Scoundrels, sleaze and scallywags - the dark history of St Albans

The gatehouse was St Albans' prison until 1867 when a purpose built one took over.

The gatehouse was St Albans' prison until 1867 when a purpose built one took over. - Credit: St Albans Tour Guides

St Albans, on the surface, has the feel of a lovely and vibrant city, with its bustling market, fine historic buildings and, of course, that splendid Cathedral.

And it is all of those things. But, hidden in its long history lurk rogues, rascals and harlots.

Everyone from corrupt Victorian politicians, knee deep in sleaze, to scandalous pub landlords and ‘painted ladies’ of ill repute.

Part of the town was such a lawless slum in the early 20th century that policemen had to patrol in pairs for their own safety. Who would believe this of elegant Fishpool Street with its 72 listed buildings?

In the 19th century there were complaints from clergymen about ‘flashily dressed and painted women’ seen hanging around Lamb Alley. These women could be accused of the daintily worded ‘criminal conversation’ with men.

A notorious case occurred in 1825, involving Samuel Wildbore, the flamboyant landlord of the Blue Boar inn, which once stood in the Market Place.

He became notorious for getting caught whilst heavily involved in ‘criminal conversation’ with Mrs Dolling, his friend’s wife, behind a hay rick.

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Mr Dolling sued for damages of £1,000 (in the eyes of the law his wife was seen as his property). In court Samuel was accused of ‘beastly lust’, ill becoming a man in his 60th year. However, the jury may have had a sneaking admiration for him as he was let off the charges.

Albert and Ebenezer Fox, identical twins and infamous poachers, also managed to avoid punishment on numerous occasions. They used their facial similarity to claim mistaken identity and bamboozle the magistrates.

The advent of fingerprint analysis put an end to their schemes – even identical twins have different fingerprints. It didn’t seem to deter them as they ended up with a total of 120 criminal convictions between them!

Those in the higher echelons of society could also fall foul of the law. In 1770, Lord Grosvenor was awarded £10,000 in damages (about £1.8 million today) against the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, who was caught in ‘criminal conversation’ with Lady Grosvenor at the White Hart inn. One wonders if they managed to hush up the affair.

There were ‘white collar crimes’ too. Probably the most infamous was the by-election bribery scandal of 1850. The agent of the newly-elected MP was found to have spent the equivalent of
£250,000 on inducements to gain votes.

Bribery at elections was not unique to St Albans at this time, but usually it was ignored. However, the outcome here was that the new MP lost his seat, and St Albans lost its parliamentary representation for over 30 years.

While some misdeeds could be resolved by financial redress, the punishments for most criminal convictions were severe and often involved public humiliation.

Outside what is now WH Smith there used to be the pillory into which the head and hands of the unfortunate victim were fixed for a few hours.

This provided popular entertainment for the crowd in the marketplace who gathered to hurl insults and the smelly leftovers of the nearby meat and fish markets.

However, being sentenced to the 16th century House of Correction was an awful lot worse. Here, in part of the Abbey Gateway, the ‘Undeserving Poor’ were incarcerated.

Those guilty of petty thieving, prostitution, idleness, or being drunk and disorderly were subjected to a range of punishments including pounding the treadmill to draw water from the river, or picking oakum – painstakingly cleaning tar from old ropes. 

Discover more tales of scoundrels and scallywags, and the punishments they received, on tours led by St Albans City Guides.

Secretary of the Tour Guides Association, Jill Singer, said: "As tour guides we enjoy meeting people and introducing them to the characters who have walked the streets of St Albans in centuries past – not just the great and the good, but also the downright dastardly."

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