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Drama at Elstree

It is the home of the English film, and if it would put a thrilling story on the screen it needs only to turn its cameras on to the story of Elstree. Along old Watling Street came stones from the Roman city of Sulloniacae for building the old church, but, alas, it has been rebuilt, facing a row of black and white cottages in the narrow street. The 6OO-yearold gargoyles are back on the walls, and the pillars of the south arcade bear the mark of the 15th century mason, but mostly the church built with Roman stones has been made new. It has an elaborate iron chancel screen designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield, and has something which will greatly interest the traveller who is sorry to have lost the old church. It is a collection of fragments kept in a case here, so old that they carry our thoughts back to St Paul, for they are from the temple of Diana of the Ephesians, expressive little heads and some vases, one of them marked with the bee we find stamped on Ephesian coins by silversmiths like Demetrius, who, fearing that his trade in idols was threatened, roused the people of Ephesus against Paul so that they cried out for two hours, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.

It is in the graveyard that we come upon the drama so appropriate for an Elstree film. Here lie Martha Ray and William Weare, whose deaths stirred all England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Martha Ray was an attractive young woman, elegant and musical, who became the mistress of the fourth Earl Sandwich, who lived at Hinchingbrooke, Huntingdon. There a young soldier named James Hackman met her one day in 1772 and fell in love with her, although she had given the earl several children. Hackman became a lieutenant, but eventually left the army to become a priest, yet for six or seven years he paid his unwanted attentions to Martha Ray, in spite of her refusing his offer of marriage. One night he waited for her outside Covent Garden Theatre and shot her dead, being less fortunate in his attempt to kill himself. Within a week she was buried in the chancel here, and within a fortnight he was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn, Dr Johnson's friend Boswell riding with him in the coach.

William Weare was a Solicitor who had been accused of cheating by John Thurtell, a ne'er-do.-well son of the Mayor of Norwich, who, having failed in his father's business, became the associate of a low sporting set and was well known as a boxer. George Borrow mentions him in Lavengro. He opened a tavern in London, and managed to get 2000 insurance for a mysterious fire, and began gambling it away. He lost heavily to William Weare, but after a quarrel and charges of trickery they became reconciled, and Thurtell arranged to pick up Weare and take him to the house of a friend at Elstree for a shooting party. Thurtell drove him in his gig, and between Elstree and St Albans suddenly took out a pistol and shot him, then turning him and cutting his throat. He threw the body into a swamp two miles away, but he had two associates who turned king's evidence, and in spite of an eloquent appeal before the judges he was hanged. The case attracted wide interest. Even Hazlitt was impressed by Thurtell's rhetoric, and Sir Walter Scott made a commonplace book of the newspaper accounts and visited the scene of the murder. Bulwer Lytton is said to have used some incidents of the crime in one of his novels, a drama based on it was given with success in the Surrey Theatre, and a ballad writer made 500 out of it.

On the church porch are the old arms of St Albans Abbey, whose towers may be seen from one end of the village, while Aldenham reservoir gleams 200 feet below to the west. Also within sight from here is Brockley Hill, where the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital stands on what was a battlefield 20 centuries ago. An obelisk has been put up to mark the site of this historic event, for it was here, in the second Roman invasion of 54 BC, that our British ancestors checked the Roman advance on what is now St Albans, a victory of much significance in itself, and of great interest because the British tribesmen were led by Cassivellaunus, who by virtue of this triumph became the first Briton living in these islands to have his name in history. We hear of him in the writings of Julius Caesar, and we know that his people were warlike and powerful, and that his Kingdom was in the area now known as Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, and Hertfordshire.

Elstree has become the chief centre of British films. A mile and a half beyond Elstree station lies Boreham Wood, where stand the great studios. The trek of the f ilm men to Elstree began in 1913, in the days when a good natural light was essential for film work. The high position of the village gives it a clear atmosphere. We found still standing a small brick studio built in that year, now entirely dwarfed by the gigantic white structures with green roofs built the modern films. These can be seen beyond the shops and houses on the Shenley road, but on the main road itself lies the group of iron buildings which maintain a steady output of film plays, giving employment to hundreds. When a big production is in hand, calling for crowds, these normally quiet roads are scenes of great excitement. The passer-by may be intrigued to see the funnels of an Atlantic liner over the roofs of houses here, or a medieval castle suddenly appearing on the skyline; odd it is suddenly to pass to the side or the back of such a place and realise that it is all unreal. We are in the land of make-believe.

Extract from Hertfordshire; London's Country Neighbour by Arthur Mee.

From the series The King's England.

Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1939.