You can't take it with you - the philanthropists who transformed St Albans

The opening of Clarence Park in St Albans.

The opening of Clarence Park in St Albans. - Credit: Herts Advertiser

Groucho Marx said: “While money can’t buy you happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own style of misery.”

Fortunately for St Albans, a number of rich people chose to spend their money on helping others out of misery, and this season of goodwill is a good time to remember their philanthropy.

The former Carnegie public library on Victoria Street, St Albans.

The former Carnegie public library on Victoria Street, St Albans. - Credit: John Johnson

One of these benefactors was Andrew Carnegie. He said that “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced” – which is another way of saying that you can’t take it with you. Carnegie put his money where his mouth was. In 1911, thanks to his generosity, a public library was established in Victoria Street. In gratitude, he was given the freedom of the city. So who was Andrew Carnegie?

A stained glass image of Andrew Carnegie.

A stained glass image of Andrew Carnegie. - Credit: John Johnson

In 1835, Andrew was born to a desperately poor family in a weaver’s cottage in Dunfermline in Scotland. But Andrew was able to receive an education thanks to a free school established by a Scottish philanthropist. When Andrew was 12, his family emigrated to America in search of a new life and he found gruelling work in a Pennsylvania cotton mill as a bobbin boy.

Despite that unrelentingly dreary start, Andrew went on to become an immensely rich industrialist. However, he never forgot his roots and how free education had helped him. He not only gave away 90 per cent of his wealth, with an emphasis on libraries, education and scientific research, but forcefully urged other wealthy industrialists to do the same.

And St Albans was also to benefit from other philanthropists – Sir John Blundell Maple, for example. His family owned Maples, the furniture store. He lived at Childwickbury Manor where he developed his passion for breeding and racing horses.

Childwickbury House - former home of Sir John Blundell Maple.

Childwickbury House - former home of Sir John Blundell Maple. - Credit: John Johnson

Maple’s belief in healthy exercise became a theme throughout his life, influencing his care for his employees and others. With his wife he established “monster fetes - grand days out for city lads and lasses”. Over 2,000 children from workhouses and schools in St Albans and London were invited to Childwickbury for games and a slap up meal.

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Sadly, Maple and his wife, Emily, lost two daughters to scarlet fever and diphtheria. In their memory, during the 1890’s, the Maples founded an infectious diseases hospital by the Union Workhouse, later absorbed into the new St Albans City Hospital.

The former Infectious Diseases Hospital.

The former Infectious Diseases Hospital. - Credit: John Johnson

But Maple didn’t stop there. His belief that fresh air and exercise should be available to all inspired him, in 1894, to buy 26 acres of land. Planted with 11,000 shrubs and trees, with facilities for football, tennis and cricket, it became Clarence Park, which he donated to the city.

In thanks, Maple received the honorary freedom of St Albans. However, he wasn’t popular with everyone. He had offered a donation to St Peter’s Church for repairs but its vicar, rejoicing in the name, Horatio Nelson Dudding, refused to accept money from a man who raced and bet on horses.

But Maple was loved by the working people of both St Albans and London. When he died in 1903, aged 58, the whole town mourned and many London cab and omnibus drivers attached black crepe to their whips as a mark of respect.

A cartoon image of Sir John Blundell Maple printed over 130 years ago in 1891.

A cartoon image of Sir John Blundell Maple printed over 130 years ago in 1891. - Credit: No credit

Kindness and patience have long been underrated virtues. But a doctor in the mid-1700s, Nathaniel Cotton, showed how they could improve the condition of mentally ill patients. This was a time when most patients diagnosed with mental illness were humiliated, locked away and often treated like beasts.

Cotton established his own private asylum, the Collegium Insanorum in College Street, near the Cathedral, where he practised a more humane and enlightened regime based on fresh air and a good diet.

Elizabeth, a St Albans City Guide, said: “There are other tales of generosity over the centuries from those who wished to improve both conditions and prospects for the people of St Albans. Ironically, that public library in Victoria Street is now a restaurant. What would Carnegie have made of that?”

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