Lost world of the Ovaltineys


ON the train to London last week (please don’t go there unless you really have no alternative) I passed this scene in Hertfordshire:

Here is the house in close-up (I know it’s not brilliant, but considering it was taken through the carriage window at 125mph I am quite pleased with it).

Years ago there used to be a big sign in the field to the effect that this was the Ovaltine Farm. That took me back . . .

Ovaltine, based on malt extract, was invented in 1865 by a Swiss chemist, Dr Georg Wander, to promote the nutritional value of barley malt. It arrived in Britain in 1909 and a factory was built in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. The business expanded rapidly and from the 1920s Horace Bury of the advertising agency Saward Baker & Co created Ovaltine advertisements incorporating slogans about health, country, family, quality and sleep. His masterpiece was the League of Ovaltineys, a club for children founded in 1935 which gained more than 5million members in its first four years. Youngsters applied for membership using forms found inside Ovaltine tins. They were sent a badge, a rule book, secret code and a list of rules that all members needed to abide by. The club had its own radio show, Ovaltineys’ Concert Party, with this brilliant theme tune.

It went out from 5.30 to 6pm on a Sunday from Radio Luxembourg (this was in the days before TV) and included singing, secret codes, puzzles and stories. It featured music hall comedian Harry Hemsley doing a variation on his popular stage show act, where he would imitate children’s voices. Hemsley played all the members of the Fortune family including the father, six-year-old Johnny, five-year old Elsie, four-year-old Winnie and baby Horace. Winnie was the interpreter of Horace’s gibberish, with the catchphrase: ‘What did Horace say, Winnie?’ Sadly I can’t find a recording of that phrase, but here is Hemsley as the father struggling to tell a story to Winnie.

Here is a great video about the radio show with lots of interesting details.

(Incidentally all the references I can find put the apostrophe thus: ‘Ovaltiney’s Concert Party’, as if there was only one Ovaltiney. I simply could not bring myself to put that.)

Anyway, back to Ovaltine (which I have to admit I don’t particularly care for). The business expanded throughout the 1920s and the owner, Georg Wander’s son Albert, was concerned that his suppliers might not be able to keep pace with the company’s demand for barley, eggs and milk. In 1929 he bought two farms close to the factory, Numbers Farm at Kings Langley and Parsonage Farm at Abbots Langley, with a total of 450 acres. They were renamed respectively the Model Poultry Farm and Model Dairy Farm, and rebuilt in imitation of the farm built by King Louis XVI for Queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The farms, which featured heavily in Ovaltine advertising, were acknowledged to be probably the best in the world of their type. The Poultry Farm housed a laying flock of around 50,000 White Leghorn pullets. It featured a unique rearing house built in the form of a horseshoe to catch as much sunlight as possible. The design meant that no artificial heat was needed and lighting, ventilation and cleanliness were of a high standard.

By the mid-20th century, Ovaltine was a national icon. It was the official drink of the 1948 London Olympics, with 25,000 cups served to the competitors, and was carried up Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. The company employed close to 1,500 at Kings Langley, but the farms were becoming less important. The availability of ingredients was no longer a concern while larger farms could produce them more cheaply, and eventually the farm buildings became disused and neglected. In the early 1990s, Parsonage Farm (the dairy farm) was converted to residential use and is now known as Antoinette Court. The Model Poultry Farm, which is the building in my photographs, is now the HQ of the renewable energy company RES. (I can find only one up-to-date picture, on the company’s website, showing a giant wind turbine looming over it. The website has interesting details about the conversion work.) The Kings Langley factory closed in 2002 and was turned into flats, with the art deco façade retained.

The facade of the former Ovaltine Factory, Ovaltine Drive, WD4 (2) by Mike Quinn, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ovaltine, now owned by Associated British Foods, is still produced in Switzerland and has factories in Thailand, China and Australia. It is sold in more than 100 countries.

To end on a cheery note, here are the Ovaltineys with Happy Days Are Here Again.

With acknowledgements to Kings Langley Local History & Museum SocietyThree Rivers Museum and RES Technologies


LAST week I spotted this box of ‘mixed squash’ in Morrison’s in Great Harwood, a few miles from us.

I thought these gorgeous things were gourds and not meant for eating, but for decoration. From what I have read, technically you can eat them but it isn’t worth the trouble because they have hard, tough skins and the small amount of flesh tastes of nothing. The best I can find out is that they won’t poison you. I don’t know if I have got all this right, but I hope shoppers didn’t think these were like butternut squash because they would probably have been disappointed.


Sheep of the Week

The Hill Radnor has unusual colouring, with a tan or grey face. Here are three rams (they usually have horns):

Here is a ewe (they never have horns):

And here are a couple of lambs:

I think these are lovely looking sheep, and I am most grateful to David Williams of Trawscoed Farm for allowing me to use pictures from his Facebook page. 

The breed was developed over the years to suit the Radnor Hills in mid-Wales, an area which was inhabited in the Bronze Age, and is probably typical of the old Welsh tan-faced sheep that used to roam the hills. Reference was being made to the breed by 1911 and a breed society was formed in 1949. Traditionally, the Hill Radnor was native to the Welsh counties of Radnorshire, Breconshire, Monmouthshire, crossing over the border into Herefordshire. It was badly hit by the foot and mouth cull of 2001 as the Welsh and English borders were particularly affected. However there is renewed interest in the breed and new flocks are being established further afield.

The Hill Radnor is heavy for a hill sheep, and ewes have an extremely docile temperament, unusual in hill breeds. (The Hill Radnor Flock Book Society says that this characteristic makes them ideal for young handlers at agricultural shows.)They are hardy and are good foragers. For this reason they are used for conservation grazing by wildlife trusts around the country.

Here is a video of a lamb enjoying a hearty feed.

You can find out more on The Hill Radnor Flock Book Society website, which has lots more pictures.


Wheels of the Week

Continuing our series on steam locomotives by TCW writer JOHN ELLWOOD. This is Part Six; you can read the previous parts by clicking on the numbers: 1,  2,  3,   and 5. 

THE transition from steam to diesel could have been worse. The North West of England became the last refuge for my favourite type of locomotion. 

As express engines (‘namers’) became redundant my interest in trainspotting waned and my final underlinings in my summer 1961 edition of Ian Allen’s British Railways Locomotives abc would have been in 1965.

The last of the wonderful Stanier Coronation Pacifics had been withdrawn in 1964 but there was some compensation for Lancashire spotters with the arrival of an increasing number of Britannia Class 7 Standard Pacific locomotives reallocated to the area from elsewhere. Inevitably with sheds being closed and the responsibility to clean engines a distant memory, most of the Class ended their days in a sad state without nameplates. Fortunately two members of the Class, 70000 Britannia and 70013 Oliver Cromwell survive. I am pleased to say that when at University I gave ten shillings of my student grant to the appeal for £3,000 to save Britannia from becoming razor blades and garden implements. Their close relation, the unique Class 8 Standard Pacific Duke of Gloucester, https://www.theduke.uk.com also survived by the skin of its connecting rods and it is likely to be returning to the main line in the near future.

Members of the Class occasionally made their way to Fleetwood and my friend Howard took this great shot of 70024 Vulcan as it rested in the sheds. 

Because diesel locomotives and railcars caused the decline of steam I was never a fan, but I did record the names of the 26 English Electric Type 40s when I saw them and the railcars had the advantage of great views of oncoming trains when the driver did not pull down the cab blind.

By the time of the closure of Fleetwood’s sheds in February 1966, I was a very occasional visitor. The glory days of steam were long gone and I had ‘O’ levels, sport and girls to occupy my mind.

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