The heritage of Roman Verulamium and the medieval monastery of St Albans are no secret. But the town’s later history is less well known. The Charter Borough, created following the dissolution of the monastery, is not untypical of other English towns, but its proximity to London on the main route to the Northwest increased its popularity as a residence for considerable numbers of City businessmen and members of the emerging professions throughout the eighteenth century. Many of the secrets of that era are told in Amberley’s Secret St Albans.

Kate Morris tells of wife-selling in the Market Place in 1834, which led to a caution for Mr Faulkner for the stir he caused. There was the threat of jail if he did not keep the peace after this violation of public decency.

More than one of the better off citizens of the Borough were able to pay for a petition for separation of bed and board from their wives, which, short of an Act of Parliament, was the only recourse towards divorce. If successful, that still did not, however, allow remarriage. In the case of Betsy Hodges Borradale, however, the death of her suing husband immediately following his successful petition, allowed her to remarry within the year.

The Angel Inn, Fishpool Street, St Albans. Watercolour copied in 1907 by H. R. Wilton Hall from an original sketch by Pridmore c. 1800. (c. SAMS, Secret St Albans, Amberley Publishing)

Little has hitherto been known about the social life and season in the town of those times. Centred on Joseph Jackson’s Assembly Room at his Angel Inn on Fishpool Street, which was idyllically located close to the River Ver but on the turnpike route, breakfast was offered for the passing traffic. For locals it was a venue for meetings and dancing, and for tourists, accommodation when visiting the town’s antiquarian attractions. These then included the recently discovered Royal tomb of Duke Humphrey. There, for a small fee to the parish clerk, one could acquire a sample of the liquid in which the noble duke had been embalmed. It was at the Angel where Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough, lobbied the boorish voters of the town in the interest of their brother Earl Spencer at the notorious 1784 election.

Cockfighting, pugilism, and stag hunting were the sports of the gentry in the eighteenth century and plenty of this went on in the town. Such violent activities perhaps reflect those times, with rather less than for the idle rich to occupy themselves with. Money changed hands in major gambling activities, with a lot of the victims of the sport, whether human or other animal, a secondary consideration. Though little evidence has been found for the well-known Fighting Cocks public house as a venue for a main of cocks, as a staged fight was called, it is highly likely that it took place there, as at the long-lost Crown Inn on the town’s Holywell Hill. Discreetly out of the reach of the Borough’s magistrates on nearby Nomansland, Irish champion pugilist Simon Byrne met his fate following a challenge by James (Deaf) Burke. A fight for £200 under the Broughton rules left Byrne unconscious and, the next day, dead at the Woolpack Inn next door to the present-day Peahen public house. In 1788 six horses died in a stag chase which started with the stag released on Farnham Common in Buckinghamshire, reaching Hatfield, via Watford, Hemel Hempstead, and St Albans only four and a half hours later. Whether the stag lived to see another chase is not recorded.

St Albans
The Fighting Cocks public house. (c. Kari Lundgaard, Secret St Albans, Amberley Publishing)

But all was not misery and violence in those days. For the leisured classes, there were balls at the Assembly Rooms or Town Hall, either as part of the season or for specialist groups such as the Toxophilist Society. There were feasts and carousing for members of the Friendly Societies at one of the many inns, which were principally entertainment and support for the men. However, the ladies were not left out of this socialising as there was also a Female Friendly Society, which supported women at their lying in, provided them with pensions and arranged their burial. They had regular meetings which provided social opportunities and instruction, perhaps akin to today’s Women’s Institute but with financial support too.

The markets and fairs provided for the agricultural economy of the area and opportunities for carousing for those whose service contracts were at an end and wages paid. But entertaining for the gentler sort would have been in the fine houses built or refurbished all over the town in this era.  Some survive, but only few, such as Daltons and Darrowfield, are still in family occupation. Most succumbed to the provision of office accommodation in the 20th century, though this has seen a reversal with the recent legislation allowing offices to be converted to residential. Samuel Jones’ 1830 White House on St Peters Street is currently undergoing refurbishment to return it to residential as a five-bedroom family house.

Kate Morris's new book Secret St Albans is available for purchase now.