Sex, aristocracy and gambling: Secrets of 10 St Albans landmarks

St Albans medieval Clock Tower in Market Place

St Albans medieval Clock Tower in Market Place - Credit: Dave Porter/Alamy Stock Photo

The buildings of St Albans are ancient and full of stories. Author of a new book on the city's history, Kate Morris shines a light into some intriguing corners. 

The workhouse
Starting at the top of St Peter’s Street with its market, we find the old parish workhouse, now the offices of surveyors, Rumball and Sedgwick. Here in 1757, its spinning wheels, spades, forks and weedhooks enabled the poor to work, though they had to provide their own bedding. A medical officer was paid £10 per annum to look after them and other poor folk in the parish.

Wife for sale
Further down in Market Place a man called Faulkner caused a stir in 1834 when he was driven to offering his wife for sale for half a crown, divorce being an expensive process. He was bound over by the magistrates at the newly built Court Room, to keep the peace or expect jail for violation of public decency. 

Love triangle
Wealthy alderman and mayor, John Samuel Story, at the Vintry - now Cote Brasserie on High Street - petitioned for separation of bed and board from his wife but was almost bankrupted by the alimony she claimed during her constant appeals. The lady had been caught in flagrante delicto with his nephew, a young man newly returned from adventures in India.

Court, jail and fire station
Before the erection of the Court Room in 1830, civic proceedings took place in the building now occupied by W H Smith. This was the Town Hall and Compter, where not only courts and feasts took place, but prisoners were held in the borough’s gaol and the corporation’s fire engine was kept along with the horses stabled to pull it.

St Albans Town Hall

St Albans' Georgian town hall, now the city museum and art gallery - Credit: St Albans City and District Council

Dinners and balls
The town’s new Georgian Court Room (today's St Albans Museum + Gallery) was to accommodate proceedings for both borough and Liberty, or the Hertfordshire land previously held by the Abbot of St Albans. It also provided a grand Assembly Room for dinners and balls for civic occasions and those of such as the county’s Toxophilist Society (or archery club, to you and me). Dancing would be to Mr Weippert’s band, famous for its quadrilles.

 Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, traditional English pub, St Albans, Hertfordshire, England, UK.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks has a claim to be the oldest pub in England - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Cock fighting
The chalk stream, the Ver, provided the southern boundary of the city. Close to the river is the popular Fighting Cocks public house, named for that 18th century gentry sport. More usually it took place in the yard at the Crown Inn on Holywell Hill. In 1773, a two-day 'main', or series of battles, of 31 cocks was held here between the gentlemen of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. It's not recorded who won (not many of the birds no doubt). 

Water works 
The town’s drinking water once came principally from wells and boreholes, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, tapping the fissures in the chalk below. But water for animals and for extinguishing fires was held in cisterns or ponds on St Peter’s Street. These were fed from a pumping station on the river at Cottonmill. Elm pipes took the water up Marlborough Road to Cock Lane, the old name for Hatfield road.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Aristocratic society 
A plaque close to the foot of Holywell Hill celebrates the site of Holywell House, the favourite residence of the first Duke of Marlborough and his wife, Sarah Churchill (depicted as the power-hungry lover to Queen Anne in the multiple Oscar-winning The Favourite), an ancestor of Winston Churchill and Diana Spencer. Later in the 18th century the house was occupied by the Dowager Countess Spencer. Her philanthropy included the establishment of a Friendly Society exclusively for women, supported by contributions from the wealthy ladies of the town who received a medal in acknowledgement.

White Hart hotel St.Albans, Hertfordshire

White Hart hotel on Holywell Hill - Credit: Brian Anthony/Alamy Stock Photo

Disguised lover 
Of the many inns which used to line Holywell Hill, only the White Hart remains. Here walls could tell many an interesting story including that of the incognito assignations of Prince Henry Duke of Cumberland with Henrietta, the wife of the Baron Grosvenor. Dressed as a common farmer, his hoped for secrecy was foiled by the lady’s servants who revealed all. The baron’s claim for compensation was £10,000, plus £3,000 costs. 

Tommy's steeplechase
In Chequer Street was the Turf Hotel run by Tommy Coleman. For a decade, until Liverpool’s Aintree course was made, he ran steeplechasing in the local countryside from there. Boasting hot baths for competitors after their gruelling ride, his offer was popular with the gentry, though not with local farmers seeing their hedges trampled in the interests of sport.

Kate Morris is a former St Albans district councillor and mayor, linguist and social historian. Her Secret St Albans published by Amberley Books is out now, priced £15.99.