IS this the oldest surviving photo of St Albans?

06:41 05 May 2013

St Albans Clock Tower, 1855

St Albans Clock Tower, 1855

Arc and Arc

IS this the oldest surviving photo of St Albans?

This remarkable Victorian stereoview image of the Clock Tower is believed to date back to 1855 – the year the Herts Advertiser was first published.

Members of the St Albans and Herts Architectural and Archaeological Society (the Arc & Arc) spotted the Victorian stereoview of Market Place for sale on eBay, and paid what they considered to be a bargain price to acquire it as part of the society’s mission to preserve knowledge of the district’s past for the public.

Now the stereo photograph is going on display for the first time, and can be seen at the Clock Tower on bank holiday weekend, May 4-6, between 10.30am to 5pm.

Stereoviews were a form of optical trickery which involved taking two exposures of the same scene from slightly separate viewpoints, creating a 3D effect when viewed through a simple gadget, and were popularised by Queen Victoria after the 1851 Great Exhibition.

In 1855 the art of photography had only been in existance for 17 years, and practical outdoor photography had only just been invented. The photographers of the period were great pioneers, already revolutionising how the world was seen.

Society member Chris Green offered his commentary on the image.

“It is a warm summer afternoon: the Clock Tower clock says 5.20, and the sun is still high to the west. Windows are wide open. From Waxhouse Gate, on the south side of the High Street, we look straight up Market Place past the Town Hall in the distance.

“In front, on the left, is the timber-framed shop built around the Clock Tower in about 1550. It is a saddler’s, and looks rather trim, but the Clock Tower behind it (called the Clock House then) looks every one of its 450 years.

“Its stone details (the quoins and windows) are rotten and worn inches back from the rest of the wall. The worst places have been replaced with brick.

“Concern was growing at this time about the state of the Tower, and the surrounding shop was demolished in 1858 to allow works to take place. The Tower was finally restored, with a rather heavy hand, in 1865, and this is the only known photograph before its restoration.

“But to our surprise the photograph is even earlier than 1858. On the right in the middle distance is the roof of a long single-storey building – the old ‘Market House’ – the corn exchange. The roof of the old House was supported on posts and there were no walls – it was open to the elements. Beneath it grain was sold retail to householders, and wholesale to millers, bakers and corn factors.

“The Corporation decided to demolish it in 1855, did so in 1856, and opened the new indoor Corn Exchange – which remains on the same site – in 1857.

“We think the photograph probably dates to mid-1855 and is no later than June 1856.”

The first edition of the Herts Advertiser came out on July 7 1855, and was published by Richard Gibbs the Elder’s print business located at the base of the Clock Tower itself.

Chris added: “The drum-like object inside railings in the right foreground is one of the town’s two public pumps – built to a strange patent design – shortly before its removal. Behind on the right is The Boot public house.

“The surprise about the town revealed by the photo is how tidy it seems. Etchings made only a little earlier show the same scene muddy, tumble-down, and full of horses and chickens.

“Perhaps the change was real, with a pedestrian pavement and street drain installed here at the heart of the town in the early 1850s.”

Thanks to the Arc & Arc for allowing the Herts Advertiser to publish this photograph prior to its public display.


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