Tuesday, June 19, 2012

O'Connorville and after by Ian Walker (New Society 7 May 1981)

Today's choice of Ian Walker article is for no other reason that the fact that one of my favourite history books is Stan Shipley's 'Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London', and O'Connorville ties in with that.
 O'Connorville and after

Slowly, the grey Cortina bumps through the narrow lanes of this settlement near Rickmansworth, Herts, which was hailed as the holy land when the first workers arrived from the industrial north on May Day 1847. On that day Fergus O'Connor, the Chartist leader who gave his name to the community - O'Connorville it was called - welcomed his pioneers to their plots of land. "Damn the factory bell." he said.

"Costs a bomb to get a place down here," says the taxi driver, who wears a back peaked cap to make himself look like a chauffeur. I suppose that sort of thing goes down well in Heronsgate, as O'Connorville was re-named after it was closed down by an act of parliament after financial collapse, and auctioned off at the Swan in Rickmansworth in May 1857.

The roads are named after the towns from which the first 35 settlers came - Stockport and Bradford. Halifax and Nottingham. "Costs a bomb," continues the taxi driver, "because, as you can see, you're isolated from everybody."

Postwar redbrick castles with gravel driveways and bungalows with picture windows, stand among the original one and two-storey cottages. These all have the logogram of the Chartist Land Cooperative, the lower half of a capital H, mounted in a block under the gables.

"All the famous people live down here," says the taxi driver. "Mickey Finn. His wife sang Pussyfoot, the song for Europe. And another pop star who lives here is Julie Felix. The sons of Jack Jackson, the band leader. Remember him? They live here too."

Stuck to some of the gateposts are small posters showing Heronsgate, a heart, shot through with the M25. A motorway may be coming through.

The driver pulls a faded brown pamphlet out of the glove compartment. It is a programme for the Lillie Langtry Ball, held on 16 March 1979, a benefit for the local campaign against the extension of the north orbital of the M25. This is planned to run through Ladywalk Wood, on the edge of Heronsgate, but there was an inquiry which is publishing its findings in September.

A woman on horseback comes towards us. The mock-chauffeur puts the Cortina into reverse.

The taxi driver, who has worked hard for his tip this slow Tuesday, drops me outside the local pub, the Land of Liberty. The original sign was fatally damaged by a passing truck. It showed a forlorn Chartist, pointing to a teetotal badge on his lapel, and standing next to a beaming beer-swiller. The new sign shows two top-hatted men before a crowd. One holds a handbill saying, "Vote by ballot."

The Land of Liberty is the sort of pub where shorts sell better than beer, where tables can be reserved for lunch, and where the landlady can recommend the Stilton. "What about the Brie?" inquires the pinstriped stockbroker on my left at the bar. "Not splendid," she replies. He'll go with the Stilton.

The landlord, who says the pub is "about 400 years old," says that the Chartists used to sneak over here for a quick pint after their work was done. "They were Quakers, you see, weren't officially allowed to drink."

The settlers, anyway, cannot have had many pennies left over for the drink. Used to working in mines and mills and factories, they found it hard to make a living from their plots of two, three and four acres. When they ran out of the £87 per acre they were first given for tools and seed, most of them sold off the tilling rights and were forced on to the parish relief. Others returned to the cities. A Poor Law commissioner, after an inspection of O'Connorville in 1848, reported that matters were made worse by the women not knowing how to bake their own bread.

Partly hidden by a foursome at the bar is an engraving of the plans for the utopian community. It was one of four such estates bought by O'Connor to make the workers "independent of the grinding capitalist." I order another light ale. The landlord tells me that Burgess, Philby and Maclean drank in here. "Used to a spy school. Over the road," he says.

I walk the 100 yards down the road to Heronsgate itself. Aeroplanes overhead, descending to nearby Heathrow, and the low hum of traffic on the existing north orbital a mile away, complicate the Disneyland English village ambience.

A man kills the engine on his lawn mower as I walk across to him. No, he's just the gardener, he says: he doesn't know anything about Heronsgate or the M25. I'll have to wait till his gaffer gets home. He yanks the mower back to life.

I ring the bell at one of the original dwellings, called Chartist Cottage. Mrs Nockolds holds the door open: "You want to speak to Mrs Jackson down the bottom, or Mr McCullough up the top," she says.

Further along the lane, two old women stand talking to each other. A third, weeding the hedgerow, joins in the conversation now and again. "Had a heck of a lot more burglaries since we've had the motorway," says one, who has lived in Heronsgate 45 years. Robbers, she says, can nip straight down the motorway to Heathrow. There's a plane waiting. And Bob's your uncle.

It starts raining, and the group splits up. I walk along with a woman who has lived here 53 years. Her dog looks for action in the hedgerows. I suppose Heronsgate hasn't changed much in 53 years?

"No. That's the beauty of it. It's unique. It's like a village, and we cherish it . . . Listen," she says, stopping in her tracks, raising a finger to her ear. "Cuckoo."

The schoolhouse, at the bottom of the lane, near Ladywalk Wood, was built by the Chartists. Later it became a prep-school. Now it is the private residence of the Jackson brothers (sons of the band leader) and their families. I walk down the driveway, past the tennis court in the front garden.

Vesna, the Swedish au-pair, opens the door and invites me in. Mr Jackson is out, but I can wait and have a cup of coffee. Vesna has worked here for eight months. She says it's lovely, and everyone who comes here thinks it's lovely. But doesn't it get a bit boring? She smiles and says, yes, it can get a bit boring.

We are sitting in this huge kitchen, which Vesna says used to be a classroom. Out of the back window, long lawns blur into fields. No other buildings in sight. Hamish, a small boy in a green uniform, sups his tea and keeps asking for biscuits. Vesna doesn't have the kind he likes, so he tells her to go fecth the Easter egg from the other room.

Mr Jackson, who runs a recording studio in Rickmansworth, comes in and shakes my hand, then shows me the door. His wife was on the north orbital committee and she would call me tomorrow, maybe, though she was very busy. Maybe I could call her? No, she's a Cordon Bleu chef, very busy. "Even I can't call her," he says, before shutting the back door.

Walking back, I meet Harold Nockolds, who has lived in Chartist Cottage ever since the war. His wife is in the garden, weeding in the rain. "This cottage," he says, pointing at his property, "was the very first one out the hat when the draw was made at Manchester town hall. Plot 25." That draw - for Chartist members who had subscribed for shares at the rate of threepence, sixpence and a shilling a week - was in April 1846.

Nockolds was the motor racing correspondent for The Times before the war and, afterwards, he became motoring correspondent, too. He was also editor of the special supplement, did one on the ascent of Everest and another on the death of King George VI. He finished his career as deputy chairman of IPC Transport Press, and retired in 1972.

When he bought this place it was called Hollycroft. And there was a bit of a commotion, he says, when he changed it to Chartist Cottage. Some residents thought he was claiming exclusive rights to the settlement's history. He laughs. It's raining hard now.
A hundred years, a thousand years,
We're marching on the road,
The going isn't easy, yet
We've got a heavy load.
That was the chorus of the Chartist hymn, sung on all the protest marches. Fergus O'Connor was certified insane in 1852, and put in Dr Tuke's Asylum in Chiswick. Over 50,000 attended his funeral in 1855.

A fading poster for some Julie Felix poster is stuck up by the bus stop. A woman in a blue Mercedes, cigarillo limp in her mouth, sweeps out of Heronsgate. She gives me the kind of look that people who drive Mercedes give to people who wait at bus stops.
7 May 1981

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