Until the 1920s, almost nothing was known about ancient Baldock. In 1723, some Roman pottery and coins were discovered close to the Great North Road, while in 1865 an iron lamp holder was found near the Icknield Way. More and more coins were reported from the town, particularly from Walls Field, but it was not until the spring of 1925 that the significance of the site was finally appreciated.
On Easter Tuesday that year, William Percival Westell, curator of the recently-established Letchworth Museum, began excavating a cemetery in Walls Field. It was brought to his attention by William Hart, who farmed the field and who had discovered large pieces of ancient pottery after steam ploughing for the first time. Westell set about investigating other parts of Walls Field, where he found a rubbish pit, a ditch, cobbled surfaces, foundations and a well. He correctly recognised the importance of these discoveries and suggested that Walls Field was the site of a Roman town.
According to one of Westell’s excavation team, J Peat Young,
“Several weeks after the discovery we explored a small portion of the land which we knew to be a Roman cemetery… Some days we got nothing, at other times we uncovered many beautiful examples of Roman pottery, and handed them out of the trench so quickly that those who were making the records had scarcely time to write down the necessary particulars.”
By 21 May, they had recovered over 200 vessels belonging to at least 23 separate cremation burials and a number of skeletons. By 1930, 320 cremations had been excavated.
Percival Westell was very much a man of his time. Born in St Albans in 1874, he was an early settler at Letchworth, moving there in 1907 as Natural Science editor for J M Dent & Sons. In 1908, he helped to found the Letchworth and District Naturalists’ Society and in the following year was awarded a bronze medal by the Société Nationale d’Acclimatisation de France for his work as a naturalist. In 1920, he was made Honorary Curator of Letchworth Museum; during his time there, he wrote 84 books and gave 145 radio talks, working as Uncle Tadpole on the BBC’s Children’s Hour for three years.
After the opening of Letchworth Museum in 1915, the Naturalists’ Society began to take a wider interest in the heritage of the area. Having started out to display material illustrating the natural history of North Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire, the museum gradually acquired archaeological material. An early collection was of finds from the Purwell Roman villa in Walsworth. The Society’s members began to broaden their interests, too: as well as countryside rambles, they went on a trip to Colchester in 1924 to see the remains of the Roman town. In the same year, they conducted an exploratory excavation on Norton Common in Letchworth. All the time, Percival Westell was becoming more and more interested in archaeology, so when Dr Gordon Watson told him about the discoveries in Walls Field early in 1925, he set about organising the excavation. Westell was in contact with many of the prominent archaeologists of his day, including R E Mortimer Wheeler, who were a source of much needed expertise in interpreting the finds.
By the early 1930s, Percival Westell seems to have allowed others to take over the running of excavations in the town, as he investigated new sites elsewhere. One of them was a young man called Erik Shimon Applebaum, who excavated a series of trenches in what was then known as Newbery’s Meadow – now the Grosvenor Road area. Here, he found a burial (the ‘Baldock Giant’ – a man over 6 feet tall in life) as well as the remains of houses, the latest built in the fifth century AD, at the very end of Roman rule in Britain. After this, Applebaum turned his attention to the Iron Age site at Wilbury Hill in Letchworth and never again worked in Baldock. He eventually went on to great things, becoming Professor of Archaeology at the University of Tel Aviv.
Occasional discoveries continued to be made, including a second well in Walls Field in 1934 and a road surface in 1936. The Second World War disrupted all archaeological work in the town and after Westell died in 1947, his successor at Letchworth Museum, A T Clarke, carried out some rescue excavation work. He discovered a skeleton in Pinnock’s Lane and domestic remains on the old Kayser Bondor factory site (now Tesco), but his main interests seem to have lain elsewhere. His assistant, John Moss-Eccardt, began excavations at Blackhorse Road in Letchworth in 1959, and it was not until the 1960s that Baldock once again became the focus of attention.