Lydia Lightfoot was born in St Albans in 1875. Her father was George Lightfoot born in 1844 in St Albans and christened at St Peter Church. He started out as a labourer to a bricklayer eventually becoming a builder in later years. In 1872 he married Harriett Rachel George and they lived at 18 Albert Street from around 1873. Lydia had a brother Harry George Lightfoot who also became a bricklayer and carpenter, and two sisters, Harriet A.R and Ann. The family moved to 55 Holywell Hill sometime before 1901 as they appear there in the census of that year. George died in 1903. The mother, Lydia, Ann and Harry are living at 55 Holywell Hill in the 1911 Census. Lydia is 36 and her occupation was given as a dressmaker. Her sister Ann was a shopkeeper and confectioner. Later this became a tea shop which she ran with Ann. This closed sometime in the 1920s. Lydia then moved to number 61 in a row of houses which can be seen in the adjacent photo along with the shop. These house were probably built by her brother, Harry and which she later owned and rented out. The following is a memory recalled by Lindsay Seagrim-Trinder:
“My parents met in Ceylon during World War II; my father was serving with the RAF and my mother with the WRNS. Upon returning to England they were married in my mother’s home here in South Wales but afterwards returned to live in my father’s home in Croydon, where I was born. My father resumed his university studies which had been interrupted by the War; he had left school and started as an apprentice pharmacist with Boots Chemists before the outbreak of the War and had volunteered immediately for RAF Service. As a family we moved to St Albans in 1952 so that my father could take up an appointment to run the Dispensary at A.C. Wells, the Chemist at 10-12 High Street, (under the proprietorship of Mr Leo Tew) for a wage of £7 per week. The advantage of this job was that a house came with it – at 65 Holywell Hill, for the rental of £1 per week. The house was owned by Miss Lydia Lightfoot who lived at 61 Holywell Hill but owned several other properties around the city. Her rentals were all handled by the Estate Agent N.E. Hall & Sons, and I recall that my parents, for some still-unknown reason, seemed to live in mortal fear of Mr. Hall!
When I first became aware of Miss Lightfoot she seemed to be a very, very old lady indeed. She must have been in her late 70s at the time and of course a person of that age in the mid-1950s was vastly different from a person of equivalent age today! She never left her house, as far as I remember, except on Sunday mornings when Mr. Hall would call on her and take her to Church in his gleaming silver Daimler; Miss Lightfoot was a Christian Scientist but I have no idea where their place of worship was located. Watching from our front-room bay window as Mr, Hall helped her get into his car I could not help but wish that my father could own such a car one day! At home Miss Lightfoot always seemed to wear black with a Hessian apron over the front of her clothing. It used to be fascinating to visit her house, which I did from time to time with my mother. I only ever saw the scullery and living-room during Miss Lightfoot’s lifetime although I did have the opportunity to explore the whole house after her death. There was no electricity in the house, just gas for lighting and cooking, and in the little living room there was a small black cast-iron side-oven and grate, in which there always seemed to be a fire; Mr Wilkins, who lived at number 63, between Miss Lightfoot’s house and ours, owned an old black and white tom-cat called Panda, who more often than not could be found curled up fast asleep in front of Miss Lightfoot’s fire! From somewhere behind the door into the hall could be heard a cuckoo clock; I did see it on several occasions, and recall my mother saying that she had been promised it by Miss Lightfoot on her death. The house had no bathroom and only an outside toilet; I always tried to make an excuse to visit the toilet because the walls were papered with old pages of the Herts Advertiser which were fascinating to read. On one page there was a photograph and an article about the Queen’s visit to the Abbey in 1957 to distribute Maundy Money. There was a sizeable garden behind Miss Lightfoot’s house and it was kept in order by her gardener/handyman Mr Burton, whom she referred to as just Burton but we as a family always called him Mr Burton. I’ve no idea where he lived. The garden contained a well, which was covered in boards and I was told never to go near it! I seem to recall that apart from the apple trees there was a profusion of bluebells, grape hyacinths and forget-me-nots growing in the garden, all of which I love today – and there was a large greenhouse, but I don’t remember what was in it. The pathways I seem to remember were mostly slate slabs, edged in beautiful Victorian scroll-edged slate. Sometimes Mr Burton would call at our house with little gifts from Miss Lightfoot, usually apples from her garden or a pot of jam or a packet of biscuits or cakes. Miss Lightfoot was also very generous towards the great number of children who seemed to call regularly at her house after school and at weekends. Hanging outside her back door was an old-fashioned bell – I often used to hear it “clang”, and going into my own garden would see her standing on her doorstep talking to whoever was there; she would give out apples or pears or sometimes a Kit-Kat to her child-visitors. My parents told me that I was NEVER to go to her house and ask for anything – but I do remember doing so on at least one occasion when I was with friends who often visited her.
Miss Lightfoot inevitably became quite infirm and unable to care for herself and her sister came to live in and look after her. I recall meeting her on a number of occasions but all-too-soon Miss Lightfoot had to leave her home and take up residence in a St Albans nursing home – but I have no idea which one. It was at this time that some amusing stories emerged; how they reached my mother’s ears, to be relayed to me, I have no idea for I don’t suppose my mother ever visited her – perhaps Mr Wilkins did, as he was obviously very fond of Miss Lightfoot and they had been neighbours for many years, or maybe my mother knew a member of staff who worked in the particular home. Apparently, when asked why she had never married, Miss Lightfoot had replied, “I went to the pictures with a soldier during the Great War, and that was QUITE enough”. On another occasion I recall being told the story that on arrival at the nursing home Miss Lightfoot had been invited to take a bath, and she had said, “I have not had a bath since 1922 and I am certainly not going to have one now!” I recall two stories related by my father – but I did not learn of them until many years after Miss Lightfoot’s death. Miss Lightfoot’s brother Harry had been a builder and had built the row of houses numbering 61-67 Holywell Hill, completing them in about 1910. According to Mr Wilkins, when Harry was mixing sand and cement to lay the bricks he would sweep up the sand off the road which had been put there to give traction to the wheels of the horse-drawn carts and coaches going up Holywell Hill, and use it in his mortar mix! On another occasion Miss Lightfoot had told my father about an accident involving a coach which was out of control and coming down the hill at great speed. It had crashed into the front of the tea-shop which Miss Lightfoot ran with her sister, and as Miss Lightfoot said, “They had to shoot the horses”.
I remember the night in early 1963 that we were sitting at home in our kitchen when there came a knock at the back door. It was Mr. Wilkins from next-door, who had come to tell my parents that Miss Lightfoot had passed away at the age of 88 years. I recall him drinking tea and trying to hold back tears; it must have been a sad time for him because he, as well as his late wife (whom I never knew) had been neighbours of Miss Lightfoot probably since the inter-war years. Mr Wilkins passed away only a couple of years afterwards, I remember hearing that in her Will it was Miss Lightfoot’s wish that all her tenants be excused payment of one week’s rent. Miss Lightfoot’s house was purchased by a man called Mr Payne who lived at number 5 Holywell Hill, a house just down from the Peahen. I don’t recall now how it came about but one day while Mr Payne was down at the house doing some work I received the invitation to go inside the house and explore. I certainly don’t recall the occasion of house being emptied of all the contents but it could so easily have happened during the daytime when I was at school. The house was built very much on the lines of our own house except that ours had no access to an attic-space. Miss Lightfoot’s house had a little rickety staircase up to an attic room where sat a big old Victorian cast-iron bath – however I have no idea why it was there because there were no taps and no waste-pipe and it obviously could not be used – what a mystery that was! To explore the old tea-shop was an unexpected delight. It had closed at the end of the 1920s although an old neighbour had told me that during World War II it had briefly been a bakery and a newsagents. All the old chairs and tables were still there, plus the counter, and a magnificent old cash-register still showing the price of a long-ago purchase! Can you imagine my mother’s disappointment, on going to the house to collect the promised cuckoo clock, to be told by Mr Payne, “I’m sorry I put it on the bonfire!””