In 1981 I sent two postcards by Watford photographer Gregg Couper to the Hertfordshire Countryside Readers’ Forum. One was of an impressive turn-of-the-century tea party with a difference: the participants were dolls, teddies and soft toys. In the other, the young owners, many wearing beautiful broderie Anglaise dresses and straw hats, appeared to be helping them enjoy the feast. I had purchased the cards at the Hertfordshire Postcard Collectors Club which met in Hatfield and was keen to know if any Hertfordshire Countryside readers could help to identify the local location.

My hopes were not high but, within a few days of publication of the magazine’s April issue, I received a letter from a Miss Marjorie James of 20 Upton Road, Watford. Not only did she recall the event in 1910, but she and her sister were among the children pictured. Of the three tallest girls on the extreme left (of the picture at the top of this page), Marjorie, then aged 10, was nearest to the camera; on her left was Eirene, Dr Francis and Mrs Edith Smith’s daughter, aged seven, of Walden House, Clarendon Road; and beside Eirene was Marjorie’s sister Mary, aged seven.

Watford Observer:

Watford dolls, teddies and soft toys' tea party, 1910

Marjorie indicated that the party was held in the garden of Widecombe in Park Avenue, Watford. The 13-room house had been built for the Irish-born Mr Robert Hobson, his wife Daisy and their family - three sons and a daughter Margaret, who was six when the tea party was held. Also in the household was a nurse, under-nurse, cook and parlour maid. Mr Hobson was an assistant in the British Museum and Mrs Hobson, according to Marjorie James, hosted ‘wonderful parties’.

Watford Observer:

St Mary's Church, published by 'Downer', October 10, 1855

The two then-elderly Miss James subsequently invited me to their house in Upton Road. As if the revelation about the postcards wasn’t enough, I was amazed to learn that they were grandchildren of Watford’s longest serving vicar, the Revd Richard Lee James of St Mary’s Church, Watford. Neither had married but Marjorie had an affinity with children, no doubt stemming from her service as foster mother in West Ashford, Kent during World War Two. When our daughter Laura was born in 1986, Marjorie took great interest in her and gave her a copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, her own favourite childhood book which she signed. A few years before, Mary had passed to me her 1926 handbook of St Mary’s Church. On an inside page, her grandfather was credited as having carved the stall-head in the chancel in 1871, which bears portraits of his two curates that year.

Watford Observer:

Miss James' Watford Parish Church handbook, 1926

Marjorie and Mary’s grandfather, Rev Richard Lee James, was born in London in 1827. At 19 years of age, he went up to Clare College Cambridge, gaining an LLB in 1852. During his studies, he was ordained deacon at Winchester in 1850 and priest in 1851. Between 1851 and 1852, he was curate at St John’s Church, Portsea, followed by two years as curate at Great and Little Kimble, Bucks. He obtained a BCL at Oxford in 1856 and, according to his alumni record, was vicar at St Mary’s Church, Watford, from 1855 until 1915, an astonishing 60 years. Rev James and his wife Alice had 12 children and lived at St Mary’s Vicarage, 116 High Street, with a governess, nurse and cook.

Watford Observer:

Rev Richard Lee James, 1855 & 1911. Picture: Charles Solomons

In 1871, Rev James initiated the exterior restoration and interior refitting of St Mary’s Church. Gothic revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott designed the refacing of the plaster exterior with flint and stone, adding battlements to the tower. Inside, his work continued with a font, choir stalls and a white stone reredos. The church was closed during the extensive work and a temporary tin-roofed church was erected in the churchyard. In 1915, Rev James and his wife retired to Tenby, South Wales. He died, aged 94, in Seaton, Devon.

Marjorie and Mary’s father Reginald had been born to the Rev James and his wife in 1870 and he became the first vicar of St John’s Church, Watford. He married Mary Garrett and they had four children, of whom Marjorie was the eldest and Mary was the second child. The family lived at Dunwick, 54 Upton Road with a governess, domestic nurse, cook and parlour maid. Their near neighbours included the well-known Watford grocer Henry Kingham who lived with his three spinster sisters and Walter Pearkes, draper, furniture dealer and remover.

Watford Observer:

St Mary's Vicarage. Picture: Frederick Downer c1905

I was honoured to have known Marjorie and Mary James; two very gracious Edwardian ladies. Marjorie’s wistful comments about the two postcards of the 1910 tea party in which they were pictured were: ‘Those were the days! Children enjoyed simple pleasures then’. Mary died in 1984, Marjorie in 1997.

Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.