Beer and fleabites: the historic pubs of St Albans

The Crane pub on Holywell Hill

The lorry crash at The Crane in 1958 - on the corner of Sopwell Lane and Holywell Hill - now 37 and 39 Holywell Hill. - Credit: St Albans Museums

Pubs, in all their manifestations – taverns, inns, alehouses – have been part of St Albans life for centuries.

From the 800s onwards, this was massively helped by the foundation of the Monastery. The Benedictine tradition of hospitality meant accommodation and food for pilgrims visiting the Shrine of St Albans.

So those weary, footsore pilgrims arriving here had a wide choice, throughout the 1200 to 1500s, of Abbey Hostels jostling for space nearby.

The Crane, on the corner of Sopwell Lane was one. George Street, formerly known as Church Street was bustling with inns and hostels. This included the Tabard on the corner of Spicer Street, one of the oldest pilgrims’ hostels, founded in the mid 1200s by the Abbey.

The interior of the old Antelope/Tabard that stood at the bottom of George Street.

The interior of the old Antelope/Tabard that stood at the bottom of George Street. - Credit: The Gentleman Magazine

These hostels may have been run by the Abbey but that didn’t necessarily mean they were particularly pleasant places to stay.

If early medieval pilgrims had been able to contribute to visitor reviews, they may well have complained that the straw mattresses were itchy and rife with fleas. That they shared the dormitory with heavy snorers. And unsavoury odours. That the curtains between the straw pallets were bedraggled and flimsy, giving little privacy. And that the cold wind whistled straight through the oilcloth which was all that covered the windows.

But for most, a pilgrimage to pray at the Shrine of St Alban was a huge undertaking and so a bed for the night, however unpleasant, was better than huddling under a hedgerow. And of course, there was always the beer.

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And that beer continued to be tapped even after the savage destruction of the monasteries and their lucrative pilgrimage trade during the 1500s.

St Albans’ innkeepers were nothing if not resilient. Some astutely changed their inn’s name to one less obviously connected with the religious past and, as the new coaching trade grew, were able to profit from travellers requiring a bed for the night and a slap-up meal.

And, of course, beer. Always the beer. This time, a visitor review during the mid to late 1600s say, could have been more complimentary.

St Albans Tour Guides offer a look at the city's historic pubs.

St Albans Tour Guides offer a look at the city's historic pubs. - Credit: St Albans Tour Guides

Maybe mentioning the warm welcome of Mr William Hudson and his wife, landlord and landlady of the Red Lion, by the Clock Tower? Perhaps praising the comfort of its lavishly appointed, warmly heated rooms with en suite privy facilities.

Mr Hudson’s efficiency as a landlord paid off, enabling him to buy other inns to sublet and helping him become the mayor. Twice.

And so it continued. The coaching trade flourished and so did the inns of St Albans. And so did the beer brewers. By the early 1800s, two brewing families dominated. The Kinders and the Searanckes.

By 1830, they controlled 27 out of the 41 inns and alehouses in the town. It was pretty much drink their beer or drink no beer.

But, as with the destruction of the pilgrimage trade, the inns once more faced ruin. The railways arrived, the coaching trade evaporated and travellers now rattled past St Albans on trains in a billowing cloud of steam.

Yet our landlords and landladies again showed resilience. The railways fed industrialisation, allowing local businesses to prosper. So former coaching inns became public houses and serviced the growing population of workers.

The Beer Act in the 1830s allowed new beer houses to be established for two Guineas. By 1870, there were 89 public houses. In 1884, this newspaper reported on an annual dinner of the St Albans’ Licensed Victuallers Association, enlivened by the performance of a song, a long song, naming all the pubs in town.

St Albans City Guide, John, says: “Don’t worry. Our Historic Pub guided walk doesn’t include 89 pubs, but does include the stories and characters behind their rise and fall. And it may be a dry pub crawl but there’s nothing to stop our visitors enjoying a pint at the end”.