shoeing and General Smithing and claimed to have been established in 1730. The downstairs room next to it, which had been a bakery until the baker died, was in the possession of a solicitor but being used by the Labour Exchange. Since that solicitor happened to be a member of Toc H, the Grope began to use it for their meetings in 1926 installing a door-knocker in the form of the double cross of Ypres and a sign carrying the slogan made famous at Talbot House, Poperinghe during the war, “All rank abandon, ye who enter here”, was placed on a lintel above an internal doorway.

The Branch rooms were officially opened on 17th September 1926 by Miss Amy Debenham, whose work for ex-servicemen in the area was legendary. She was a member of the British legion and a friend of Toc H’s John Hollis. Her family were seated in Cheshunt Park and later Upwick Manor in Albury.

Miss Amy Debenham OBE. Copyright: © IWM.

And as it was a Toc H tradition to create memorial rooms in buildings Toc H occupied, it was known as the Balcombe-Bright room for the first two men of Cheshunt who had fallen in the First World War (See below). They were friends of Amy Debenham. The room was dedicated at the opening ceremony by Padre Herbert Fleming. The Group were also given an address by their own padre, Oakes Monger.

The Grope had been recognised as a Group in February 1926 and just a few months later, on the 1st of November, were made up to a Branch when their lamp was endowed. Known as the Beckh Lamp, it would first be lit by HRH the Prince of Wales at the Birthday Festival on 11th December which in 1926 took place at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. The lamp was dedicated to Robert Harold Beckh, 2nd Lieutenant in the 12th East Yorkshire Regiment, who fell in France on the 15th August 1916. The subscription was paid for by his parents and his sister.

Robert Harold Beckh

Early Branch service was for the Pensions Committee, Ware Union, South Hackney Scouts, and Stepney Boys’ Club (which was originally formed by Haileybury College close to Hoddesdon)

A corresponding League of Women Helpers group was established in 1926 and earned their lamp three years later receiving it at a gathering in 42 Trinity Square on 22nd February 1930.

So being an established branch of a burgeoning Movement, Broxbourne felt they needed a more permanent headquarters and as chance would have it, in late 1928 the building was put up for sale by Susannah Mary Scott who lived in the adjoining property (103 High Street). She and her hsuband Frederick Scott had occupied then, from 1921, owned the bakery. In light of the sale Toc H were in danger of being evicted from their room so branch Pilot George Fuller, more of whom later, asked a journalist friend, Captain H. F. Nicholls (aka Quex) to publish an appeal for funds to buy the house in a London Evening paper. Mrs Elizabeth McLachlan (of Invergordon and London) saw the appeal and in February 1929 offered the £1200 purchase price to Toc H. Shortly afterwards the deeds were in the Movement’s hands and Toc H were the proud owners of a rather interesting, historical property. As Tubby pointed out, apart from All Hallows it was Toc H’s most ancient possession.

It was named Everyman’s House and the conditions of the purchase were that

 “the property to be placed at the disposal of the Broxbourne branch of Toc H for use as a headquarters for its work generally free of charge; the Branch however to be responsible for maintenance, repairs, rates etc

In the event of Toc H ceasing to function at Broxbourne, or the property being unable to be used for any Toc H purpose, Toc H Inc. to be at liberty to sell the same and devote the due proceeds to the general work of the Association, or to transfer the same and allow the use of the same on such terms that they deem desirable to some other Society with similar objects”.

Mrs McLachlan had also adopted a ‘war orphan’ Roy Grant and Toc H agreed to find an ‘older brother’ for the boy from within their ranks.

Tubby often visited the House, detouring from journeys northwards especially to call in even asking for his own key to be made.

So now they owned the property, Toc H could make it more suitable for their purposes. The Smithy became their tenant and continued to operate from no. 99. Upstairs there was a larger room suitable for meetings, a small room which was sometimes let, and the middle room was converted into a small chapel. It was called the Caldecott room in memory of first branch chairman, Lt Col Caldecott (See below) who died January 1927 three days after he was elected chairman.

Amongst the items adorning the chapel were a crucifix said to have been found at Hell Fire Corner and the cross of the Unknown Hertfordshire Soldier. The wooden cross was an original grave marker, one of dozens given to Toc H when the Imperial War Graves Commission replaced them with headstones in the 1920s. In the early days of Toc H branches were often given one to hold at the same time their lamp was first lit. Those dedicated to Unknown Soldiers were bestowed to Branches with suitable chapels. Broxbourne received theirs at Manchester Cathedral in December 1926. I believe this particular cross ended up in Talbot House via Prideaux House in the early 2000s.

Anyway, Broxbourne branch continued in good strength for a while even forming a spin-off group at Hertford in 1928 (Elevated to Branch status 1931) and helped Waltham Cross find their feet that same year but by the mid-1930s the branch was struggling and in the summer of 1933 they reluctantly relinquished the Beckh Lamp to the care of the Central Guard of the Lamp. This meant that they felt they were not doing enough to be worthy of Branch status and were demoted to a Group though this struggled too and the unit folded.

At this time Toc H central – who actually owned the house – tried to make use of it as a training centre although with limited success.

In 1939 LWH set up a club above the Smithy for London Mothers evacuated to the area. It included a playroom for children, and for the mothers’ table-tennis, darts, and a sewing room. Doris Becka was the Honorary Warden.

However by 1935 a new Group had started in Ware and by 1937 it was the Ware and Hoddesdon Group. Soon after the Second World War it had become Hoddesdon and by 1951 was Hoddesdon & Broxbourne. The branch rooms were back in use.

Post war the Smithy is still there and Toc H is a tea room

Post war Toc H operated no. 101 as a tearoom (see photo above) This continued right through the fifties and was known simply as the Old House Tea Room. The Smithy remained their tenant until about 1949 when it finally closed, arguably after nearly 600 years. This shop would later become a greengrocery business run by the Foster family whose son John would become Harry Webb and the Drifters first business manager getting them into the famous 2Is coffee bar in Soho and allowing them to be discovered. He is also credited with coming up with a new name for Harry Webb, choosing Cliff Richard! After that the Salmon brothers ran the greengrocer then Ripley’s the butcher took it on and retain it to this day (although Toc H are no longer their landlords). Ripley had previously been on the other side of the alley at the end of the White Swan.

Tubby visiting the house

Another business that rented part of the premises from May 1950 was Eileen Deste. She took one of the upstairs rooms as a photography studio to complement her Moulton Street workshop in London. Eileen ‘Dusty’ Deste was a renowned photographer who, though born in Croydon in 1909, established her career as a photographer for Cartier before setting up in New Zealand in the 1930s. Returning to London she specialised in portraiture but also photographing works of art, rare china and carpets. She later photographed the interiors of country houses for the National Trust.

Deste gave up photography around 1980 because of failing health. She died on the 2nd March 1986 in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London. She never married and is remembered as an eccentric with many friends, and as never having large sums of money as she preferred to spend it or give it away.

perhaps the best remembered tenant was Mrs Buttery who ran her chiropody service from teh little upstairs room from about 1960 until the 1990s.

Despite its tenants Toc H continued to use the House for its own work. Early branch policy was about supporting other local organisations and activities included the International Friendship League, the Hoddesdon Old People’s Welfare Organisation and later the George Fuller Club for the Blind.

George Fuller, who we mentioned earlier, was one of the key members of the branch. Known widely as G, he was a respected journalist and BBC scriptwriter. He also invented the hugely popular weekly radio programme, In Town Tonight, and it is George’s voice that introduces and closes the broadcast.  In poor health he retired to Surrey and died suddenly on 27th January 1951. The club for the blind was named in his honour and is still running to this day.

George Fuller, second from left, with the In Town Tonight team

In 1954 a House Committee formed to replace Hoddesdon branch as the body responsible for the management of the House.

1968 after Ripley’s had made some alterations

By the 1960s and 70s the branch was doing well with strong leaders. People like John Radford and his brother Peter, whose family had been connected to the branch for a couple of generations, were joined by Beryl Collins (late of Brentwood LWH) and then her husband David, whose skill with book-keeping meant he was soon nabbed for treasurer.

Toc H birthday celebrations
L-R ?,?, John Radford, ?, Harry Miller, Peter Radford, ?

The branch took part in the Flashing Lamp scheme and ran old time shows at John Warner school. At Christmas they were always busy holding parties in local halls for groups such Newlands; the Friends of 305 and Lintons who all supported people with learning disabilities. They held opened a Santa’s Grotto at the house and put together Christmas hampers for local old folk.

Meantime the Faith Healers were using the big room upstairs whilst the downstairs shop became almost a pop-up shop with various local charities renting it by the day. Local people also recall it being a small jewellery shop, an eclectic shop called Simple Simon and a similar one called Anika. Mrs Buttery and Ripleys remained faithful tenants in their respective rooms.

On Fridays there had long been a coffee drop-in  and this was extended in nineties to include soup and bread at reasonable prices. Service was carried out by people with learning disabilities from Newlands. Toc H also used the shop for their own promotions such as a photo exhibition Around the World in 80 Years June 1995 to celebrate the Movement’s 80th anniversary.

In 1990s many other groups still using the upstairs meeting room despite the tiny staircase. These included Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Overeaters. The Junior Covenantors or JuCos sometimes used the downstairs room on a Sunday.

The Christmas parties continued for years even when Hoddesdon merged with several other local units as Lea Valley branch and included other annual events such as a danceathons and Old-Time Dance that originated in Cuffley. Some of these parties continued with a new organisation after Toc H closed locally, and still take place today. Lea Valley branch closed 31 March 2010 thus finally ending Toc H’s Hoddesdon connection.

Sadly Toc H was in decline by the late 90s and not able to renew its membership in the changing times. Cash was also tight centrally and headquarters made some drastic and occasionally brutal decisions. The ancient house in Hoddesdon was eventually sold off in the early 2000s, and though Ripleys maintain a link with the past, the Toc H rooms are now a beauty salon and the artefacts went either to Talbot House in Poperinge or to the Toc H archive in Birmingham.

So to close this piece let us take a brief look at some of the people who were memorialised in the various rooms.

The two Cheshunt men mentioned above were

Charles Henry John Balcombe

Born in Bloomsbury, London in 1891, Balcombe enlisted at Hertford and was a Private in the 2nd Easy Yorks. He was killed near Ypres on 17th February 1915 and is commemorated on the Menin Gate

Frank Walter Bright

Born on Trafalgar Day – 21st October – 1891 in Cheshunt he became a nursery hand like his father. He joined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers as a Private and was killed at Neuve Chappelle on the 14th March 1915. He is buried in Dickebusch Old Military Cemetery.

Ernest Lawrence Caldecott

Born in Hoddesdon on 31st August 1874 to Henry, a wool agent, and his wife Elizabeth he grew up in the family home of Bridge House, High Road, Broxbourne. Educated at Oriel College, Oxford, he later served in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was a Major by 1916. He was awarded a DSO and retired as an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel.

He took a great part in public life and was a Churchwarden at Broxbourne Parish Church, near weher he lived at Roundfield House. A member of Toc H, he was elected chairman on 14th January 1927 but died of pneumonia just three days later on the 17th.

Robert Harold Beckh was born in London on New Year’s Day 1894 to Victor and Edith Beckh. By 1901 the family were living in Hoddesdon and Beckh was educated at the nearby Haileybury College at Hertford Heath from 1908-1913. Even at school his poetry prowess was recognised. On leaving school he went to Jesus College, Cambridge – with the intention of being ordained – but only managed one year before war broke out. Beckh volunteered with an old friend from Prep school days and joined the Royal Fusiliers (Public Schools Battalion) as a Private. He was then commissioned into the 12th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment in May 1915. After spending the next year in training he was finally posted to France in June 1916 but survived only until 15th August that year. Whi;lst on a four-man patrol from his trenches near Bertrancourt, France, Beckh, a second Lieutenant, and Private Sugarman were killed by enemy machine gun fire. His body was never recovered but was buried by German soldiers in the German extension of Marquillies Communal Cemetery. He is commemorated at the Cabaret-Rouge British cemetery in Souchez and, of course, in the chapel of the Broxbourne and Hoddesdon branch of Toc H and on their lamp.

A collection of his verse, Swallows in Storm and Sunlight, was published in 1917.


The good folk of Memories of Hoddesdon and Rye Park facebook page especially Steve Radford

Beryl Collins

All those former members of Toc H branches in Broxbourne, Hoddesdon, Cuffley, Goffs Oak and Lea Valley who turned the Toc H house into a Toc H home