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St. Albans in 1833

ALBANS, ST., a borough-town in Hertfordshire, situated close to the site of the ancient Verulamium (Verulam), being separated from it by the small river Ver, a feeder of the Colne. Verulamium was probably at first a British town and then a municipium under the Romans ; a term which implies that its inhabitants possessed some of the privileges of Roman citizens. The Roman road, called by the Saxons the WATLING STREET, was also called Werlaem Street, because it first went. direct to Verulam, passing close under its walls. (See Gibson’s Camden, vol. i. 79.) Verulam was the scene of dreadful slaughter in the great rebellion under Boadicea, who destroyed here and at Londinium (London), and at other places, about 70,000 Roman citizens and their allies. The town was, however, restored, and continued to be a principal Roman station while that people possessed this island. Here an eminent citizen, Alban, is said to have suffered martyrdom in the persecution under Dioclesian. In his honour a monastery for one hundred Benedictine monks was erected in 793 by Offa, king of Mercia, one of the Saxon kingdoms established in Britain.

Ulsinus, or Ulsig, the sixth abbot, may be regarded as the founder of the modern town of St. Albans ; for he (about A.D. 948) erected three churches on the three principal roads leading to the monastery, laid out a place for a market, and encouraged the people of the neighbourhood to build by supplying them with money and materials. In the years 1455 and 1461, during the wars between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, two fierce battles were fought in the neighbourhood of the town ; which must have been growing into considerable importance, as it obtained a charter of incorporation from Edward VI, A.D. 1553, and the elective franchise (which had been very long suspended) was restored before that time.

The town is well situated on the summit and northern declivity of a small hill, the abbey church being at a point where the three principal streets meet. It is well paved and lighted, and has a supply of good water. The part on the old line of the north road (which runs through the town) is narrow, and has many ancient houses. The other parts are more spacious and well built ; and the new line of the north road is adorned with neat villas and one of the most commodious inns in the county. The principal churches are:- the Abbey Church, a rectory in the patronage of the mayor and burgesses ; St. Peter’s, a vicarage in the patronage of the Bishop of Ely ; and St. Michael’s, which is on the opposite or S.W. side of the Ver, and contains the monument of Bacon, who bore the title of Viscount St. Alban’s ; there are also several dissenting meeting-houses. The grammar-school was founded by Edward VI ; there is besides a Blue-coat school, supported by some property in the funds, and by subscription, for educating about thirty-five boys in the principles of the established church, and clothing them ; and also a girls’ school, supported by the Grimston family. There are several alms-houses ; the principal, called Marlborough-buildings, or simply ‘the Buildings,’ for thirty-six persons, half of each sex, were built endowed and by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Some remains of the walls of Verulamium are still discernible.

But the principal object in St. Alban’s is the abbey church, which is part of the ancient abbey, purchased by the inhabitants of Edward VI for a parish church, at the price of £400 and a fee farm rent of £10 , which last payment was in 1684 redeemed for £200. The abbey itself had been granted by Henry VIII to Sir Richard Lee, upon the seizure of the religious houses by that unscrupulous tyrant. The church is built in the form of a cross. It is in length more than 600 feet from E. to W., including a chapel at one end ; and the extreme breadth is more than two hundred at the intersection of the transepts. From the intersection arises a square tower, divided by bands into three stages, and crowned by battlements and a spire, both of later date than the tower itself, which is one of the most perfect parts of the building : an advantage which it probably owes to a thick coat of plaster which once covered it. The vast extent of the church gives it an imposing appearance ; but the effect is somewhat diminished, upon a nearer approach, by the heterogeneous materials of which it is composed ; viz., Roman tiles from Verulam, flints, bricks, &c,. The architecture, too, is far from uniform : the pointed arch and the round are to be seen on opposite sides ; and, indeed, so great is the variety, that the style of every age may be traced in succession from the time of the Normans to that of Edward IV. The most central parts are the most ancient. The choir is separated from the nave by St. Cuthbert’s screen. There is also, a richly-carved screen over the altar ; and several remarkable monuments, including those of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and of the Abbots Ramryge and Wethamsted. The church suffered considerably during the Parliamentary war from the prisoners confined in it, and from the rapacity or zeal of the parliamentary troops. On the 3rd of February, 1832, a part of the wall on the south-west side fell down, and in its fall did considerable injury. This accident was the occasion of a subscription for the preservation of the building, and it has since been thoroughly repaired.

The gateway of the abbey is still standing ; it contains the entrance to the house of correction on one side, and the goal for the liberty of St. Alban’s on the other. The revenue of the abbey at the dissolution is estimated to have been £2,510 - a large income at that time. The abbot possessed also many privileges, and had a grant of precedence over all other abbots, from Pope Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspeare), the only Englishman who ever sat in the chair of St. Peter.

The population, according to the census of 1831, was 7,000. The Borough of St. Alban’s, which, since the census of 1831 was taken has been disfranchised (in 1832), comprised the Abbey Parish, part of the parish of St. Peter, also part of the parishes of St. Michael and St. Stephens, as fixed by the Boundary Bill Act of 2 and 3 William IV c. 64. The poorer people are chiefly employed in making straw-plat, or in a silk-mill and a cotton-mill which have been established here. It has a market on Saturdays ; and two annual fairs, one on the 25th and 26th of March, and a cattle and holiday fair on the 10th, 11th, and 12t October. There is a statute fair for hiring servants on the 29th September.

The borough returned two members to parliament before it was disfranchised in 1832, for systematic bribery carried on amongst the electors. It is governed by four aldermen and twelve councillors, one of whom is mayor. The goal delivery is four times a year, the town having a separate jurisdiction. The family of Beauclere takes the title of duke from this town, and the family of Grimston that of earl from the ancient town of Verulam.

St. Albans is 20 miles N.W. by N. of London, and 12 W. by S. of Hertford.