No drinking, no swearing and definitely NO immorality...

The Pemberton Almshouses in St Peter's Street, St Albans.

The Pemberton Almshouses in St Peter's Street, St Albans. - Credit: St Albans City Guides

How did you survive in St Albans if you fell on hard times in the past? Well, a lot would depend on whether you were the “right sort of poor”.

Your benefactors would judge you by standards they wouldn’t necessarily apply to themselves. So yes, perhaps some of them were hypocrites, but generous ones. 

If you were a poor but well behaved widow, you may have been lucky enough to find yourself in the Pemberton Almshouses opposite St Peter's Church, a gift left in the will of Roger Pemberton, one-time High Sheriff of Hertfordshire.

If you walk past you will see an arrow above the gate. Legend says that one day when Pemberton was out hunting, he shot a poor widow with his bow and arrow by mistake, so building the almshouses was his way of atoning for his guilt.

The arrow on the Pemberton Almhouses.

The arrow on the Pemberton Almhouses. - Credit: St Albans City Guides

But only those of "good and honest life and behaviour" that can live in "a peaceful and quiet manner" would be accepted.

You also had to attend services in St Peter's Church every Sunday.  Another stipulation was against "breaking hedges", (a crime in these days against the laws enclosing private land). So any sign of naughty behaviour or drunkenness and that was it, you were out and replaced by a more respectable widow. 

There were and still are a number of almshouses in St Albans, set up by people in their lifetime or provided in their wills. Those who genuinely wanted to help others, perhaps with the hope that it might help them personally on their way to a "better place" after death? 

The plaque on the Pemberton Almshouses.

The plaque on the Pemberton Almshouses. - Credit: St Albans City Guides

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And, talking of almshouses, the Marlborough Almshouses in Hatfield Road were the gift of local girl, Sarah who did well for herself,  becoming the Duchess of Marlborough and building Blenheim Palace.

Sarah founded a ‘Hospital for Decayed People’, housing 18 men and 18  women. As with other almshouses, moral expectations were high. You had to return home by a certain time at night and definitely no swearing allowed. 

Many poor people would end up in the dreaded workhouses, established in 1723. These acted as a deterrent. Up to then, each parish - Abbey, St Peter's, St Michael's and St Stephen's - would help its poor with food, clothing, fuel and even pensions.

However, if you rejected a workhouse place, then the parish was excused from providing any more help. So, for most, it was the workhouse or nothing. Yet many workhouses were humane places. Most ‘inmates’ were simply too elderly or infirm to support themselves.

Sadly, there were always orphaned or abandoned children. But they had a roof over their head and food was, at the very least, regular. Even so, they still had to work for their keep, the elderly often doing chores and making items in the workhouse.

The orphans would work outside in the community.  Like young Caleb Red, sent back by his employer after finding the boy “infested with vermin” but who was willing to re-employ Caleb when “provided with fresh linen and thoroughly cleansed”. Which tells you something about their living conditions. The workhouse in St Peter's is still there, by the war memorial, now an estate agent.   

St Peter's workhouse.

St Peter's workhouse. - Credit: St Albans City Guides

Back to the ‘decayed’, because in 1823, the unfortunate St Peter’s workhouse residents found themselves sharing their accommodation with more than vermin.

It was a rotting corpse, thanks to so-called ‘resurrectionists’, people who dug up recent graves to sell the bodies to anatomists in medical schools. One such pair, heading for London from Luton with their gruesome ‘cargo’ were apprehended and the stolen body laid in the workhouse until arrangements were made to have it re-buried.

Discover more tales of aristocrats, paupers and philanthrophists and find out how much remains to mark the very different lives of the poor and wealthy who lived here side by side, on tours led by St Albans City Guides.