Captain W E Johns

Creator of Biggles

By Jennifer Ayto

The plaque on the side of 41, Cowbridge
Geoff Cordingley
Old cottages on Cowbridge near the bridge over the River Beane, towards the end of 19th century
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Looking from the Hartham Lane end of Cowbridge before the United Reformed Church was built
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Mr Elsden
Cowbridge House. The only remaining part of this house is Hartham Chapel at the end of Hartham Lane
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Mr Elsden

February 2013 will mark 120 years since the birth of Captain W. E. Johns, the creator of the flying ace, James Bigglesworth, known as Biggles. He spent his childhood in Hertford (a blue plaque commemorates this in Cowbridge) and went to the Richard Hale school.

The 1901 census recorded the family at 41 Cowbridge.  Richard W E Johns, the head of household, was described as a “Working Tailor Shopkeeper”, aged 34, born in Okehampton, Devon , his wife, Elizabeth, aged 32, was born in Hertford as were their two sons, William Earl and Russell.  The household also included Alice Hill, a general servant. Elizabeth was the daughter of William A. Earl who can be found on the same census at 9 Elton Road, Hertford, a Butcher, and like her husband, not born in the county, he came from Huntingdonshire.  The household comprised his wife, three daughters, his son, Edgar aged 20 (also a butcher) and a widowed visitor, Hannah Hawkins.  Another son, Ernest, a butcher’s assistant, lived with his wife, born in Norfolk, near the Johns family at 37 Cowbridge.

Looking at their other neighbours, several were not born in Hertford.  David Coston, a Carpenter at 37 Cowbridge was born in Hampshire, as were his three children; his wife came from York.  Andrew Gray at 10 Cowbridge, an Architects Assistant was born in Scotland and John Rolls, running the Great Northern Tavern with his wife and niece acting as Barmaid was born in Wiltshire.  There was another inn in Cowbridge, the Bell and Crown.  This was home to Walter Frogley, described as a “Licensed Victualler and Printers Pressman”.  In this case his wife, Carrie, was enumerated without an occupation but as Walter had two jobs and their daughter, Minnie, was “Assistant in Bar” it would be a reasonable assumption that his wife was also involved.  Another wife who was undoubtedly involved in a family business was that of Frederick Fisher at 5d Cowbridge.  She was recorded without occupation.  No doubt the fact that the household included their three sons and two grandchildren gave her plenty to do and as Frederick was enumerated as “Carrier and General Shopkeeper”, it must have fallen to her to mind the shop in his absence.

Women were recorded with a variety of occupations.  At 27b, Alfred Miles was a Gravel pit labourer; his wife, Mary, was a charwoman as was George Field’s wife at number 27a.  As both households included four children, paid employment for the wife was a necessity and this would certainly be the case at number 11a where there were six children.  Joseph Hill was enumerated as “Bricklayer Journeyman Confirmed Rheumatics”.  His wife was a laundress; his daughter a charwoman. At the other end of the scale, Louisa J Sauerbrey, a widow at number 6 was a Teacher of Singing living with her sister and a general servant.  Hannah Wyman, another widow at number 14 also had a servant but she and her daughter were described as living on their own means.  Cowbridge also contained the Inland Revenue Office at number 8.  The head of the household was Loxley Ford, a Coach builder but his wife, Louisa was “Housekeeper in Charge of Office”.

The occupations recorded demonstrate a mixture of the traditional and the new.  Local trades were represented by Harry and Alphonse Warren, sons of Samuel Warren (a “Gardeners Labourer”) at number 27c.  They were both Oil Mill Cake Trimmers and again at number 11b where Edward Foster was a “Maltster”.   At number 25 John Green was described as a “Writer and grainer” (a sign writer and painter making soft wood look better with a grain finish) and at number 13 Jesse Pluck was a “Cabinet maker”.  The household consisted of his wife and Harriet Calway, a boarder, an “Upholsterer”.  At 11c Timothy Newland was a “Coachsmith”.  Horses were still an important means of transport.   Albert Hart at number 31 was an Ostler but the contrast between old and new can be seen at number 27d where the widowed Charlotte Currell lived with her two sons.  George was a “Horse slaughterer”; Alfred a “Carman Oil company” and at  number 17 where William Nicholls was a “Bricklayers labourer”, his wife, Ellen a “Cook”, one son, Charles, “Assistant Groom Livery Stables;  the other son, William, a  “Conductor on bus”.  The railway makes an appearance with Dick Bottoms, “Fireman on Railway Engine”, a boarder with Caroline Chapman and her daughter at number 11d.

By the time of the 1911 census, William Earl Johns had embarked on his career and did not live in Hertford.  His parents were still at 41 Cowbridge with his uncle, Ernest Earl, with his family at number 37, still carrying out their trades of Tailor and Butcher respectively.

This page was added on 23/01/2013.

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  • HI Emma
    Sorry for the delay. I have not yet found a connection to the brewers Nicholls and my family. They did work as malsters in Hertford and in Ware in the winter and brickmakers in the summer but I haven’t yet connected us to the other Nicholls. Fingers crossed!!

    By Jacquelin Robinson (05/03/2020)
  • Jackie, it would be great to see/hear more about Russell John’s photograph/postcard of Charles William Nicholls.  Russell was at Hertford Grammar School at the same time as a William Henry Nicholls (jnr), of West Street, although William was a couple of years younger than Russell.  Was William, whose father was a brewer and also called William Henry Nicholls, a relative of Thomas and Charles?

    By emma (07/10/2015)
  • Again, by accident looking at my family tree, concerning the comment above, I noticed on the back of a postcard sent to my great grand uncle Thomas Nicholls who is remembered on the Hertford War Memorial from WW1 and who lived in Cowbridge a reference to ‘young Johns’ who took a photo of, I think, my grandfather Charles William Nicholls. He was Thomas’s nephew and it was sent to him while he was posted somewhere, probably about early 1917.


    Jackie Robinson

    By Jackie Robinson (02/11/2014)
  • I have just found this article by accident whilst looking for information about my great grandfather’s occupation of Assistant Groom/ Livery Stables in Bengeo. My ancestors are listed as living at number 17 Cowbridge and W E John’s family at 41 Cowbridge. It was nice to see that the Nicholls got a mention too. Thank you.

    By Jackie Robinson (31/10/2014)
  • Russell Johns was a professional photographer, following his father Richard’s interest in photography. Does anyone know if Russell and/or Richard’s photos have been archived, or if Russell’s grandson (name withheld) would be willing to share what must be an outstanding record of Hertford in the early 20th century. 

    By emma (21/10/2014)
  • Very interesting; who knew about a “grainer”? I am surprised how many people were from other areas – I thought few folk travelled far at the time? I am particularly intrigued to read this, as WE Johns is one of my favourite authors. 1901 – so near and yet so far to us now.

    By Shirley Jay (25/03/2013)