‘We hear a great deal in these days about the ‘average man’, ‘the man in the street’ and ‘the little man’ …but rarely do we find one who may be pointed out as being of that character’. So began a short Gazette piece of 23rd November 1929.
It went on to claim it had found a perfect example. ‘There has passed away in Berkhamsted this week one known to many who was just an ordinary citizen of the town, of whom many would pass by without a second thought. He was however of the type to which we referred, a man who did his job well, a man who served his country nobly at the greatest and most severe time of her need, a man who may be said to have paid the greatest sacrifice of all because the terrible wounds received in that hell – France 1914-19 – left their mark and were at the least the main contributory cause of his death…’
‘Who was that man?’ the Gazette asks. It was Horace Fred Allen who was born in Chapel Street in 1893. His father, William, was employed as a carpenter working for Costin the boat builders. His hobby was painting the artwork which adorned the barges and their utensils.
Horace worked as a presser at the Mantle Factory (where Waitrose now stands) and in 1914 he married Annie Mills, a local girl, in the Primitive Methodist Church, which used to stand on the High Street near Park Street (now Domino’s Pizza).
They lived their entire married life in Back Lane, in one of the four cottages which were located between the butchers shop in the High Street and the slaughterhouse behind in the Wilderness. Their cottage was almost directly in line with the alleyway which still links the High Street with Back Lane (later renamed Church Lane).
Horace served in the Royal West Kent Regiment in World War 1. He signed up on 11 Dec 1915. He was placed on the Army reserves and was mobilized on 7 April 1916. His wife would have been pregnant at the time because their first child was born on 17 May 1916. In early 1918, as he was climbing onto a lorry, a shell landed close by and shrapnel from the explosion entered his head. This injury was to cause him much pain and distress for the rest of his life, with fragments of metal remaining embedded in his skull until his death.
A medical board confirmed he was no longer physically fit for war on 23 Mar 1918 and he was discharged on 13 Apr 1918. He was given a silver badge to prove that he was no longer fit for service.
He was never able to work in full time employment again, although he undertook small task work where he could, working for example as a gardener for the Barratts (who lived in a house with a large garden in the High Street (on the site of the sports shop). He also helped with the nets at Berkhamsted Town Football Club, one of his proudest moments being when Stanley Rous (there is a supporters’ stand named after him at Watford Football Club) visited his home in Back Lane as part of a post match delegation from the club.
Horace endured several periods of hospitalisation and wore a leather patch in public, to conceal the shrapnel entry wound on his forehead. He died in November 1929 (eight years too late to be commemorated by an official War Grave) and is buried at the top end of Rectory Lane Cemetery. A simple but elegant wooden cross in the military style instead marks the grave. It was made by his eldest son, Leslie, when, aged 14, he started his apprenticeship as a joiner at Messrs. W. Key & Son.
The Gazette’s memoir ends with a poignant, timeless tribute to this ‘average’ man: ‘Just a private soldier, just a plain citizen, just a lover, and helper of clean sport, just a true husband, just a good father, just Horace Allen, of Back Lane, Berkhamsted. But just a man.’
His widow Annie worked tirelessly to raise three boys and a girl on her own through the difficult times of the 1930s and beyond. Horace had received a pension, but it is assumed this stopped when he died and for a long time Annie was denied a war widows pension, and it was only after many appeals and much campaigning, mainly by the Royal British Legion, that she eventually received a small amount. Finding domestic work where she could, among her primary employers were Brandon’s furniture shop, Berkhamsted Boys Grammar school, and the Barratt’s. Among Annie’s many tasks, was as a team member of volunteers who would periodically scrub clean the floor of St Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted.